People & Culture

Canadian Geographic’s Live Net Zero families bring the heat for challenge number three

The eight competing families explore ways to sustainably heat and cool their homes, from heat pumps to smart thermostats to geothermal systems

  • Nov 15, 2023
  • 1,487 words
  • 6 minutes
A woman adjusts her smart thermostat – a device which can save 10 to 15 per cent of energy needs.
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Every year, more Canadians are confronting the life-threatening impacts of climate change. As Canada is warming at twice the global rate, extreme heat waves are becoming more common, requiring citizens to re-examine the efficiency of the cooling systems in their homes. On the other hand, though Canada’s winters are getting milder—an increase of 3.3 degrees Celsius since 1948 – Canada’s winters are still among the most severe on Earth.  

As such, the need to heat or cool our homes effectively has become even more imperative. But how can Canadians do so while ensuring the systems don’t further exacerbate our current crisis?

For Live Net Zero’s Heating and Cooling challenge, Canadian Geographic asked our eight competing families to explore measures to reduce the household emissions related to keeping our homes warm in the winter and cool in the summer. As home heating accounts for 16 per cent of the carbon emissions in Canada, and space heating (the country’s second-largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions) and cooling represent almost two-thirds of our home energy use, improving these areas can significantly lower your household carbon footprint. 

Here are the main ways our families tackled this third challenge:

The Reid household replaced their 12-year-old heat pump with a new one. These devices are becoming a popular investment for many families as they are two to five times more efficient than gas furnaces. (Photo courtesy the Reid family)
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Heat pumps 

Heat pumps are becoming increasingly popular for families looking to upgrade or invest in their home heating and cooling systems. These devices pull heat from outside, pump it into your home in the winter, extract heat from inside your house, and send it outside in the summer. They are two to five times more efficient than gas furnaces and provide substantial savings on energy bills. According to an Ontario Clean Air Alliance report, Ontarians with a gas furnace and air conditioner, for example, can save $1,000 or more per year by switching to an air-source heat pump. It is thus unsurprising that most of the Live Net Zero families chose to invest in or upgrade this system. 

When the Reid household conducted their Home Energy Audit, it included a new heat pump as a recommended upgrade. “We kind of ignored that initially,” the family said. “Why spend that kind of money, even with the healthy rebate it comes with, if you already have a functioning heat pump?” 

The answer, they concluded, ended up being a blend of efficiency and divestment. Though they had a heat pump that was only 12 years old, they learned that replacing them would be more energy efficient. Following the installation of their new pump, they saw changes almost immediately. 

“We’re noticing it has more force in the house,” Jen Reid explained. “We’re noticing we’re more comfortable.” They noted that for heat pumps to be effective, one must have a well-sealed building envelope – the focus for challenge two

Meanwhile, the MacInnis-Boudreau family has discovered that while heat pumps blow warm air almost instantaneously, the warm air can dissipate very quickly once turned off. This is in contrast to more “traditional” devices, such as radiators, which tend to hold heat for hours after they’ve been turned on.

“We definitely learned the value of finding our sweet spot [and] the importance of keeping them running more constantly,” Ashley MacInnis said, explaining that turning the pump on and off is less efficient as it uses more energy. 

Brigette DePape dresses as “Thelma the Smart Thermostat Wizard” and exhibits the capabilities of her smart thermostat. (Photo courtesy the DePape-Rodrigues household)
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Thermostats 

Alongside investing in a heat pump, the DePape-Rodrigues household sought low-cost solutions to heat and cool their Winnipeg home. Smart thermostats, which connect to your phone and allow control of heating and cooling by room, save 10 to 15 per cent of energy needs and typically cost around $350

“What we’ll do is schedule our heating so that when we are sleeping, the temperature drops a little bit—though it’s still comfortable for sleeping – and then it’ll rise again when we wake up,” Brigette DePape said. Another helpful mode, she explained, is “eco-mode,” which raises and drops the temperature depending on whether or not you are away from home. 

