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Computerized ‘Family’ Takes Up Residence in Luxury Net-Zero Energy House

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The Net Zero house sits on the NIST campus in Gaithersburg, Md. It was built to achieve LEED platinum standards. (NIST photo)

From the outside, the upscale look of this suburban Maryland home is typical for the Washington, D.C., area. But the inside reveals something very different. The virtual “family” inside the house is made up of state-of-the-art sensors, and the house aims to achieve net zero annual energy consumption.

Built by the U.S. government, the $2.5 million Net Zero Residential Test Facility is really an elaborate laboratory, reports Reuters. The house, which was unveiled last week, sits on the grounds of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

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The “Nisters,” an imaginary family including two working parents, and children ages 8 and 14, are controlled by researchers camped out in a command center in the home’s detached garage. From there, scientists can use sensors and computer programs to make the residents take a shower, cook dinner, do the laundry, turn the television and computer on and off, and other everyday tasks families do that use energy.

Solar panels line the roof to generate electricity and heat water, and scales are used to gauge water use. The system uses weight to determine who’s taking a shower and how much hot water they would likely use. (The teenager, for example, might take a much longer shower than other family members.)

The 2-story, 4-bedroom, 3-bath house was funded by federal stimulus money made available through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which prioritized green construction.

The project will attempt to show the public that a house that doesn’t need to look space-aged to operate on net zero energy. It will also be a testing ground for new energy-efficient technologies and environmentally friendly design standards.

“The goal of the facility is to demonstrate that over the course of a year, a home similar in size and aesthetics with all the features a family and surrounding communities would want, can achieve net zero,” said Hunter Fanney, chief of NIST’s Building Environment Lab, in a video about the project. “That is, over the course of a year, you’d have zero energy building, yet enjoy all the amenities and size of a home typical of the surrounding community.”

The home, which uses commercially available technologies, has walls and roofing with more than twice the amount of insulation found in typical homes, and geothermal heating and cooling that uses the temperature of the ground to keep the temperature inside the house comfortable.

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During its first year in operation, no humans will be allowed into the house so scientists can monitor how it performs without interference. But it will look occupied, with the lights turning on and off at pre-determined times, appliances and hot water running. The researchers have even added devices to give off heat and humidity like a person would.

While the house will use energy from the grid on days when it can’t generate enough energy of its own, officials say it will make up for that energy over the course of the year so that it has a net-zero result.

With its hardwood floors and stainless steel appliances in addition to its amazing energy efficiency, Fanney of NIST says he’d feel right at home living in this laboratory. “I’d love to live in this house,” he told CNN.