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EnerGuide: How does your home rate?

Smart Home Series: Part 6

By David Dodge and Scott Rollans

Image: Brian and Laura Finley review their EnerGuide assessment that outlines what they can do and how much energy they can save by making energy efficiency improvements to their home. Photo David Dodge, GreenEnergyFutures.ca

Most energy-conscious Canadians wouldn’t buy a new appliance without checking its EnerGuide label to see how it rates. EnerGuide labels for homes are starting to catch on with energy efficient new home builders. But, did you know you can get an EnerGuide assessment for your existing home?

Edmonton real estate broker Brian Finley decided to do just that. He hired Jeff Paton of Sunridge Residential to evaluate his 1956 home. Brian had two motives. As a real estate agent, he wanted to learn about energy rating systems for homes. But, as a homeowner, he wanted to better understand how his house was using—and undoubtedly wasting—heat and electricity.

Bracing for rough news

Brian realized his house, at 61 years old and counting, would show drastic room for improvement. For the EnerGuide assessment, Paton began with a visual inspection—measuring the home and counting the windows. Once inside he quickly uncovered some obvious shortcomings—such as the old-fashioned wood shavings that insulated Brian’s attic. “Cellulose or fiberglass insulation would do a much better job and have a higher value per inch. So, that would be recommended for this attic,” he said.

High-tech tools

Next, Paton unpacked his technical gear. The blower door test involves sealing the front door with a red fabric and de-pressurizing the home with a fan.  This helps Paton calculate the air exchanges per hour of the home. Brian’s 1956 home is very leaky, at 9.6 air changes per hour. A typical new home today might come in at about 2.5 air changes per hour, while a super-insulated net-zero home would come in at less than one air change per hour.

While the home was depressurized Jeff pulled out his cool infrared camera to identify areas where the house was losing heat—places where the air was leaking, or insulation was disturbed. Looking at the camera you could see the wispy shape of cold air seeping into the house by the door, windows, joists, plug-ins, the fireplace, the attic hatch and other places.

Suggested upgrades:

 

 

After crunching the numbers, Paton generated a renovation upgrade report, focusing on specific steps Brian can undertake to reduce his home’s energy consumption. “In this instance, this home is losing 29 percent of its heat through air leakage,” Paton reported. “Another 25 per cent of it through the basement foundation, and the rest is made up through the attic, main walls, exposed doors, and windows.”

And, of course, Paton generated an EnerGuide rating number for the home. In most of Canada, the home EnerGuide rating reflects the number of gigajoules a house will consume in a year (the system differs slightly in New Brunswick and Quebec). Obviously, the lower the number, the better (a net-zero home would earn an EnerGuide rating of—you guessed it—zero). A typical new home has a rating of about 146 gigajoules.

And the EnerGuide number is…

Where did Brian’s home come in? As he suspected, the news was not good. “We can see on here that your energy rating in gigajoules per year is 236,” Paton observed. “That’s a significant amount of energy, but it’s not uncommon for this era of construction in the 1950s. And, this is a great tool that we can use to understand how the energy is used in your home.”

The EnerGuide label tells Brian his home uses 236 gigajoules of gas and electricity each year. If his home were built today to current code, its rating would be 116 gigajoules—a number Brian could reach if he completes all of the renovations listed in the “Recommended Upgrades” report. It should be noted that the upgrades for this 1956 home would be quite expensive. But, Brian now knows what steps he can take, and what gains he can expect to see from each one. He is already planning to add insulation to his attic.

Homeowner information sheet:

 

Perhaps the most insightful report you receive is the Homeowner Information Sheet, which breaks down where your home uses energy and where it loses heat. Brian’s 1956 home consumes most of its energy (90 per cent) heating the air and water in the home. See the images below to see what this report looks like for his home.

We learned a lot from our tour of the Finley home, but every home is different. For example, I also did an assessment on my own 20-year-old home and learned our energy use is 117 gigajoules—and, the most significant upgrade step we can make is to add solar.

