How efficient is your house?

Upgrades in houses worth investing for saving in the long run, Sci ’44 manager says

Rick Lawley, certified energy auditor from Amerispec, measures the basement ceiling of 300 Barrie St. He says basement insulation is a big factor in keeping heat in.
Rick Lawley, certified energy auditor from Amerispec, measures the basement ceiling of 300 Barrie St. He says basement insulation is a big factor in keeping heat in.
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Rick Lawley arrives at 300 Barrie St. with a blower fan about half the size of a house door, a ladder and a package of information about saving energy.

On the busy corner of Brock and Barrie streets, the two-storey Ghetto house, has an open space for the living room and kitchen and a rickety, narrow staircase that leads up to three bedrooms upstairs.

Lawley has been a certified energy auditor at Amerispec for five years. He’s conducting an environmental audit on the house to assess its energy efficiency level.

First he measures the outside dimensions of the houses, as well as inside ones. He counts all the windows of the house (there are five), and notes that the house faces east. He will process the information on software called HOT2000, developed by Natural Resources Canada (NRCan), later on—it will assess the house and its statistics, and compare it to other houses of similar size and age to determine its efficiency.

An environmental audit has three parts. The first step is measurement of ceiling dimensions and outside walls and window-counting. Next, Lawley examines all nooks and crannies of the houses, including the furnace, windows, bathroom and attic to check out insulation and the toilet and furnace’s efficiency.

The basement is the main source of heat and air leakage due to its bare foundation.

“You can estimate when this house was built because there are log beams in here,” he says. “Which means that it was at the turn of the century—I’d say, between 1890s and 1915.” Upon examining the furnace in the basement, he labels it “old”—it was made in 1993.

“The life expectancy of a furnace is about 20 to 25 years,” he said. “When it was new, it had about an efficiency of about 80 per cent—now it’s in the mid-70s. That’s 25 cents out the door for every dollar.” He’s happy to see new windows in the apartment—“nice vinyl windows”—but adding that the sealing used on windows may need some upgrading.

Finally, he ends his assessment with a “blower test”— he runs a large fan at different speeds of the front door with all inside doors open, increasing the indoor pressure levels in order to determine air leakage.

“It’s not too bad,” he says, of the air leakage in the house.

However, once he goes to the entrance leading to the basement, he changes his mind. “A lot of it’s coming from the basement,” he says. “You can see the cobwebs moving; the whole area’s sucking air in. It’s not sealed very well.” Once on ground level, he also determines the kitchen door is insufficient for sealing air in. “The bottom is pretty drafty. And feel these outlets,” he says, where cold air escapes from the socket.

“It’s drafty like crazy.” Next, he goes upstairs to examine the status of the attic. The “attic” is actually just a hatch attached to the ceiling—an empty space containing the remains of the house’s original roof.

“There’s no insulation up here,” Lawley says. “It’s basically like having a hole in your ceiling.” “Estimating, I would say this house’s efficiency is at about 25 to 40 per cent,” he says. “It’s typical for the construction material of this time” He said “good” houses for conserving energy are usually at about 70 to 80 per cent efficient, but they also tend to be newer houses built in the last 20 years.

Amerispec, a sub-branch of Servicemaster Canada, performs environmental assessments in houses and makes suggestions for improvements to determine major areas of energy use and waste in homes. Landlords can also apply for grants through the ecoENERGY Retrofit Initiative from Natural Resources Canada, where one can receive up to $5,000 from the federal government towards home improvement. Amerispec is NRCan’s official licenced company to perform environmental audits in houses.

After the audit, Lawley prepares a formal report, making a series of recommendations for upgrades to submit to the homeowner. Should the owner decide to take any steps, he or she can call Amerispec back within 18 months; if the changes increase the efficiency of the house, they can qualify for government grants to subsidize the cost.

The federal government will subsidize up to $5,000 in home upgrades. The Ontario provincial government has also jumped aboard to provide more financial incentives.

“The provincial government jumped on board and said that they’ll match everything that the federal government will pay,” Lawley said. “So what you see here [on the grant pamphlet], just double that.” Lawley said environmental audits are getting more and more popular, especially with government incentives.

“I do this about 15 to 20 times a week,” he said. “If any homeowner is thinking about making upgrades and saving some money in the process, it’s a good program.” When asked what students should watch out for when house hunting, Lawley said the key thing they should examine is the furnace at the potential property.

