Ghost Homes Test Energy Efficiency

The lights go on and off. Oven and other appliances, too. The water runs. Yet the new neighbors in four houses in the Wolf Creek subdivision in Oak Ridge, Tenn., are very quiet. In fact, they’re perfectly silent.

That’s because the four houses, part of a public-private research collaboration called the ZEBRAlliance, are unoccupied. Appliances, lighting and water use happens automatically in the experimental homes, simulating an average family’s energy use. Meanwhile, Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) researchers are collecting data to determine which technologies work best.

image via ZEBRAlliance

Developer Schaad Companies built the houses. According to an ORNL press release, the expectation is that the homes will use 55-60 percent less energy than traditionally constructed homes, but each has a unique design to test efficiency and durability. For instance, House 1 has a seam metal roof that exploits infrared-reflective paint pigments to boost solar reflectance, while House 4 has an infrared reflective asphalt single roof.

The homes, according to Rudy Shankar of the Tennessee Valley Authority, another project participant, “represent the full spectrum of housing from basic to high end, and various state-of-the art building envelope and equipment utilization in a controlled setting to develop verifiable and defensible database for wide-spread implementation.”

Study of the homes will continue through 2011, after which the homes will be sold, according to a timetable provided by the ZEBRAlliance.

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Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.