Walter Franczyk looks at soaring electricity bills and seesawing natural gas prices that are spurring home energy conservation like never before.
In the past five years, Ontario’s hydro rates have jumped 50 per cent for off-peak power and 77 per cent for on-peak energy. During the same period, natural gas prices have bounced year-to-year and currently sit at 24-30 per cent lower than in 2010. But last year, one major gas company was charging twice as much as it did in 2015.
Home heating takes the biggest bite of home energy in Canada
Heating is where homeowners can best pare expenses. Keeping cold out and heat in is the most basic and cost-effective method.
Improving your home’s thermal envelope
The walls, windows and doors, with insulation, weatherstripping and caulking can cut heating bills. Double pane windows and insulated doors also help. “The best way you can save energy in a home is the envelope,” says Dale Tebby, owner of Team Tebby Air Conditioning and Heating. “Insulation is the best place to spend your money. There’s no question about that,” says Tebby, a home heating expert for 48 years. “If you get your heat loss on the structure low enough, it doesn’t matter how you heat it. It’s cheap.”
Small and inexpensive, a programmable thermostat
That automatically turns heat down at night or when a family is out of the house can cut energy bills by as much as 10 per cent, Ontario Hydro estimates. There are other solutions, ranging from tried and true wood burning technology to modern gadgets that can tap solar energy or smarten up home and its occupants.
A clean-burning, energy efficient wood stove or fireplace
Can save money on home heating, says Shelley Wallace, co-owner of Fireplace & Leisure Centre. “Even using your wood burning appliance in just the two coldest months of the year, January and February, you can save up to 40 per cent of your annual heating costs,” she says. A reliable firewood supplier, she says, is essential to get wood in a timely fashion and dried properly or delivered early enough to be stacked and dried before the heating season. The cost of a wood stove and installation varies, depending on the type of stove, difficulty of installation and chimney height. “A full system, including product and installation, would range from $4,500 to $15,000,” Wallace says.
Harnessing sunshine to make electricity can help to offset electrical bills.
Under Ontario’s MIcroFIT program, homeowners can get a 20-year contract to produce solar energy and sell it to the power grid. Stuart Watt, general manager of Paid4Power, a firm that installs solar panel systems, estimates the average cost of a MicroFit project at $36,000. He predicts it will generate gross income of about $80,000 over 20 years. “These systems pay themselves off after approximately seven and a half years,” he says.
Net metering is another method using almost the same technology. It has a two-directional meter that credits a homeowner’s hydro bill with the solar energy produced for the grid, effectively lowering the monthly electricity bill. “While it is impossible to eliminate the bill completely, a properly sized system can lower the bill by as much as 95 per cent,” Watt says. These systems pay for themselves after about 10 years, he predicts.
For those who want complete electrical energy independence, an off-the-grid solar power system that stores electricity in batteries costs an average of $55,000 and takes about 20 years to pay for itself.
If a home furnace is 15 years old or older, replacing it with a high-efficiency Energy Star model
This can save more than 30 per cent of annual heating costs, manufacturers estimate.
Tebby’s heating company goes even further. “We wouldn’t sell you a furnace that wasn’t way better than Energy Star,” says the owner. “What we’re selling now typically is 96 per cent efficient – two-stage furnaces that have an electronically controlled, variable speed motor. We consider that a bare minimum,” Tebby says. “That’s what’s going to give everybody the best bang for their buck both in comfort and energy.”
Don’t scrimp on the cost of the furnace itself.
“Someone who insists on a cheaper furnace might save $100, but will promptly pay that saving to Ontario Hydro or a fuel supplier within a year” Tebby warns.
For homeowners who want to control more than heat, smart technology, such as the Control 4 system, is an option. These systems can regulate thermostats, manage lights adjust the blinds or draw the curtains. If the garage door is left open, the system can alert the homeowner and then shut it. It can turn off all the TVs in the house, lock doors and set alarms – all controlled from a touch screen, computer or cell phone, anywhere in the world.