I was determined that this little house, where I wanted to spend my retirement, was going to be as energy efficient as I could possibly make it. There was plenty of room for improvement, that was obvious, and I wanted to save energy and money too.
I knew that I could apply for two separate government grants -- but exactly where to put my money to get the biggest bang for all those bucks?
When you get an energy audit, the specialist’s report contains an energy diagnosis of your home and a list of guidelines for your green building project.
That's the best place to start.
Before embarking on your green remodeling project, you will need an energy audit (a.k.a. energy efficiency audit, energy assessment), done by a specialist.
From my federal government’s website, I got the names of three energy auditors who work in my area.
I selected Sustainable Housing and Education Consultants, of Wolfville, Nova Scotia. (They also work in New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island - see link at the bottom of this page.) I made an appointment for my energy evaluation.
If you're entitled to such grants in your locality, no doubt the granting authorities will help you find an approved energy auditor in your area. And if you're doing it on your own, be sure that your assessor is properly qualified.
The fees for a professional energy assessment vary widely (and wildly!); in New Brunswick the fee is based on the square footage of the house. The provincial government offers a $100 rebate, which means that for a house that is smaller than 2000 square feet, the energy audit can cost as little as $50. (This rebate may no longer apply; check for current rebates)
For more information, click on the link at the bottom of this page.
For other provinces, territories and countries, check your appropriate government authority's website. (See links at the bottom of this page)
My energy advisor arrives. His name is Jared MacDonald. He's a Bachelor of Science, specializing in Physics and Engineering, so he's more than qualified for this job.
He’s punctual, which I appreciate because the house is unheated and it’s too cold for standing around.
His energy audit equipment consists of a fan, a red nylon sheet, a collapsible frame to seal the sheet, and a set of dials. It all fits into the back of his small hatchback.
We chat a bit, and I sign the contract,then Jared takes off on a reconnoitring and measuring tour of the premises.
Jared sets up his equipment and turns on the fan.
Documenting the Process
I find that for these projects the best note-taking method is the combination of camera and tape recorder.
It’s important to type up the notes immediately, though – there are always blanks to be filled from memory and I don’t know about you, but if I don’t do this while everything is fresh in my mind, some pieces of the puzzle will be lost forever.
The following, then, is the transcription of my recording, and the photos are those I took as the evaluation progressed.
We’re looking at the dials that are attached to the door and I’m asking Jared what the dials are showing.
“The top dial shows the actual pressure of the house, and right now the house is depressurized to around minus 43 pascals." [pascal = the SI unit of pressure, equal to one newton per square metre (SI = International System of Units)]
(Having had some experience with these tests previously, I knew it was important to make sure that the reading wouldn’t be falsified by unusual leaks. There was an old chimney opening in the kitchen and I had sealed it as best I could with garbage bags and strong aluminum tape. I showed this to Jared and he approved.)
Jared starts his air leak detection tour of every nook and cranny, making notes on his checklist.
I follow him, curious and full of questions, and anxious to document the process so that I can share it with you.
We go all around the house, checking for leaks. It looks to me like the house isn’t as bad as I had expected. I take some photos of Jared feeling for leaks with his hands.
I ask him why he doesn't use smoke, or a feather as I've seen before. He says on a cold and windy day like today it's not necessary.
The basement windows aren’t too bad, not leaking too much.
The headers are pretty good: in only one place can we see the cobwebs moving.
Me: “Well, I guess we’re not going to get such a bad rating?”
Jared: “The energy rating is going to be low because we can tell from the fan that we have all the rings out so we’re blowing the maximum amount of air to get the house to depressurize to -50 pascals. What that means is that when we come back, [for the second evaluation, after the work has been done] we’ll put some of these rings back in and hopefully obtain the same amount of pressure in the house.”
Now we go upstairs, checking for more leakage. There’s a lot of air coming from the attic door.
