People & Culture

Canadian Geographic’s Live Net Zero families take on their biggest challenge yet

The Home Improvement Challenge ran concurrently around all other themed challenges and had the potential to have the greatest effect on household emissions

  • Mar 06, 2024
  • 1,755 words
  • 8 minutes
Workers install geothermal heat pumps for the Shannon family, drilling 250 ft into the ground to install pipes. (Photo courtesy the Shannon family)
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There are many simple ways to reduce household carbon emissions: turning off lights, adjusting thermostats, or hang-drying clothes instead of turning on the dryer. Small behavioural changes alone can be incredibly effective. Still, for Canadians who have the means to go further, intensive “deep energy retrofit” solutions – home renovations that reduce your home’s energy usage by at least 50 per cent – can be a game changer in the journey to live net zero

For Canadian Geographic’s Live Net Zero ‘Home Improvement’ challenge, we asked our eight competing families to focus on the “big-ticket” aspects of their homes and explore ways to reduce emissions. This challenge ran concurrently with all other themed challenges, requiring a longer commitment to research, evaluate, and plan for more substantial carbon reductions. These home improvements can potentially have the greatest effect on household emissions, though they are the most cost-intensive solutions.

Here is how the families approached their biggest challenge yet:

The Proulx-Colls worked hard as a team each Live Net Zero challenge to make improvements to their home. (Photo courtesy the Proulx-Coll family)
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Replacing and upgrading

Deep energy retrofits are most effective when they involve a holistic approach that addresses all the various components of the home’s build, such as the envelope, heating and cooling systems, lighting and insulation – all of which were the focus of previous Live Net Zero challenges. Each family worked to improve different aspects of their home’s build, often making decisions that fit a main household goal. 

For the MacInnis Boudreaus, each of their big home improvement projects aimed to keep their home warm in the winter and cool in the summer. One of their biggest undertakings was replacing old windows that were no longer performing as they should, especially those with condensation build-up – a telltale sign of failing windowpane seals. “We had a few windows that were not efficient at all. You could walk by them and immediately know exactly what the temperature was outside,” describes Ashley MacInnis. The MacInnis-Boudreaus didn’t stop there, though. The Nova Scotia family had heat pumps installed on all three levels of their home, which are two to five times more efficient than gas furnaces. Their bills also reflected the energy savings: Ashley said they’ve seen their natural gas usage drop to a third of what they were this time last year.

The Proulx-Colls faced a significant challenge when embarking on their home improvement challenge: working around asbestos enclosed in their outside walls. If the family wanted to make any changes to the outside of their 1920s-built home, such as replacing siding, it immediately got costly and complex due to potential health hazards. The family received quotes above $20,000 to replace all the windows on their first floor – some of which had condensation issues, just like the MacInnis-Boudreaus’ windows. The family found a workaround: instead of replacing the full windows, they installed new glass panes that are properly sealed and have argon gas in them, improving thermal insulation. By doing so, they increased the efficiency of their windows at a much lower cost. 

Meanwhile, the Foremans spoke to Canadian Geographic while in the midst of a four-day power outage due to a winter storm. The family had invested in energy-efficient triple-pane windows as part of their home improvement challenge, as windows and doors can account for up to 25 per cent of total heat loss in one’s home. According to Natural Resources Canada, basements can account for about 20 per cent of a home’s total heat loss, so the Foremans applied spray insulation to their walls and sub-flooring. When they lost power, they physically felt the benefits of their home improvement: though it was cold outside, the windows and insulation helped the home retain heat. The Foremans also installed solar panels, so when the winter storm took down one of their trees, it helped open up their yard to allow for more sunlight.

No more fossil fuels 

The Shannons get solar panels installed on their roof. The family has 42 panels for a 19.11 kilowatt system.(Photo courtesy the Shannon household)
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In 2023, the DePape-Rodrigues family set a New Year’s resolution: to reduce their household emissions. So when Canadian Geographic’s Live Net Zero challenge presented itself to them, they jumped at the opportunity for guidance, information and connections with other families. Throughout the past five months, the Winnipeg family’s ultimate goal has been to heat their home without fossil fuels – specifically, to stop using a boiler powered by natural gas. But since many homes in Manitoba rely on gas and winters in Winnipeg can be long, cold and harsh, finding effective alternatives was a challenge. After completing their energy audit, however, they concluded that they could invest in a cold climate heat pump built to work efficiently in conditions down to minus 25 degrees Celsius. “We’ve been able to bust that myth that you can’t have heat pumps in colder climates because they won’t work because they really do,” says Brigette, adding that they’ve been able to use almost exclusively their heat pump even as temperatures drop.

