With Heating System Energy Savings, there’s More than Meets the Eye

When it comes to lowering your home heating costs, exactly where you spend your energy-upgrade dollars is the most important decision you’ll make. And the route to success is often more surprising and obscure than meets the eye.

It’s something like this. Imagine you’re on this new Canadian television game show and the spotlight’s on you. You’ve got three hidden home renovation projects listed on large cards in front of you. Only the studio audience sees the numbers on the back showing the widely varying financial yields that each renovation offers. One pays 40% to 80% returns per year, another 20% to 30%, and the last one 5% to 15% per year. Which renovation would you complete first, second and third? Answer correctly and you win an all-expenses paid vacation to a tropical resort every winter for the rest of your life. Answer poorly and you take home a 21 watt energy-saving fluorescent light bulb while a studio technician plays wacky sound effects as you step off stage.

Not so difficult a contest? But wait, there’s one more thing. As you make your decisions you’re also being advised by several vested-interest strangers trying to persuade you to put their card in the number one slot. Not so easy now, is it?

Like most things in life, the truth isn’t always obvious, popular or good looking. And as it turns out, the biggest energy savings dividend could well come from spending money on something hidden, boring and ugly.

Depending on the state of your house, upgrading attic insulation may be the most profitable thing you can do. It’s hard to imagine anything that has a lower glamour quotient than loose-fill insulation, and that’s probably why most people don’t choose it as renovation option #1. But if you want to win the energy savings game, you need to play smarter than that.

Every home in Ontario should have at least R-40s worth of insulation in the attic. More is better. This translates into 8 to 12 inches of fluffy stuff up top, depending on what material was installed in the first place. And at a typical cost of only $500 to $700 to upgrade a 1,000 sq.ft. attic with blown-in fiberglass or cellulose, the pay back on your money can easily exceed 50% per year, each and every heating season until kingdom come. And effective installation is almost guaranteed. As long as enough material is present, you’re okay. Just be sure that the new insulation doesn’t cover any attic vents that may be present along the inside of the eaves of your house.

When Bryan and Jenn Windle moved into a brand new, factory-built home in December 2000, they expected low heating costs and that’s what they got. But even though their oil bill looked pretty good that first winter, there were still big, hidden gains to be made. “I noticed that the ground next to our basement never had any snow on it all winter long,” remembers Bryan. “That proved the need for work in the basement, and I got busy installing floor-to-ceiling insulation on all exterior walls.” The Windles keep close track of heating costs and that one renovation now saves them about 20% each year. Savings like these really add up.

There are some stunning windows on the market these days. In fact, quality has never been better. And although window replacement may be the most prudent energy renovation item you can choose for your home, that’s only true after you’ve covered the more mundane, boring and less expensive bases. But when it finally comes time to choose new windows for your place, check with the Canadian Standards Association (CSA) first. They offer a relatively new performance standard that assesses how effectively specific windows keep out wind and water. You can find a current list of manufacturers with products that meet CSA window standard A440 at http://directories.csa-international.org. Type the code 8029-02 into the Class Number field, then hit Search.

Since any new window is only as good as its installation, you’ll also want to know about another homegrown innovation, the Window Wise program (1-800-813-9616). It’s a Canadian-based training and certification program for window installers. Window Wise also includes random field audits by third-party home inspectors, and independently warrants installation quality for the homeowner up to five years after any work has been done.

For some people, moral conviction is motivation enough to save energy. It simply makes good sense to exercise responsible stewardship of the resources we’ve been given. But for those needing added incentive, I offer something more glamorous. Remember that first-place prize in the energy game show, the tropical week-long holiday you could enjoy every year for the rest of your life? Choose your energy renovations well and that’s really the magnitude of annual savings you could win if your house isn’t currently built to the latest standards. Or how about three free car payments a year, a hot new wardrobe every spring, or a big-screen television each Christmas? With opportunities like these, responsible energy use really is a no-brainer.