Matt Grocoff foresees a future Ann Arbor where homes and neighborhoods produce their own energy and drinking water, retain their storm water, and recycle their wastewater.

“They call it sustainability,” he says with a smile, “as if they have a choice. What’s the opposite of sustainable? Unsustainable! Life is either sustainable or it’s not!”

A self-described “recovering lawyer,” Grocoff paces the porch of his Victorian-era home near Waterworks Park with his baby daughter, Dahlia, strapped to his chest. She’d felt feverish, and walking her let her sleep. But Dahlia’s presence barely restrains her father’s excitement.

“This could be the most important story you ever write!” he tells me. “This is about the ability to sustain human life in Ann Arbor! It’s about energy! It’s about water! Could there be a more important story for Ann Arbor?”

The story Grocoff wants to tell is about “net-zero” buildings–ones that produce as much energy as they use. He speaks and consults about energy saving through his company, THRIVE Collaborative. And he and his wife, Kelly, have turned their home on S. Seventh into a showcase of sustainability–the “Mission Zero House.”

“We bought the house in 2006,” Matt says. “It had asbestos siding with no insulation at the [roof] peak. The furnace was from 1957, a fossil-fuel-burning energy hog! We paid $350 a month to DTE in the winter, and we were not particularly comfortable. So we set out for net-zero energy!” In his zeal, Grocoff sounds like a prophet talking about the Promised Land.

“The first thing we did was put in a geothermal heat pump,” he says. “Then we restored the old windows. This is a Norman Rockwell house, and we didn’t want to lose that.

“We also changed the ventilator technology in the house,” he continues in full flow. “Houses are supposed to breathe, but old houses were hyperventilating! Usually a ventilation system sucks air out of the house and blows it outside. We put in a heat-recovery ventilator that reclaims lost energy from the exhaust to help heat the house in the winter and cool it in the summer.”

“And we upgraded our appliances,” Grocoff rolls on. “We got an induction stove, and when the old washing machine failed, we upgraded to an energy-efficient machine. [In] January we’re getting a heat-pump dryer.”

But saving energy is only half the story–they also produce it. “In November 2010 we installed solar panels on the roof, and by March we were getting negative energy bills,” he says. “It was $15,000 for the solar with the incentives. We financed it over five years but eliminated $2,800 in energy bills a year. It’s under warranty for twenty-five years but probably good for forty or fifty years. If we stay long enough, we’ll save as much as $250,000 with inflation–and we’ve eliminated energy bills for life.”

“We’re all electric now,” Grocoff says proudly. “Because 100 percent of our energy comes from the sun, there is no combustion. We plug in our car!”

There’s a small catch. “As part of being on the grid, if the power goes out, we have to close down, so we don’t fry people working on the line. That’s because if we’re producing energy we would be sending power out to the lines.”

Dahlia is still asleep, but Rachel Goubert is attentive. A U-M senior in engineering, she’s been listening to Grocoff for more than an hour with no sign of flagging interest. Goubert and two other students are building a device that they hope will take the Grocoffs to their next goal: net-zero water.

A few hours earlier, Goubert was showing me how they plan to do it. At BLUElab–the Better Living Using Engineering Laboratory, deep inside the G.G. Brown Building on North Campus–they’ve designed and built a water purification system.

The series of pipes and filters stands nine feet long, four feet high, and one foot wide. Made with off-the-shelf parts, it’s the actual unit that’ll go in Grocoff’s home–though the cistern here is much smaller than the 2,500-gallon cistern that’ll be buried in his backyard this spring.

“Matt came to us for help getting his house to net-zero water,” says Jordan Occena, who’s working on a PhD in materials science. “We started in January of 2013, and we’re implementing it in stages. The first is rainwater to non-potable water. We’ll be testing here within a month, and we’ll put it in the house when we get permission from the city, hopefully within a few months.”

“We use nothing toxic to clean the water, and there’s no chlorine,” says senior Hannah Rockwell. “We use ultraviolet light.”

“The water moves from a cistern to a pump through three filters of decreasing pore size,” explains Goubert. “Then it goes under the ultraviolet light and through a granulated carbon filter to a pressure tank. When the pressure tank gets low, it turns on the pump.”

“For water usage, we’re budgeting forty to fifty gallons per day,” says Occena. “We’ll get it from rainfall captured on site and recycled water from gray water, from sinks and showers–not from toilets. Some plumbing code is already applicable. But there’s no plumbing code for the final product.” The remaining gray water will go into the Grocoffs’ rain gardens.

“The second stage is applying similar technology to potable fixtures,” Occena continues. “That’ll be much more challenging, because there’s no accommodation in the plumbing code for providing rainwater as drinking water. That’s part of the project’s importance: to set a precedent when retrofitting a building.”

“The policy implications are huge,” says Rockwell. “Most of the barriers in place now are in policy, not technology.”

