The zero-energy smart home

A floor-to-ceiling tour of America's most energy-efficient home

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The photo-voltaic system

“A net-zero home can have a HERS rating as high as 20,” Oehlerking explained. “To get to a zero HERS rating, we turn to renewables.” That’s where Vivint enters the picture. Vivint Solar mounted 40 solar panels to the Zero Home’s roof to provide 10 kilowatts of electrical power. Although Vivint Solar currently has a presence in only six states, it has become the second-largest solar-panel provider in the country thanks in part to its business model.

solar panels
The rear of the Zero Home faces south, so that’s where the solar panels are mounted.

Rather than selling solar panels to homeowners at an up-front cost of $30,000 to $40,000, Vivint Solar secures an easement to the homeowner’s roof, installs the panels at no cost, and retains ownership of the panels. In exchange, the homeowner agrees to purchase from Vivint all the electricity that the panels generate, at a cost that’s about 20 percent lower than what the local public utility would charge.

The home remains tied to the grid, so the homeowner can purchase additional power from the public utility, if necessary. By the same token, Vivint sells any excess power to the utility. You can read more about solar-power purchase agreements on the EPA’s website. (Interestingly enough, the state of Utah does not allow such arrangements, so I assume that Vivint is selling the power from the solar panels mounted on the Zero Home to the local public utility, and that the homeowner would then buy the power from the utility.)

The home-control and security system

Vivint developed an all-new control panel sporting a 7-inch, capacitive touchscreen (with a native resolution of 800 by 480 pixels). In addition to providing security and lighting controls, the new panel features real-time energy analytics that inform the homeowner as to how much energy the home is producing and consuming.

Vivint control panel
Vivint’s new control panel manages the home control and security systems. It can also perform real-time energy analytics.

The self-contained panel is outfitted with a cellular radio for communicating with a central-office monitoring service, a Wi-Fi access point, a Z-Wave transceiver (for communicating with the lighting controls, entry locks, thermostat, and other Z-Wave devices), a video camera, and an optional 1TB hard drive. The hard drive serves to store up to 120 days of recorded video (30 days for each of the four additional security cameras). Rather than record video clips in response to triggers, such as a motion detector going off or a door or window opening, the system records video continuously.

In addition to its real-time display, Vivint’s control panel will send the homeowner alerts on how much energy is being consumed at any point in time. “The system closes the loop on consumption,” said Vivint’s vice president of innovation, Jeremy Warren. “It will generate messages such as ‘You’re using X percent more energy than you did last year at this time.’ Or ‘You’re probably wasting $10 per month to heat your home. Hit this button, and we’ll fix it for you.’ The industry pats itself on the back for creating remote controls. We think it’s important to move beyond that. We want to give the homeowner information in an actionable format.”

Vivint’s control panel can send the homeowner alerts as to what’s happening inside the home.

Vivint’s system is currently based on rules, according to Warren. It operates on “if this, do that” logic. “In the near future,” Warren said, “we’ll have features such as pattern recognition, facial recognition, and geolocation capabilities. If you leave home without arming the system, and you travel far or are away for a long time, the system sends a message to your smartphone, prompting you to arm it. When you come home to an armed system, you’ll need only to stand in front of the control panel to disarm it, because the camera will recognize your face.”

The home-control elements in Vivint’s system remain relatively basic. The Zero Home has Z-Wave lighting controls and entry locks, for instance, but it doesn’t have scene controllers that can manage the lighting in multiple zones, and it’s not tied into the home’s A/V system at all. When I asked Warren whether these enhancements were also in the works, he demurred.

“We’re not trying to sell just to the top 5 percent or just the early adopters,” he said. “We’re not going after a niche market. Our objective is to save you money. We can do some things for you, or nudge you to take action that will save you money, but you don’t have to do it all yourself.”

Z-Wave entry lock
No smart home would be complete without a keyless entry system.

Warren also pointed out that although Vivint’s system isn’t as sophisticated as what manufacturers such as Control4 and Crestron install in million-dollar celebrity homes, it does provide basic lighting control, door and window sensors, security cameras, and entry locks. And now it can inform homeowners as to how much energy they’re consuming.

“Lighting controls aren’t a great value proposition from an energy-savings angle,” Warren said. “You’ll save more money by replacing your incandescent bulbs with fluorescents, and we do provide those with our installations. We will get there [with more-advanced lighting controls], and it will be in the model homes that we develop. But when we install systems in existing homes, we’ll generally rely on Z-Wave plug-in devices, because they don’t require our technicians to be licensed electricians.”

Garbett Homes’ Rene Oehlerking echoed Warren’s thinking. “In our mind,” he said, “Vivint is an energy company. They understand energy management and how to communicate that information to consumers. With Vivint’s system, the consumer can see in real time how much energy they’re consuming, and they can change their behavior accordingly. This element of information technology has been missing for a long time.”

EV charging station
Of course the Zero Home has a charging station for your electric car!

Would you buy a Zero Home?

Vivint and Garbett Homes have proven that it’s possible to build a home that generates as much energy as it consumes, even in a climate with warm summers and cold winters. They’ve also demonstrated that a supremely energy-efficient home needn’t cost a fortune, look boring, or have the interior vibe of a cave. So, would you park your electric car in this home’s garage? (Yes, it does have a charging station).

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