Habitat Kent completes first all-electric home

Organization anticipates constructing entirely electric builds in future.
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The Roosevelt Park home does not emit any greenhouse gases, and its energy efficiency saves owners up to $1,000 on utility bills annually. Courtesy Habitat for Humanity

(As seen on WZZM TV-13) Habitat for Humanity of Kent County finished construction on its first all-electric home this spring, called the Carbon Footprint Build, the first step in its increased commitment to sustainable housing development.

The nonprofit hopes to transition to building entirely electric houses within the next two years, according to Mark Ogland-Hand, senior donor relations specialist at Habitat Kent.

Habitat Kent partnered with Consumers Energy and Calvin University in the Carbon Footprint Build. Engineering students came to the location and worked with Habitat Kent throughout the process, mapping energy efficiency and studying the effects a carbon-neutral structure will have on its occupants, to ensure Habitat Kent was working toward something truly sustainable.

“We tracked the home’s carbon footprint in partnership with the Calvin University Engineering Department,” said Abby Langenberg, construction and warehouse director for Habitat Kent. “We found that it had a 30% smaller carbon footprint than the exact same house built three years earlier that was equipped with a high efficiency gas-fired furnace and water heater.”

Located in the Roosevelt Park neighborhood, the home currently is occupied and is not emitting any greenhouse gases.

According to Ogland-Hand, carbon-neutral housing in Michigan is long overdue. In southern states, the idea already has advanced significantly, and all-electric houses are growing in popularity. In northern states like Michigan, however, the significantly lower winter temperatures create additional hurdles for energy-efficient building. The energy needed to heat a house during a Michigan winter when temperatures are sub-zero is much greater than the energy required to keep one cool.

For Habitat Kent, the solution is a unit called an air-source heat pump.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, a correctly installed pump can provide up to three times more heat energy to a home than the electrical energy it consumes. This results in up to 300% efficiency.

Air-source heat pumps operate on a very similar system as air conditioners, Ogland-Hand said. By using electricity to transfer energy between indoor and outdoor air, the units move heat rather than generating it, increasing the efficiency of the operation.

In heating mode, the pumps absorb low-temperature heat from outside the building and transfer it inside at concentrated high temperatures. The system uses a similar structure and equipment as an air-conditioning system but operates in reverse. During a cooling cycle, the pump does the opposite, removing heat within the building and transferring it back outside.

An air-source heat pump is a single unit providing heating and cooling capabilities, saving energy, lowering a home’s carbon footprint by not burning any fossil fuels, and lowering heating and cooling costs, according to Habitat Kent.

For those building the house, success often comes down to the smallest details. Insulation, for example, is one of the key factors in building an energy-efficient home that can weather Michigan’s cold temperatures.

Troy Pethers, site supervisor for Habitat Kent’s builds, said for volunteers, those small details include tasks such as taking extra steps during the insulation process or even caulking miniscule areas of airflow to reduce heat loss. Steps like this, Pethers said, are nobody’s favorite, but can end up saving the families approximately $1,000 yearly in energy costs. 

For Ogland-Hand and Bev Thiel, executive director at Habitat for Humanity of Kent County, the choice to pursue the creation of energy-efficient, environmentally friendly homes for the community is one that encapsulates the whole Habitat mission: to provide decent, affordable housing.

Thiel said Habitat Kent is looking to empower homeowners with the opportunity to reduce their environmental impact. Not only does the introduction of all-electric housing do that, it also lowers cost for occupants, giving them an affordable, healthy environment for themselves and their families.

“Today, I watched a webinar featuring MSHDA (Michigan State Housing Development Authority) and Michigan Environmental Council, and I heard an interesting comment,” Ogland-Hand said. “They said that in past policy discussions, housing was always part of the ‘social services’ group, but that now it is also part of the climate/environment policy discussion as well.

“That’s kind of what we’re doing here at Habitat Kent. We have one foot in the social services/social justice community and another in the environment/climate justice discussion.”

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