Coping with high energy costs at home
Last Updated March 20, 2008
Stonewall, Man., resident Jim Varndell and his children Matthew and Meagan keep warm by the wood stove in their basement in January 2004, when much of the town was left without heat for several hours on one of the coldest days of the winter. (Wayne Glowacki/Winnipeg Free Press/Canadian Press)
As evening falls on March 29, cities around the globe will switch off their lights for one hour in a symbolic movement to remind consumers about their own conservation responsibilities. The World Wildlife Foundation, a sponsor of the Earth Hour event now in its second year, says Canadians should take heed of small changes. For instance, the WWF notes that if every Canadian swapped one incandescent bulb for a compact fluorescent one, 1.6 billion kWh and 345,000 tonnes of CO2 would be saved.
For many Canadians, keeping control of energy hogs is a matter of practicality as well. A long winter and ballooning energy bills are enough to spur many consumers to find small ways of saving. Here are a few cash-saving tips to make your home a little greener.
Your heating system
If your furnace is more than 20 years old, there's a good chance it's not as efficient as it could be, whatever fuel it uses.
Standard efficiency natural gas furnaces are no longer sold in Canada. These furnaces were able to turn into heat about 65 per cent of the energy available in its fuel. Even at that level, standard efficiency gas furnaces could heat your home more cheaply than either oil or electricity in most of the country.
Gas furnaces now available are mid-efficiency (78-82 per cent) or high efficiency (89-96 per cent). High efficiency furnaces can cost up to $1,000 more than a mid-efficiency model – but with higher gas prices, the extra cost can be recouped within a few years because it will burn less fuel.
Even oil furnaces are far more efficient than they used to be. At the height of their popularity in the mid-20th century, oil furnaces were about 60 per cent efficient. Now, efficiency ratings have hit 80 per cent. But the more efficient oil furnaces need a better chimney than their conventional counterparts — so you'd have to factor that into the cost.
In most cases, electric heat is still more expensive than oil or gas. However, if you use electric heat to supplement the heat generated from a wood stove, you may come out ahead, cost wise.
All forced-air heating/cooling systems use filters. Whether they are disposable or washable, you need to pay attention to your furnace filters. Some filters need to be changed monthly. Others can last up to three months, depending on conditions within your home.
If you have pets, have been doing home renovations, or live in an area where there is a lot of construction, you will have to clean or change your filter more often.
A dirty filter will restrict the flow of hot air from your furnace. Severely clogged filters can leave your house cold.
Your furnace should also be cleaned once a year — before the heating season begins.
If you have a central air conditioning system, make sure it is free of debris. You may need to vacuum exposed coils if dust or leaves are building up.
In the end, only you can decide how warm your house should be in the winter. What's normally described as room temperature is about 20C.
You should remember that when your thermostat reads 20 C, that's the temperature where your thermostat is located. So make sure your thermostat is not placed in a sunny location — or the rest of your home might be several degrees cooler.
A programmable thermostat is an easy way to save a few dollars on heating costs. It allows you to set the heat at a lower level if the house is empty during the day and at night, when you're asleep and don't need as much heat.
A heat pump switches between being an air conditioner and a heater.
In heat mode it extracts heat from the outside air and brings it into your home. When set on cool, the pump takes heat from inside the house and releases it outside. Heat pumps don't create heat as much as move it around.
A heat pump is so efficient that it can remove heat from outside air — even at 18 C.
Air source heat pumps are the most common. They are used with a back-up heating system.
Ground and water source, or geothermal, heat pumps are the most efficient. The initial investment is great but they last long and use 25 to 50 per cent less energy than conventional heating/cooling systems. The ground source pump gets heat from a circuit of pipes buried beneath the ground, picking up the earth's natural heat, while the water pump can be used if you have a well, pond, stream or lake.
Wood stoves were once the primary way Canadians heated their homes. While those days are gone, wood stoves have in recent years been steadily growing in popularity. Since 1999, sales have grown by 25 per cent annually.
It's now possible to heat a modern 2,000 square foot home with one wood stove. A good wood stove costs between $800 and $2,500.
An efficient wood stove can save as much as 70 per cent on your heating bill.
