Last year's particularly cold winter is already over, and most of us are looking forward to the warmer part of the year. The snow has melted, temperatures are slowly increasing, and we are happy to forget about the severe weather that was hitting us in January. However, there's one thing that reminds us of the extreme weather that struck Toronto last winter — heating bills.
A considerable number of Torontonians marked increases in their gas and hydro bills compared to the winter of 2012. As Laura from Toronto told us, her gas bills went up 15 per cent in December 2013 compared to December 2012, 19 per cent in January 2014 compared to January 2013, and 6 per cent in February 2014 from last February. Plus, her hydro bills rose 28 per cent in November–December 2013 from the same period in 2012. Last winter might have been severe, but these numbers make you wonder if you can improve the energy efficiency of your home.
Greg Labbé is the principal and senior consultant at BlueGreen Consulting Group, a firm that works with Toronto's most cutting-edge architects and builders to test their work and, in the commissioning stages, ensure the systems are delivering optimal efficiency and health benefits planned. He informed us that energy bills can be more than halved — especially for old vintage Toronto homes. However, homes are often renovated without increasing their energy efficiency. As Labbé explains,
Many homeowners "gut" their homes of plaster and renovate their homes assuming that the retrofit is efficient, but little do they know that for the existing vintage home, the building code does not compel the builder to increase the efficiency of the home. So never assume the renovator or builder who guts your home will meet the performance standard set out by the building code. They will have to for the addition or new part of the house, but not for the old part.
There are a number of steps that you can take to lower your home's energy losses. Your home can be a lot more energy-efficient if you understand the possible issues and undertake several low-cost improvements. This is a good start before moving on to more complex and demanding renovations.
The first step towards reducing your energy bills is to identify how and where your home loses energy. A home energy audit will help you evaluate how much energy your home is using, find out where and how you're losing energy, and assess the possible measures you can take to improve your home's efficiency.
The best and most thorough way of determining efficiency issues in your house is hiring a professional home energy auditor. A professional auditor will make a room-by-room examination using a variety of techniques and equipment to assess your home's energy use. This audit includes a blower door test, which evaluates the extent of leaks in the building envelope, infrared cameras that expose hard-to-detect areas of air infiltration and missing insulation, an examination of past utility bills, a check for leaks in the duct system, and a test of the heating and conditioning units.
It's important to choose a licensed auditor with good references whom you can trust. Contact several auditors, ask for quotes, and compare their prices as well as services. A professional home energy audit in Ontario costs around $300 or $350. Keep in mind that even though you're hiring a professional to evaluate your home's efficiency, you need to prepare for the evaluation. Make a list of any existing problems and make sure you have copies of your energy bills over the last 12 months. Greg Labbé suggested,
If the homeowner is considering deep energy retrofits to cut their energy consumption by more than half, we recommend consulting with building envelope specialists that can work with the designer and builder to produce significantly more savings from the nuances that affect old Toronto homes.
You can spot many energy issues in your home without any professional help or technology. You can conduct your own assessment and determine the areas you want to focus on. Walk through your home and make a list of areas that might be upgraded so that you will save more energy.
Look for places where warm air can seep out of your house, such as window and door frames, mail slots, doggie doors, gaps in the baseboard, fireplace dampers, window-mounted air conditioners, pipes, and areas where building materials come together. Reducing drafts might save from 5 per cent to 30 per cent of the energy used in your home per year.
Investigate your insulation and make sure that it's thick enough and that it covers holes in duct-work, pipes, and chimneys. Pay special attention to the attic, basement, crawlspaces, and outside walls.
John Harison is the manager of Tankless Water Heaters. He also runs HomeEcoEnergyAudit.ca, which facilitates the connection between energy audit organizations and people looking for an energy audit in Ontario. He advised,
Take a look at your roof after the next snow fall. If there is no snow on your roof and your neighbours have a bunch, you can almost be certain that your attic insulation is lacking.
