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Don't waste your energy

Home audits can slash those heating bills
By MARYANNA LEWYCKYJ, The Toronto Sun, November 30, 2003.

If you had a pizza-sized hole in the side of your home, you'd patch it up, pronto. But even if you can't see daylight through the faulty seals scattered throughout your home, they can be sucking energy from your home at an alarming rate. "If you put it all together, the average air leakage area in a Toronto house is enough for a St. Bernard to jump through," says Keir Brownstone, general manager of Green$aver, a not-for-profit company that conducts energy audits. "It's the equivalent of opening a second-floor window all winter long."

With natural gas prices up from year-ago rates and the McGuinty government scrapping the old cap on electricity rates, consumers may be wondering how they can keep energy costs from going through the roof next year.

One approach is to hire an energy audit firm, which will send an expert to your home to ferret out hidden energy thieves.

"The impediment for most people is they don't know where to start," says Ian Maclellan, who operates the online price-comparison service EnergyShop.com. "An energy audit gives you a game plan."

Homeowners may also fear that they'll have to shell out thousands of dollars to see any big payback.

"There are a lot of no-cost and low-cost things you can do to conserve," says Maclellan.

And if you do end up shelling out serious money, the federal government may help you pick up the tab through a grant program introduced Oct. 15.

Brownstone says most Toronto homes, especially older ones, score about 50 points (out of a maximum 100) on the EnerGuide scale after an energy audit. A home that improves from 62 points to 73 points would be eligible for federal grant of $619.

However, Brownstone says improvements of 30 points are not unusual.

"With the incentive program, it's not how much money you spend, it's how many points you move up on the scale," says Brownstone.

Homeowners worried they'll have to replace their furnace and/or windows to get ahead may be pleasantly surprised.

"Most of the time the big problems with houses, in terms of energy consumption, are not huge outlays of money," explains Brownstone. "Topping up insulation is generally under $1,000, depending on the size of the house."

Green$aver has visited older homes with such primitive insulating materials as sawdust and even horsehair.

To perform an energy audit, Green$aver visits a home with a smoke pencil, a computer and a blower door. A fan system on the blower door lightly de-pressurizes the home and feeds information into a computer software program.

By going around the house, the audit can spot causes of energy waste. A Green$aver audit costs $200 (including a followup visit if work is done) and takes about three hours.

The homeowner is given a list of problems and solutions.

Air leaks are a common flaw. Homeowners may think of caulking around windows and sealing drafts around doors but they can overlook other areas. Baseboards, attics and plumbing chases are also common sources of major air leakage.

Of course, big-ticket items are also evaluated in an audit.

"With furnaces 15 years or older, about 40% of the natural gas you're buying is not being used to heat the home, it's just rising up the flue," says Brownstone. "As gas prices rise, that's a lot of money to be throwing away."

Maclellan recently replaced a 15-year-old fridge that cost $150 a year to run, with a bigger, more modern fridge that eats up only $42 worth of electricity a year.

Some of the changes recommended by an energy audit -- such as insulation upgrades -- not only help keep a home warmer in the winter, they keep it cooler in the summer.

Brownstone doesn't expect homeowners to shiver in the winter or swelter in the summer to save energy. "If you make your home more energy efficient, you end up with a more comfortable home and you end up saving money," he says.

"Unlike the stock market, it's not hard to get a 10% annual return on your investment."

ENERGY-SAVING SAVVY

- In order to qualify for federal grant money for home repairs, you must have an energy audit.

- Details of the grant program, including a list of energy audit firms, can be found at http://oee.nrcan.gc.ca

- To compare prices for natural gas and get energy-saving tips, visit www.energyshop.com

- If you're replacing appliances, the Ontario government has extended the PST rebate for high-efficiency models until March 31.

- In a typical home, about 54% of energy costs are tied up in heating and cooling and 20% in hot water.

- Fix defective plumbing. A single dripping hot-water faucet can waste 212 gallons of water a month, boosting not only your water bill, but your electricity costs.