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University of Calgary researcher launches Evict Radon campaign

Study encourages all Albertans to test homes for cancer-causing radon gas

By Kelly Johnston, Cumming School of Medicine

Cumming School of Medicine researchers are launching a provincewide campaign to encourage all Albertans to have their homes tested for radon gas, for their own safety and to help map household radon throughout the province. Radon is a known carcinogen. According to the Canadian Cancer Society, radon is the second most frequent cause of lung cancer, after cigarette smoking.

“We are launching the Evict Radon awareness campaign to educate people about the effects of radon gas and encourage as many Albertans as possible to test their homes while also gathering data for medical research,” says Aaron Goodarzi, PhD, assistant professor in the departments of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and Oncology and a member of the Arnie Charbonneau Cancer Institute. “We’ve proven radon is prevalent throughout southern Alberta and in Calgary area homes. Now we want to expand our research to include all areas of the province.”

Goodarzi and team tested radon levels in more than 2,300 Calgary and area homes. One in eight homes exceeded Health Canada’s acceptable radon levels. The study was published March 29, 2017, in CMAJ Open.

“Radon is a significant issue in Alberta, and while there is an effective solution, the subject is embedded with scientific technical language.” says Brent Alexander, chair of the Alberta Real Estate Foundation that is providing funding for the campaign. “The Evict Radon awareness campaign will clearly communicate the value of testing for radon and mitigation to all Albertans which will result in healthier homes across our province.”

Goodarzi says now is the best time to test for radon. “The winter months, now to April, are the ideal time to test your home for radon. That’s when we spend more time inside, and due to the cold our homes are sealed up tight – the perfect conditions for radon exposure,” he says.

Learn more about the Evict Radon campaign and sign up for your radon kit at www.evictradon.ca. The radon kits used in the study cost $60.

Solar 101: Everything you need to know to go solar

Smart Home Series: Part 3 – Solar

By David Dodge and Scott Rollans

St. Albert’s Ron Kube had never known anyone with a solar-powered home. Then, in 2014, he read a story in the paper about a household that installed a solar array. He was surprised to learn they were his former neighbours.

“In fact, the guy was Craig Dickie—he used to live across the street from us,” Kube recalls. “And I was so excited that I called up Craig and I said, ‘Can I come over to the house and see the solar system?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, sure, come on over.’”

The moment Kube saw the system, he was hooked.

Solar power’s not the future—it’s the present

Like many Albertans, Ron was waking up to a new and exciting realization. Solar power isn’t the future—it’s the present. It’s already a practical option for producing our own clean energy. Not only does it drastically reduce your carbon footprint—in the long run, it can save you money.

 

Before going solar Great Canadian solar assessed Ron and Carole Kube’s electricity bills, the roof and electrical panel.

Ron did his homework, researching potential contractors at solaralberta.ca before calling up Clifton Lofthaug, owner of Edmonton’s Great Canadian Solar.

Lofthaug began by reviewing Ron and Carole’s utility bills, to see what they were consuming. Then, he calculated the size of the system needed to make their home net-zero for electricity.

Next, Lofthaug went onto the roof to evaluate the house’s solar potential. “There’s great gadgets out there that will actually tell you, automatically, how much sun you’ll get on the roof at that particular point throughout the year,” he says. Although Ron and Carole only have a small piece of south-facing roof on his garage, so he was imagining a small solar system.

“And so when they looked at our power bills and said ‘Well you’re using about 9,000 kilowatt hours a year in 2015. Are you interested in going full net-zero which means putting solar panels on the east side of the house.’ And I said ‘Yeah but let’s do that that’s a great idea.’”

Kube says they lose about 15 per cent production potential for the east-facing solar. But it also means their solar produces electricity earlier in the day.

Great Canadian Solar installed 34 solar modules on Ron and Carole’s home and garage—a nine-kilowatt system, enough to provide all of their electricity. The power runs through an inverter, which converts it to regular AC household current. The power is used in the home and if the home doesn’t need the electricity it flows out to the grid through a newly installed power meter—one with a difference.

Energy in, energy out—no batteries required

Ron Kube installed an e-gauge electricity monitoring system so he can see how much electricity his solar system is producing and where his electricity is being used.

It’s a bi-directional power meter. It measures the electricity that Ron and Carole Kube export to the grid on sunny days and the electricity they import from the grid when the sun is not shining.

The utility company pays the Kubes the same rate for electricity whether they are selling or buying. However it pays to use your solar electricity yourself, since you have to pay admin and transmission fees when you buy it back.

Tackling the myths of solar energy

Solar systems in Edmonton, Alberta lose very little production to snow according to NAIT research and it turns out solar modules work better in the cold weather.

Where do you install the batteries? Lofthaug is asked this all the time. “You don’t need a battery,” he says. In effect, the grid serves as a kind of battery to balance out the Kube family’s electricity requirements.

