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It’s Time to Settle the Net Zero Energy Controversy!


Some people call it a net zero energy home (NZE). Some call it a zero net energy home (ZNE). The controversy has caused good friends to come to blows. I’m talking Building Science Fight Club on steroids! (Of course, I’ve been known to exaggerate before.)  Now we need your help.

Some people call it a net zero energy home (NZE). Some call it a zero net energy home (ZNE). The controversy has caused good friends to come to blows. I’m talking Building Science Fight Club on steroids! (Of course, I’ve been known to exaggerate before.)  Now we need your help.

I have my preference. You can tell what it is from the list of related articles below. In English, adjectives usually come before nouns, so I like “net zero.” When talking about the overall energy use of a home, you end up with net-zero consumption if there’s also onsite production; for example, with photovoltaic (PV) modules.


Marc Rosenbaum, shown in the photo above,1 has his preference, too. His first course at HeatSpring was called Zero Net Energy Homes. I haven’t asked him, but I’m guessing his reasoning is that the word “net” modifies “energy,” so it’s the adjective. Zero net energy then refers to the net energy balance coming out to zero.


What say you, gentle reader? Tell me in the comments below which way you lean, please. My ivory-tower, fence-sitting, academic tendencies are getting the better of me right now. (Or maybe it’s the 12% ABV 10 Commandments by The Lost Abbey.)


Related Articles

4 Ways to Define Net Zero Energy Use in Buildings

A 20 Year Old Energy Efficient House Goes to Net Zero in Florida

A Beautiful Solar Home in Utah Nears Net Zero Energy Use



1. By the way, I showed this photo before and asked if you could decipher the message on his t-shirt. If you didn’t get it, I’ll tell you here: It’s actually 3 letters, and you can figure it out by breaking down the parts of the message. (i) First, E/c^2 is m. That’s from Einstein’s famous equation, E = mc^2. (ii) The square root of negative one is the imaginary number, i. (iii) PV/nR is from the ideal gas law, PV = nRT. Do a little algebra, and you find that PV/nR is T. Put the three parts together and you get miT, or, as they usually write it, MIT.2 That’s Marc’s alma mater, where he got his mechanical engineering degree.

2.3 MIT is also where John Forbes Nash, Jr. taught after getting his PhD in mathematics at Princeton. My father-in-law, James Hund, happened to get his PhD in management at Princeton just three years after Nash finished. And of course, this whole conversation brings us to the subject of numerology. Wow! These connections are blowing my mind!

3. Yes, I really did just put a footnote in a footnote. And yes, this one goes a step further and puts a footnote on a footnote. Remind me to show you sometime what I can do with nested parentheses!

4. I’m afraid you’ve gone too far because this footnote isn’t referenced anywhere in this article. Which means that, hey, we can do whatever we want here. Got any good Scrimshaw Hatcheck jokes? Donald Trump? Ashley Madison?

8. Not only is this footnote not referenced anywhere in the article, it’s not even in the correct sequence.

13. Speaking of sequence, what do you know about this guy, Fibonacci?

21. Can you make the leap? What comes next? Is it a number? Psychrometric consolation? The sound of one hand clapping? Enlightenment?


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This Post Has 23 Comments

  1. Follow the lead of Sam
    Follow the lead of Sam Rashkin: “Zero Energy” is all you need. If the confusion therein begins a conversation with a prospective custom home buyer, all the better. Explain the benefits and the semantics will fall by the wayside. If you start an argument with a building science nerd about the semantics, well, you have waaaay too much time on your hands anyway. Go ahead and have a good fight – you got nothing to lose.

    1. Ah, but “zero energy
      Ah, but “zero energy” is misleading because it is not true that the building uses no energy at all.

      To be sure, to the average customer, throwing in the word “net” either before or after the “zero” (I don’t much care which) does not suddenly make the whole concept clear as day, a conversation must be had regardless. But it does imply that some kind of accounting over a period of time is going on.

    2. I agree with Sam Rashkin:
      I agree with Sam Rashkin: Zero Energy is sexy. Zero Net Energy or Net Zero Energy confuses. This is all about marketing.

      1. Agreed. Nobody buys a Prius
        Agreed. Nobody buys a Prius because the sales guy talked up the lithium ion battery or the motor that acts like a generator. They but it because Prius says “Fuel Efficient”. For the same reason Rashkin mounted the campaign for altering the vocabulary of high performance buildings, he knows that Americans buy on emotion more than logic. Does Pepsi “Zero” mean I will lose weight if I drink it? Many Americans apparently do.

        Net-Zero-Energy-Dollars-Paid-To-The-Utility-Company HOMES will never fly.

  2. Net Zero until the utilities
    Net Zero until the utilities succeed in eliminating the viability of grid tie while simultaneously creating their own solar farms.