Jared explains that attic space should be cold – in fact it should have a vent in it, which this one doesn’t – but the door weather stripping is missing and it needs it because it’s like an outside door. “What should be insulated is the knee wall,” he explains.
Basically, the energy audit is over now, and it only took about half an hour. Jared turns off the equipment.
Now we go back upstairs and poke some holes in the walls and ceilings to see if there’s any insulation.
Jared finds rock wool under the roof and in the exterior walls of the original part of the house, and fiberglass in the newer parts (rear addition and sun porch). The rock wool is only about R8 and what we want is at least R20.
I ask about the toxicity of rock wool insulation when gutting the house, and Jared says it’s not toxic. (I already know about fiberglass!)
We discuss the impracticality of some central heating systems that don't allow you to control the temperature in each room individually.
In this case, for instance, even though the house will end up as basically one big room, I’m thinking of putting my office in the sun porch, and I would want to be able to close the door at night and turn the thermostat way down.
Because of all the glass, in winter that room will always be a little colder than the rest of the house, so why let that cold spread to the rest of the house when it’s not necessary?
Then we go outside to measure the building because for a proper energy audit “we need to know the volume of the house so that we can determine the air change per hour as well as the equivalent leakage area of the house — which is all the tiny leaks of the house expressed as one — and the air change per hour gives us an idea of how many times the air switches naturally in a given hour. For instance, an R2000 house has an air change per hour of 1-1/2 or less and this house could have as many as 10 or 20.”
Once outside, we talk about adding insulation from the outside. I learn that one inch of high-density Styrofoam board – the typical amount used under siding – adds a value of R5 only, so it’s not necessarily viable.
It’s probably not worth the cost of re-siding, if the existing siding doesn’t need replacing.
He gives me the information brochures for both federal and provincial government programs, application forms, etc.
I see there’s some nice new stuff (though I noticed, later, that spray foam insulation - which I was planning on using everywhere - was not mentioned in Natural Resources Canada’s 136-page guide, Keeping The Heat In. That was corrected in a later edition later -- see the download at the bottom of the page.)
At the time, the Canadian energy efficiency grant programs were guaranteed till 2012 at least, so there was plenty of time for Canadians to get an energy audit in order to obtain their EnerGuide rating, after which they had 18 months to complete the work if they wanted to take advantage of the grants.
After deducting the $100 coupon, my bill comes to $114 ($100 plus tax) because, as measured from the outside the house is 2252 square feet (including the second floor and excluding the basement). A bargain.
A month later", I receive my Energy Efficiency Evaluation Report. Out of 100, my house rates a low 37 – yikes!
This is pretty bad: the energy audit report states that “the average energy efficiency rating for a house of this age in Canada is 57”.
The section entitled “Air Sealing Upgrade” goes on to say: “Your home has a rate of 16.22ac/h [air changes per hour" — Jared had nailed it, with his prediction of 10 to 20! @ 50 Pa [pascals]. "This results in an Equivalent Leakage Area (ELA) of 499.5 square inches. Think of the ELA as one single hole through a wall made up of all the gaps/air leakage areas of your home. (For reference, an 8” diameter hole would have an area of 50 square inches.)"
In other words, all those little leaks add up to ten 8-inch holes in my walls – TEN holes! Only an energy audit could have told me that.
Jared writes: “If you implement all the recommendations, you could reduce your house’s energy consumption by up to 58% and increase its energy efficiency rating to 69. By achieving 69, your home would rate in the top 10% of this group of houses.”
You don't have to be registered in some government program or be eligible for a grant in order to carry out an energy audit of your home. And you don't have to hire a professional either.
You don't even need special equipment. Try the free web-based do-it-yourself audit tool which was developed for the U.S. Department of Energy. The site is chock full of useful information, too.
The U.S. Department of Energy also publishes an excellent set of instructions entitled, appropriately, Do It Yourself Energy Audit. (PDF document) It contains everything you need to conduct a very useful audit and offers practical solutionsto every problem you're likely to encounter.
