Can a home be beautiful, powered entirely by solar energy, use sustainable heating and cooling systems and save it’s owners roughly $3,500 a year? Why, yes it can. Just ask Joanne Coons, who built her award winning, single-family, Net Zero Energy Home in 2010. Sustainable Woman Joanne talks Net Zero standards, efficient appliances and goods, her 10kW solar panels and more.


What are the basic standards for building a Net Zero Energy Home?

Net Zero Energy Homes are air tight, well insulated and ventilated, and utilize efficient appliances and lighting. A home also meets “Net Zero Energy” standards through inhabitant behavior and personal energy use.



How did you select the home you wanted to convert to a Net Zero dwelling?

The 1830’s farmhouse was uninhabited for over 10 years.  It was a historically significant home in our town and could not be demolished. It was brought to our attention because we had restored other homes.  We walked through the home to assess it’s condition and found that it had very good bones.  It had a pleasant, simple floor plan and a roof perfect for passive solar (southern orientation) with front porches to keep the summer sun out, but front windows that allow the winter sun in.

Where is your energy generated from?

Our 10kW solar panels generate electricity to power our ground source heat pump (GSHP.) The GSHP provides fossil free heating and cooling. We also went “all-electric” through our products and appliances, with an electric Cub Cadet tractor, electric lawn mower (we have 2 acres) electric grill, electric snow blower, electric weed trimmer and a Prius plug in — the only fossil fuel we use for long distance.

What sort of HVAC considerations do you have to keep in mind? How is it insulated, ventilated, heated, etc.?

We have closed cell foam insulation in our walls and ceiling.  We feathered the perimeter of our home in 3 inches (losing just 17 square ft. of living space) to give an R52 wall, R80 ceiling.  We encapsulated the basement floor and made the basement and attic conditioned spaces.  This helps us control moisture through dirt floors and stone walls. Since we are so airtight, we ventilated with a heat recovery ventilator.  The ground source heat pump provides our heating/cooling. We installed a humidifier to control moisture after hurricane Irene, as the humid air was being pumped into the home and the moisture was trapped.



What was the biggest hurdle you faced in converting the pre-existing home?

When we began, the house was on its last legs. It was falling apart, so initial reconstruction and later air sealing presented the biggest issues. We were lucky that we didn’t have to live in the house during rehabilitation, as this would have been impossible.

How long did it take to complete the renovations?

One year. We began in December 2010 and completed in January of 2011.

What 3 tips would you give someone who can’t build their own Net Zero Home, but wants to save energy and conserve resources?

  1. Start with a plan — a comprehensive energy audit.  An energy audit detects air leaks through a blower door test, examines existing insulation and informs recommendations for upgrades. The blower door test also inspects furnace and duct work, pipe insulation, lighting and appliances. Follow the suggestions of the audit, and start with low hanging fruit such as changing light bulbs to LED, caulk, weather-strip etc.
  2. Pay attention to the products you use. We installed Energy Star appliances, and used the Samsung induction range (We love it! Cooking with magnetism saves 40% electricity from a comparable electric range.) We also use a solar clothes dryer– yes, we hang our clothes outside and let the sun and wind do the work, even in the winter! We just completed another restoration project (a retail space and two apartments) and used GE’s Geospring Heat Pump Water Heaters and Whirlpool HybridCare Heat Pump Dryer which is a ductless dryer. These are newer products, but we are very pleased with them.
  3. Don’t do nothing, do something!  Educate the whole family, or your co-workers, about energy consumption.  Get everyone on board, have fun and reward positive behavior. Remember, honey attracts more than vinegar.

joanne_coons_crop Joanne Coons teaches science at Hudson Valley Community College and is the Capital Region Section Chair for the New York Solar Energy Society (NYSES). NYSES is an organization that encourages the understanding and use of solar energy technologies through public outreach, offers sound technical knowledge and provides a forum to address critical regional and state issues relating to solar energy solutions. NYSES addresses the energy usage of all segments of society by increasing awareness of the benefits of renewables, including geothermal heat pump technology.

Joanne, and her husband Paul, earned GreenBuilder Magazine’s 2012 Overall Grand Winner Green Home of the Year Award by transforming their once-dilapidated house into a net-zero-plus energy efficient home. The project also qualified for LEED Platinum and NAHB’s NGBS Emerald level certifications.

Check out NYSERDA’s case study video on the farmhouse here!


The Sustainable Women Series, powered by, will be bringing you case studies of women-backed sustainability projects that are building and powering a better world. Check HeatSpring Magazine regularly for our #SustainableWomen features!

Thank you to our amazing media sponsors for making this series happen! Do you know a women-backed or women-led sustainability project? Tell us about it! Email abby (at) heatspring (dot) com with details!

SWS Media Sponsors