Fraser net-zero home combines sustainability and affordability

This zero-energy home in Fraser only cost owners Joe Smyth and Kristen Taddonio about $440,000 in 2021, thanks to the award-winning design of the University of Colorado’s Boulder Solar Decathlon team. Another plus: the house has no gas bill this winter.
Meg Soyars/Sky-Hi News

Fraser, the “fridge of the nation,” is home to more than frigid temperatures. The town boasts the High Country’s only award-winning net-zero home. The first spark for the home came in December 2017, when a young Fraser couple toured a Solar Decathlon showcase of the state’s clean energy creations.

The Solar Decathlon is a competition in which universities of applied sciences design and build an energy-neutral home – a home that produces as much energy as it consumes, reducing its carbon footprint.

During the showcase, Joe Smyth and Kristen Taddonio met two sophomores from the University of Colorado Boulder, Gabi Abello and Hannah Blake. Abello and Blake were interested in starting a decathlon team at CU, and Smyth and Taddonio – who lived in a small apartment – saw an opportunity to create their own affordable, eco-friendly home.

“I might have done something spontaneous,” Taddonio said. “I gave them my card and said, ‘If you ever need a client, call me,’ without really giving it a second thought.”

This chance encounter was the spark for the Fraser SPARC (Sustainability, Performance, Feasibility, Resilience and Community) House. In 2018, the couple bought a small piece of land with the intention of building a house on it. The newly formed CU Boulder Decathlon team called them a month later – they were ready to make the couple’s dream come true.

“CU Boulder wanted to demonstrate that you can have an affordable, feasible, all-electric home in a very cold climate and still reach net zero. That’s what this house does,” Taddonio said.

Despite setbacks during the COVID-19 pandemic, the CU team completed the project before the end of 2021.

“Due to the pandemic, college students were sent home, so Joe and I got a lot of hands-on building experience!” Taddonio said. “I can tell you, if we can build a net-zero home, construction professionals can build a net-zero home.”

The pair eventually moved into their residence along a winding dirt road in a pine-lined neighborhood. Tucked between multimillion dollar homes, the success of the SPARC house was priceless. The CU Boulder team took first place in the 2021 Decathlon, and top three in all 10 categories.

Thanks to a range of energy-efficient technologies, the couple will stay warm this winter (and cool in summer, too). They discussed different features of the house and how they can be applied in the High Country.

Solar power in sunny Grand County

A 7.6 kilowatt solar panel on the roof keeps the energy costs of the house affordable. Smyth explained that the array was large enough to generate enough electricity to cover how much power the house consumes year-round.

“In the summer we generate much more electricity than we need; in winter we use a little more of the grid. But over a calendar year, this will basically cover all our energy costs,” he said. “From an economic point of view, the attractive thing is that there is no gas bill.”

The house generates more energy annually than it consumes. In addition to keeping the house running, the solar panels can feed back into the energy grid. During the day, extra solar energy that the house is not using is sold back to their local power company, Mountain Parks Electric. An added benefit is that the couple almost always breaks even on their utility bills.

“Our utility bill is like $30 a month,” Smyth said. “The utility compensates the homeowner with rooftop solar at the same rate the utility charges you.”

For residents considering the leap to solar energy, the savings could be a tipping point.

“Natural gas prices are very, very high right now; almost double or even triple what they’ve been in the past,” Smyth said.

According to an Oct. 21 article in The Colorado Sun, Xcel Energy raises its rates again. Customers can pay an average of more than 50% more for natural gas this winter than last winter. These rate hikes are due to the rising cost of natural gas, while US gas consumption is expected to reach an all-time high this year. Although rates are expected to be lower in December than initially feared, many customers are struggling as the cold creeps in.

Stay warm with heat pumps

Heat pumps, which extract heat from the ambient air, have become more efficient over the past two decades and have been widely adopted in Scandinavia, other parts of Europe and China. The US is lagging behind other regions, with gas furnaces still serving as one of the main sources of heat across the country.

Grand County residents may be wondering, How do heat pumps perform when temperatures drop to negative? Frigid Fraser records an average annual temperature of 36 degrees.

“Many builders in cold climates assume you need gas and that heat pumps don’t work below freezing,” Taddonio said.

The SPARC home uses three small cold climate heat pumps that perform to minus 15 degrees.

“Last year we recorded the lowest temperature here of minus 18, and the heat pumps were still working,” she said. “It is a very efficient way to heat your home with electricity.”

Symth added that the Decathlon team installed a backup electric heating system in case the pumps couldn’t generate enough heat once they dropped below minus 18 degrees. So far the pair have been toasty warm, with no need for extra heat.

Smyth explained that heat pumps work like air conditioners, but with the option to work in reverse. The heat pump keeps it cool in the summer, so the house only needs one system for all seasons. This can be an advantage for residents who do not have air conditioning or currently have window units. The pumps can switch from cooling in summer to heating in winter.

What about costs? Electricity is generally more expensive than gas. But while heat pumps run on electricity, they are in a different realm than baseboard heaters. They move heat instead of creating resistance as a standard electrical system does. The pumps installed outside the house capture heat from the air (even on exceptionally cold days) and then transfer it to the indoor units, which blow out heat.

A sheep’s wool product insulates the walls, rather than fiberglass, to properly seal the house against the elements. Because it is extra insulated, the house uses active ventilation for fresh air. An energy recovery fan takes air from the outside and feeds it through the central ductwork and bathrooms inside. This ventilation is achieved without discharging warm air to the outside.

Making the jump from gas

As a warming climate requires drastic changes, local residents can do their part to reduce their carbon footprint. The City of Fraser also supports sustainability initiatives, based on their 2016 resolution to reduce the city’s greenhouse gas emissions to 20% below 2014 levels by 2025.

But what about existing homeowners stuck with their current heating system?

“One good thing to know is that heat pumps also make a good auxiliary heating system,” says Smyth. “You could install a heat pump and that could significantly reduce your energy bill, even if your house isn’t designed… to use only the heat pump. You can still use your gas oven during cold nights, but a heat pump can cover about 80% of your needs.”

There are many professionals who install heat pumps in the Hoge Land. Smyth said the best resource is Mountain Parks Electric’s web page with recommended local installers.

An answer to affordability

While there is an initial cost of about $3,000 to install heat pumps, Smyth explained that rebates are available. The federal government’s 2022 Inflation Reduction Act allows people to get financial incentives for heat pump installations beginning January 1, 2023. Mountain Parks Electric also offers Grand County residents a discount for some installations.

For Smyth and Taddonio, the main savings were that the cost of building their clean energy home was low.

The pair started with a budget of $300,000; the CU team promised they could deliver close to that price tag. While the median price of a home in Grand County is $795,000 in October 2022, the SPARC home ended up costing about $440,000, including land costs. The couple kept costs down by using prefabricated materials and keeping their home at a more modest 1,176 square feet. They also saved money by not having a natural gas connection and a separate installation for heating and air conditioning.

The two-storey house also includes an adjoining living area with a bedroom, bathroom and kitchenette that can be rented out if necessary.

“Our goal was to provide some viable or affordable housing for the staff here, so (Smyth) and I have been working to get this ready,” Taddonio said.

Local utility Mountain Parks Electric offers rebates for heat pump installation, plus other rebates for renewable installations. “It’s a community-based utility, a non-profit organization, and CEO Liz (McIntyre) is super sharp,” said Smyth.
Joe Smyth/Thanks photo

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