What would you say if I told you that your home acted more like a sieve than a seal? Despite all the information on the market, experts across North America agree: most home owners are oblivious to how much energy is really seeping out of their home. Even pro-active home owners, or residents of custom- and new-built homes, can’t escape this endemic heat loss.
But I read about the importance of insulation, you say. And, one cool-weather weekend this last fall, you and your friends climbed into your home’s rafters and added more insulation. It’s all good. Right?
Not so fast, says Mark Pervan, owner of Henge Homes Inc., a custom renovation and rebuild firm in Toronto. “Adding more insulation will help, but it won’t eliminate the real problem,” he explains. To create a sealed, energy efficient home, you need to make sure you don’t skip steps. “Building codes require contractors to build according to safety and minimum heat and energy efficiency standards,” says Pervan, “but a few extra steps can really make the difference between meeting standards and a sealed, energy-efficient home.”
The good news is the process of creating a truly heat efficient home isn’t expensive or arduous. So we decided to talk to the experts and dig a little deeper to create the Ultimate Guide to a Heat Efficient Home. By following these steps you’ll not only create a well-sealed home, you’ll also dramatically reduce your energy bill—in some cases by as much as 40%.
Just a warning: There’s a lot of information here, so I broke it up into manageable installments. First we focus on the cheapest and most-obvious ways to create a heat efficient home. The next piece will focus on more advanced, DIY ways to increase heat efficiency in your home, including sealing gaps and adding insulation. The third installment in this series will offer technology and decorating options that will actually help increase your home’s heat and energy efficiency. The fourth installment will provide a synopsis of the more expensive heat efficiency upgrades, including duct sealing and in-wall blown insulation, while the fifth installment will focus solely on tips to increase your home’s energy efficiency.
Step 1: The Furnace
You’ve read it. You’ve been told. You even have it scheduled in your calendar. But is furnace maintenance—including regularly changing your furnace filter—really that important when it comes to your home’s heat efficiency? “Absolutely,” says Pervan.
Your furnace is a machine that relies on a number of different components in order to work. If one part is broken, or clogged, it can impact the entire system. In extreme circumstances, this can mean catastrophic furnace failure. But long before this even occurs your furnace will struggle, become less efficient and, as a result, your heating bills will rise.
The easiest solution: change your furnace filters and schedule inspections regularly.
“A clogged filter is like sucking air through a cotton ball,” and puts lots of unnecessary stress on furnace parts, says Pervan. An easy remedy is to change the furnace filter once every two or three months.
For a furnace less than 10 years old, you can get away with a certified inspection every two years. For older furnaces, schedule annual inspections but pay attention to what’s covered. “There’s no standard when it comes to furnace inspections,” says Pervan. To compare apples to apples make sure you know the expertise of the inspector and find out exactly what’s included.
Step 2: Hot water tank
The next task is the hot water tank. For most Canadians, the desire for hot water is just a twist of a tap away. In fact, Canadians are considered some of the highest, per capita, users of hot water worldwide. And it shows. Standard electric hot water tanks account for as much as 15% of our home’s energy use—with the average household paying about $550 each year just to heat their water; 25% to 45% (or approximately $140 to $250) is used just to maintain your home’s hot water at a constant temperature.
A permanent way to reduce your electricity bill would be to swap out your electric hot water tank for a gas-heated tank—but at a one time cost of $600 or more, this is a pricey endeavour. Another option is to buy a hot water insulation blanket (in Ontario, you can find them for $25 to $50 at your local Rona stores). It takes the average home owner less than an hour to install and will save you almost $150 per year off your hydro bill.
Another quick and easy way to make your home more heat and energy efficient is to turn the down on your hot water heater. The rule of thumb: for every 5 degree Celsius reduction you make on the hot water tank thermostat, you’ll save 3% to 5% on your energy costs. Ideally, professionals suggest setting the tank’s thermostat to 49 degree Celsius (120 degrees Farenheit).
