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Weber State's new 'Net Zero' electricity home is full of surprises

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From the curb, the Weber State class project on Quincy Avenue doesn’t appear all that different from other homes, but it’s full of surprises. (Photo: KUTV)

From the curb, the Weber State class project on Quincy Avenue doesn’t appear all that different from other homes, but it’s full of surprises.

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It’s all electric — there’s no gas furnace or any kind of combustion in the home. The annual energy cost is about $100.

And in a field overwhelmingly dominated by men, the project’s student manager is Janae Thomas-Watson.

She returned to college in her mid-30s as a single mother to study construction management.

“They call us non-traditional students,” she said. “We tend to be a little more devoted with our school. Our risks are bigger.”

The team of 30 students Thomas-Watson leads is about an even split between men and women.

Across America, women represent just 10% of the construction management workforce and just 3% of the workforce in the construction trades, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

“Women in construction is a really good fit,” Thomas-Watson said. “We’re attentive to detail, we communicate well.”

Thomas-Watson spends a lot of time communicating the benefits of the student’s design and execution on the job site.

“I would say this is the future of home building. We can’t keep doing what we’ve always done."

Over the course of a year, the home’s solar panels will produce as much power as the home’s inhabitants consume — a distinction dubbed “net zero.”

It owes much of its efficiency to its construction and a non-traditional HVAC system. The home’s bones are concrete and foam pieces that fit together like LEGOS.

“Imagine a baby being swaddled — like really tightly wrapped,” Thomas-Watson said. “We want to make sure there’s no air leakage in the house.”

Professor Jeremy Farner says the average home changes over its air five to seven times per hour.

“What that really means is you’re paying to heat your home five to seven times per hour,” he said. “We’re only paying to heat or cool our air half a time per hour.”

The HVAC system is one he says is popular in Europe, but not commonly seen in the U.S. Some consumers here view the system as less aesthetically pleasing because of its visibility around the home.

It uses a series of wall or ceiling-mounted units in every room called mini splits that move heat from room to room, depending on where the people are. They use refrigerant lines as opposed to a traditional duct system.

“So I can take the heat out of [the kitchen] and put it into my master bedroom instead of having to heat my master bedroom and cool this space,” Farner said.

“It takes very little energy to move heat from one place to the other. It takes a lot of energy to create heat.”

By moving heat around within the home, Farner said it allows the system to lessen its dependence on an outdoor compressor that consumes lots of energy in the average home.

“It’s six times more efficient than a natural gas furnace,” he said.

A home with solar panels is still connected to the local power grid. Because solar production peaks during daytime sunlight when many people are away at work or school, solar systems bank their energy in the grid.

Think of the grid like a battery. The home sells excess daytime energy to the grid and then buys it back later when it needs it. But there’s a catch.

“If had one dollar of energy that I’m producing with my solar panels, and I put it back out onto the grid, they’re going to pay me 94 cents for that, so I’m going to lose six cents per dollar of energy that I’m creating,” Farner said. “As much energy as we can keep in the home as possible saves us money over time.”

So to maximize the value of their solar panels, the Weber State team installed a smart water heater programmed to super heat water during hours of peak solar production.

That allows the home to use more of the energy it creates during the day, while also keeping it adequately prepared to supply hot water at night when the panels aren’t producing.

Farner said students at Weber State were involved in everything, from designing to framing to permitting. And they’ll do it again and again.

The university has a partnership with Ogden City, in which Ogden donates the land. The city picks properties that are vacant or dilapidated and offers students a chance to build something that will improve the neighborhood.

The university will sell the home students created this spring and roll the profit into materials to build the next home.

“This is a perpetual fund to build a home every year,” Farner said.

The home on Quincy Avenue has six bedrooms and three bathrooms and will sell for about $300,000. The team envisions it as a home where two generations of a family can live together under one roof.

“Twenty years from now we’ll be able to drive by this house and [my kids] will probably roll their eyes and say, ‘Oh yeah, Mom you built that home,’ and I’ll be like, ‘Yes, yes we did!’” Thomas-Watson said.

Weber State University has a stated goal of becoming a net zero campus by 2050. It’s reduced electricity consumption since 2007 by 32%.