  3. I agree that the argument
    I agree that the argument belongs on adjacent bar stools. However, adding a colon following “net” in “net zero energy” might clarify the intent.

  4. ZNE “Zero Net Energy
    ZNE “Zero Net Energy” is a (Government” term used to meet a ideal goal for contractors. In CA., where the building code demands it by 2020 in residential construction is based on a home built in 1990 being 80% less energy usage. IT will have a cost to operate. The reality is for a home to operate with zero sum energy usage is difficult, expensive and not a reality for most folks.
    I say, “Zero Operating Cost” the cost is (0) to operate our home with “Time of Usage” billing for one year aside from utility fees that will be mandated for the privilege of being Grid Tied.

  5. I’m in the keep-it-simple
    I’m in the keep-it-simple camp. Drop the net! (It won’t really help you capture accuracy anyway! 😉 Zero is not about accuracy – it is about a compelling vision. Zero. Nothing. Nada. Zilch. Imagine living on the earth without any environmental impact! Wow! What a compelling concept! Zero energy has done wonders for making home energy sexy!! (And God knows that’s a challenging task!) The point is to make comfortable, durable, healthy homes with low environmental impact. The Zero Energy image get people excited about that. Yay!!

  6. As usual I’m going to agree
    As usual I’m going to agree with Marc. I learned long ago that it was easier than being wrong.

    The concept of zero net can be uncomfortable for some with acrophobia however. If that’s your problem then you may be reading the wrong blog.

    Speaking of Ashley Madison, didn’t she have something going with Scrimshaw Hatcheck? I’ve been hearing so many rumors about him since the data breach.

    BTW, lately I’ve been getting invitations to join the Association of Professional Women. Is this a building science thing now?

    1. Someone gave you incorrect
      Someone gave you incorrect information, Bill. Ashley Madison is a man! And yes, he’s in the Association of Professional Women, too.

  7. I vote for net-zero energy.
    I vote for net-zero energy. It sounds better on my ear.

    Also, the abbreviation makes me think of New Zealand. According to the LOTR movies, it looks lovely and hopefully I can visit there someday.

  8. 34, so…
    34, so…

    Lo Shu/ Saturn magic square- protection from floods? Curtain drains? Mitigating the destructive potential of water on our homes and health thru the study of tesselation of space, fibonacci numbers, and the golden principle. Tensegrity structures, cloud nine. Was that what you were thinking, Allison? And are you sure you’re going to be ok?

  9. We have designed one
    We have designed one completed and certified net zero energy building, have 1 in construction and have 2 more in design intended to be net-positive energy. We have also designed several very low energy buildings (buildings tha tuse 4-60 percent less than others of their type (as defined by ASHRAE Std. 90.1 modeling or CBECS data for mean energy use by building type). All these buildings use energy.

    For me, I like the definition where a net zero energy building is one that produces as much energy as it uses over a 12 moth period. A net-positive energy builidng is one that produces more energy than it uses over a 12 month period.

    We use at least 12 months of continuous energy bills to prove out net- zero or net-positive. And no wood burning allowed to use for produced energy – only renewable energy.
    Now, for a potentially more “heated” discussion, let’s talk about net-zero carbon buildings.

  10. “In English, adjectives
    “In English, adjectives usually come before verbs, so I like ‘net zero’.”

    You may have a graduate degree in physics, but your education doesn’t seem to extend to English grammar. What on earth makes you think that adjectives come before verbs in English? Did you perhaps mean adverbs rather than adjectives?

    You seem to imply that “zero” is a verb. It certainly can be used as a verb (as in “zero the trip odometer”), but it’s not used that way here.

    Really, there must be a better way to decide among the choices than misinformed grammatical analysis.

    1. Wow! That’s quite a response,
      Wow! That’s quite a response, David.

      “You may have a graduate degree in physics, but your education doesn’t seem to extend to English grammar.”

      Ooooh! Snap!

      Clearly, what I wrote was a typo. No one would consider that usage of the word “zero” to be a verb. What I meant — and I thank you for drawing my attention to the typo, which I’ve now corrected — was that adjectives come before nouns.

      But wait. Is zero even used as a noun here? It certainly can be used as a noun, but in “net zero energy” or “zero net energy,” it’s less clear. Wikipedia doesn’t help a whole lot, but in the end, we can probably agree that zero in both cases is a modifier. Either adjective or adverb, it modifies “energy” or “net energy.”

      So yes, David, I guess you’re right, at least partly. Not only was “verb” definitely the wrong word to use, “noun,” the word I intended to write, was probably wrong, too.

      But my “misinformed grammatical analysis,” as you put it, wasn’t put forth as the answer. I was merely letting readers know how I thought about the issue. In the end, I put out a call for readers to tell me how they see it and which term they prefer:

      “What say you, gentle reader? Tell me in the comments below which way you lean, please. My ivory-tower, fence-sitting, academic tendencies are getting the better of me right now.”

