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Real Estate UNPLUGGED: the emergence of energy efficient homes and condos

by: Krista Goheen

Condo to Condo  |   Issue #2  |   November 25, 2005

There are many incentives to live in an energy efficient home - both for your pocketbook and for the environment

If you were to take an opinion poll of, say, 20 of your closest friends and coworkers, it's unlikely anyone would say they don't care at all about the welfare of the environment and sustaining its future. Nevertheless, being a good steward of the environment can involve more time, and money, than most people are willing to give up. But, there is a way to lessen your ecological footprint on the earth without busting your wallet. The emergence of energy efficient homes, along with incentives for homeowners to make the switch, is rapidly helping people find a balance between their ecological and financial future.

"Right now there's considerable interest in investing in energy efficiency," says Simon Knight, vice president of Climate Change Central. "The rising cost of energy has certainly focused a lot of people's attention this fall with the jump in natural gas prices and just the increasing cost of fossil fuels in general."

Ryan Bossey is one Calgary homeowner who decided to take energy matters into his own hands and retrofit his 1974 Pineridge bungalow. "It just keeps the costs of everything down and I don't want to pay huge monthly gas bills."

From the time he purchased his home in July, he has already made some pretty significant, and inexpensive, changes. These include: new weather stripping on the doors; installing a new, energy efficient washer and dryer; putting a little more insulation in the ceiling (which needed a thicker layer by about an inch) and installing an electric thermostat with a timer. Bossey also sealed the downstairs fireplace and incorporated an electric insert on the fireplace upstairs that works off of a remote control.

"It's not really expensive for the materials, if you know where to go," he says. "Hopefully next month, next billing period we'll see a difference as it starts to get cold."

A new furnace was installed in the home about three years ago, but, if cost savings is what you're looking for, replacing an old furnace would have been a great place for Bossey to start.

"People can go from their standard efficiency furnace to a new, high-efficiency furnace and save approximately 30 to 35% of the cost of their energy," Knight says, with a payback period for a furnace somewhere between five and seven years.

Currently, until December 15, eligible Calgarians have the opportunity to cash-in on a $100 rebate for retiring old, water guzzling clothes washers in favour of newer, ENERGY STAR models.

ENERGY STAR is that familiar label found on anything from DVD players to refrigerators denoting energy saving products. The label, Knight says, "...shows consumers what's best-in-class for energy use."

It is estimated that one of these washers could save the average four-person family $150 in utility costs and over 33,000 litres of water per year (using 35 to 50% less water and at least 50% less energy per load than other washers), according to Energy Solutions Alberta (ESA), the energy efficiency office of Climate Change Central.

Other energy efficient options can be placed into three categories: what you can do for no cost, for a low cost, or as an investment going forward.

At no cost, "there's things like changing your behaviour," Knight says. These include not peeking in the oven so much when cooking or turning lights off when you're not using them. Low cost options involve replacing standard, incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescent bulbs that use a quarter of the energy, putting in a setback thermostat or a low flush toilet. Longer-term changes involve installing a more efficient hot water tank or purchasing ENERGY STAR appliances.

More expensive options include photovoltaics, solar thermal energy and wind power, but come with a large return; solar collectors situated on the roof of a home can heat up to 60% of domestic hot water.

"I have a system on my roof and on a -25 C day in January [the water] was +45 C coming from the roof (in a 60 gallon storage tank) so your regular hot water tank will meet the rest of your needs; it tops it up the rest of the 5 C," says Dave Kelly, president of Sedmek Inc., a sustainable design company in Calgary. He has a 600 W system on his own roof and "we had one month where we only bought a $1.37 of electricity," though he notes that costs are generally lower in the summer.

"We're finding about a 10 year payback on this kind of system; the more water you use the better it is and the higher the price of gas the better it is," says Kelly, who has seen an increase in the interest of this kind of systems, no longer just embraced by early adopters.