If they can get past those barriers, this won’t be just about the Grocoffs’ house. “The aging water infrastructure in Ann Arbor and around the country will need to be replaced soon,” Occena points out. “There’re disadvantages to a central water supply, and having local systems can relieve the load on the central system. It’s more efficient if it’s scaled to a block or a few houses.”

Their faculty advisor, Steve Skerlos, sees further implications. “U-M students operate in a much larger world. There are plenty of places in the world right now without safe drinking water and adequate wastewater disposal.”

Grocoff’s already enlisting allies for the regulatory battle. “Matt’s a constituent, and we share common concerns on sustainability,” says city councilmember Chuck Warpehoski. “Lately he’s been bending my ear on net-zero energy and net-zero water.

“Matt’s at the cutting edge,” the Ward 5 representative continues. “On the energy side, the city’s role is to help people apply his lessons. On the water side, some of the rules he’s up against aren’t rules that the city sets. The state has a uniform building code, and the city’s role is to try to push things through in Lansing. An example is our PACE [Property Assessed Clean Energy] program for businesses, which has been able to get rule changes in place.”

Grocoff has an ally in Lansing, too. “I’m not sure how I met Matt,” says state rep Jeff Irwin, “but you can’t meet Matt without hearing about energy efficiency.

“It’s a great thing he’s doing,” says Irwin, who’s working on ways to help others do similar things: “I’m trying to get the financing tools in place so the government can help people invest in energy-efficiency measures that would pay for themselves in seven years. It’ll be good for the environment and good for people’s pocketbooks–and it’ll put thousands of people to work right away.

“I’m also introducing the Energy Freedom Act. We now have rules against people producing their own energy, and the act will allow citizens to do more with their property and to maximize energy productivity.”

Grocoff is all for it. “Jeff Irwin’s Energy Freedom Act is a good thing,” he says. “Right now, if this neighborhood wanted to create its own micro-grid, it would be illegal. We’d have to become a regulated utility–and utility companies are a big barrier. They want to hold onto their 100-year [old] monopoly.”

With toys everywhere, the first floor of the Mission Zero House could be any home with young kids (older daughter, Jane, is six) except for the cool black kitchen appliances. Matt is particularly excited about the stove that heats pans with electrical conduction. To demonstrate how there’s no heat on the surface, he places a dish towel between the stove and a pot of boiling water–and it doesn’t burn.

He’s even more excited about what’s in his basement. The washer seemingly has more controls than the Apollo capsule–and he can’t wait to get a heat pump dryer.

“There’ll be no duct work with hot, wet air coming out of house,” Grocoff explains. “Instead, a heat pump pulls air out of the house, and while the moisture goes down the drain it traps the heat, which goes back into the dryer. It’ll use 30 to 60 percent less energy, and, though it’ll cost $1,500, it’s going to last a whole lot longer, so it’ll more than pay for itself.”

The geothermal furnace looks like a regular furnace except for the pipes coming out of the floor. They connect to the geothermal wells in the backyard–three vertical boreholes, each 150 feet deep. “It’s basically a huge heat exchanger [worked by] a tiny pump smaller than a car battery,” Grocoff explains. “The ground temperature is always 50 degrees or so, and all [the pump’s] doing is moving energy from the ground into the house.

“It does not create heat. It’s using electricity to move energy and use it over and over again.”

What about hot water? “Our hybrid electric water heater uses a heat coil and heat pump,” Grocoff says. “In spring and summer, it will pull heat in from the house, and at those times hot water is practically free. It costs about $1,500, but with the federal tax credit, it’s about the same as a tank-less water heater.” A geeky plus: it looks like it was designed by the Daleks from Doctor Who.

Next to the water heater is a six-foot-tall steel water tank. “Any excess heat gets dumped in here,” Grocoff says. “If the air conditioner is on, the hot water is free.”

Though the appliances are expensive, “payback is in about seven years,” says Grocoff, now back on the main floor. “They’re built to last much longer. I know someone in town who installed a geothermal system in 1992, and it’s still working fine. He has a 6,000-square-foot house, and I don’t know that he’s had an energy bill for more than $100 a month.”

While Grocoff is confident his energy investments will pay off in the long run, he doesn’t know what it will cost to get to net-zero water. It helps that the U-M student team has wom grants from Dow and Ford. This is R and D for them, because nobody has ever done it in this kind of home before in a retrofit.

“The ultimate goal is to rethink energy, water, and waste systems on a local level–and then on a national and a global level,” he says. “Our energy system is on its deathbed, and our storm-water system is outdated. But the real challenge is that most living systems are in decline, and biodiversity is collapsing. Ann Arbor’s landscape system is devoid of biodiversity because the grass, flowers, and trees are not native to our climate, and we’ve destroyed the habitats for native insects, birds, and animals.

“We’re at a turning point for the city and for humanity,” he continues back on the front porch, his daughter starting to wake, “and we can correct it and create a better Ann Arbor–or nature will correct it for us.

“Ann Arbor can lead the way,” Grocoff declares in full prophet mode. “Our house is proof the concept works–and what makes it extraordinary is that it’s totally functional and not a science experiment.”