      Apparently, though, my comments about grammar touched a nerve in you. Telling me that my “education doesn’t seem to extend to English grammar” isn’t an answer to my request. Would you like to try again?

  11. I’m in the ‘no-net’ camp —
    I’m in the ‘no-net’ camp — well said, Paul Norton (& others)! However, if the need to explain, and use more words, should arise, I’ve moved from the net-zero to the zero-net camp. IMO, there isn’t a “correct” answer, but I prefer zero net because (a) when one describes any quantity, the number generally comes first (“zero red herrings”); and (b) because — at least for Americans — the acronym ZNE flows more trippingly off the tongue than does NZE. Canadians, of course, say “zed” instead of “zee,” which changes things. But there are a lot more of US than there are of them. So there. J

  12. Net-Zero was so easy to say
    Net-Zero was so easy to say and seemed to be catching on. Then I took Marc Rosenbaum’s “Zero Net Energy” Home Design course and became all tongue-tied. I could not say the three words/six syllables easily so I abbreviated it to ZNE and talked about my “zeenee” course which I loved. I don’t like just “Zero Energy” since it is still 5 syllables and a home still uses energy. I vote for “Net-Zero Homes” but am open to a clever acronym that starts with “Z” – Maybe ZIUS since it plays on Prius and Phius and ZEUS – God of the sky.

    1. How about ZED — Zero Energy
      How about ZED — Zero Energy Dwellings? It’s true the home will still use energy, but I think the “net” is mainly for us nerds.

  13. I think that the word &quot
    I think that the word “net” really IS important! I guess I just favor truth in advertising…

    I also think that MOST of the people who buy a Prius care about more than just that it says “energy efficient”. But maybe I just know the very few “more sophisticated buyers” or something.

    I guess that in my experience, buying an energy efficient home is not a sudden, on-the-spot purchasing choice like buying a candy bar. Thus applying those kinds of advertising “gimmicks” isn’t particularly helpful. The same for buying a hybrid car, in my experience. Everyone i know who bought a Prius was already interested in hi-tech approaches to auto efficiency before they ever made it to the showroom.

    I also think that saying that “net” modifies “zero” makes no sense to me. You can have net profit and gross profit, and if you have no net profit you have either “net profit of zero” or “zero net profit”,

    Personally I don’t find the concept of zero net energy to be confusing. It just means that over the course of a year, the house produces as much energy as it uses, it just may use it at different times than it produces it. Most people have no trouble understanding that a solar panel generates electricity during the day but not at night, but they’d still like to be able to turn on the lights at night. Same with it being reasonable that you will produce more electricity during long summer days than short winter days. I don’t think that most people should have difficulty understanding the goal that over the course of a year, everything nets out to zero.

    OK, so I think “net” needs to stay, and I think that it clearly modifies “energy”, so I’d have a strong preference for “zero net energy” based on the rules of proper english.

    Of course it seems like marketing folks, left to themselves, always want to START with a MISSPELLED word and then continue on to slaughter the rules of grammar…

    I know my english isn’t always perfect, but I still TRY to get it right, and I’m open to feedback when I get it wrong. English would be worthless for communicating if there were no rules and structure. It behooves us to try to follow them if we want to make ourselves understandable to anyone else…

  14. Although my usage isn’t alway
    Although my usage isn’t alway correct I do try to get it right. And there are certain usage blunders that make me shudder. (Break you’re car to a stop anyone?) But i’ll gladly listen to either NZE or ZNE as long as you actually achieve it.

    BTW, if you get perfect zero results (no deficit or surplus) I’ll let you tell me which is correct 🙂

  15. Great discussion — Net Zero
    Great discussion — Net Zero is the future for sure. Let me invite you all to see the Net Zero Foundation site We are a new non-profit trying to help advance Net Zero to take over the Clean Energy/Climate discussion. Right now, many consider PV, Wind, GHP, and the other RE technologies to all be in some sort of competition — this is a big mistake! ALL of the RE technologies should be applied together to always achieve Net Zero, or at least NZ-80 — 80% Net Zero. In a couple of weeks, we will be adding an RE Economics section to the site showing exactly how the RE technologies make you money while the also saving the planet. In NYC they have grasp this and now REQUIRE GHP any time it can is shown economical with 20 year financing — that is the future!

    And, BTW, missed in this discussion is the very important DOE/NREL report defining 4 categories of Net Zero buildings/sites ( — from “A” Net Zero within the footprint to “D” Net Zero via purchased Clean Energy. This is a very important and root perspective on Net Zero that we should all be supporting.

    Join the Net Zero Movement!!

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