Also, it’s very important to recognize that the EnerGuide assessment does not look at behaviour. You can cut your energy use with a few simple, low-cost changes—see our related story on the Top 10 Energy Efficiency tips. And, as we learned in our story on The Energy Detective, you can perform your own sleuthing to find and eliminate the biggest energy hogs in your home. In that story, Ron Kube was able to slash his electricity use in half by replacing lightbulbs, unplugging a beer fridge and taming some power vampires.

An EnerGuide home energy assessment will run anywhere from $300–$750—and, some municipalities such as Edmonton offer generous rebates to help cover the cost. Find an EnerGuide advisor at the Natural Resources Canada website. Either way, it’s a small price to pay for such valuable information.

This is Part 6 of the Green Energy Smart Homes series. To read more of the series visit the Green Energy Futures website!

Top 10 Energy Efficiency Tips for the Home

Smart Home Series: Part 5

By David Dodge and Scott Rollans

Here at Green Energy Futures, we love nothing better than to explore the latest high-tech, net-zero homes that are springing up throughout our province.

But, most of us live in ordinary, older homes. We’ve looked at some of the radical steps you can take to transform a typical home—taking it to net zero, for example, or installing large solar-power arrays. In this story, we look at both of the modest and extensive ways you can improve your home’s efficiency—small and big steps that can add up to big savings, and a significantly reduced carbon footprint.

To assemble our list of top ten actions you can take, we accompanied EnerGuide for homes auditor Jeff Paton as he conducted an EnerGuide assessment of Brian and Laura Finley’s 1956 home in Edmonton, Alberta. Then we pushed beyond the EnerGuide assessment and put together this list of the top 10 ways to improve the energy efficiency of your home.

Top 10 Energy Efficiency tips for your home

 

1. Conduct a home energy assessment


To save energy in your home, it helps to understand how you’re currently consuming—and possibly wasting—heat and electricity. A professional home energy assessment will provide comprehensive data on your home energy use, and help provide a road map for improvements. The investment—$500-750, depending on the size of your home—will pay off in the long run. Some municipalities (like Edmonton) offer rebates to help cover the cost. You can also self-audit your home as well, like Rob Kube did in our story The Energy Detective. The trick is to understand real data, so your improvements actually make a difference.

2. Insulate!

In a cold climate like Alberta’s, home heating accounts for about 63 per cent of your total energy costs. So, if you’re losing heat, you’re effectively burning money. Cold walls, uneven heat, and high indoor temperatures in the summer are all signs of a poorly insulated home. In older homes, attics and unfinished basements are an easy place to start—simply add insulation. Then, move on to tackle the other areas. Depending on the scale of your insulating job, you may qualify for up to $3,500 in current Energy Efficiency Alberta rebates. Insulation is the secret of the new net-zero homes.

3. Seal the envelope

If your house is leaking air, it’s also leaking energy. A home energy assessment can measure and identify the key problem areas, but basic improvements can begin with a caulking gun, to seal gaps and cracks, and weatherstripping, to prevent drafts around doors and windows. If you get an EnerGuide assessment, they will depressurize your home and use an infrared camera to literally see where cold air is seeping into your home. This can be significant in older homes. A 50 year old home has close to 10 air changes per hour; a new home built to code will have about 2.5 air changes per hour. Net-zero homes typically have less than one air change per hour, plus air exchangers that recover 65 per cent of the heat from exhaust air.

4. Upgrade your windows

Windows represent a big investment, and a long-term payback, but they’re a key element in any energy-efficient home. As a bonus, better windows will also reduce noise from outdoors. Look for triple-glazed windows with ENERGY STAR® High Efficiency rating and be sure to check for rebates in your area.