Both the provincial and federal governments have developed new programs to make the switch to an energy efficient home one with minimal hassle. Every homebuilding association across the province has signed on to a program called Built Green. Homes undergo a test to see how they rate in terms of energy efficiency and homeowners can pick from a checklist of what they'd like to include in their home to make it more green, Knight says.

Although installing these options when a home is being built ensures a more seamless transition in terms of construction disruption, Knight reminds homeowners how easily retrofits can be done and encourages people to start with an EnerGuide audit, of which the federal government has four delivery agents in Alberta.

"They'll come and do an energy audit on your home, tell you where your best paybacks are and talk in terms of how long it will take to pay those back," he says.

An audit usually runs no more than two hours and is done for a fee of about $100, most of which is picked up by Natural Resources Canada, says Halyna Tataryn, senior research advisor with Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC).

"There is an upfront cost to make these improvements but they're very much like an investment - you pay now for returns in the future," she says. But, some returns can be quite inexpensive.

"Something as simple as planting a shade tree on the southside of your yard really reduces your cooling costs in the summer. That's not really a big investment but 10 years from now it will have a big impact," Tataryn says.

Additionally, "Since most of our winds are from the northwest, putting a coniferous tree on the northeast corner will cut down your wind and lower your energy costs. The simplest thing people can do when building a home is to just construct it facing south. You can get a third of your free energy just by tapping into the sun and having your house warm up naturally. Good design can really lower your energy costs."

There are also new financing options available to improve efficiency. CMHC provides assistance through mortgage loan insurance for retrofitting homes for this purpose. With a CMHC insured mortgage for a new purchase consumers can qualify for up to a 10% premium refund once a home has met certain criteria, says Mary-Ann Krahulic, manager of business development for Prairies and Territories, CMHC.

"If they're building a new construction home that meets the criteria, the builder, if it qualifies, can provide documentation for the consumer for them to send in an application to have the premium refund sent back," Krahulic says. This applies to any consumer who has recently purchased a new construction property that meets an energy efficient rating of 77.

But, those living in an existing home with plans to retrofit with changes over five points on a rating scale are also eligible for the premium refund. CMHC also allows lenders to extend the amortization period of the home for up to 35 years to make energy efficiency [changes] more cost effective. The top two levels of the Built Green program also automatically qualify, as well as R-2000 homes. R-2000 homes are those certified by the federal government to be the most energy efficient and environmentally responsible new homes on the market.

So, we've heard what energy efficient houses can do for us, but where does the environment come into play? Brian Taylor is the president of Echo-Logic Land Corp., a company developing an environmentally friendly housing initiative near Rocky Ridge. The community (in the process of development but still being investigated for zoning, etc.) would be Canada's first energy self-reliant community. According to the plan, each house is 97% dependant upon solar power, with the remaining bit made up from electricity.

The two most important features of the community are that storm water will be captured for domestic use and "for electrical supply, we'll be connected to the grid but generate our own electricity on site from solar or wind power. We are currently facing opposition to having wind power on site so instead, to compensate, we would buy wind energy from the companies that are selling."

The benefits to a community of homes based on this system are numerous, Taylor says. The homes will contribute to a reduction in local air pollution and also take a longer time to cool off, able to survive for several days without any electricity if there were some sort of calamity, such as an ice storm. He adds the homes help cut down on CO2 levels and they will be built in a cluster in order to maximize green space and enhance a feeling of community.

As with what seems to be the case with most energy efficient, greener options, the capital costs of the houses are higher, "but the monthly cost is actually lower and that's because gas bills are so high now. For the solar portion the payback period is probably within five years," Taylor says.

There is no doubt that more people are reaping the ecological and financial benefits of energy efficient housing, but if all this still sounds a little bit too much new-ageish, a little bit too tree hugger-like, Taylor reminds skeptics of a universal scientific theme and one particularly pertinent to energy efficiency: "What once was leading-edge or unusual 20, 25 years ago, is now standard."

-Krista Goheen is Home to Home magazine's resident reporter