Turning a century-old Victorian house into a net-zero energy producer might sound like an ambitious goal for a young couple in their first home, but Matt and Kelly Grocoff, a self-described “average couple” from Ann Arbor, Michigan, did just that, and now own the oldest home in America to achieve net-zero energy. In 2006, when Matt and Kelly bought their 1901 home in a walkable, historic neighborhood, they knew they wanted to go net-zero someday, but they didn’t imagine they would be producing more energy than they use in five short years.
“It was just a fantasy at the time we started looking for a house,” says Matt, a longtime green-building enthusiast and net-zero energy consultant who founded and hosts GreenovationTV (greenovation.tv). “We wanted to find an old house with good bones and restore it, then work toward net-zero. I thought net-zero would be 10 years away, but before we knew it, all the stars aligned with incentives and everything else, and we were able to get our solar panels up in 2010,” he says.
Matt and Kelly were motivated to take on their efficiency overhaul because they wanted to help reduce our nation’s overall carbon footprint. “There are 130 million homes in the U.S. right now, and they account for almost a quarter of our greenhouse gas emissions,” Matt says. “We realized that even if every single new home from here on out were built to net-zero energy, it would do nothing to reduce our current carbon emissions.”
Through his interest and work in green building, Matt was aware that architects and builders were experimenting with ways to create new, cutting-edge green homes, but he didn’t see many models of how average people might be able to retrofit current homes to be energy producers rather than energy consumers. He and Kelly set out to show what could be achieved by following simple common-sense tips for creating a more efficient home. “It’s an old cliché, but the solution really does start at home,” Matt says. “But I didn’t see any models of how to make it happen. There are lots of teams of engineers and architects showing how to build a new net-zero house, but no examples of an ordinary home that reached net-zero energy without doing an expensive gut rehab.”
Like many young couples who buy their first home, Kelly and Matt were planning to put a bit of money and a lot of time into updating their home and getting it ready to live in comfortably. But where many of their friends invested money in cosmetic changes, Kelly and Matt decided to first focus their efforts on energy efficiency. Because they didn’t have tons of cash to infuse into the project, they assumed major purchases such as alternative energy systems were far in the future. But they knew most energy assessments recommend a list of inexpensive, minor changes that add up to big savings. “We said, ‘Let’s do the best we can right now and knock off each item on that list with the things that are optimally efficient for this house, and wait until solar panels make sense,’” Matt says.
They started with the simple things: swapping outdated showerheads for high-performance, low-flow ones; changing out incandescent bulbs for low-energy LEDs; buying powerstrips to fully power off not-in-use electronics and an energy monitor so they could see when and where they were using energy. Using renovation money they worked into their mortgage, they blew about $4,600 worth of cellulose insulation into the walls and attic and spent $3,000 purchasing and installing a 95-percent-efficient energy recovery ventilator (ERV). But they weren’t tearing their house apart. “This is not a gut rehab,” Matt says. “Everyone seems to get the impression that we did this extraordinary thing—that we’re somehow different from everyone else, but we’re not. We didn’t take out any walls. We didn’t do what was perfect. We have blown-in cellulose in the walls. Perfect on the sustainability side would have been to knock out the walls and put in 6-inch-stud walls with spray-foam insulation inside. We could not afford to do that nor did we want to. Plus, historic preservation guidelines prohibit gutting the original walls, and we wanted to preserve the house’s historic integrity,” he says.
Preserving the Past
At the same time they were doing energy-efficiency upgrades, Kelly and Matt were cosmetically restoring their home, keeping its history in mind and doing a lot of the work themselves to save money. “The historic preservation part is the stuff we did on our own—restoring the original shellac on the molding, redoing the original heart pine floors—your typical green home restoration stuff,” Matt says. “We used BioShield Hard Oil on the floors, zero-VOC paint and all of that. It was the typical story of a young couple who moves into an old house with all these ambitions of fixing it up and all the tears and triumphs that go along with it. We’re very proud of it. We have fond memories of what we did—even when it was one in the morning and we were pounding nails into the floorboards.”
