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How to get the most out of a home energy audit

Science·What on Earth?

In this week's issue of our environment newsletter, we look at the benefits of a home energy evaluation and how Britain brought back the beaver.

(Sködt McNalty/CBC)

This week:

  • How to get the most out of a home energy audit
  • What to do about methane?
  • Why Britain decided to 'build back beaver'

How to get the most out of a home energy audit

(Green Communities Canada)

Want to make your home more energy efficient or even just less drafty? Are you planning to redo your bathroom or kitchen? Want to get that $5,600 federal grant for green renovations?

In all these cases, getting an energy efficiency evaluation is a good first step, according to those in the industry.

Here's a closer look at what that involves — and how to get the most out of it.

What is a home energy efficiency evaluation?

A home energy efficiency evaluation, inspection or audit is a standardized method for measuring your home's energy efficiency and airtightness. This can help you decide what renovations you might need to improve those things.

Why would you want an evaluation like this?

For new homes, it's needed to get eco-labelling certifications such as Energy Star or Built Green.

For existing homes, it's required to get incentives that can help offset energy efficiency and climate change resilience upgrades to your home, such as the Greener Homes Grant, worth up to $5,600 per household toward things such as insulation, new windows and doors, heat pumps, solar panels and foundation waterproofing.

When should you get an evaluation?

It's worthwhile any time you're planning to do a renovation, whether it's replacing windows or redoing your kitchen and bathroom, said Kai Millyard, service organization manager for Green Communities Canada, a non-profit umbrella group for community-based environmental organizations that provide energy evaluations.

Even if the goal of the reno isn't energy efficiency, you may open walls and that may make it easy to add things like extra insulation at minimal extra cost if it's flagged in your evaluation.

What does an energy evaluation involve and how long does it take?

The process typically takes two to three hours, depending on the size of your home.

An energy adviser will walk outside and inside your home, recording things like insulation levels, window types and sizes and types of heating and cooling systems in your home.

They will also do a "blower door test" to measure your home's airtightness. A fan blows the air out of your home, and the test measures how long it takes for the air to come back in through cracks and holes.

While that's happening, the energy adviser will walk around your home to check where the air seeps back in, locating the gaps. "We might use a feather or a little smoke generator," said Millyard.

Luke Dolan, principal of Capital Home Energy in Vancouver, said his company uses little handheld fog machines and also has infrared cameras that can zero in on cooler spots.

What can you expect to get out of it?

All the data is inputted into Natural Resources Canada's modelling software to calculate the home's energy efficiency and give it a rating.

The energy adviser can suggest how to improve — which renos to prioritize and any problems they may have uncovered.

Both Dolan and Millyard say energy advisers are happy to craft advice to meet your needs, whether that's focused on quick fixes to reduce your heating and cooling bill or a 10-year plan that involves a small reno every other year.

"Tell your adviser what you care about and what your concerns and your motivation are, what your budget is for the work you're going to do," Millyard said.

"They'll be in a much better position to … produce a more useful set of recommendations to you if they understand where you're coming from."

How much does it cost?

New Brunswick, Quebec and Nova Scotia have provincial programs that include energy evaluations, with prices ranging from $99 in New Brunswick to $199 in Nova Scotia for a single home.

The pricing is typically higher in other provinces, depending on the provider and the size of your home. Millyard said it's usually about $400 for a pre-renovation audit. A second audit after the renovation is often required to get grants and incentives.

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The Big Picture: The methane dilemma

In the global effort to reduce carbon emissions, one of the most meaningful strategies is taming methane. It's the second-most abundant greenhouse gas, after carbon dioxide, and while it doesn't stay in the atmosphere for as long as CO2, methane traps more heat. Not only that, but the generation of methane has been steadily growing in the last decades. (It is measured in parts per billion, as seen below.) While it has long been an offshoot in the cultivation of rice and cattle, more recently, methane has been used as an energy source by another name — natural gas. A major source of atmospheric methane is seepage from oil and gas infrastructure, such as tanks, pipes and orphan wells. Part of the problem with detecting these emissions is that they are invisible — only when using an infrared camera can you see how much methane is being belched out. As a result, it's thought that the amount of methane being emitted is grossly undercounted. In the lead-up to the COP26 climate conference in November, U.S. special climate envoy John Kerry has managed to corral 34 countries — including Canada — to agree to cut methane emissions by 30 per cent by 2030. Alas, that group does not include the world's biggest culprits, namely China, India, Russia and Brazil.

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Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web


Why Britain decided to 'build back beaver'

(Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

Two young beavers poked their heads out of straw-filled metal cages and waddled to the edge of a pond before gracefully sliding into the water.

"I can't quite believe what I am seeing," said an emotional Jonah Tosney, a river ecologist who along with 20 other spectators came out on a crisp, clear morning recently to a wetland area in Norfolk, southeast England.

They were there to witness what they believe amounts to the rebirth of a species.

"I'm just absolutely delighted," Tosney said, as those around him snapped photos to capture the moment.

For Canadians, gasps of joy at the sight of beavers might seem a bit exaggerated, as they remain high in our public consciousness.

In the U.K., however, the return of the beaver is being hailed as a success for a policy known as rewilding — essentially repairing damaged ecosystems and creating more natural, diverse habitats.

It has also raised the ire of British farmers, particularly those in Scotland. Already, the beavers' tree-felling, dam-building ways have reshaped parts of the well-manicured Scottish countryside and, in many cases, damaged crops.

Beavers were hunted to extinction all over the British Isles in the Middle Ages. It's taken a two-decade effort by conservation groups to slowly reintroduce them into landscapes where they haven't been present in more than 500 years.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson appeared to try to claim some of the credit for the beavers' return when he gave his keynote speech last week at the Conservative Party's convention. He even adapted the post-COVID slogan of "Build Back Better" to the moment.

"'Build back beaver,' I say," Johnson quipped, to huge applause.

Twenty years ago, the only beavers in the U.K. were in captivity.

NatureScot, the public agency that oversees wildlife management in Scotland, conducted a survey in the winter of 2020 and reported there are now more than 1,000 beavers living in the wild, mostly in the county of Perthshire, north of Edinburgh.

The first beavers were initially released from nature reserves with the approval of authorities, while others escaped or were let go without official permission.

As one of nature's greatest builders, ecologists claim wherever beavers go, other creatures and plant life follow.

"You would be very surprised at how they're going to modify this habitat over the next year," said Roisin Campbell-Palmer, a biologist and conservationist who's colloquially known as Britain's "beaver lady," referring to the Norfolk critters.

Palmer trapped this particular pair of beavers in Scotland and brought them south.

The Norfolk beavers' new home contains a small pond, a tiny creek and lots of deciduous trees — perfect for beavers to gnaw on.

"You [will] see them putting in dams, they're going to open up the tree canopy by feeding and they're going to change this place to hold more water and vegetation — from a biodiversity point of view, these guys are some of the best in the business."

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Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty

Corrections

  • A previous version of this story erroneously said that Baffin Island is in Iqaluit. It is in Nunavut. Also, the story incorrectly stated that Paul Quassa is a member of the legislative assembly in Nunavut. In fact, he retired in August.
    Oct 08, 2021 9:35 AM ET

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