5. Install a high-efficiency furnace

Until fairly recently, furnaces were inefficient. A 20-year-old home, for example, may have a 77 per cent efficient furnace in it. Many newer furnaces operate at 97 per cent efficiency—saving you more than 20 per cent in heating costs over the life of the furnace. As usual, pay attention to Energuide ratings and ENERGY STAR®.  Super-efficient solar-powered net-zero homes use electric heat-pump furnaces, which are 250 per cent efficient.

6. Use a smart thermostat

You can spend less on heating simply by heating less. With a smart thermostat, you can reduce the temperature in your home at preset times—for example, dropping the setting to 15 degrees C at night, or during weekdays when the house is empty. Smart thermostats are very easy to set up—automatically learning how you use your home, and reducing heat when it’s appropriate. Most smart thermostats are also Wi-Fi-connected, allowing you to control them even when you’re away from home. They’re simpler to use, but (not surprisingly) cost more. Rebates are offered in some jurisdictions.

7. Tame your appliances

Your clothes dryer, even if it’s new, is likely your home’s biggest electricity hog. Consider partially drying your clothes and then hanging them to dry the rest of the way (similarly, let your dishes air-dry instead of running your dishwasher’s drying cycle). Other home appliances have improved dramatically over the years. For example, a fridge from the 1970s may chew through 1,750 kWh/year, whereas a modern fridge with an icemaker uses 500 kWh/year or less. Energy Efficiency Alberta currently offers rebates up to $100 on refrigerators and washers. Induction stoves and cooktops are another energy-saver we really like—superior appliances that consume roughly half the electricity of conventional stoves while heating many foods much more quickly.

8. Water heating

Check out the three most energy efficient water heaters in our story Hot Water Heaters 101. The energy used to heat water can account for a whopping one-fifth of your total home energy costs. Old water heaters are about 60 per cent efficient, whereas high-efficiency tank-based water heaters can now reach 90 per cent efficiency. Tankless water heaters are 97-98 per cent efficient, and have made great strides in user satisfaction. Even better, tankless heaters currently qualify for Energy Efficiency Alberta rebates of up to $944. Hybrid heat-pump water heaters run on electricity (great for net-zero homes) and are 330 per cent efficient.Upgrading from a conventional to a tankless 97 per cent efficient model will save up to 37 per cent on water heating.

9. Light smarter

This is your simplest fix, and will pay for itself in practically no time. Many homes still use incandescent bulbs, despite the technical advances and increased affordability of LEDs. An LED bulb uses roughly 25 per cent the electricity of an incandescent bulb, and generally has a drastically greater lifespan—paying for itself multiple times. In places where you use multiple bulbs (decorative fixtures, pot lighting) the savings add up that much more quickly. Efficiency Alberta regularly offers instant rebates on LED bulbs, but they’re a brilliant investment even at regular price. In our Energy Detective story Ron Kube replaced 80 bulbs in his home and reduced electricity use for lighting five-fold!

10. Be a ghostbuster

Countless electronic devices—TVs, PVRs, computers, printers, phone chargers, etc.—draw power even when they’re not being used—energy efficiency experts call this “phantom power.” Exorcise these demons by unplugging chargers when they’re not being used, or using power bars with single on-off switches. Newer “smart” power bars will actually shut off a circuit if it senses that a device is not in active use. In our Energy Detective story we found seven per cent of Ron Kube’s home electricity use was by phantom power.

Thanks to Jeff Paton for helping us put this list together after a tour of the Finley home in Edmonton. Some older homes may require more expensive upgrades to fix big problems, but many homes have many opportunities for energy saving. Take your inventory and then begin investing in the best bets for big returns. We have seen homes that have cut their heating bill in half simply by improving their furnaces and adding smart thermostats, and we have seen other homes where changing lights to LEDs, uplugging an old beer fridge and slaying your phantom power vampires likewise reduced electricity use by half.

This is Part 5 of the Green Energy Smart Homes series. To read more of the series visit the Green Energy Futures website!

