The idea of shrinking energy costs is appealing to most Albertans, who are increasingly finding ways to incorporate solar panels, energy-efficient appliances and other sustainable solutions in their homes. Events such as Edmonton’s Eco-Solar Home Tour showcase ways to maximize energy efficiency at home.
Here, we take a peek at the inner workings of three of the tour’s “net zero” homes—houses that generate as much energy they use, creating a net-zero outcome. These eco abodes show how adding green features can save you serious dollars in the long run—whether you’re renting, renovating or rebuilding.
HOME no. 1: BUILDING THE FUTURE
Using the sun’s light and heat in one’s home is old technology, dating back to Ancient Egyptian and Mayan times. A net-zero dwelling that harnesses solar power is one of the cheapest upgrades you can make to your home in the long run, according to Koen de Waal of De Waal Developments. “It’s kind of surprising that it’s so simple and yet the technology has seemingly been forgotten until recently.”
In 2015, de Waal built his own 3,200-square-foot passive solar house on a corner lot in the Windsor Park neighbourhood. The home also includes a 700-square-foot apartment and an electric vehicle charging station. While new construction homes must have a minimum wall R-value* of 20, his rings in at R45.
While de Waal acknowledges net-zero homes do have higher up-front costs, building better is cheaper over time: “The increase in construction costs, spread over a 25-year mortgage, is less than our potential utility bills—so my ongoing monthly expenses are significantly reduced,” de Waal says. “It really is the way of the future.”
*R-value is a ranking to evaluate the energy efficiency of features like windows and insulation. Higher numbers mean greater efficiency.
Solar panels: A 20-kW solar array on De Waal’s south-facing roof and a 5-kW array on the west-facing roof generate all the energy required for the home and apartment—as well as a home office and two electric vehicles. Large windows on the south-facing wall and overhangs provide passive solar gain in winter and cooling in summer.
Spray Foam: Inside the de Waal house, spray-foam insulation expands to the thickness of the studs and wall. “It makes the home very air tight—the R-value is almost twice as much as fibreglass insulation,” he says. Traditional fibreglass can allow for air loss, especially if it’s not installed properly—a serious drain on heating and cooling systems. While spray foam costs up to three times more, the difference in price is made up within five years of heating and cooling savings. Spray foam also lasts longer than fibreglass.
HOME no. 2: EFFICIENCY SWEET SPOT
“If we’re going to start fresh, we’re going to go efficient.” That was the goal Roberta Franchuk and her husband, Dietmar Kennepohl, set when they decided to build their 2,200-square-foot McKernan home. After purchasing an infill lot in 2013, the couple hired Peter Amerongen of Habitat Studios to design and build a passive solar house, which generates more energy than it consumes.
“The challenge with building a passive house in a northern climate is that you need a really sunny site for it,” says Franchuk, noting their lot’s sun shortcomings.
Undeterred, Amerongen modelled three designs with varying EnerGuide ratings. “The biggest bang for the buck was to add solar,” says Franchuk. “Peter calls it the sweet spot of energy efficiency.”
Insulation: Cellulose insulation—made from recycled newsprint—is a sustainable choice, rating R40 in Franchuk’s walls and R80 in the attic. Energy efficiency is further maximized by a heat pump and recovery ventilator that cools the house. In winter, the two work like a refrigerator in reverse. Even at –20 C, the system draws heat from outside and distributes it throughout the home with a fan and duct system.
Windows: Franchuk’s triple-glazed, low-e argon-filled fibreglass windows help maximize heat gain in winter and prevent heat loss. Window size, positioning and purpose are also important. Large windows centered in the middle of her walls let light in, while other windows open to provide ventilation. You might think more smaller windows would be better. But more windows means more frames, which can block light. Franchuk’s frames have an R5 rating, whereas the centre of window is better rated at R8.
HOME no. 3: SUSTAINABLE SUBURBAN
Tara-Lynn Blum-Prybylski peppers the conversation with words like “simple” and “easy” when talking about the advanced solar “power plant” on the roof of her house, veggies growing in her kitchen, and her cold climate air-source heat pump. The 2,400-square-foot home she shares with her husband Alex Blum and their two children was based off a model home designed by Landmark Homes in Creekwood Chapelle, a new subdivision built by Sherrick Developments.
The couple achieved net zero by upgrading the base model with a 13.7-kW solar panel system and other energy-saving solutions. For them, these outside-of-the-box upgrades are part of a long-term commitment. And as she notes, their particular combination, with its eco-friendly features, is available to anyone: “These aren’t just upgrades—they should be viewed as investments.”
Urban cultivator: In addition to Energy Star appliances, which have the highest efficiency rating in Canada, Blum-Prybylski installed an Urban Cultivator, transforming her kitchen island into a year-round organic garden. “It is so easy,” she says. “You plumb it in like a dishwasher with water and electrical. If you know how to do a little bit of programming, the seeds will do the rest—the system waters itself, lights itself, drains itself and aerates itself.” Sunflower sprouts, basil and zucchini are some of her top crops.
Heat pump: A cold climate air-source heat pump, like the one in the Blum-Prybylski household, heats and cools a structure. The pump compensates for cold weather with a dual-loop feature: When temps outside hit –15 C, the second loop kicks in to provide extra heat. The home’s hot water is also warmed with an electric heat pump—and both pumps are powered by the rooftop solar panels—no gas required.
Four easy ways to improve energy efficiency at home
Lower your wattage: Compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulbs are energy-savers, but light-emitting diodes (LEDs) are even better. They last longer, stay cooler and are mercury free.
Shrink the flow: Add a screw-on aerator to each faucet in your home to save 30 to 50 percent more water.
Flush frugally: Install low-flush toilets, which use as little as four litres of water per flush, compared to a conventional toilet that uses up to 13 litres.
Air it out: More windows that you can open and close allow for passive ventilation. Combined with good insulation in your walls and roof, you could live comfortably without air conditioning during summer months.
HOW TO SAVE
AMARewards partners can help you save big bucks, now and later
Polar Windows: Upgrade your windows to more energy-efficient models and save 32%
Reliance Home Comfort: Save up to 15% on air conditioner, furnaces and system rentals or purchases.
Parkland Garden Centre: Save 10% on seedlings for grow-your-own food
1-800-GOT-JUNK?: Ditch energy-sucking appliances! Save 15% on junk removal
Kudos for Wood Furniture: Commission a custom counter or table made with sustainable wood and save up to 15%