Clean energy journalism for a cooler tomorrow

Need help electrifying your home? This startup has an app for that

Zero Homes aims to make electrification easier and cheaper by quoting projects — to install heat pumps, EV chargers, and more — without setting foot in your house.
By Alison F. Takemura

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(Zero Homes)

Addressing climate change means getting fossil fuels out of about 115 million U.S. homesASAP. But right now, that shift is happening at a snail’s pace; by one expert’s estimate, it would take about 200 years to electrify all homes at the current rate.

Entrepreneur Grant Gunnison sees a way to speed things along — and the approach hinges on homeowners’ smartphones. In 2021, the MIT-trained engineer left a career in satellite communications and remote imaging at NASA to launch Zero Homes, a whole-home electrification company. The startup relies on users’ phone cameras to digitally scan their living spaces and inventory their appliances in order to devise a home-decarbonization plan.

Zero Homes scopes and sizes projects — such as installing heat pumps, heat-pump water heaters, induction stoves, and EV chargers — for homeowners without ever needing to set foot in their abodes. Gunnison likens Zero’s software-based approach to that of Aurora Solar, the tech unicorn that uses optimization software to remotely design rooftop solar systems so that they can be installed quickly.

Gunnison knows firsthand how much of a contractor’s time can be regularly wasted; from 2016 to 2018, he managed his family’s general contractor business, which entailed schlepping across Orange County, California, and beyond.

You can only meet with so many people in a day, and most of the time is spent in traffic mailing’ yourself to a house,” he said.

All that time driving and gathering data about a home in person is time that a contractor could spend actually completing a project instead. Years later, inspired by his NASA work, he realized that imaging technology and software could vastly expedite the home-data-collection process — and free up contractors to install the equipment needed to ditch fossil fuels. Moreover, some of those savings could in theory be passed on to customers, making clean energy upgrades more affordable.

Fast-forward to today: Zero Homes is a one-stop shop for home electrification and, working with local vetted installers, has served hundreds of homeowners collectively in and around Boston and Denver and in Northern California, Gunnison said. The 10-person company is also currently expanding its service into rural Colorado and Chicago. Venture capital investors, including Overture, FJ Labs, and VoLo Earth, have backed the Denver-based startup with roughly $3 million, he noted, while the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has provided about $1 million to date.

One of Zero Home’s installer partners, Bell Plumbing, Heating, Cooling & Electrical in Denver, has completed a half dozen installations with the startup in their few weeks of working together. Tom Teynor, Bell’s CEO, said his company of about 100 employees is effectively outsourcing its in-home assessments to Zero. And the jobs are coming in fast.”

From digital scan to decarbonization plan

Here’s how Zero’s process works: After a homeowner downloads Zero’s app on their phone, they use it to take a digital scan of their home (a video walk-through of every room); share utility data; and upload photos of their appliances, electrical meter, electrical panel, and more — all of which takes about 45 minutes. Then, the homeowner has a 45-minute video call with one of Zero’s electrification advisors to discuss goals and needs.

With that info, Zero furnishes quotes for different home decarbonization projects. If a homeowner decides to move forward with any of them, they sign a contract with Zero, which locks in the price. Zero then notifies a local partner installer to schedule a time with the homeowner to do the job. (Zero acts as a general contractor, charging customers for the projects, paying subcontractors to do the installations, and keeping a chunk of the money for itself.) For a minority of projects, the partner installer will do a walk-through prior to the install in order to clarify any unknowns, such as where to place a mini-split heat pump system’s indoor units. All Zero’s projects come with a 1-year labor warranty.

Screenshot showing 3 potential heat-pump water heaters, pricing, and where they'd be installed in a customer's home.
Zero Homes digitally scopes home-electrification projects for customers. Above is an example of a quote from Zero for a heat-pump water heater installation, which a client can view through an online portal. (Zero Homes)

Zero’s remote assessments even work for particularly thorny electrification projects, Gunnison said, such as sizing a heat pump. To estimate how big a heat-pump system needs to be, contractors can calculate a home’s heating and cooling needs, or loads, using a standard tool called Manual J. And they might refine their calculation with an in-person technique called a blower door test to measure a home’s airtightness. We’ve engineered our way out of needing a blower door [test] with software,” he said.

The startup’s software is currently in the process of being certified by the Air Conditioning Contractors of America, the organization that developed the Manual J tool. Gunnison expects the process to be completed by midyear.

The DOE is also currently reviewing data from Zero Homes that compares in-person assessments with digital audits in order to gauge their accuracy, Gunnison said. A 2021 study by Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and Earth Advantage found remote assessments to be fairly accurate, though less so for homes with more complicated designs. Gunnison said Zero’s software (which was not evaluated in the study) is able address those concerns, and he plans to publish his company’s comparison data when the DOE wraps up its review.

Soon we’ll be able to … shout from the mountaintops that the industry will not need to send a contractor to every home to quote a project,” he said.

Beam in” the electrification advisor

Imagine trying to electrify all your home appliances. On the high end, that might mean half a dozen or more projects: installing a heat-pump heater/​AC, a heat-pump water heater, a heat-pump clothes dryer, an induction stove, and an EV charger, plus supporting work — updating electrical wiring or panels, adding insulation, and sealing air leaks. Oh, and maybe you get solar panels and a battery to help power it all.

If you approach whole-home electrification with a series of specialist contractors, you’ll quickly find yourself spending a lot of time setting up appointments and walking people through your home. Some whole-home electrification services aim to mitigate this by centralizing the process, so you only have to get one in-person assessment. Zero takes this a step further by not even sending someone out to scope a project unless it’s strictly necessary.

The startup’s digital approach allows it to beam in” electrification advisors for areas where local experts on heat pumps and other decarbonizing tech may be stretched thin — or not available at all.

One utility association serving remote communities is betting on that advantage. In March, the wholesale power supplier Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association announced a partnership with Zero Homes to provide free digital assessments and install heat pumps and other electrified equipment to certain Colorado homeowners. Tri-State provides electricity to 41 utilities serving more than 1 million customers, most of them rural, across Colorado, Nebraska, New Mexico, and Wyoming. While it’s kicking off the new program in Colorado with four member utilities, Tri-State plans to eventually expand it to all of them, including another eight this year, said Peter Rusin, electrification manager at Tri-State.

Zero’s approach is a great match for the initiative, Rusin said. In the rural communities they serve, it’s a lot of windshield time to get to a person’s home,” he noted. To spur customers to take advantage of the incentives in the 2022 climate law, we’re trying to cover more people faster.” And that’s exactly what Zero’s promising.

Alison F. Takemura is staff writer at Canary Media. She reports on home electrification, building decarbonization strategies and the clean energy workforce.