Speaking of myths, how does solar work during a dark, snowy Alberta winter? “We produce over 90 per cent of our total annual electricity generation between the months of March and October,” Kube explains. “So, for that additional 10 per cent, I’m not going to go onto my roof and shovel my solar panels. Plus, normally what happens is the snow sloughs off eventually.”

Besides, according to studies at NAIT, Edmontonians lose only about five per cent to snow cover. And Alberta gets a lot of sun. Solar modules here produce an average of 50 per cent more electricity than modules in Hamburg, Germany.

Big upfront investment, but pays off in the long term

Converting your home to solar does require a significant up-front capital investment. Currently, the installed cost of solar runs about $3 per watt. A typical home in Calgary might require a 5.5-kilowatt system, with a price tag of about $16,500. In Edmonton, you’d likely require a bit more—about 6.3 kilowatts for roughly $18,900. Factor in the current provincial rebates of about 25 per cent, or $0.75/watt and solar starts to look very appealing.

According to Lofthaug, some people are willing to invest that much for the environmental benefit alone. But a solar system pays off economically as well. Your system will save you money by the end of its 25-year guaranteed lifespan—and, chances are, it will continue to chug along for decades beyond that.

You will spend the money on electricity anyway, Lofthaug figures, so why not have a solar system to show for it? “It’s just a matter of whether you’re going to pay for it [electricity] on your monthly utility bill. Or whether you invest in your own system, and then eventually have it paid off, and then get your electricity for free.”

Energy efficiency and solar are kissing cousins

When Ron caught the solar bug, he checked his own electricity bills.  He was shocked to find their home was consuming 12,172 kilowatt hours of electricity per year. That’s well above the 7,200 average for Alberta homes.

Before buying their solar system Ron became an energy detective. He found it was very easy to reduce their electricity demand by changing lights, unplugging a beer fridge and making a few inexpensive changes around the home.

They reduced their energy demand to 9,000 kilowatt hours per year by the time they bought their solar system. Since then, they have further slashed energy use to an astonishing 5,300 kilowatt hours per year.

This means the Kubes now produce more solar electricity than they consume in a year.

Rather than sell that electricity back to the grid at a few cents per kilowatt hour, as he does currently, Ron hopes to consume more of his output himself by purchasing an electric vehicle. This will increase the return on his surplus power. By his own calculation, the value of charging an electric car would be 88 cents per kilowatt hour, considerably more than he’d earn exporting it to the grid.

Despite the other benefits of their new solar-power system, Ron and Carole insist that the real clincher for them was the environment—especially here in Alberta, where we have only just begun to wean our province from coal-powered electricity.

“So, for us, the biggest benefit is lowering our carbon footprint,” says Ron. “We were concerned about climate change and wanted to be able to do something.”

When you can help save the planet, become energy self-sufficient, and save a little over the long term—what’s not to love about solar power?

This is Part 3 in the Green Energy Futures Smart Homes Series. To learn more visit Green Energy Futures website!

Are you living in your future net-zero home?

Smart Homes Series: Part 2 – Deep energy retrofits

By David Dodge and Scott Rollans

Figure 1 – Peter Darlington renovated his 1980s home by adding insulation, windows, electric heating and hot water and a solar system. Photo David Dodge, GreenEnergyFutures.ca

Have you ever dreamed of living in a net-zero home? According to Peter Darlington, that dream may be closer than you think. In fact, you might already be living in your future net-zero home.

Darlington runs Solar Homes Inc., a Calgary company specializing in renovating existing homes to net-zero–a home that produces as much energy as it consumes. Net-zero might seem like a remote, ambitious target, but Darlington insists it’s more attainable than you might think. In fact, his first green reno project was on his own 1980-s era home.

“It’s really quite simple to do,” says Darlington. “You can just add some insulation some solar panels and you can have a home that doesn’t require fossil fuels anymore. It’s much more comfortable. Cost you less to operate. And it’s really a pretty good return on investment.”

Cut your emissions, reduce energy use and save money

Darlington has worked as exterior contractor for more than twenty years. Then, he realized he could be doing so much more. “I believe that climate change will be the greatest risk or challenge that my children will face in their lifetime. And, I don’t want to look back and have my children ask me, why didn’t you do anything about it when you knew how to?”

“ I started with an online course through Heatspring offered by a gentleman named Mark Rosenbaum. It was a 40-hour online course, it talked all about energy modeling heat pumps, different mechanical systems and air tightness,” says Darlington.

Then long before Darlington started Solar Homes Inc. he did a net-zero energy retrofit on his own home as proof of concept.

Four steps to taking your home to net-zero

To get your home closer to net zero, Peter outlines four key steps. And, he stresses that you don’t need to do it all at once.

  1. Get an energy model done for your home

First, get an energy model done for your home to prioritize the stages of your project. This is critical because it tells you how much insulation you need, how much of a difference windows make, what size of heating system you require and what size of solar system is needed to power your home.