The Proulx-Coll family also invested in this system. The family of five from Montréal has programmed their thermostat to keep it at 16° Celcius from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. “Since we are covered under blankets, there is no need to heat the house that much at night,” they said, adding that their children don’t even realize the house gets colder. “This is something we hadn’t ever paid attention to. We just kept the heat on at night without even thinking about it. Just a few degrees make a huge difference.”

Oli Proulx wraps an insulating jacket around his water heater. (Photo courtesy the Proulx-Coll household)
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Insulation 

Another low-cost addition to home heating devices? Insulation. Wrapping a jacket around their water heater, the Proulx-Colls effectively reduce heat loss by 25 to 45 per cent and save about seven to 16 per cent in heating costs. The family notes this is a cost-effective solution for a more energy-efficient home, as you can find pre-cut jackets or blankets for your water heater for around $20. 

The Marsh family also focused on insulating the pipes and ducts in their home to improve the efficiency of their heating and cooling systems and reduce energy loss. In particular, they used foam insulation and aluminum foil tape, which is flame-resistant and holds up in extreme temperatures. 

And the Waddell-Shankland family emphasized the effectiveness of self-insulation: simply turning down your home’s temperature and wearing a sweater. “Humans are great at producing warmth, and a little hyper-local insulation can go a long way to improving comfort,” they said.

The Waddell-Shankland family highlighted the effectiveness of self-insulation: simply putting on a sweater when you are chilly. (Photo courtesy the Waddell-Shankland household)
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Radiant floor heating

The Waddell-Shankland family has also been planning for a three-season room – a space without heat or insulation – to become a greenhouse and dining room.

“It would be great to be surrounded by plants and grow vegetables all year round in a room you can sit in and enjoy,” Crystal Waddell said. 

To allow this space to function year-round, they are considering implementing radiant floor heating, which typically uses 20 to 25 per cent less energy than forced air heating. The family is currently exploring two different types of floor heating: hydronic, which uses water-filled pipes under the floor that are heated by a boiler system, or electric, which uses electric heating wires or electric mats to heat floors. 

The Waddell-Shanklands plan to implement radiant floor heating in their greenhouse, which can also be used year-round as a dining room. (Photo courtesy the Waddell-Shankland household)
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Sara tests out her new remote-controlled fan. (Photo courtesy the Foreman household)
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Fans 

Fans are also an effective way to cool your home during hotter months. As the Foreman family has learned, ceiling fans use about one-tenth the energy of an air conditioner, and when properly used, they can also adjust the thermostat by two degrees. 

The size of the fan also matters they’ve discovered. Bigger fans require more energy and are unnecessary in smaller rooms, where less-large fans can still effectively circulate the air. “We are now looking to replace the fans in the kids’ rooms, especially Sara’s, as it is huge and she has the smallest room,” the family said. “Time for a smaller fan and a smaller cost.”

The family also notes that the fan’s direction matters when circulating air. In the winter, your fan blades should turn clockwise to pull cool air up toward the ceiling, displacing the warm air near the ceiling, and in the summer, your fan blades should rotate counterclockwise to push cooler air down.

The Shannon family installs a geothermal heat system, requiring them to dig up their yard. (Photo courtesy the Shannon family)
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Geothermal

Finally, geothermal heat pumps piqued the interest of some Live Net Zero families, including the Shannons and the Marshes. These systems are among the most efficient heating and cooling technologies, harnessing the earth’s natural heat to heat and cool homes. It’s also a clean and sustainable energy source as it doesn’t produce greenhouse gasses like fossil fuels. For the Shannon family, investing in a geothermal system means less reliance on natural gas, which isn’t as environmentally friendly as other energy sources despite occupying an essential segment of Canada’s economy. 

Geothermal heat pumps aren’t realistic for every family, though, as it is more expensive and require digging deep holes and trenches in your yard to install pipes. The Shannons had to remove four feet of topsoil to create a level surface before commencing drilling. 

“We’re turning our suburban front yard into a geothermal nirvana with five boreholes, each 250 ft deep,” the family wrote on Instagram during the challenge. “By bidding farewell to the Natural Gas utility grid, we’re taking one giant leap towards carbon neutrality.”

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