Save energy, save money

Improving your home’s energy efficiency can involve costly retrofits, but there are lots of easy ways to save on energy bills and reduce your carbon footprint

Students living in leaky old houses can expect to pay hefty utility bills this winter, but small changes around the house can make a big difference. (Photo by Christine Blais)

Students living in the Ghetto often face enormous utility bills due to the inefficiency of their old houses. However, there are ways to conserve heat and electricity.

Romy Bauer, a Kingston landlord, actively works with her tenants to help them be more environmentally friendly. She has retrofitted all five of her properties with high-efficiency furnaces, additional insulation and low-flush toilets. “The choices were both environmental and economic,” Bauer said. “It’s just one of those things that you make up your mind about. Invest money into it and upgrade the house.”

Bauer said her own home in the country is fitted with a geo-thermal furnace, which isn’t used often in city homes because it needs a network of water pipes underground that take up space. Geo-thermal furnaces are probably the most efficient way to heat a home, Bauer said.

“My water well works as my supply of heat. I saved 70 to 80 per cent of my fuel costs last winter. For some houses in the city, if the property is big enough, loops of plastic can be inserted really deep into the ground vertically instead of horizontally. As the water circulates through it takes the heat from the earth. The hot water pipes heat up the air, which is blown into the house through fans.”

Bauer suggested students ask their landlords about retrofitting their homes. With Ontario government programs that help pay for replacing energy-guzzling old furnaces, improving insulation and completing other retrofits, landlords can improve the efficiency of their homes at much lower costs.

“The energy programs are on right now. You can pick incentives through [the Government of Ontario] and that offset the high costs for me. I installed [high efficiency furnaces] last year. It saved me a lot of money.” Bauer cautions against being too pushy, though. One inexpensive change is installing a programmable thermostat, which costs between 50 and 60 dollars. Even if the landlord’s unwilling to retrofit the house, this can still make a difference.

“I encourage my tenants to replace lightbulbs with fluorescent lightbulbs,” Bauer said.

Cutting down on small luxury appliances can also make a big difference. Many beauty aids, for example, use an enormous amount of electricity and should be used minimally, Bauer said.

“If I saw either of my daughters using a hair dryer or straightener I’d throw it out the window,” she said. “Beauty is one thing, but [those appliances] draw over 1500 watts an hour. They also blow fuses in older homes.”

Environmental Studies professor Ryan Danby said although there’s often a trade-off between saving money and being good to the environment, there are some win-win opportunities.

“Something as fundamental as turning down the thermostat is going to save students money. Students can’t pay for a more efficient heater. If the student can arrange with the landlord for a programmable thermostat that would be a nice trade-off.”

Danby said electric space heaters are one of the biggest mistakes students make.

“Even though you’re only heating a small area of the house instead of the whole house, you’re drawing a lot of electricity,” he said. “It’s not tying into your heating if you’re using gas, but it’s still putting CO2 into the environment somewhere. … It may end up being that having the thermostat at a higher temperature is a better thing, total picture wise, than having a space heater.”

Danby also suggested students turn down their thermostats and hot water heaters if they’re going away for the holidays. The hot water heater has a separate thermostat that should be set much lower if you’re not using the water, he said.

“There is no need to heat water to 120 degrees if no one’s going to be using it for three weeks. Just turn it down to 80, 70. Don’t turn them off because your pipes could break.”

Passive solar energy is another way to help your heating bill. By opening curtains during the day and closing them at night, the house heats a little when the sun’s out and the energy is contained at night, which can make a big difference for some houses, Danby said.

The eco-friendly bathroom ethos

Clean as a whistle

Bathrooms aren’t just where you go to get clean—they need to be clean themselves. But with all those harsh chemicals going down the drain, the planet won’t look so hot after we’re done washing up. Biodegradable soaps help make the water running down our drains less toxic for the earth. Many certified biodegradable shampoos, conditioners, soaps and cleaners are available at any drug store. If biodegradable products aren’t available.

For cleaning tubs and sinks, use a combination of baking soda, biodegradable soap and your favourite essential oil. They’ll come out smelling lovely with no nasty residue. Stains on shower curtains can be removed using vinegar or lime juice. Both are biodegradable and leave a fresh smell.

Appeasing the green porcelain gods

The Ontario government subsidizes the purchase of efficient six litre toilets that use about half the water as older ones. Ask your landlord about replacing old toilets in the house. Another more efficient alternative is the dual-flush toilet. Widely used in Australia and other countries, these toilets have two flush modes for solids and liquids, each using different amounts of water. Solids, of course, require more water.

If you don’t want to switch toilets, there’s a simple rule you might have learned at the cottage that follows the same logic: ‘If it’s brown, flush it down. If it’s yellow, let it mellow.’ It’s probably a good idea to clear this up with roommates before letting your number ones mellow, though, in case flush prudence isn’t a familiar concept.

For the extreme green, switching to a water-free toilet may be the best option. These toilets compost your waste into a corn flake-like substance rather than flushing it down with water. Less water usage and putting your poop to biological use? That sounds like a sustainable plan.

Bathroom waters run deep

The days of long showers and hot baths are over. Now’s the time to cut back on water usage as much as possible. Limit your showers to a few minutes and consider installing a low-flow showerhead. These can reduce the number of litres of water used per minute by more than 50 per cent. Another device called the air shower has emerged on the market. The device attaches to your showerhead and pumps every droplet with air, making them feel bigger while using less water.

As for other water usage, take your time washing your hands, brushing your teeth or shaving, but don’t leave the tap running while doing it.

The trusty three Rs
Set up three bins in the bathroom for garbage: one for regular waste, one for recycling and one for the green bin. Soiled paper products can go in the green bin to create valuable compost, while most shampoo and lotion bottles can be recycled. Setting up bins will increase the likelihood that waste won’t make it to the landfill. If every house did this, think of how much recycling and compost would be rescued.

But generating less waste altogether is what we should be striving for. Choose products with less packaging or packaging that can be recycled. Many bathroom products have wrappers and come in boxes that serve no purpose and just end up in the garbage. Also avoid products like one and done toilet cleaners. Ever heard of a spray bottle and vinegar?

Look for shower curtains that don’t use PVC plastic. PVC emits chemicals in your house, can’t be recycled once it’s worn out and leaks chemicals that get into our water system and aren’t removed. Stores like Ikea sell alternatives.

As for all those paper products (cotton pads, tissues, paper towels and toilet paper), most of that can be bought in post-consumer recycled form. Replace paper towels and disposable wipes with reusable rags. You’ll make the ShamWow guy really happy.

—Ashleigh Ryan


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