Decorating & Design

October 22, 2009

Improve Your Home’s Energy Efficiency

Discover the worst energy wasters and the best ways to fix them to save.

Making your home more energy efficient doesn’t have to cost a bundle. “I’ve seen people put $7,000 into new windows, when spending $10 to fix a gap under the front door would have yielded more energy savings,” says Bill Whiting, an assessor with Greensaver, a non-profit organization in Ontario that does in-home energy assessments. Here are some fast fixes that can work in your home.

Improve Walls

The problem: “The average 50-year-old home loses a third of its energy through air leakage,” says William Kemp, author of Smart Power and The Renewable Energy Handbook. The culprits? Small holes and cracks in walls, and gaps around baseboards, sockets and attic hatches. “Most homes have enough cracks, leaks and crevices to add up to a basketball-sized hole,” says Vladan Veljovic, president and CEO of Greensaver.

What to do: A blower door test, conducted during an energy audit, is the best way to find air leakage areas. Sockets can be lined with foam for as little as $20 for an entire house. Small cracks can be caulked (about $4 per tube of caulking) and larger ones filled with foam (a $5 can should do the whole house).

Expected savings: 20 to 30 per cent of energy costs is standard (depends on number and severity of leaks and accessibility of cracks).

Upgrade Windows & Doors

The problem: Gaps around old, ill-fitting windows and doors let cold air in and warm air out, as does the glass on single-glazed windows.

What to do: In most cases, it’s not cost-effective to replace windows (their cost is high compared with potential energy savings). Instead, caulk windowsills and cover panes with heat-shrinkable plastic in winter (less than $20 for a few windows). Weatherstripping reduces drafts around doors ($25 per door). If you do opt for new windows, expect to pay $500 to $1,000 per window. Look for double-glazed windows with low-E glass and argon gas fill.

Expected savings: About $3 to $5 per window per year.

Insulate Your Attic

The problem: Attics, especially in older homes, often lack sufficient insulation (12” or more) and a vapour barrier to decrease drafts. Homes built in the 1960s typically have about 3” of insulation, while older homes could have even less and no vapour barrier.

What to do: Lay or blow in new insulation ($200 to $2,000 depending on ease of access; not all older homes have a hatch to the attic). If there’s no opening, an auditor can drill a small hole to check for insulation thickness. Make sure any attic access is well sealed and a vapour barrier is installed or warm, moist air can blow through insulation, possibly causing mold. Ensure insulation isn’t blocking recessed lights in the ceiling below, creating a fire hazard.

Expected savings: Up to 30 per cent in older homes, but fixing the problem may not be worth the cost if there’s no access.

Improve Your Lighting

The problem: Standard incandescent lightbulbs are inefficient.

What to do: “Replacing all incandescents with compact fluorescents (CFLs; $3 per bulb) is the easiest way to reduce energy costs,” says Kemp. Install dimmer switches on CFLs (only certain types are dimmable) and any remaining incandescent bulbs indoors. Put outdoor lights on timers.

Expected savings: $100 to $200/year.

Boost Your Fireplace

The problem: The damper doesn’t close tightly, so heat escapes when the fireplace isn’t in use. “Leaving the damper open is equivalent to having an open window,” says Whiting.

What to do: Check for damper efficiency during a blower door test. If there is leakage, a Wood Energy Technology Transfer (WETT) certified fireplace technician can install an airtight, spring-loaded damper (about $300). If you don’t use the fireplace, consider sealing the opening with drywall.

Expected savings: $30 to $100/year.

Improve Heating Vents

The problem: Some vents blow too weakly while others are too forceful, resulting in a temperature imbalance: excess heat on a home’s main level and insufficient heat upstairs.

What to do: Test vents by placing a garbage bag with a cardboard rim over each vent and timing how long it takes to fill with air. Three to five seconds is normal; vents that fill faster are sucking air from the rest of the house. To slow them down, partially close the damper to direct air to less-efficient areas. If vents on upper floors are too slow, consider installing an additional cold-air return ($500 to $1,500) to redirect more air upstairs.

Expected savings: Variable: the main reason for changing airflow is for comfort.

Upgrade Appliances & Electronics

The problem: Refrigerators and washing machines made prior to 1990 are not energy efficient. Energy is also wasted by computers left in standby mode and TVs and stereos turned off by remote (these still use energy), causing what are referred to as phantom loads.

What to do: Consider upgrading to a high-efficiency fridge ($650 and up) and frontloading washing machine ($900 and up). (New stoves, dishwashers and dryers may not be worth the replacement costs in terms of energy savings.) Turn off electronics or plug them into a power bar that can be fully switched off.

Expected savings: $200 to $250/year.

Improve Your Air Conditioner, Furnace & Water Heater

The problem: They all use lots of energy; the air conditioner is typically the biggest consumer of power in most homes. In many cases, however, it doesn’t pay to replace these big-ticket items unless there’s a secondary problem with the unit.

What to do: Reduce the need for air conditioning by installing energy-efficient ceiling fans. Programmable thermostats (about $50 and up) save heat or air conditioning power when you’re sleeping or not home. When it’s time for a new furnace (they typically last 25 to 30 years), choose the highest efficiency model available ($1,400 to $4,000; new central air costs an additional $1,500 to $3,000). The greenest option is ground source heating, also known as geothermal ($18,000 to $40,000 installed). When it’s time to replace a water heater (every 15 years), consider an on-demand unit ($1,000 to $2,500 installed), which costs 60 per cent less to run. Until then, launder in cold water and install low-flow showerheads and aerator faucets, which mix air and water to give less flow but maintain high pressure.

Expected savings: About 30 to 40 per cent increase in efficiency; switching to a geothermal energy system will cut costs by 300 to 500 per cent.

Author: Nancy Lepatourel

Mark Burstyn