The Shannon kids sit on their front step as workers install geothermal heat pumps. (Photo courtesy the Shannon household)
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The Reid family also got rid of their gas-powered furnace in favour of an air handler, which filters and pumps air without gas. In addition, they switched out their gas-powered hot water tank in favour of a heat pump hot water tank, which is up to four times more efficient and uses up to 70 per cent less energy, on average, than a standard electrical water heater. Their home improvement challenge hasn’t stopped there, though: their next mission is to renovate their “wildly out-of-date” basement from the early 60s. “We’re gutting it completely and starting fresh,” Steve Viau said, adding that the focus will be on insulation in their walls, floors and ceiling. 

Meanwhile, the Shannon family from Airdrie, Alta.  is taking an active approach to reaching net zero, upgrading their home to produce as much energy as – or more than – it consumes. While most people who want to improve their home’s energy efficiency typically take a passive approach, such as adding insulation, the Shannons have been working to produce energy through renewable sources. In turn, this active approach is resulting in a net-zero energy balance. One of the renewable sources they’ve invested in is solar panels, which they’ve gone all in for. The Shannons have 42 panels for a 19.11 kilowatt system, more than double the number an average homeowner would typically have in Alberta. “It’s been fun to watch the looks on people’s faces when they ask if we just have a couple of solar panels,” Samantha said, explaining that half of them are hidden behind their home. “We tell them, ‘No, we actually have 42,’ and their jaws drop.” The Shannons also no longer heat with natural gas and instead use a ground-source heat pump that draws heat from the earth to warm their home. The transition to geothermal energy required digging up their front lawn and having drilling rigs bore 250 feet into the ground to install their heat pump pipes. 

Rethinking the home

As part of their home improvement challenge, the Waddell-Shanklands turned their small, flat roof into a living garden. (Photo courtesy the Waddell-Shankland family)
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Some families, like the Waddell-Shanklands, decided to get creative in their home improvement challenge and think about ways their house can simultaneously provide a comfortable living space while also benefiting the surrounding community. To inspire others in the neighbourhood, the family turned their small, flat roof into a living garden, extending the lifespan of their roof by 15 years and avoiding unnecessary embodied carbon waste seen in bitumen or petroleum product roofs, which have half the lifespan of a green roof. It benefits the local environment, too, helping to cool the immediate surroundings and attract local fauna. “We’re trying to inspire people to think outside the box,” said Crystal Waddell, adding that her family has had multiple people reach out to ask them about their living garden. 

Their home improvement challenge also included upgrading and replacing old systems. As their home was built in the 1940s, they re-insulated their entire attic and basement to mitigate air leaks resulting from an aged home envelope. After focusing on their home envelope, the family changed their heating system, switching out their gas furnace with an electric heat pump. They also switched out their hot water heater for a tankless on-demand system, which only provides hot water as needed and doesn’t produce standby energy losses.

Building from the ground up

The Marsh family is all smiles as they sport their new Live Net Zero t-shirts. (Photo courtesy the Marsh family)
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Throughout the Live Net Zero challenges, the Marsh family has been simultaneously improving their Etobicoke, ON, home while building a new, separate, multi-generation house nearby. Though they will be only living in their current residence until June, the family of five is still working hard to make it less carbon-intensive, from installing heat pumps and a Smart thermostat to sealing up air leaks with caulking. “I think it’s really important to show that even though we are selling this house, we’re still trying to make it as energy-efficient as possible,” said Ameena Marsh. “It’s a great selling feature, and it’s also really helpful for the future homebuyers.”

The family’s idea of building a multi-generational home resulted from their desire to reduce their carbon footprint. Instead of having a condo downtown and a house in the suburbs, the family is making a concentrated effort to live together to decrease their household emissions. Above all, the family said their goal is to not only build a sustainable home for their family but also create something that can inspire other people. 

One feature in their new home is radiant floor heating, which will use tubes to heat the floors directly and use about 20 to 25 per cent less energy than forced air heating. They will also install Smart thermostats in every room so they can turn down the heat in the areas of their home that aren’t occupied as much, saving 10 to 15 per cent of their energy needs. Every decision the family makes to design and build their new homes will reach net zero. 

“We’re trying to be ahead of the curve, so to speak,” said Baldev Marsh, explaining that there has been an increase in legislation across Canada regarding homes that have been put in place to reduce emissions. “But we want to show that you don’t have to wait for a government mandate. You can do your part now.”

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