When buying a wood stove, remember to have it professionally installed. Many house fires have started because of improper installation. The installation will add as much as $500 to the cost of getting a stove but it will ensure you don't also pay dearly in the end.
Modern wood stoves burn much more cleanly than older ones and are more efficient in producing heat. New stoves will reburn the smoke and cut the amount of tar and gas going out of the chimney by 90 per cent. They will also eliminate build-up of creosote, the flammable substance that wood smoke deposits inside a chimney.
If you have a fireplace, you can also purchase an insert. It's basically a wood stove that's been modified to fit within a fireplace opening. Inserts are more efficient than open fireplaces for heating a house.
You should have your chimney cleaned once a year.
Grain-fuelled stoves, which cost upwards of $2,500 to buy and install, look like a regular wood-burning unit but they burn corn, wheat, rye, wood pellets or other organic materials such as cherry or olive pits. The stoves burn the grain pellets' starch, emitting mostly carbon dioxide. The only waste product is a lava rock-like substance that is mostly potash, which can be used as fertilizer.
The devices are more popular in rural areas where a steady supply of grain is easier to get.
Plug those gaps
The easiest way to save on heat costs is to make sure as little heat as possible escapes from your home.
If you have a fireplace, you could be losing as much as 25 per cent of the heat your furnace is producing. Installing glass doors and making sure your damper is doing its job will cut — but not eliminate — that loss.
Other steps you can take:
- Install weather stripping on drafty doors and windows.
- Upgrade your home's insulation.
- Use foam insulation to fill gaps around air vents, ducts, chimneys, electrical outlets, and phone and cable entry points.
- Use heat-shrink plastic on windows.
Hot water tank
Wrapping your hot water tank — and the pipes that come out of it — with insulation, will prevent some heat loss. So will turning down the tank's temperature setting from 60 C to 49 C. But the risk may outweigh the savings.
The Canada Safety Council warns that legionella bacteria can grow in tanks where the water temperature is between 40 C and 50 C.
Leaky faucets can prove costly to the consumer as well. According to the Ontario Ministry of Energy, one dripping tap can drain up to 95 litres of water per month.
As well, consumers may want to consider using tankless water heaters which are estimated to be as much as 30 per cent more energy efficient than their conventional counterparts. While a conventional water heater stores heated water in a tank, tankless heaters warm water on demand, thereby eliminating the energy expended in keeping the tank warm.
Toss the vintage beer fridge
A 2007 University of Alberta study called on Canadian beer drinkers to go green by tossing their energy-guzzling beer fridges, which are found in one of three households across the country. Beer fridges tend to be older, vintage units that consumers keep to store beverages even after they've upgraded to a more energy-efficient model to store their food. In addition to costing the consumer as much as $150 a year to operate, the older appliances also place significant demands on energy resources, the study said. The study suggested national energy savings would total 1,165.7 million kWh annually if a substantial number of Canadians threw out their beer fridges or upgraded to a newer model.
Choose a front-loading washing machineSwitching to a front-loading washing machine from a top-loading one can lead to significant savings. Sask Energy, for example, estimates that front-loading machines use about 40 per cent less water and 50 per cent less energy.
Consumers should also be mindful to clean the lint trap after each load as it can bump up energy use by as much as 30 per cent.
While prohibited in some regions, laundry lines are also an eco-friendly alternative method for drying clothes. According to the Ontario Ministry of the Environment, a standard clothes dryer consumes 900 kWh of energy per year, creating up to 840 kg of air pollution and greenhouse gases.
Power down your computers
It's a commonly held myth that turning a computer on and off uses more energy than if a computer is simply left running. Be sure to plug your computer into a powerbar which can be switched off when not in use.
Also, when buying home electronics or appliances search out products marked with an Energy Star seal, a designation given to energy-efficient appliances.
Strategically planning out where you plant your trees can help shade your home from summer sun. They can also block heavy winds and provide energy savings of as much as 30 per cent. Trees planted along the south side of a building will help block against the sun's heat.
Gardeners may also want to consider installing rain barrels to capture rainwater for feeding their plants and lawns. Some green thumbs have also tapped alternative sources of power to help run low-voltage lighting systems.
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