 

The Energy Detective

Smart Home Series: Part 4

By David Dodge and Scott Rollans

What if we told you, with a few simple changes, you could cut your household electricity consumption by half? It’s possible, and Ron Kube is living proof

Kube recently installed a solar-power system on his St. Albert home. But before going solar, he checked to see how much electricity his home was using. Ron was shocked—no pun intended—to discover his family was using 70 per cent more than the Alberta average of 7,200 kilowatt hours per year–they were energy hogs.

“We were actually using over 12,000 kilowatt hours a year,” Kube ruefully admits. “So, then, the question was, okay, where are all those electrons going?” Ron is a university professor, so his curiosity quickly transmogrified into a full-blown research project. “I got a little obsessed and I started to measure everything

The investigation begins

Ron Kube loves data, so he installed an e-gauge electricity monitoring system. At a glance he can see how much electricity his solar system is producing and where his electricity is being used. Photo David Dodge, GreenEnergyFutures.ca

Instead of simply switching his lightbulbs to LEDs and then hoping for the best, Kube first became an energy efficiency detective. He started with a plug-in power meter. “You can buy one of these things and you can plug them in,” he explains. “And then you plug your appliance in, and it tells you how much power it is using.” Ron checked the coffee pot, fridge, freezer, cookers, entertainment devices, computers, literally everything with a plug.

The power meter was a great start, but Kube soon felt the urge to dig much deeper. Instead of simply measuring one appliance at a time, he wanted to keep tabs on his entire house. He installed an eGauge energy monitoring system—a device that measures the individual load for each circuit on his electrical panel and generates data in real time.

Once the eGauge was up and running, Ron could go online anytime to see his current electricity consumption, along with totals for the day, week, month or year. He also installed a display right in the kitchen, so he and his wife would be confronted by the evidence every time they passed by.

Speaking of Ron’s wife, a spouse would have to be pretty indulgent to go along with such an obsessive scheme, right? “Nothing surprises me anymore,” laughs Kube’s wife, Carole. “Ron gets really excited about things. And, right now, it’s solar, and lowering our carbon footprint. And, so, I’m just was along for the ride.”

Slaying the monsters

Once the numbers started flowing in, Ron was able to analyze the data—and make a few unexpected discoveries.

Lighting – saved 82%

“Lighting was, surprisingly, the biggest monster in the house,” Kube observes. He points to his dining room as a typical culprit. In one fixture, the couple had eight 100-watt incandescent bulbs, for a staggering total of 800 watts. By switching those eight bulbs to LEDs, Ron was able to slash the total to 112 watts without sacrificing a single lumen.

By the time Kube switched the rest of the bulbs, his home’s “biggest monster” had become a veritable pussycat. “In fact, we went from 340 kilowatt hours per month down to 70,” he says. “Lighting is no longer our biggest consumer.”

The good old beer fridge – saved 62%

With the big monster tamed, Ron was astonished to discover he had yet another energy-gobbling beast lurking in his basement. “We had an old beer fridge in the basement, and I found out it was taking between seven and 10 per cent of our monthly power—for a couple of bottles of beer and some wine.” Needless to say, he unplugged the fridge and relocated the beverages. The old beer fridge was using more electricity than his modern fridge and freezer combined.

Phantom power – saved 62%

During his detective work, Ron also learned about the concept of “phantom power.” Sometimes, even after you switch your devices off, they continue to draw significant amounts of electricity. In Ron’s house, the biggest culprit here was his entertainment system, which surprisingly was using seven per cent of the home’s electricity.

“Everything is supposedly turned off, but it was actually consuming about seven per cent of our monthly power.” Ron took all of the plugs and rerouted them through a simple power bar—with an on/off switch. “Now, off is off and everything is great.”

