If it’s time for renovation, going green can save you green. Here’s how

Ryan Starr, Special to the Star

For homeowners fantasizing about renovations, eco-friendly upgrades likely are not at the top of their wish lists.

But a greener home can help save you money over time through lower energy costs. It’s also a healthier place for you and your family, not to mention kinder to Mother Nature.

The scope of your green renovations depends on your budget, of course. You could completely gut your place and do the renos all in one go, or chip away at the upgrades over several years.

Either way, it’s vital you take time to determine your home’s needs and create a plan of attack.

You ought to audit

The first step is getting a home energy audit. This assessment – done by an independent, certified evaluator for about $400 – will show how your home uses energy and, more importantly, where it’s being wasted.

“It will give you detailed information on how your home is operating and give you tips on how to best allocate your money,” says Brendan Charters, development manager with Eurodale Developments.

Find good help

Sourcing a qualified green contractor is key, particularly if you’re doing a substantial reno. Renomark.ca is a handy resource, offering a searchable contractor database.

“You go to your general physician when you have a cough and, if it’s something serious, he’ll send you to a specialist,” notes Charters. “I’d recommend the same thing with green renovations – bring in the specialist that lives and breathes these kinds of projects.”

Given the tendency for green-washing – service providers claiming to be green when they’re not – you have to do your homework.

Check references and past jobs the contractor has done. Get quotes from several builders.

Envelope please

When it comes to green renos, nothing is more important to your home’s energy efficiency than the building envelope. So proper insulation must be a top priority.

“It’s definitely the first thing that comes up,” says David Males, owner of Northern Edge Construction Services. “Most of the older houses in Toronto have no insulation.”

The best method is to apply spray foam insulation on all exterior walls. This is a big, expensive job that requires removal of interior walls and/or exterior cladding material.

A less-invasive and cheaper approach involves poking holes in the walls and injecting foam into the space between the interior and exterior walls.

Be sure to insulate your attic and basement, areas through which enormous amounts of heat can be lost.

Replace older windows with new energy-efficient ones and check that newer windows have proper caulking and sealant around all openings.

“You want to look at the whole house as a working system,” Males says.

Blowing hot and cold

The home’s mechanical systems should be the next area of focus.

Upgrading heating and air-conditioning systems can set you back $10,000, but the cost savings over time and improved indoor air quality make them crucial green upgrades.

Charters recommends a two-stage gas furnace. “In Toronto, we live in minus 1C, plus 1C temperatures, so you don’t necessarily need the full force of the furnace coming on every time, ” he explains.

“A two-stage furnace fires lower in the first stage and ramps up when it’s 10C to 15C below, so it’s more efficient.”

Another upgrade option is a heat recovery ventilator system, or HRV, which uses hot air from inside the house to warm up incoming outside air, providing a constant supply of fresh air without extra heating costs.

“I’m a huge proponent of HRVs,” says Sandra Baldwin, owner of Lifetime Contractor. “The renovated home will be much more air-tight, so the ventilation of the house is important.”

Also address your hot-water situation. If your house has a gas-heated water tank, get a more efficient model. Or consider an electric-fired tankless water heater, which heats water on demand.

Let it rain

Water conservation must be part of any green renovation plan.

Installing more efficient plumbing fixtures and appliances – dual flush toilets, low-flow taps for example – can help cut consumption.

Baldwin swears by rainwater barrels, which collect water for use in gardening. “It’s not an expensive item, but it could really make a difference if everybody started to harvest rainwater in our city.”

Greater good

Green renovations can be costly: a complete gut job involving top-to-bottom insulation, mechanical system overhaul and new energy-saving infrastructure could set you back more than $150,000, Charters estimates.

There are simple and cheap eco-friendly improvements homeowners can make: switching to compact fluorescent, halogen or LED lights; installing a programmable thermostat and timer switches for lighting and electronics; or using low- or no-VOC paints and adhesives.

Unfortunately the Canadian government ended its ecoENERGY Retrofit program – grants up to $5,000 to make homes more energy-efficient – March 31.

But Baldwin, who sits on BILD’s Green Leadership Committee, thinks we should be improving the energy efficiency of our homes for the greater good, anyway.

“As a community, we have to do it for our environment, for our children and our grandchildren, not because we’re going to get a few bucks back at the end of the exercise.”

First published in the Toronto Star on April 12, 2012.

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