A simpler energy audit, the Home Energy Checklist for Action (by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy - PDF document) recommends a set of actions to start undertaking right away. It offers a neat program divided in "today", "this week", "this month" and "this year".
Get the kids involved! The Canadian environmental group EarthCARE has put together a Home Energy Audit For Kids. (PDF document) It's an excellent learning game (in spite of the dead links). It's also a coloring book.
In the “A Broader Outlook” section of my energy audit report, it says: “By improving your house’s energy efficiency to the potential rating noted at the beginning of this report, you will reduce its production of greenhouse gas emissions by 7.0 tonnes per year.”
Imagine how many more tonnes of greenhouse gas – a major cause of global warming – I’ll avoid with a bit more effort!
Follow along as I try to exceed that goal: click on the left for the parts that interest you, or click below for details on how I carried out the following energy efficiency projects:
Nearly two years after this first test, the time came for the final energy audit, the energy advisor's final report, the grant applications, and hopefully, the arrival of the cheques.
You will find that story by visiting my Second Blower Door Test page.
"The question is whether we're going to start taking the steps now to avoid the really big jumps that are in store if we don't do something now." (David Suzuki)
Click on the picture to open the latest edition of Keeping the Heat In - a comprehensive 140-page guide to home energy efficiency from Natural Resources Canada (PDF file).
Where does our energy come from? Can we get all the energy we need from nature? This Australian site about Sustainable Energy looks at solar, wind, geothermal, biomass and other renewable energy sources as well as a heap of other energy saving topics including plug-in electric vehicles and energy demand management.
Green is sustainably sexy! – according to www.thesexygreenhome.com. This attractive website an excellent source of information about home energy efficiency.
The many benefits of a home energy audit: Surprisingly, even if you're contemplating the installation of solar energy, you should book a home energy audit.
GRANTS AND REBATES PROGRAMSCANADA
WARNING: I live in Canada and nearly lost my right to apply for the grants because of my ignorance of some of the rules. One of them is that the house be "habitable" at the time of the second blower door test. Click on the link for a PDF bearing a description of what the powers that be consider habitable.
I only heard about this ten days before my scheduled second evaluation. We had assumed that it would be sufficient for the house to be apt to undergo a blower door test, and it was, but that was not sufficient.
Luckily, after a few sleepless nights, we found out that we were eligible for a three-month extension (another well-kept secret) because our project had been delayed due to the lack of contractors. (If you've been reading this saga, you're aware that this has been a constant complaint of mine!) There are other circumstances under which an extension is granted, but the list is not accessible to the general public.
If you're going to embark on a major renovation project like mine, ask plenty of questions.
DSIRE (Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency)
TAX CREDITS FOR U.S. HOMEOWNERS! U.S. homeowners can get money back if they purchase wind turbines, solar panels, fuel cells and other energy producing or conserving products.
If your country doesn't appear above, please use the contact form to send me your government links about energy efficiency grants and programs and energy audits and I will list them here alongside your country's flag.
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Prague, Czech Republic
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Thank you so much for sharing your exquisitely well-told stories! I have spent the last 2 hours reading the whole saga, and I appreciate all of the detail that went into your decision making. I hope you are enjoying your green home with cozy surroundings and energy efficiency.
Thank you for taking the time to write down your experiences. It is truly a valuable service.
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A few years ago, I bought this fixer-upper for $10,000.
It had been vacant for six years, had no water supply, needed a new roof, and was likely to conceal an unsuspected number of nasty flaws.
Don't believe me? See these "Before" pictures.
My intention was to turn it into as "green" as home as I could, within my physical, financial, and geographical limits – and to share this adventure with you, step-by-step and dollar-by-dollar.
I'm not quite finished, but I do have a few "After" pictures to show.
If you want to follow me on this exciting adventure, you can subscribe to this site by RSS feed -- see the box below the navigation bar on the left.