Creating a Zero-Energy Home
March 7, 2012 - 4:22pm

Short of moving into a cave or becoming Amish, is it possible to live in a modern a home that uses no electricity?

David Johnston, president of What’s Working, a Boulder, CO-based consulting firm that encourages the home building industry to be more energy efficient, says not only is it possible, it’s already being done.

Johnston — whose new book entitled, “Green From the Ground Up,” will be released Monday — will be giving a talk entitled “Getting to Zero Energy” at the National Green Building Conference taking place May 10 to 13 in New Orleans that will outline how some builders are already building homes that use virtually no electricity by relying on solar power, increasing the home’s insulation and using break-through energy-saving technologies.

Johnston says he worked on one house in California that produces 97 percent of the energy it requires. “So literally, it was very close to a zero-energy home; [it was] still connected to the grid, but it does almost everything internally, so through a combination of conservation measures, where LEDs fit in, to making up the difference with solar technology,” he says.

As energy prices continue to climb, Johnston says it’s going to become increasingly important to incorporate energy-efficient lighting in the home, and Johnston says that will mean LEDs will become the dominate lighting technology because they use virtually no electricity.

Unfortunately, Johnston says American manufacturers aren’t prepared for the shift to LED technology.

“I think LEDs are the future, and I see LEDs exploding in the marketplace and running into some of the same fundamental problems that CFLs do, and that’s that there aren’t enough fixtures that are designed specifically for LEDs,” Johnston says.

Johnston says the Asians and Europeans are light years ahead of the United States in manufacturing decorative lighting fixtures that incorporate LEDs.

“A year ago I was in the south of Spain, and these little tiny towns in the middle of nowhere Spain all had LED lighting fixtures: in the bathrooms, cove lighting… uplighting, sconces,” Johnston says.

Johnston says the Europeans are manufacturing fixtures that make LED lighting appealing. “The European sconces would use glass that would change the hue of the bulb itself so you could get a warmer light with the sconce fixture itself,” he says. “This is where the fixtures and the bulb technology need to be more aligned.”

For now, Johnston says it’s very difficult to find similar fixtures in the United States.

“There’s a huge opportunity in the marketplace, whether it’s an import or whether it’s a design and fabrication opportunity in this country,” Johnston says. “I’m big on American jobs these days. There’s a huge opportunity for some entrepreneur to get into designing sexy, beautiful fixtures for LED bulbs.”

Johnston says American lighting manufacturers need to realize that the industry is not going to be changing decades down the road; he says the time for change is now.

“How do [we] start to anticipate the evolution of the market from the end of cheap oil and cheap electricity?” Johnston says. “Because here we are, we’ve gotten there now, but we’re still building houses like we used to, and that’s why they’re sitting there on the marketplace with unsold inventory.”

Johnston says consumers are already frustrated they can’t find more high-quality CFL-compatible fixtures. Johnston says consumers want CFL-compatible fixtures that are dimmable and emit a warm light, instead of the ones that give off a bluish-green light, such as the cheaper fixtures imported from China.

“I get feedback all the time that the CFL fixtures are ugly. What people tend to like a lot are the enclosed CFLs in a globe, so they’re not looking at the spaghetti on a screwbase,” he says.

And Johnston says consumers are also looking for more low-mercury CFL bulbs.

“[Retailers] need to know the amount of mercury per bulb in milligrams because it’s a question they’re going to be getting and to say ‘I don’t know’ probably kills the sale,” he says.

Johnston cautions that some consumers are misinformed about the dangers of mercury in CFLs, and he says it’s up to retailers to assure consumers that despite their levels of mercury, CFLs are still better for the environment than incandescent bulbs.

“The way you talk about the mercury issue is what would it take for a coal-fired power plant to produce the electricity to power a conventional bulb releases 10 to 100 times more mercury in the atmosphere than the CFL bulb contains,” Johnston says.

In addition to Johnston’s talk about zero-energy homes, he will giving another presentation at the National Association of Home Builders’ National Green Building Conference entitled “Green Remodeling: Meeting Your Market Where They Live” that will discuss ways to incorporate energy-efficient technology, including lighting, in every room in the home.

For more information about the National Green Building Conference, visit For more information on David Johnston and his upcoming book, visit

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