beamie young/national institute of standards and technology

Forget keeping up with the Joneses. The 21st century will be all about keeping up with the Nisters.

building science corporation
No, the Nisters aren’t a new famous-for-being-famous brood like the Hiltons or the Kardashians, but there are plenty of reasons to envy them — like their new two-story, four-bedroom, 2,700-square-foot home in Gaithersburg, Md., a well-to-do suburb of the nation’s capital. Even more envy-inducing is the fact that the light-green, white-trim home with stately columns has all the amenities anyone could want — televisions, computers, washer and dryer, dishwasher — yet it racks up a yearly utility bill of near zero.

Oh, and by the way: The Nisters aren’t actually real people. Rather, they’re heat- and humidity-producing devices strategically placed to simulate the normal activities of a family of four. And all those nice amenities? Also simulated. As for the house with the stately façade? It’s actually the federal government’s Net-Zero Energy ­Residential Test Facility operated by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). The research facility, completed in July of last year at a cost of $2.5 million, showcases how the most energy-efficient, commercially available products can be deployed to create an attractive home that actually­ produces as much energy as it uses over the course of a year.

“We wanted to demonstrate that one could have a residence that looked similar to other homes, with amenities and features, yet over the course of the year the energy bill would be zero,” says Hunter Fanney, the head of the energy and environment division at NIST. Fanney also says the house will allow the institute to develop energy-efficient building standards and test procedures in a more real-world environment. Given that buildings account for 65 percent of U.S. electricity consumption and are responsible for 30 percent of the nation’s carbon emissions, it’s valuable info. Here are some of the ways the Nisters dodge their utility bill:


A — Rather than rely exclusively on energy provided by the local utility, the NIST house has a 10.2-kilowatt solar photovoltaic array, which converts sunlight into electricity. Although in certain winter months it doesn’t generate enough energy to meet all of the home’s needs, it provides 15 percent more electricity than is required over the course of a year. 


B — The house is equipped with three geothermal heat-pump ground loops used to transfer energy from the ground to the house during the heating season and from the house to the ground during the cooling season.


C — There’s no room for a car in this garage. Instead, this is where the computers and equipment for monitoring the overall performance of the house are located. It does, however, contain a charging station for an electric vehicle.


D — The home also harnesses the power of the sun to heat water for showers and cleaning and, in combination with another device, provides radiant heat in the floor.


E — One of the best ways to reduce the cost of heating and cooling a home is to keep chilly air out during the winter and banish hot air during the summer. The NIST house does this by installing four inches of foam insulation to what’s called the building envelope. The result: more than twice the resistance to the flow of air of a normal house in the area.


F — To reduce the amount of energy used, the house has highly efficient, Energy Star-rated appliances. The house also tests out so-called smart-grid appliances that will actually communicate with the utility. What this could make available is real-time pricing for electricity so that washing machines can run when energy is cheapest.


G — To keep the home nicely, economically lit, lights are of the energy-abstemious LED and fluorescent variety.