“If you see a metal pipe that goes out [of the furnace], that’s not a high-efficiency furnace. If you see a 3-metre plastic pipe, that’s a new furnace that runs at about 90 per cent efficiency.” He said students should also take note of water tanks beside the furnace—water tanks running on gas run cheaper than electric, and have a faster recovery time for quicker access to hot water in the shower.

Sonya Vandriel, Nurs ’09 and one of the tenants at 300 Barrie St., said the utility bills for the three-bedroom unit run at about $40 to $60 per person.

“It doesn’t go over $60, I think we paid that much each one month this winter,” she said. She also said she found the audit helpful, and learned a few unexpected things.

“I had no idea that electric outlets could be a source of air leakage,” she said. “It’s also good to know that our toilet is low-flush.” She said that many changes that Lawley recommended seemed more like things that their landlord should pay attention to.

“But since we’re paying for utilities, I’m not sure if he’ll want to make any changes to the furnace.” “I mean, our house is pretty well-kept in ghetto standards, and our [new] windows were a big factor in taking this house.” She said she found the auditing process a valuable experience, not only for knowing the status of their house, but also for the future.

“It’s good to know for the rest of your life—we’ll all be homeowners one day.” ***

Science ’44 co-op housing, a student housing organization providing room and board for 158 Queen’s and St. Lawrence College students, went through Amerispec’s audit process in December 2007.

“We’re doing a lot of work to improve efficiencies of [the co-op] houses,” said Brent Bellamy, general manager of the eight Sci ’44 co-op houses.

There are a number of items available for government grants when they’re upgrading their houses. “For example, many toilets are about 12 to13 litres,” he said. “But the ones they recommend are about six litres or less. If you’re switching your toilet over, you can get a grant [that will subsidize the cost].” Landlords can also apply for grants to replace doors, insulation required in the attic to bring it up to the right level, and for higher-quality boilers, or solar panels.

Bellamy said one thing the houses consistently needed was improvement on air leakage.

“When they return to do a second assessment [within 18 months], if you’ve improved your air leakage, they’ll give you a grant,” Bellamy said.

One of the co-op houses on 366 Albert St. replaced its boiler, which cost $9,000. The new boiler, a combination boiler using one set of energy system to heat both the radiators and tap water system, works at a 93 per cent efficiency rate. Though the combination boiler was more expensive than a regular boiler, which normally costs about $6,000, Bellamy said it would be worth it in the long run because he didn’t need a hot water tank. Of the $9,000, the co-op can receive $1,200 in reimbursement through a grant from NRCan. Though the grant scheme doesn’t cover all the costs, Bellamy said the changes implemented in the house can save money in the long run. “When you’re looking at all these improvements, you’ve got some boilers running at 50 per cent efficiency rate, and some even at 93 per cent efficiency rate. You may get a portion of the cost covered through the amount of reduced cost for your fuel,” Bellamy said.

“You may not have immediate cost recovery, but can get it back in a five-to six-year recovery.” Bellamy said he took the first step in saving energy when they switched all their 500 lightbulbs from incandescent to fluorescent.

“Each one has a life of about 8,000 hours—that’s about four years,” he said. “Over the years, we saved over $10,000 on electricity.” Water-saving taps were also installed on all faucets, and all 58 toilets in the houses were changed to a low-flush, six-litre toilet.

“The problem with water is that it’s cheap,” Bellamy said. “To switch toilets, it costs about [$8,000] to $9,000 just to purchase them. But saving about a million litre of water is saving about $1,000.” Bellamy said he will be receiving quotations from contractors regarding recommended changes in February, and decide what steps must be taken from there.

He said if the houses were to take all recommendations made in the assessment, it would cost about $200,000. Though it seems initially pricey, Bellamy said the cost can be recovered from saving in utilities in the long-run.

“But savings in utilities affect cost of the work,” he said. “You save about $25-30,000 on your utility bill; so even if you take out a loan for the work and pay it back, you keep saving and so it pays itself.”

What your home needs

In an environmental assessment report for 366 Albert St., the following recommendations were made to increase the house’s efficiency level:

Measures:

•Seal the basement header area and increase all of its insulation value

•Replace two toilets with low-flush
dual-flush toilets

•Replace your heating equipment with an Energy Star qualified boiler that has an 85 per cent annual fuel utilization efficiency
or better

•Improve the air tightness of the house by 13 per cent by sealing base boards and corners in walls and the ceiling

Incentive from the federal government:

$100

$100

$600

$150

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