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Deep Energy Retrofits

Deep Energy Retrofits

By Jenn Danko

When it comes to making deep energy renovations to existing homes, Einar Halbig is well-versed in cutting costs. The certified energy adviser and CEO of E3 Eco Group, a Vancouver-based residential energy-efficiency and sustainability consulting firm, helps homeowners reduce their energy consumption by 50 percent or more and save money off their energy bills by determining the most beneficial upgrades for their homes.

For Halbig, the breakthrough came in 2003 when he became acquainted with the concept of computer-modeling the energy efficiency of a house.

"I spent the next four years visiting over 2,000 homes across the Lower Mainland area—evaluating the homes and educating homeowners about what would make the most sense to upgrade," says Halbig, a member of the Greater Vancouver Home Builders' Association (GVHBA). "I once figured that the combined effect of what my clients ended up doing to their homes netted them over $1 million in government grant money and created a reduction in green house gas (ghg) emissions of over 1,000 tonnes per year."

Nearly a decade later, the savings continue to stack up yielding larger and larger annual dollar savings as energy prices rise, Halbig says. But not all contractors are aware of the ways their clients can trim energy bills. So what can you do to educate clients on the cost savings of deep energy retrofits? And how much can they realistically expect to save?

The right fit

A client's interest in deep energy upgrades often stems from government incentives, says Richard Kadulski, an architect, editor of the energy building publication SolPlan Review: the Independent Journal of Energy Conservation, Building Science & Construction Practice, and fellow member of the GVHBA. To get those incentives, an energy auditor must review a home, give it a rating and confirm the upgrades on a follow-up audit. "This has not generated a big move toward deep green retrofits yet, but it has generated a broadly based home performance improvement," he explains.

Additional homeowner exploration and education, however, can lead to increased enthusiasm beyond saving a governmental buck, Halbig adds. "When a typical homeowner becomes more affected by rising energy prices, mediocre thermal comfort, poor indoor air quality and lackluster energy ratings on their house, he or she will start to get interested in significant renovations," he says. "Deep energy retrofits provide many more benefits than just savings on energy bills."

For many homes, especially older ones, the savings can be instant and obvious. Homes built after 1945 in the Vancouver area can be upgraded to the point where they use 30 to 50 percent less energy than a typical, brand new house, Halbig says.

"For newer houses, more work has to be done to achieve similar results—but if the homeowner is willing to give up some of the high-end finishes, such as fancy countertops or elaborate trim work, deep energy renovation can still be kept within a tight budget," he says.

Making the cut

Kadulski says clients will likely not do a deep green, energy efficient retrofit just for the sake of doing so. The optimal time to discuss these options is when you’re discussing other renovation work; this is when clients are most open to incorporating new ideas.

"The most common retrofits are mechanical system changes, such as furnace and hot water heater replacements," Kadulski says. Additionally, new exterior finishing projects present an opportunity for energy insulation upgrades while window replacements call for installing high-performing units. "The standard for windows now is low-E coated, gas filled units with insulating spacers," he observes. "We are starting to see triple-glazed windows on the West Coast although we have a mild climate."

Weathering the storms

The relatively mild Lower Mainland climate, in fact, has been one of the biggest hindrances in getting clients to see the potential cost-saving value of deep energy retrofits, Halbig says.

"The general, home-owning public has no idea how good his or her home could be," he adds. While the temperate mainland gets as cold as -10 degrees Celsius in winter and up to 35 degrees Celsius in summer, clients tend to believe that deep energy retrofits would only make sense if they lived in Calgary, Edmonton or even Toronto. But the irony, he says, is that many spend more on their heating bills than those who live in other areas of Canada where winters are harsher because their homes aren’t built as efficiently.

"The benefits to performing a deep energy renovation are nearly endless," Halbig says. "Improved thermal comfort, lower energy bills, lower ghg emissions, protection from rising energy prices, better resale value and improved air quality are just a few that come to mind."

To explore more on deep energy retrofits and continuing education, visit the GVHBA (// website and explore courses offered on building code, upcoming trends, and building green for the future.

Fit your bill

Looking for quick gains on lost energy? Vancouver-based architect and editor of the SolPlan Review, Richard Kadulski, offers quick-hit advice for contractors looking to better educate their clients on deep energy retrofit solutions:

  • Reduce air leakage of the house through air sealing.

  • Remove naturally aspirating combustion appliances. This includes anything with an open vent: B-vented gas appliances, open wood-burning fireplaces or stoves, oil heaters.

  • Upgrade heating & hot water systems.

  • Upgrade insulation, mostly in the walls: Unless the ceiling is not insulated, adding a lot of insulation into the ceiling will not produce significant gains.

  • Insulate basements.

  • Replace windows with the highest performing units available.

  • Remove masonry fireplaces located on an exterior wall—especially when most of the mass is on the exterior. If the fireplace or flue must remain, then insulate it on the exterior.

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