While you’re in the furnace room, consider insulating your hot water plumbing pipes. Pipe insulation starts at $1.50 per piece, is easy to install, and a quick way to decrease heat loss in your water.
Step 3: Move furniture
We forget that even simple steps can make a home heat efficient. For instance, my front vestibule is where we all stop to take off our boots and our hats, and hang up our coats. To make this process easier, we use an old wooden chest as a bench. Aesthetically, this chest-come-bench looks best positioned directly underneath the coat rack my husband lovingly crafted (and presented to me for a Christmas present last year). But positioned there, the bench blocks a rather large heat register. Last winter, I didn’t think anything of this, but in the process of researching heat efficient homes, I came across this simple statement: Make sure you remove all furniture that blocks heat registers. Sound pretty obvious, right? So I did it. And what a difference! Now, our front vestibule is toasty and warm and the bench is still there to be used, even if if it’s not as aesthetically pleasing.
Step 4: Plug big holes (that includes the fireplace)
Another obvious and simple heat efficient step is to make sure your fire place damper works and that you use glass doors or other non-flammable materials to prevent heat from escaping up the chimney. Don’t think it makes a big difference? You’re wrong. According to This Old House expert, John Wagner, an open fireplace damper lets out the same amount of heated air as a wide-open 48-inch window. If you still can’t picture this kind of heat loss, then I challenge you to open up a bedroom window for half an hour. In the dead of winter, I bet it won’t take you the full 30 minutes to notice the dramatic heat loss—and how much harder your furnace has to work to heat your home.
For those that really love a fire, consider installing glass fireplace doors or a high-efficiency insert. That’s because old-fashioned brick and mortar fireplaces are actually one of the most inefficient ways to heat a house. The crackling fire may be great for ambience, but it’s murder on the heating bills. That’s because every hour, approximately 20,000 cubic feet of heated air is sucked up the chimney only to be replaced by cold air. It’s a process known as the “stack effect”—warm air rises, increasing air pressure in the home, the pressure difference prompts a vacuum effect, that sucks cold air from the outside into the home. It’s the reason why older homes feel so drafty—so many holes that let out the hot air and suck in the cool air. To prevent your chimney from sucking out all your warm air, use glass doors, an inflatable draft-stopper balloon or install an insert. Balloon draft stoppers are the most cost-effective ($80 on Amazon.ca), with glass doors the next best option (cheapest ones start at $270). However, an insert will not only stop drafts (it has a sealed compartment for the fire, that you can close when not in use), but will make your fireplace more efficient.
My husband and I were fortunate enough to buy a home with two working fireplaces—one with a high efficiency insert. New, the insert with blower would’ve set us back $1,200 or more, not including the metal liner, which needs to be installed in a masonry chimney to prevent fires (flex liners start at $370, while rigid liners kits start at $180—check to see which one is required for your fireplace insert). While the inserts are more expensive, they do prevent heated air loss and they turn your fireplace into a secondary heating unit. Our insert is in our basement den and, when blazing, provides enough warms to heat approximately 1,500 square feet of space. (I must confess, we often turn the heat down at night just to be comfortable when the fire insert is blazing!)
Step 5: No A/C in the winter
Another no-brainer is to remove your window or portable air conditioner units as soon as the cold weather starts. Skip this step and your house will act like a chimney, with all your hot air escaping through gaps where your air-conditioner is installed (and right through your a/c unit as well!). “Window A/C units are drafty,” says Pervan, “and left in during winter, they’ll suck the hot air right out of your house.” Ideally, you’ll want to remove the A/C unit and replace the window. That will ensure no heat loss. If, however, removing the A/C unit isn’t possible, then consider investing in an insulated jacket. This cover slips over the back (external part) of the air conditioner and blocks cold air from escaping. “The jackets are hard to find, and they don’t create a seal so you’ll still have drafts, but it’s better than nothing,” says Pervan.
Next up: sealing spaces and thermal barriers