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Grand Marais couple builds net-zero, energy-efficient home

Apr 10, 2023 09:38AM ● By Content Editor
All photos by Laura Durenberger-Grunow

By Laura Durenberger-Grunow - Boreal Community Media - April 10, 2023

Think it's impossible to live in a net-zero home in northern Minnesota? Think again. 

That's exactly what Grand Marais residents Joe Drotos and Jenna Olson did. 

Drotos and Olson moved up to Cook County before the pandemic after finding a place in Hovland. Eventually, they found themselves actively searching for a home or land to build, especially after the birth of their first child. 

Eventually, the perfect piece of land opened up: lots of space, a view of Lake Superior, and close to town. They purchased the land and decided to build their own home - specifically - a net-zero home. 

Boreal Community Media sat down with Joe and Jenna at their home to learn more about net-zero energy.  

 Joe and Jenna's net-zero energy home

So, what is a net-zero home exactly? 

Joe shared that basically, a net-zero home is where you produce as much energy as you use to live your day-to-day life. 

Jenna added that the energy created was also carbon-free.

If you want the official definition, Webster's Dictionary defines it as: 

"Producing enough energy (as through solar panels or passive heating) to offset any energy consumed"

In the case of Joe and Jenna's home, this comes in the form of utilizing solar panels for their electricity, and geothermal energy for heating and cooling. 

The solar panels are placed on the highest point of their home to absorb as much sunlight as possible without obstruction. One issue with that, however, is that it's difficult to go up and brush off snow during the winter months. 

 The solar energy Joe and Jenna's panels produce is routed through this area of their home 

And while Joe and Jenna don't have batteries for storing extra energy their panels produce, they said that it is definitely a "someday goal".

During the warmer months when the panels produce more energy than they use, they sell all extra solar energy to the power company.

"We sell enough energy throughout the year that we are able to make it through most of the winter without an electric bill," Jenna shared. 

 The geothermal energy system in Joe and Jenna's basement

As for heating and cooling, the house was built with a geothermal system. 

According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), "geothermal energy: a ground source heat pump takes advantage of the naturally occurring difference between the above-ground air temperature and the subsurface soil temperature to move heat in support of end uses such as space heating, space cooling (air conditioning), and even water heating."

 The furnace helps distribute the geothermal-created heat energy throughout Joe and Jenna's home

If you didn't know what to look for, the utility area of their home looks like most other homes. They have a furnace for their heat, electrical panels, and an air conditioner. They also have a wood-burning stove that can be used as a backup during those extra cold days, or when they want to save on energy usage.

 A woodfire stove can be used as a backup heat source in the coldest months of winter

"We know a wood-burning stove is not carbon-free, but it's still creating less carbon than some other energy sources", Joe said. 

And while installing solar and geothermal energy systems was important, Joe and Jenna talked about the importance of good insulation to keep all that energy in. 

"If you don't have good insulation in the form of quality windows and insulation, all of that energy is going to flow out of the home", said Joe. 

In the case of their home, Joe and Jenna opted to use rockwool insulation, an alternative to conventional insulation. 

Rockwool insulation is made of rocks and minerals which are melted down and spun. 

According to the 
International Association of Certified Home Inspectors "finished rockwool is a mass of fine intertwined fibers that are bound together with starch and used as loose fill or assembled into blankets (batts and rolls)."

Rockwool is extremely heat and soundproof, making it an excellent insulator that is long-lasting. 

And speaking of long-lasting, Joe and Jenna shared that using quality, long-lasting materials was an important component in building an energy-efficient home. 

"If we were going to build, we wanted to create something that fits in line with our values of sustainable living which we've had since before moving up to Cook County," they said. 

 Joe and Jenna's energy-efficient home

One common question that comes up when talking about a project like this is cost. 

Many, if not most of the people they worked with are local to the area (which is a benefit when it comes to any needed repairs), including contractor Chris Skildum, who spoke with Boreal about pricing.  

Skildum shared that there are simply too many variables to get a rough idea of cost, or even a percentage over what it would be compared to conventional builds. Other factors that come into play include tax rebates, as well as energy cost savings over time. 

That being said, if you're interested in this type of build, you can reach out to a local contractor to get more information. 

So, why are Joe and Jenna sharing their story? 

"We want to show people that this type of energy-efficient build can be done, even in Cook County, for anyone who is interested in doing so."

A huge thanks to Joe and Jenna for allowing Boreal Community Media to tour their home and share their story. 

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