Net Zero House

We toured a net zero house in Calgary. The house was built in 1984, and fully renovated a year ago.

They re-insulated the outside, with a spray-on vapour barrier and 4″ of insulation, coated with a finish. The windows were replaced with triple-paned windows.

The gas furnace was replaced with a heat pump, and a second heat pump for the new water tank. They hooked up to existing electrical, duct work and plumbing. The heat pump can heat or cool, but they rarely use air conditioning, as the house doesn’t heat up much in the summer.

Solar panels were installed on the garage roof. The panels produce more power than the house uses in summer, and is fed back into the grid. In winter, they buy power, at the same price as they sell it. They pay a monthly fee for the meter and access to the grid. In their first year they produced slightly more power than they used.

They expected the project to pay for itself in 25 years, but with the Alberta carbon tax coming in 2017, that payout will drop to perhaps 15 years, and continue dropping as power prices climb.

Next, they want to install another set of solar panels on the house roof, for an electric car.

We found it useful to actually see the heat pump in the utility room, with a second unit outside. The simplicity of the change from gas furnace was surprising and encouraging. We’re still waiting for some more price shifts, but we’re getting closer.

August: Odds and Bits

In August we worked on odds and bits related to previous months.

Natural Gas

We’re digging through a list of repairs: insulation, cracks in the walls, leaks around windows. We’re hoping for a payoff this winter, with a better-sealed house.

We turned our water heater down one notch. It was fine. Two notches and we still had hot showers. With guests coming we debated turning it up then decided to leave it as is and test on the visitors. It was fine. When they left we turned it down again, and that’s when the cold showers started. We now know exactly the lowest setting to leave it on, except when we turn it right down when we’re away.

Electricity

We had a 5% drop by April, followed by a huge spike, reflecting Maureen’s need for filters and air conditioning in the summer. We tested each filter and swapped which rooms they’re in, so the most efficient is the most used. Except we forgot about the filter in the basement that runs constantly. We’ll check that one, too, and swap it for something most efficient, if it’s an old one.

There was another spike in winter. We wondered if it was more than just weather related. Christmas? Last year we had no house guests, and surely we don’t bake enough to make a difference. We tested our Christmas lights and found an insignificant load. Still, we’ll switch to solar lights for outdoors when our LEDs die, and we got rid of our old incandescent strings.

We’re washing most of our laundry in cold water, and have noticed no difference whatsoever in the clothes. They’re still clean enough.

We rejigged some power bars. The stereo is now kept powered down (it was the biggest ghost power drain).

We turned off everything while we were away. The neighbour watching our house texted it was hot and he’d cranked up the air conditioning. “No, no!,” Mark texted back. “We’re trying to keep our power use down!” “Just giving you a carbon scare,” the neighbour replied. So that’s a thing now – carbon pranking. Thanks Terrance.

Lights

We still find lights left on. That’s our mindfulness practice – noticing. The halogen spotlights in the kitchen are starting to die, so we’ll switch them to LEDs.

Solar

We realized if our utility went to renewables, we could skip solar panels entirely. In the meantime, we’re drooling over the idea of solar roof shingles. Hopefully they’ll be a reasonable option the next time hail destroys our roof.Elon Musk announces Solar Roof Product

Garden

We planted a new tree. It promptly died. Well, not quite. Leaves died, tree’s alive. We’re watching it set out little tiny new buds, and hoping it survives.

We found some biochar. Maureen had heard about it, but didn’t know where to buy it in Calgary. Here’s the blurb on biochar from airterra. http://www.airterra.ca/

Biochar is a high carbon content, charcoal-like material, made by heating plant matter to temperatures above 400 degrees C in a low- to no-oxygen environment. Biochar is valuable as a soil restructuring agent that enhances plant growth and health by improving the following soil characteristics: moisture retention, nutrient retention, provision of a beneficial microbe habitat, and soil pliability. Nutrients that are adsorbed onto the surface of biochar’s porous structure become more readily available to plants through an enhanced ionic exchange capacity. The introduction of biochar into soils provides a home for beneficial microbes to thrive. These beneficial microbes stimulate mycorrhizal fungi, which in turn help plants thrive through improved plant root health. Furthermore, the amendment of biochar into soils is a means by which carbon is removed from the atmosphere. This also increases soil organic carbon.

We’re trying it both as a carbon sink, and to test for improved garden growth. We worked lots into the soil around the new tree. Yes, the one that died. So – we’ll report back on how that’s going.

In anticipation of October’s focus on food, we’re getting to the farmer’s market more consistently for local food, and putting up a little for winter treats. Yummm.

For September we’ll move on to transportation.