The slow cooking energy black hole – saved 50%

Here’s where Ron goes above and beyond. He also ran some cooking experiments. For example you want tea, but you fill up a kettle or pot with water. Heating all that water wastes a lot of energy–Ron starting filling the pot with the amount of water he needed for tea and he stuck a lid on the pot. This all saves energy. Ron even ran a cooking experiment where he pitted a slow cooker against a pressure cooker and a Thermos cooker.  The slow cooker is an energy disaster using 2.5 times more energy than a pressure cooker and 4.3 times more energy than a very cool Thermos cooker.

All gain, no pain – saving 50% the easy way

With simple, inexpensive measures, Ron and Carole slashed their monthly electricity consumption by more than half—with virtually no impact on their lifestyle. “At the end of the day, we were able to reduce our power from the 12,000 kilowatt hours a year to 5,300 kilowatt hours a year.”

What is amazing about this is the Kubes slashed their electricity bill at a very low cost. Ron replaced 80 light bulbs with LEDs, unplugged the beer fridge, changed some cooking habits and put a smart power bar on his entertainment system.

Next – a solar powered electric car

Ron and Carole Kube have saved so much energy they now have enough extra solar electricity to power a Nissan Leaf for 20,000 km per year. Photo David Dodge, GreenEnergyFutures.ca

The Kube’s installed a nine kilowatt solar system when they were still using about 9,000 kilowatt hours a year for electricity.

Thanks to those simple energy efficiency measures the Kubes now have 4,000 kilowatt hours of surplus solar electricity from their solar system. Ron calculates that he could fuel a Nissan Leaf (electric car) for about 20,000 km a year with the surplus solar electricity.

If he uses this surplus solar electricity to power a car, Ron estimates the value of the electricity to him soars to 88 cents a kilowatt hour, since he would no longer need to buy gas for his car.

Ron has even created his own guide to his solar and energy efficiency project and a do-it-yourself electricity audit guide that you can use to learn from their experience.

With the help of his trusty meters, Ron the energy efficiency detective solved the case and is sharing what he learned with us.

This is Part 4 of the Green Energy Smart Homes series. To read more of the series visit the Green Energy Futures website!

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.

Energy Efficiency for Homeowners!

The Alberta Real Estate Association (AREA) has partnered with the Pembina Institute to educate REALTORS® and their clients on the value of energy efficiency.

As a collaboration, the project will leverage AREA’s expertise on the needs of REALTORS® and homeowners and the Pembina Institute’s expertise on clean energy, climate change and energy issues, to transform how Alberta’s REALTORS® understand and serve homeowners on this topic of increasing importance.

The first fact sheet provides current energy efficiency savings opportunities in Alberta, offering more information on how you can take advantage of energy efficiency.  Click here to download the fact sheet!

Look for more of these collaborative resources in the future.

 

 

 

 

Edmonton Library Users Can Test Home Energy Consumption

Homeowners are now able to perform an informal energy audit of their home with Green HomeEnergy Toolkits available from Edmonton Public Libraries. A grant from the Alberta Real Estate Foundation (AREF) to the City of Edmonton helped make the kits available.

Each kit is self-contained in a sturdy case and includes a digital thermometer, power meters, instructional booklets, and other tools to help homeowners examine their utility consumption. Once the excess uses of power, heat, or water are found, homeowners can reduce the waste and save on the cost of utilities.

Charlie Ponde, AREF chair, joined Edmonton City Councillor Michael Walters and the Manager of Collections, Management and Access Division, Edmonton Public Library, Sharon Karr, on January 14 to announce the kits’ availability.

“For the last 25 years, our foundation has strived to support initiatives that make a real difference in the industry and in the lives of Albertans,” said Ponde. “By taking the initiative on energy efficiency, the City of Edmonton is a model for many other municipalities across the province.”

There is no cost to borrow a kit. The kits can be ordered and checked out of any Edmonton Public Library branch like books or records and kept for up to three weeks. There is already a backlog of several hundred requests for the kits. The City of Edmonton has also placed kits with the two school boards for use by students and has kits available for promotional purposes at trade shows and exhibits.

