By Camilla Cornell
I love my old Toronto home. It has high oak baseboards, original hardwood floors and loads of character. But until we got a home energy audit two years ago, it also had plenty of drafts. My kids avoided the chair by the kitchen door like the plague. The reason? The door had been installed by a previous owner and it wasn’t a great fit. On very cold days, you could actually see frost build-up at the bottom. Then there were the refreshing breezes that blew from the baseboards and the intermittent blasts of cold air burped up by the unused fireplace.
Apart from the discomfort (which, I must admit, we got used to) we were energy gluttons, and it cost us big every month when the utility bills came in. So a couple of years ago, we invested a few hundred dollars in a home energy audit. The concept: a qualified energy advisor spends about two hours checking out your house from top to bottom for energy efficiency. The expert assesses your heating and cooling systems, your windows and the insulation levels in your home. Using specialized equipment they can isolate cold or warm air leaks.
Finally, the energy advisor compiles a printed report detailing where your energy dollars are being spent and what you can do to make your home more energy-efficient — installing a new energy-efficient furnace, for example, or blowing insulation into your attic. Your home gets an energy efficiency rating of somewhere between 0 and 100. Once you’ve made the changes recommended (or as many of them as you can afford), the inspector returns and evaluates your energy efficiency again.
The cost of this two-step assessment is usually about $300 to $400. The benefits: you’ll be able to reduce your carbon footprint on the planet, slash your utility costs, increase your home’s comfort and efficiency level and access government money to make eco-friendly changes.
Seventeen percent of all the energy Canadians use goes toward running our homes, says Barbara Mullally Pauly, a recently retired senior chief with Natural Resources Canada’s Office of Energy Efficiency. “Every time we use energy from fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas, we produce greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change and harm our environment,” she says. Ergo, by using less energy in our homes we help reduce the production of greenhouse gases.
In fact, if you own a home that’s more than 25Â years old, you could reduce your energy use by an average of 35Â percent by identifying and eliminating energy wasters — that translates to big savings on your monthly energy bills. For older homes, the potential savings are even greater, in the neighbourhood of 40 percent. “If you added up all the air leaks in a typical older home, you’d have a hole large enough for a St. Bernard dog to go through,” says Mullally Pauly.
The launch of the federal government’s ecoEnergy Retrofit homes program on April 1, 2007 created some serious financial incentives for conducting a home energy audit. The program rewards homeowners who increase the energy efficiency of their homes with grants of as much as $5,000.
On top of that, some provincial or local governments offer additional incentives. In Ontario, for example, the government will pay 50 percent of the cost of your home energy audit (up to a maximum of $150) and you can earn another $5,000 in rebates for improving your energy efficiency. That means you’re eligible for a total of $10,000 in grants (including those from the federal government).
As long as you are a homeowner, you qualify for the cash. But the grant amount is based on carrying out energy efficiency retrofits such as bumping up your attic insulation or replacing your gas furnace with a qualified EnergyÂ Star model. And you must hire an energy advisor who has been certified by NRCan to do a pre- and post-retrofit assessment. To find out what kind of grants you might be eligible for, check out the “Contact an Energy Advisor” feature on Natural Resources Canada’s website, ecoaction.gc.ca, or call 1-800-622-6232.
If saving money and the environment isn’t a draw, consider that an energy-efficient home is a cozy home. And the fixes you have to make are easier than you might think. “One major misconception is that in order to make your home more energy-efficient, you have to replace all your windows and get solar panels and an expensive geothermal system,” says Lindsay Boyd, a spokesperson for energy auditor EnWise Building Science in Toronto. “In reality, there are a lot of small, easy changes that can make a huge difference.”
Our home energy advisor, for example, made some simple suggestions that have largely eliminated the goosebumps when the chill winds blow. The biggest-ticket item was a new furnace, but the other suggestions were mostly low cost and highly effective. We stuffed a piece of insulation into the chimney to block the airflow. It worked like a charm (although we have since installed an energy-efficient gas fireplace that not only seals the airflow, but keeps us toasty in winter). We also ran a bead of latex caulking along the floor where it met the walls, and installed good weatherstripping (we spent about $25) under the door in the kitchen that paid off big in terms of comfort.
In return, we got a few hundred bucks back through the government program at the time (the pot has been sweetened since) and we reaped savings on our energy bills. But mostly, we got a cozier house. We also reclaimed a piece of real estate — people now sit in the chair by the kitchen door.
Camilla Cornell is a Toronto freelancer and mother of two, whose toes are now noticeably toastier.
Just a few changes can mean more cash and comfort for you
|Action||Initial outlay||Annual savings|
|Caulking and weatherstripping||$50-$100||$100+|
|Installing a programmable thermostat||$40-$100||$50-$100|
|Replacing or cleaning furnace filters regularly||$30||$20-$50|
|Insulating windows with plastic sealing kit||$15||$20-$50|
New products to help you cut energy costs
Closing off vents in unused rooms is an easy way to direct air flow to rooms that need it more — when you remember to do it. Make it easy with this battery-operated vent featuring a seven-day programmable timer you set to open/close vent twice a day. Vent-miser, $30, Springfield Precision Instruments.
This Canadian-made monitor keeps tabs on your appliances through a sensor unit attached to your electric meter that wirelessly transmits your home’s electricity cost per hour in dollars and cents to an LED display panel inside your home. PowerCost Monitor, $150, Blue Line Innovations.