 

February: Heating the House

We’re assuming anyone reading this blog is already convinced we need to act on climate change. For anyone who wants to know more, or wants to see Al Gore be positive (really!), check out this February 2016 TED talk. Al says we’re gonna make it. After watching this, we feel even more determined to dig deep and see what changes we can make.  http://www.ted.com/talks/al_gore_the_case_for_optimism_on_climate_change#t-147031

I (Maureen) plant for early, early blooms, because I particularly love that. My first flowers usually bloom at the end of March (one year in three), or the first week of April (two years out of three). This year my first flowers (a bunch of snowdrops) were in full bloom on February 26. As a gardener, I’m thrilled. As an inhabitant of planet Earth, I’m horrified at the damage we’re causing.

And so – to work.

In February we took a closer look at our natural gas consumption.

Step 1. Test for drafts

Requirements: 1 stick of incense, a small bowl to tap the ash into, a flashlight, a notebook and a pen. Price: $0.00.

Recommendations: Do not do it within days of dental surgery. The incense made Mark a little woozy. We turned off the furnace and turned on the fans that vent to outside to create negative air pressure in the house. A windy day might help. Body movement creates drafts, so wait a moment after moving to let air currents settle down. Bright light makes it harder to see the smoke, but in the darkest corners a flashlight is required.

Usefulness: Smoke from the incense stick was much more sensitive than our hands for finding drafts. Both were better than our guesses of where the drafts were coming from (um…that would be places we can see light shining through).

We had some ideas of what was drafty, so we knew where to start. We found some surprises (of course), including a cobweb collected by the incense stick (which thankfully did not catch fire). Our lovely fifteen-year-old double paned argon-filled reproduction wood sash windows have some problems with weather-stripping. We mapped out the drafty spots in awkward sketches in the notebook.

We found a few drafts around the front and back doors (not as much as we expected), and some of the power plugs are drafty, though not all of them. Years ago we put in those little insulation things you put in power plugs (Google says it’s an electrical outlet and light switch plate draft stopper foam gasket). We’ll need to check on some of them.

We’re also curious about the roof (the snow-melt pattern tells us there are warmer and cooler patches). Our back entry is cold and drafty in nasty weather (it’s a lean-to added after the house was built, long before we owned it). Mark suspects there are some air leaks in our dugout basement that houses the furnace (this is ladder and flashlight land where Maureen dares not venture because allergies).

Step 2: Furnace and Water Heater Efficiency

The furnace is rated at 92% efficiency. This is officially high-efficiency but not brilliant. Best available is 97%.

The water heater has an EF rating of .59 (no idea what that measures). The Energuide range for new water heaters ranges from .52 (worst), to .80 (best). Ours is sitting firmly on the low end. Now we know – when the water heater dies, have a chat with the electrician about energy efficiency before he installs a new tank.

Step 3: The Energy Assessment

Thursday, February 11 Kerry Webb from Calgary Thermal Vision spent the morning inspecting our house with a thermal camera. Price $315, including GST.  www.calgarythermalvision.com

The biggest hassle was moving furniture and pictures 18” away from exterior walls the evening before, to let the wall temperature adjust. It was a challenge to keep the house functional, while we shuffled furniture in crowded rooms, and piled all the extras in our offices.

It’s a good thing we didn’t rent a thermal camera on our own – we would have had no idea what we were looking at. Having a knowledgeable guy attached to the camera was very good. Kerry inspected the entire house, inside and out, including the dugout basement. There are lots of small things we can work on, but there was nothing horrific. He gave us tips on how to tackle the problem areas.

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The photos are of the west side of our house, with a regular camera and a thermal camera. Kerry says all houses will show some heat loss along the base of the house. The important thing is the temperature difference. By insulating along the rim joist we can reduce the amount of heat loss. That’s probably the biggest task we’re going to tackle. Well, not we. Mark will. Maureen does not venture into the basement.

The back entry is cold because it has no foundation. More insulation won’t fix that. The roof insulation isn’t brilliant, but because of the oddities of how the house is constructed brilliant isn’t possible. This is not where we’re going to make great gains. The windows have some gaps in weather-stripping we need to repair. There’s a cold spot on my office ceiling that has no explanation – we’ll check the eavestroughing outside that window to see if there’s a leak. Mark is insulating around the dryer vent and the old gas pipe that’s been cut off and plugged but not insulated. We’ll put some insulation in the no-longer-used, incorrectly-installed cable outlet that’s drafty.

There was nothing here desperate for attention, and nothing worth putting a lot of money into. This was a huge surprise, but perhaps it shouldn’t have been, as we know our gas consumption is lower than average.

And so, in our quest to find the changes that will give us the biggest bang for our buck, March will be all about electricity. We’ll check our appliances and try to break down our electricity use, looking for the most efficient changes to make.