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Seeing red, thinking green

"I don't think I'll ever buy another gasoline vehicle," filmmaker Mike Douglas tells me of his experience with an electric car this past summer. "Technology has improved by leaps and bounds.

"I don't think I'll ever buy another gasoline vehicle," filmmaker Mike Douglas tells me of his experience with an electric car this past summer. "Technology has improved by leaps and bounds. These vehicles have tons of power, and range isn't going to be a big issue in a few years."

Precisely. Experience of advances in technology are allowing Douglas, like many others, to consider planet, energy and money-saving vehicles that previously existed only in the vanity realm for the technically inclined, wealthy or those dedicated enough to put up with "small inconveniences." Likewise, the realm of home energy now offers technologically sophisticated opportunities for conservation and saving. Which is why Douglas also signed on to have a home energy audit early in the fall, and why I signed on to observe it.

Several news items had already appeared about the RMOW's subsidized audit program (e.g., "Whistler mayor tests her home's energy efficiency," Pique, Sept.11, 2014), but there's nothing like seeing something on the ground to hammer home its utility. The program, which runs all winter while supplies last, offers homeowners $250 towards a $350ish home-energy evaluation. The $100K program runs on a $40K BC Hydro grant and $60K from the RMOW, which is taking aim at the roughly $20 million we drop annually on residential energy (about a third of Whistler's total energy consumption) and hoping to make a dent in our 12,000+ tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions each year. While numerous money-saving retrofits are available from energy companies, residents might not know that some of these are dependent on energy audits.

When I arrive at Douglas' house, the first thing I see is a portable sign bearing a 60-cm wide circle and the words: "Your home probably has a hole this big in it."

Luke Dolan of Lower Mainland-based Capital Home Inspectors is conducting the audit and we begin with a walk-through of the classic post-and-beam house. The interesting part begins outside. "Counting windows is the easiest way to get an idea of potential solar heat gain," says Dolan.

Next we check what Dolan fingers as a "serious trouble-spot" for most Whistler homes: the crawl space. Recording the type and levels of insulation, Dolan zeros in on the several plastic vents open to the outside, declaring them counterproductive because of the cold air they let in. Like many of us, Douglas thought he needed to leave these open to avoid condensation. Lesson number one: "In a cost-be-damned world you could rip out what insulation there is and have the entire space spray-foamed right down to the floor," notes Dolan, "which stops condensation from entering to begin with. For starters, just make sure you put solid foam over the inside of those vents during winter."

Conceding he'll close them for now and seal them later, Douglas discovers that the vents' louvers don't actually close, representing a potentially significant source of heat loss. Actually, it's worse. "Negative pressure inside your house caused by warm air rising up through three storeys will suck cold air in through these vents," Dolan explains.

Talk naturally turns to energy bills. Does Douglas consider his insane? "It has gotten more expensive with smart meters etc., plus my consumption is up because I have several computers grinding away (on film work). I also put an air conditioner in the room where I work because it pushes 40C in there on many summer days."

That's a cue for Dolan, who mentions the growing trend toward ductless mini-split-system heat pumps. "They're like an air conditioner that can also work in reverse, and three times more efficient than baseboard heating."

Mini splits make good retrofits to houses with non-ducted heating systems, such as hydronic, radiant panels, and space heaters. They're also a good choice for room additions where extending or installing ductwork isn't feasible, and for efficient new homes that require only a small space conditioning system. Main advantages are easy installation, contemporary slim-line looks, and small size and flexibility for heating and cooling individual rooms. Many models can have as many as four indoor air-handling units (for four zones or rooms) connected to one outdoor unit, depending how much heating or cooling is required for each zone, which, in turn, is affected by how well the building is insulated and sealed. Each zone has its own thermostat, so you only need to condition occupied spaces, saving energy and money.

As a finale, Dolan readies the blower test — mandatory in Vancouver for all new developments. In a doorway, a powerful fan is set in a frame of impermeable fabric; blowing outward, it simulates a 50 kph wind blowing on all sides of the house. Dolan measures the amount of air passing through at different pressures in five-pascal increments starting from 50. As the fan sucks air from the house, the outdoor flap on the dryer vent bangs wildly and air is revealingly drawn through electrical sockets (the solution to this is wall gaskets and child-proof socket inserts in plugs not being used). Upstairs we feel air entering where banisters meet drywall; where log beams abut the ceiling, thick lines of grey dust packed like dryer lint are being extruded from what are obviously wide but invisible gaps. While we're wide-eyed, Dolan merely nods his head. He's seen it all. After an hour of running the data he has gathered through Hot2000 software on his iPad, however, he concludes that the house isn't bad at all.

"The process was very interesting," notes Douglas. "We're relieved to hear our home scored fairly well, but we also learned a bunch of things we wouldn't have thought about where we can make it more efficient — like the crawl space vents, wall sockets, beams."

Douglas vowed not only to address these easy-to-achieve efficiencies but tackle some larger issues as well. "The biggest action we'll probably take is with heating and cooling — the efficiency of a heat exchanger versus air conditioning is clear — as well as switching all our lights to fluorescents or LEDs as our current bulbs burn out. Given the data we received, I'm confident we'll pay off the cost of assessment and any changes in three-to-four years and after that we'll just be saving money."

The upshot: instead of seeing red over your energy bills, seeing green through an audit also points the way to big savings.

Leslie Anthony is a Whistler-based author, editor, biologist and bon vivant who has never met a mountain he didn't like.