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🕔Dec 03, 2008

I once rented a house (actually, a former mining shack) that was insulated with flattened tin cans—or so my retired neighbour considerately told me the day I was moving out. No wonder I froze, despite a massive outlay each month to the gas-man.
I have since become more aware of energy use and cost. With the price of natural gas and electricity steadily climbing, conserving energy for many in the North is becoming a necessity, not just an ethical choice. Thinking strategically about where our energy dollars go not only profits the greater good but the individual as well: there will be more money for fun as well as a clearer conscience. After all, we can only turn the thermostat down so low up here! And with our cool summers—well, I’ll bet I wasn’t the only one looking longingly at the thermostat last August.

Is there a draft in here?

For the first few years in our new house, gas prices were manageable; but when they pole-vaulted, we began to retrofit. There is a lot of commonsense legwork that the average Joe and Jane can do to get things started (because waiting for global warming to lower the gas bill just isn’t an immediate-enough option!).
Making the exterior as tight as a drum is the beginning. Walk around and search out any gaps and cracks—check that seals on windows, skylights, exhaust fans, plumbing vents, taps, and outside electrical are bombproof. Is the integrity of the siding intact? Is the flashing well sealed and the pet door insulated? Is there a gap you could drive a truck through under the basement door? (A 1/4-inch gap has the effective cooling power of a four-inch-square hole in the middle of a wall!) An exterior house inspection is legwork that you can do, alone or with your kids. Send your teenager out with a clipboard and a checklist—you’ll have a longer fix-it list than you ever thought possible.
The same principle applies on the inside. Work from the top to the bottom of your dwelling. Explore with a candle on a windy day or have a blower door test done (ask your local heating shop). Be picky! Cable entry points, drains that penetrate outside walls, the sillplate (ladies, ask your husband; husbands, ask a professional)—these all add up to money lost or saved. Considering that 60% of total at-home energy use goes to heating our living space, a little short-term pain for long-term gain seems in order.

Mommy, why is there ice on the inside?

Moisture in our home can be both a blessing and a curse—it largely depends on how airtight your dwelling is. In drafty, older homes, dry air can easily find a way inside—so hanging your wet laundry may act as a balm for those who suffer from winter dryness. Beware, however: in my relatively airtight home, this attempt to save dollars by reducing dryer use resulted in a very unpleasant cycle of condensation, freezing and melting. It contributed to the growth of black mold on our window caulking and damaged the wood of our windowsills.
Stovetop cooking and dishwasher use emit huge amounts of moisture, and every time you turn on an exhaust fan you’re letting heat escape and drawing cold in. Save the steamed greens for summer and bake up a medley of root vegetables to go with your co-op-purchased roast. Or, be a true northerner and host a winter barbecue party—don your down jacket and top up your flask of Fireball.

Can we please turn it up just a bit?

Maximize every degree on that programmable thermostat by replacing or cleaning the filter frequently, and have a professional clean your ducts once a year, especially if you have pets and/or small children. Turning down your thermostat by even one degree provides substantial savings on your heating bill.
Wood-burners should plan ahead. For best results, season (air-dry) your wood for at least nine months before burning, because the natural 60-70 percent moisture content has to be reduced to about 20 percent to burn well (otherwise, energy from the fire is used to evaporate wood moisture before it can produce heat). Optimal drying requires proper splitting and stacking. Air circulation is critical. (Note: standing, beetle-killed wood still has around 30% moisture, so it needs drying too.)
With the rising cost of driving to a logging landing, burning underused species such as aspen makes sense. (There’s an old saying: “the best wood is the closest wood.”) Although aspen produces more ash, it is denser than pine and produces more energy per cord, according to the Natural Resources canada (NRCAN) Guide to Residential Wood Heating. What is required is a longer drying period—ideally a full winter and summer to season. Aspen splits easily when green, so get it split and drying right away.
Burning properly is crucial. The cardinal rule is to never let the fire smolder. As long as there is solid wood in the firebox, there should be active flames. The draft on the stove should stay open until the fire is hot enough to char the outside of the wood; damping it down earlier results in incomplete combustion and emission of harmful particles. This applies to transitions as well—when adding wood, open the draft and again wait to damp it down until the newly added piece is charred on the outside. Otherwise gases will escape unburned and energy will be lost up the chimney. Catalytic converters can increase your stove’s efficiency by 10 to 25 percent if properly operated, but the life expectancy of new catalytic burners is only about three to six years. A chimney emitting clear exhaust (or white with steam in winter) indicates a well-burning, efficient fire, while a plume of blue or grey smoke indicates poor combustion.
If you’re building a new house, you have a variety of high-tech, energy-saving systems to choose from, including heat pumps and heat-recovery ventilators.

She’s been in there forever—it’s my turn!

For most of us, hot water is worth paying for—and we are! Water heating is second only to the furnace in household energy expenditures. To reduce this output of cost and energy, insulate the hot-water tank, install a low-flow showerhead (a standard-flow head eats up 20 litres a minute) and an aerator (that reduces volume but keeps pressure). Be sure to fix dripping taps promptly: a leak of one drop per second equals 16 baths a month!
If the two-inch-deep splash-bath that my Grandma used to take doesn’t appeal to you (it sure didn’t to me), take shorter showers (try to get family members to agree to this, too). Or, on the weekend, just skip one altogether. And if you’re going away for a few days or longer, turn your hot-water tank off completely, using the designated switch in the breaker box.

The Freezer Monster

The pump in my landlord’s old fridge/freezer was so loud that we could hardly play a card game at the kitchen table; it was clear the machine was on its last legs. Upgrading to a more energy-efficient appliance is easy these days: the stickers say it all. Or do they? If you want to be really savvy, Natural Resources Canada also recommends considering the appliance’s “second price tag”—multiply the kilowatt rating by the per-hour cost of energy in your area by the number of years your appliance is engineered to last, then compare models.

Save where you can…

• Use bathroom fan selectively
• Hang shirts outside to air and then wear again
• Wash only really dirty clothes (cold water wash)
• Dress warmly in the house; wear slippers
• Have lap blankets by the couch and chairs
• Cancel your TV from the spring to the fall equinox
• Visit the library regularly and read a lot
• Turn off and unplug electrical appliances if not in use for a chunk of time; many still suck energy when “off” or on standby—powerbars make this easier
• Have a “power outage” night once a week—have a picnic of cold food and raw veggies by candlelight while playing cards, a board game, or working on a puzzle
• Go to bed earlier in the winter (or enjoy an after-dinner cross-country ski)
• Go outside for spring, summer and fall evenings (hang your rain gear by the door so there’s no excuses)
• Think of energy as more of a luxury than a necessity

People (myself included) find it hard to change our ways unless circumstances force us to—but if the price is right, overcoming the inertia and putting a new foot forward may not be as much trouble as you think!