Similar kits are available in other communities in Alberta (Red Deer) and the interest in Edmonton is spurring other municipalities (St. Albert and Okotoks) and library systems to acquire their own kits.

What Lies Beneath? Buyer beware

It’s every homeowner’s nightmare: You buy a home, move in, then find out there’s an abandoned gas well beneath, leaking and contaminating your property. Think it can’t happen to you? It can. According to the Energy Resources Conservation Board in November 2012 over 150,000 abandoned well sites dotted the Alberta landscape, making it essential that buyers do their homework.

These nightmares happen because of gaps between what Albertans should know, could know and actually do know about their environment,” says Adam Driedzic, Staff Counsel and author of a new Environmental Law Centre publication, What Lies Beneath? Access to Environmental Information in Alberta.

In real estate transactions the onus is generally on the buyer to do their due diligence and the general rule for buying and selling real estate is ‘buyer beware’. Unfortunately there’s no checklist to prove due diligence and no one-stop shop for environmental information.

The best way to demonstrate due diligence is to identify environmental concerns, learn what information is available about those concerns and act on that knowledge. Buyers who make inquiries into the environmental conditions of the specific site and the local area are in the best position to make sound choices and solid deals.

Most land in Alberta has already been used for something. In Calmar, oil and gas extraction took place on farmland that was re-zoned, subdivided, developed into a residential community and sold without exposing what lay beneath or what other activities had taken place on the land previously.

And in Alberta it isn’t just oil and gas activities that are concerning. Whether you’re looking to buy a giant parcel of farmland or a tiny infill lot in the city, there are many activities that can impact the land, air and water that surround your potential new home. Feedlots, pesticide application, old dry-cleaners or landfills – even recreational activities like off highway vehicle use – can affect your quality of life.

What Lies Beneath? Access to Environmental Information in Alberta provides practical information-finding tips, outlines environmental concerns you may want to think about and describes where to get started to find the information you need to make the best choices when buying property in Alberta. A twelve-page booklet based on this guidebook, Buyer Beware, is also available.

The Environmental Law Centre is Alberta’s leading environmental public policy and law reform charity. The full publication and booklet can both be downloaded on the Environmental Law Centre website.

Affordable homes is a dream come true for two Albertan families

Owning a home is so much than acquiring an appreciating asset – it’s a source of pride and new tie to the community. You could see the emotion on the faces of all four families that benefited from new Habitat for Humanity homes in Strathcona County. On a sunny July 27th, four families were handed keys that started new chapters in their lives. Two of the four homes were supported by the Alberta Real Estate Foundation, the REALTORS® Community Foundation and the Government of Alberta. The County of Strathcona also played a key role with significant contributions to all the homes.

Jay Freeman, Chair of the Alberta Real Estate Foundation (AREF), said of all the worthwhile projects that the Foundation supports, Habitat for Humanity is one of his favourites. At the ribbon-cutting ceremony he said, “With these projects we can see, in a very concrete way, how our small contribution is benefiting.” The families moving into the new homes couldn’t agree more. Both parents and children spoke about how owning a home will make a difference to them and their families. One of the new owners named Clodia said, “Owing a house means stability and security, but also it means I can be a good role model for my daughter.”

 

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Habitat for Humanity believes in giving people a hand up, not a hand out. Habitat Homes are built by volunteers and donors and sold to qualified families. Those who are approved to receive a home must agree to work 500 hours at the build site in place of a down payment. Habitat holds the mortgage interest-free and amortizes it over as many years as necessary to ensure the families do not pay over 25 percent of their income for housing.

Affordable housing is one of the Foundation’s areas of interest for projects. It often partners with Real Estate Boards across the province, such as the REALTORS® Association of Edmonton, to match their donation and double the impact in communities across Alberta. Habitat for Humanity is a deserving partner as it serves families that are low to moderate income and offers them an innovative financing option. The Alberta Real Estate Foundation is proud of its contribution to this great event and join with others in welcoming these four families home.