  1. Add insulation, air sealing, siding and efficient windows

Then you will probably start with an exterior renovation, adding insulation and triple-paned windows, and then improving your overall air tightness. This will cost about $30,000 for the insulation, improving air tightness and siding and about $15-20,000 for windows.

  1. Upgrade your mechanical systems

As your furnace and water heater wear out, replace them with electric heat pump models (furnace and water heater) and add a heat recovery ventilator to provide pre-warmed fresh air in your tightly sealed home. Mechanical upgrades will run about $15,000.

  1. Add a solar system

Then add a solar array that is sized big enough to provide all of your electricity needs, which now includes your heating and hot water systems. If you require a larger solar system, about 10 kilowatts, it will run about $30,000.

“All these things can be done individually, so that you don’t have to bite off this massive capital cost right up front.”

“We put 10-kilowatt solar on the garage and that generates about 90 per cent of our annual requirements.”

This is Part 2 in the Green Energy Smart Homes series. to read more about Peter’s net-zero renovations and how to renovate your existing home into a net-zero home that produces as much energy as it consumes continue reading on the Green Energy Futures website!

Water Heaters 101: Getting yourself in hot water

Smart Homes Series: Part 1 – Choosing the best high efficiency water heater

By David Dodge and Scott Rollans

A typical hot water heater accounts for about one fifth of the energy used in most Canadian homes. Choosing the right hot water heater, therefore, can have a huge impact both financially and environmentally—especially as energy prices and carbon levies continue to rise.

Many of us still choose conventional, gas-fired hot water tanks, because they’re cheapest—or, are they? Over its lifespan, the initial price of your hot water heater can represent as little as 12 per cent of its overall cost. The other 88 per cent is energy.

For that 88 per cent, we wanted to get the biggest bang for our buck. So, we asked Ken McCullough of Think Mechanical to walk us through three high-efficiency choices: conventional-style high-efficiency power-vented tank, on-demand tankless, and hybrid heat pump.

“The more people you have in your home, the more hot water you’re going to use,” McCullough observes. “It’s important to know that you have the highest efficiency that you can possibly have. Otherwise, you’re just throwing money out of the window.”

Super-efficient water heater nirvana

These days, hot water heaters all come with an “energy factor” rating, or EF. A tank with an EF of 1.00 would be perfectly efficient—with all the energy being converted to hot water. This factor is often expressed as a percentage. A standard tank has an efficiency rating of about 60-65 per cent, meaning 35-40  per cent of the energy goes up the flue, or radiates out as the water sits in the tank.

You’ll also want to look at your new system’s recovery rate—the rate at which it can heat the fresh water flowing into the tank. The higher the rate, the less likely you are to run out of hot water during heavy use. Here we present three great choices for dramatically increasing the efficiency of your water heater.

High efficiency power-vented Water Heater

If you’re reluctant around new technology, you might consider a high-efficiency power-vented tank. It looks like an old-school water heater, complete with a 50 gallon tank, but it’s side-vented (like a high-efficiency furnace) to decrease heat loss. This helps boost its efficiency to 90 per cent—or, about 30 per cent more efficient than a traditional tank. Meanwhile, its very high recovery rate, 80 per cent in one hour, will help keep the hot water flowing. You can get a 79 per cent efficient model for $2,700, but the highest efficiency model we looked at clocked in at over $4,800 installed.

Tankless on-demand Water Heater

We were particularly interested in an on-demand tankless hot water heater. As the name suggests, this heater kicks in only when you turn on the hot water tap, heating the water as you use it rather than storing it in a tank. It heats the water quickly enough to provide an endless supply, assuming you’re not using a lot of hot water all at once (say, washing clothes and running the dishwasher while you shower). “You’re going to turn on your tap, and you’ll get hot water,” McCullough says.

With an efficiency ratings of 95-97 per cent, this is the highest efficiency available in a natural-gas water heater. At 95 per cent efficient and priced at $3,700 installed, our choice is more expensive than a conventional water heater, but the long-term savings more than balance that out. And, because there’s no tank, the system frees up a lot of space in your furnace room.

Heat Pump Water Heater

McCullough also showed us the state of the art in efficient water heating: a hybrid heat-pump hot water tank. It looks like a conventional tank, but with a cap on top containing a heat pump. The heat pump draws heat from the air in the (normally very warm) mechanical room—like a refrigerator in reverse—and transfers that heat to the water. This allows the heater to achieve an efficiency rating of 330 per cent, meaning the heat energy transferred to the water is more than triple the amount of electricity consumed.

Because the heat pump water heater is entirely electric, it is perfect for net-zero homes with no gas hookup (meaning you also save $60/month on gas-line administration and delivery charges). Some early adopters are choosing these in conventional homes as well. McCullough quotes $4,400 for this option, making it slightly cheaper than the high-efficiency power-vented tank. The one downside is its relatively slow recovery rate of just 80 liters (21 gallons) per hour.

For a summary of three high efficiency choices of water heater finish reading David’s blog on the Green Energy Futures website.