Although they were already saving money by putting in their own sweat equity, Matt and Kelly also knew they could save on materials by shopping smart and thinking creatively. Rather than buying a $200 or $300 bathroom medicine cabinet, they built one into the wall using scrap two-by-fours, then covered it with leftover tiles. They bought an antique picture frame and had a frame shop put a mirror in it for a total of $80. Now they have a unique, elegant vanity that used few new resources, Matt says. They visited builders’ auctions, where they bought imperfect Caroma marble tiles for the bathroom floor for $150, and their local Habitat for Humanity ReStore, where they found salvaged lumber to use for molding and framework. They found a rusted 1908 bathtub cheap on Craigslist, had a tombstone maker sandblast the rust off, then primed it and restored the porcelain—all of which cost less than half the amount of a new claw-foot tub. Spending less on some things gave them freedom to splurge on others. “We bought recycled-content tiles for the shower, which are expensive,” Matt says. “But because we saved on other things, we could afford it. Sure, we may have spent a few hundred bucks more on our shower tiles, but overall we spent only $8,500 on a bathroom that would have cost others $45,000.”
The savings they achieved by using salvaged materials and sweat equity also freed up Kelly and Matt to invest in bigger energy enhancements. After they’d lowered their energy use to as little as possible, they started looking at the feasibility of generating that power with alternative energy. “We have friends who spent as much as we did on their rehab but didn’t do all the energy stuff,” Matt says. “But the energy stuff is what ended up paying for this project in the end.”
Financing the Future
Strongly motivated to meet their reduced energy needs on their own, Matt and Kelly started looking more closely at solar credits and recognized that incentives were rapidly turning in their favor. They calculated that, after credits and rebates, they would need to spend less than $20,000 to install solar panels, which would bring their total investment in their home’s energy overhaul to just under $50,000. That may sound like a lot until you consider the payback: By producing all of their own electricity, Matt and Kelly estimated they’d save approximately $190,000 in the next 25 years on energy bills (estimating 7 percent inflation in energy costs). Meanwhile, the energy company would pay them about $20,000 in Solar Renewable Energy Credits for the excess electricity their solar panels could produce, meaning their $50,000 investment would end up paying them back $210,000 over the next 25 years.
Although they knew the systems made financial sense, Matt and Kelly still didn’t have the money to invest upfront. They had worked extra funds for the restoration and geothermal system into their mortgage, but not enough to cover solar panels. Along with a nearly $20,000 upfront incentive from their utility company and a 30 percent federal tax credit, Matt and Kelly found a low-interest solar loan through solar panel manufacturer SunPower. They note that this was less than the cost of an average car loan, but at the end of the five-year loan term they’ll have free energy for life—a car buyer would only have a used car.
A woman came by Matt and Kelly’s home one Sunday morning and asked if she could talk to them about how they afforded alternative energy because she’d paid $6,000 in energy bills over the winter. If she could finance improving her home’s efficiency and installing alternative energy, she could afford $200 payments on her system in lieu of those high energy bills—and once the system was paid off, have greatly reduced energy costs. “But getting that upfront capital can be a challenge,” Matt says. “Most people can walk into a car dealership and walk out with a $25,000 car and financing. Yet navigating solar rebates, tax credits, incentives and financing requires an advanced degree. Investing in solar should be as easy as buying a car.”
Efficiency the Easy Way
Their home’s energy- and water-saving features improve comfort and let the Grocoffs save resources and money without changing their lifestyle. “We added an Ecobee thermostat to our geothermal,” Matt says. “We can control it from our smart phones. Another big thing is lighting control, which you can get for not much more than standard fixtures. A good occupancy-sensored light switch is about $25, but we’ve already saved that much in energy. A flip switch never pays for itself.”
Kelly says friends see them as a superefficient “green” couple, but when they stay in hotels, they often leave the lights on by mistake. “We’re so used to not worrying about it at home,” she says. “We used to turn the bedroom lights off, snuggle up in bed then realize we’d left the hall light on. We’d rock-paper-scissors for who had to get up to turn it off. Now the motion sensor does it for us.”
Technology allows them to live comfortably while improving efficiency. Motion-sensor lights in the kitchen turn on automatically when someone walks in, which comes in handy when hands are full. Low-flow fixtures help the family use about 48 gallons of water a day (the average U.S. home uses about 300) without restricting water use. Their programmable thermostat turns down the heat when they’re away or asleep, yet keeps the home comfortable. “We’re only using energy when we’re benefitting from it,” Matt says. “It’s easier to change a showerhead or a light switch than to change behavior. We don’t have to change our behavior; we let all these products do it for us.”
Although they’ve achieved net-zero energy, Kelly and Matt aren’t done. They’ve raised their goal from being net-zero to being restorative—and will soon register their home for the Living Building Challenge (ilbi.org), meaning their home will harvest 100 percent of its energy and water onsite and create zero waste. Their next goals are to install zero-water composting toilets, a graywater system and a large rainwater capture and filtration system. “Sustainability means paying the bills,” Matt says. “But restoration means paying past environmental debt. We want our house to restore our community and the earth—not steal from it.”