Finding an Energy Efficient Home

Ryan Coffey
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There is a great deal of science and potential for great attention to detail on making your home very energy efficient. Net zero is the holy grail of sustainable energy use but for most of us the act of making the most of what we have is an art in itself. Things like passive solar gain, fancy insulation products, clever architectural design and the myriad of possible modifications to an existing property that will help you save money long term are out there. So is the information and a Nanaimo expert on the topic is Ian Gartshore. I would refer you to him if you are looking to figure out how to get as much energy efficiency out of your home as you can.

I do try to keep my advice practical though and as there is so much to consider when choosing a home I don’t want to make it harder than it already is to make a good choice, I want to make it easier.  So rather than giving people a checklist of items to make their list of criteria longer and therefore even more difficult to satisfy, I’ll be brief and general.

One of the bigger factors that is easy to satisfy is the age of home. As the years progress, so have the standards of heat retention therefore a newer home will generally be more energy efficient than its older equivalent. I think it is also worthy of note that better thermal insulation has the added effect of better noise insulation so there is the bonus that a bit of traffic nearby or having a handyman neighbour won’t bother you as much as it did in some older home you once lived in.

Quite often Buyers will want to see a copy of the utility bills before putting an offer on a home as they want to get an idea of heating costs. This is a logical request but from what I have seen, and been convinced by inquiries to the energy companies, energy costs can vary wildly in the same place depending on who is living there. You see, different people have different habits, needs and awareness of energy use. To name a few factors you may have more or less people living there who are taking longer or shorter showers; they may be home more or less often at different times of year; older people are more likely to keep the home heated at higher temperatures and stay home more; some people are more or less prone to putting on a sweater instead of turning up the heat or using the air conditioning rather than closing the blinds and cracking a window. These all add up and are just the tip of the iceberg on what can change the energy costs of a given property. Keep in mind that I’m only really talking about heat here and not getting into things like electronics or lights or how the air flows within the home. There is way more going on than I allude to here.

If you do end up falling in love with an older home you may start to think about what kind of heating system it has. The good news is that the old beast of an oil furnace can be replaced with something more eco friendly and affordable in the long term. It’s the initial outlay that puts most people off but if they take the time to look at the long term savings they are generally won over. Changing that oil furnace to a heat pump for example or getting a more energy efficient kind of hot water tank, is likely something that you can get your Mortgage Broker to tag onto your mortgage as cost plus improvements. A concept worth looking into if you’re not familiar with it. The world is getting more open minded about sustainable solutions these days so you may even be able to get approved for a modification that is a deeper shade of green than how most people live. I say talk it out with your Mortgage Broker.

That said, modifications that make meaningful differences aren’t all expensive and need lending, some are dirt cheap. In my home, I have a noren in a hallway to keep heat and drafts where I want them plus it looks nice.

Older homes especially suffer from a lot of air leaks. Houses that are two or three stories tall lose more heat this way. Stucco siding prevents much air infiltration, and homes built from the 80’s on typically used vapour barrier to reduce leaks. An energy audit is inexpensive and can quickly determine how drafty a home is. By the way, a house that is the opposite (doesn’t breathe) can have poor indoor air quality. Not good, either.

Surprisingly, more heat can be lost to a basement or slab than through the attic. Concrete is a very poor insulator. Windows that are clear –whether single or double- lose (and in the summer, gain!) a lot of heat.  The newer low-e windows, especially with non-aluminum frames, are far better. The difference in both comfort and heating/cooling costs is considerable.

Having a home that is facing the right direction to allow the sun to do much of the heating work makes a big difference. In our hemisphere the shorthand for this is southern exposure.  It’s something that I have mostly been asked for by people who are interested in gardening/plants and a few who like the feeling of sitting in the sun as it inches its way across the living room spreading warmth and a sense of cheeriness.  The challenge is that we live in a mountainous area where there are often trees and depending on location other buildings may be blocking the sun. The good news is that I don’t personally think that enough people make this a priority (their minds are mostly focused on space, rooms, location and overall shininess) so even though there aren’t a lot of places that have southern exposure, I don’t think the demand is so strong that it makes a big difference on cost of buying.

In the end, there are many finer points one can explore but keeping some general ideas in mind when buying can help you get a home that is more energy efficient without creating unrealistic standards.


Ryan Coffey