The GE Dashboard in ICI Homes' Emerald model looks anything but special. Hanging on the wall just off the kitchen–with a screen about the size of a portable DVD player–it looks more like a fancy thermostat than a rare amenity.

ICI Homes' Emerald model features the GE Dashboard, offering a view into the home's wiring and plumbing--in real-time. The Emerald model fits into GE's Ecomagination program.
Credit: Courtesy ICI Homes ICI Homes' Emerald model features the GE Dashboard, offering a view into the home's wiring and plumbing--in real-time. The Emerald model fits into GE's Ecomagination program.

Yet the device, which offers a real-time window into what's happening in the house's wires and plumbing, is the first fully operational installed GE Dashboard in the United States. GE tested two others, but this is the first to be installed in a real house for good, says Steven C. Reeger, ICI's building science specialist. A tap of the GE Dashboard's screen, and a homeowner can see how much electricity the home is using, how much of it is coming from the home's solar panels on the roof, and how much is flowing in from the grid. Another tap, and a bar chart illustrates how much power the solar panels have generated in the last day, week, or month. A quick glance shows that there were times when the house was generating more power than it was using.

A few more taps, and the screen shows the home's water use, with a mountain-like spike on the day the pool was filled and a few little bumps when the model was being readied for opening.

The little box is capable of regulating the home's lights, security system, and whole-house audio–plus, it's a thermostat to boot. These features aren't hooked up in ICI's model, however, because the builder chose to have those systems regulated by another device.

ICI's Emerald model is a GE Ecomagination house, designed to lower the consumption of energy and water and reduce emissions by marrying building science with high-performance products.

The Dashboard is only one small part of what makes the home qualify as an Ecomagination house. In addition to the Dashboard, the Emerald has electricity-generating solar roof panels, Energy Star rated appliances, compact fluorescent light bulbs, and bath exhaust fans–all made by GE.

About 18 months ago, ICI made the decision to build all of its homes in a way that would leave a lighter footprint on the environment and offer significant energy savings to buyers. The company's executives set out to learn all they could about how to build a "green" house; when they were done, they determined which products and processes would give them the most bang for their buck. They retooled all 75 home plans to integrate the changes and dubbed their new products ICI EFACTOR Homes. The company has built 12 new model homes in the last year, all of which are EFACTOR houses.

In addition to Ecomagination products, ICI also super-insulates its houses–including the attic spaces, which are sealed to keep them only a few degrees warmer or colder than the rest of the house so the duct work stays cooler or hotter depending on the season. The company also includes highly efficient HVAC systems, which can be downsized because of the extra insulation. All of these features make it possible for ICI to guarantee its buyers' heating and cooling energy bill for three years and include a "comfort" guarantee that promises the temperature in no part of the home will vary by more than three degrees. For instance, the company guarantees the 3,378-square-foot Emerald model will cost no more than $67 per month at current rates to heat and cool for three years.

Rosemary Messina, the builder's vice president of sales and marketing, says the cost of including all the standard green features in its homes is between $2.00 and $2.50 per square foot. "That's why it's standard," she explains. "We have really tried to pick out the best seven or eight things that we can put in and make them standard. We have got to say [to buyers], 'We have done the research, and we will bundle it up for you.'"

Since the company just rolled out its EFACTOR homes, it's difficult to say how well they will sell in the challenged Florida market, Messina notes. But they certainly have been drawing a crowed. Roughly 4,000 people visited the Emerald model when it was unveiled during the first weekend of the local Parade of Homes in March, according to Reeger.

Since the home's "green" features are nearly invisible, ICI's sales staff has been working extra hard to educate potential buyers. In addition to hanging signs from the ceiling in strategic areas to identify the different items and handing out brochures and CDs that further explain their advantages, all the company's salespeople have been schooled on green so they can sell these products better, says Messina.

"I think the contraction in the market forced us all to rethink everything," she adds. "I think you see that green has become mainstream for us."