In an ideal world, all homeowners would have the interest and resources to purchase zero-energy homes that not only dramatically reduce their utility bills but also give energy back to the power grid. Although zero-energy homes are not an option for most folks, super-efficient technologies are.

“We're taking what we learned from the zero-energy house and whittling it down to give homeowners a palette of reasonable and practical choices,” says Jeff Jacobs, a project manager for Centex, which recently completed a prototype zero-energy house in Livermore, Calif.

From improved insulation to energy-saving fluorescent lighting to super-efficient HVAC equipment, every little bit helps make a home more energy efficient and comfortable, Jacobs says. Ventilation is a key component of an energy-efficient house, and Energy Star-rated bathroom fans can play an important role in the overall energy-savings picture.

According to Robb Aldrich of Steven Winter Associates architectural/engineering firm in Norwalk, Conn., big builders don't always think about energy-efficient products. As an energy consultant to builders in cities such as Chicago and Atlantic City, N.J., Aldrich does everything from poring over plans to specing products, including quiet and efficient bathroom fans.

However, once bathroom fans are installed, it's up to the homeowner to make the most of them.

“The builder can only do so much. In the end it comes down to use,” Aldrich readily admits.

Loud, noisy fans are a huge turn-off—literally—for homeowners, claims Larry Hershkowitz, marketing manager for Panasonic's building and lighting departments.

“They don't want something that sounds like an aircraft overhead,” he says.

Increasingly tighter homes and the growing popularity of steam-generating bathroom fixtures necessitate the need for proper ventilation more than ever, asserts Patrick Nielsen, product manager for Broan-NuTone's ventilation fans.

In order to get homeowners to use their fans, the EPA mandates that Energy Star-rated fans must be super efficient as well as ultra quiet. Specifically, Energy Star-rated 130-cfm fans cannot produce more than a sound level of 2 sones; 500-cfm fans can produce no more than 3 sones. (Most bathroom fans are 130 cfm or less.)