Rachelle Chevalier’s December Hydro bill quadrupled to an eye-popping $425 per month after she plugged in electric heaters to warm up a stubbornly cold second-floor bedroom and other parts of her west-end Toronto home.

So out went the heaters.

The double whammy of the chilly bedroom and the sky-high bill inspired Chevalier to sign up for a City of Toronto loan program that enables homeowners to pay for improved energy efficiency through their property tax bills. The program officially launched on Tuesday.

Numerous incentives for home energy retrofits, both federal and provincial, have come and gone in recent years without real improvements to the city’s energy performance. Earlier programs required extensive funding and were expensive to administer, which made them unsustainable in the long term, said Marco Iacampo, environment policy supervisor at the City of Toronto.

Toronto’s $10-million pilot Home Energy Loan Program (HELP), he says, is different.

Using the recently revamped local improvement charge (LIC) regulation, municipalities can now lend money to individual private property owners for "energy works." These might include insulation, air sealing, windows and doors, high-efficiency furnaces and boilers, central air conditioners and water heaters.

Homeowners will repay HELP loans through a special charge on their tax bills. All expenses will be recovered directly from program participants, not costing Toronto taxpayers a penny.

If the three-year pilot is successful, the program could expand beyond the postal codes currently qualified to participate. City officials are excited because “we believe this property-assessed financing might be the next generation of conservation programs,” Iacampo said.

Originating in the United States, LIC-based schemes are still a rarity in Canada. Halifax is an exception with its successful Solar City Initiative for hot water systems. HELP is the first LIC-based energy loan program in Ontario. Its success will be closely monitored by at least 22 other Ontario municipalities toying with the same idea.

HELP’s appeal lies in its below-market interest rates and longer repayment terms, Iacampo said. Rates start at 2.5 per cent for a five-year loan and increase to 3.75 per cent for 10 years. The 15-year rate is 4.25 per cent. And since the loan is attached to the property, responsibility can transfer to the new owner when the house changes hands.

Most homes in Toronto were built before 1980, in an era of poor energy efficiency. The vast majority of those buildings will still be in use in 2050. Chevalier’s house was built in the mid-1950s.

Construction standards have changed quite a bit since then, said Steve Ramoul of The Home Inspectors Group, who conducted an energy audit on Chevalier’s house. Her windows, doors, water heater and furnace all passed the test. But when Ramoul checked the home’s air-tightness, drafts materialized on all three floors. They pointed to cracks and openings through which the home’s heat had been escaping. A particularly severe draft blew through a badly sealed attic hatch.

Payment plan for HELP

A payment schedule for HELP (CBC)

HELP aims to encourage deep retrofits, which reduce energy use by at least 25 per cent and usually require more than one or two upgrades. Though HELP program applicants are free to choose among the measures suggested by their energy auditor, high-return retrofits will make it much easier to later sell a home that still has a HELP loan attached.

If a $10,000 retrofit “…yields real savings of more than $60 per month, it’s a good investment. As a realtor I can market that because the math benefits the buyer,” said Chris Chopik, a realtor specializing in green real estate sales with Sage Real Estate in Toronto.

“Deep retrofits can deliver top savings – it’s not quick but the returns are there,” said Kevin Behan, deputy director of the Clean Air Partnership, which provided research and tools to facilitate the start-up of HELP.

There are compelling reasons for the city to promote home retrofits. A successful HELP program would advance stated city priorities, such as reducing energy use, meeting greenhouse gas reduction targets and improving the affordability and energy performance of Toronto houses, Iacampo said. The program’s backers also claim that a bump in retrofit work would boost job creation in energy advising, heating, ventilating, air-cooling, insulating and renovating.

"These programs create far more dollars than regular energy projects," said Behan. Every $1 million spent on energy upgrades generates 20 construction jobs. The same $1 million spent on power generation and distribution creates only half as many jobs.

HELP may have some educating to do among the city’s homeowners. Many don’t realize the indoor comfort payoffs of closing air gaps in a building’s outside walls, for example. “Often granite counter tops and kitchen renovations are more sexy improvements to make,” Iacampo said.

Chevalier was thrilled when Ramoul’s audit identified a crack under the deck door as the cause of her chilly bedroom. The solution? Caulking.

"To fix all this," Ramoul said, indicating the many drafts in Chevalier’s house, "you’re looking at less than $100."

Chevalier is one applicant who may not need to take out a HELP loan after all. But HELP organizers are certain that many others do.

Trained as an architect, Michelle Adelman is a fellow in global journalism at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. She writes on architecture and the urban environment with a special focus on human well-being.