Heating and cooling equipment is another important energy efficiency consideration. You should have the systems regularly checked by professionals and make sure that they're maintained according to the manufacturer's instructions. Consider replacing your units with new, energy-efficient models if they are more than 15 years old. John Harison told us the most common energy-efficiency issue is people holding on to their old systems:
A mid-efficiency furnace or old air conditioner can really eat up electricity and natural gas. If you have an old furnace, say 15 years or older, that's a no-brainer. Upgrade it to a high-efficiency system. Same with your air conditioner. If it's at least 15 years old, upgrading it will significantly reduce your electrical use throughout the summer.
Moreover, take a look at the light bulbs in your home and consider switching to more energy-efficient bulbs. Also check the appliances and electronics in your house and see how much energy they're using. Old and improperly maintained appliances could be significant drains on your home energy use.
Upgrade Inefficient Areas
Identifying the problems doesn't save energy itself; nor does hiring a professional home energy auditor. The next step is to undertake upgrades in the identified areas and implement the recommended improvements. Your auditor will give you a list of recommended upgrades for improving your home's energy efficiency. He or she will also give you advice on how much you can save with different upgrades. If you've conducted your own audit, you should have a checklist with all the troubling issues.
We recommend you start with smaller, less demanding, and less expensive repairs rather than buying a new furnace or expensive appliances. Greg Labbé noted,
Air sealing, changing social habits, and eliminating conventional incandescent lighting is a good start. Plug up old unused chimneys, seal basement rim joists, and air-seal the wood trim and casings on all exterior walls.
If the main problem is drafts, seal all sources of air leaks and cracks with appropriate material. Plug and caulk small leaks or penetrations in faucets, pipes, electric outlets, and wiring. Some holes can be filled with expanding foam, and the really big ones should be filled with insulation. Be aware of the danger of indoor air pollution and combustion appliance "backdrafts," especially if you use fuel-burning heaters. These appliances should have proper ventilation, and you'd better discuss them with a professional. Make sure you use non-combustible sealants when sealing gaps around chimneys or other heat-producing devices. Furthermore, John Harison pointed out,
Homeowners should not forget to upgrade old appliances as well as heating, ventilation, and air conditioning equipment and verify insulation levels in the attic.
Moreover, you should Install weather stripping around your doors as well as windows, and use window treatments or coverings. You might also want to consider replacing your windows for new energy-efficient models. Change inefficient light bulbs and keep your furnace along with other appliances in good shape. Plus, there is a number of small energy-efficient home gadgets such as a smart thermostat, home energy monitor, or device charging stations that are worth purchasing.
Rebates and Incentive Programs
Ontario homeowners can choose from numerous rebate and incentive programs that aim to help them in their efforts to have more energy-efficient homes. They are offered by different entities, including provincial governments, cities, electricity and natural gas utilities, or non-profit agencies.
For example, the Ontario Power Authority offers special coupons to help people save on energy-efficient products for their home as well as incentives up to $650 to those who install an ENERGY STAR®–qualified central heating or cooling system. The Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) offers a 10 per cent refund for those who use insured financing from CMHC to buy an energy-efficient home or make energy-efficient renovations. You can have a look at more incentive programs for energy-efficient homes in Ontario here. Plus, Greg Labbé pointed out,
There is a unique financing program being piloted in Toronto called the Home Energy Loan Program (HELP) that allows a homeowner to borrow against their home on their tax bill. This program has its own set of approved energy auditors, and typical cost (of such audit) range from $390 to $450.
This new financial program provides low-interest loans to homeowners interested in improving the energy and water efficiency of their homes. The city will fund the renovations and the homeowner will repay over time via instalments on their property tax bills.
It might be only spring now, but if you want your energy bills to stop growing every winter, you should start considering energy-efficient upgrades as soon as possible. We recommend you create a checklist of issues that need to be addressed and consult with professionals who will perform an energy audit of your home. Afterwards, you will have plenty of time to apply for rebates or incentive programs and start renovating your home, increasing its energy efficiency as well as its value.