People & Culture

Keeping the heat in and the cold out: Live Net Zero families take on home envelope challenge

Canadian Geographic’s eight competing Live Net Zero families found ways to improve their home’s envelope consisting of the structural building, insulation, windows, doors, and air-sealing

  • Oct 17, 2023
  • 1,297 words
  • 6 minutes
A woman makes retrofits to her windows to limit the amount of heat exiting her home.
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If you’ve ever tried to ride a bike with a flat tire, you’ll know it requires significant effort. As air escapes the wheels, you are forced to pedal harder to get to your destination, draining your time, energy and morale. 

This concept was a big eye-opener for the DePape-Rodrigues household heading into Live Net Zero’s second challenge. The family of three from Winnipeg, Manitoba, alongside the other seven competing families, were asked to perform an energy audit and make changes to their home’s envelope – consisting of the structural building, insulation, windows, doors, and air sealing. Much like a flat tire, a home riddled with air leaks and gaps requires more energy to heat or cool.

With Canada’s winters being among the most severe on Earth, families nationwide rely on heating systems to stay comfortable. However, up to 75 per cent of a home’s energy consumption can be from just heating the house, according to the Canadian Home Builders’ Association. With this in mind, the families were tasked with finding ways to make the building envelope of their homes more energy efficient, reducing both their energy bill and carbon emissions. 

What were the main ways the families approached this challenge? Let’s take a look.

Jess Coll points to the condensation that has built up on one of her windows, which the family ended up replacing. (Photo courtesy the Proulx-Coll family)
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Windows

As windows and doors can account for up to 25 per cent of total heat loss in a home, it is no surprise most families in this challenge focused heavily on this area. Before the Live Net Zero challenge even began, the MacInnis-Boudreau household was already well into home envelope upgrades, including replacing the weather stripping on most windows. However, as they live in a 1930s-built home with drafty windows, they knew there was still room for improvement. Thus, they decided to replace the windows where condensation had built up — a sign that the panes could no longer prevent heat transfer.

The Proulx-Coll household also sought to replace their foggy windows. But as they soon discovered, replacing windows can be expensive: they received quotes above $20,000 to replace all the ones on their main floor. Their solution? Hiring a contractor to simply change out the glass — ones that are properly sealed and have argon gas in them- effectively increases thermal insulation efficiency and prevents condensation. They also explored other affordable options to insulate other windows in their home, such as using heat-shrink film. There, they attached double-sided tape to the frame, stuck the plastic film to the tape, and then heated it with a hair dryer to shrink it tightly across the window – effectively adding extra insulation. 

Still, some families decided that replacing their old windows entirely was an investment they felt they could make. The Marshes, for example, purchased new triple-glazed windows, which offer superior insulation, noise reduction and moisture control. 

Nigel and Brandon enlisted the help of Nipun to seal gaps and cracks around the windows, doors, and outlets in their home. (Photo courtesy the Marsh family)
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Doors

Another major way heat can escape your home is through your doors. With this in mind, the Marsh family sought affordable ways to seal up gaps and prevent any air from leaking out or in. Alongside using a caulking gun to close gaps, they found door stoppers to be especially effective in this regard. These devices block cold air from seeping through cracks, decreasing energy consumption from heating systems. Since doors are frequently used, weather stripping can be weakened, but adding a draft stopper can ensure the door’s thermal barrier is protected.

Insulation 

Homes in Canada must be able to withstand long, harsh winters. Insulating your home properly means you are not only reducing your energy consumption – saving money and greenhouse gas emissions – but are also ensuring your family remains comfortable year-round. As insufficient foundation insulation and poorly insulated walls and roofs can lead to significant heat loss, many Live Net Zero families zeroed in on this area for upgrades.

Walls

Living in Winnipeg, which has some of the coldest winter weather of any major Canadian city, the DePape-Rodrigues household decided that insulating their main walls would be their top priority. Following their energy audit, they hired contractors tasked with this project.  

Samantha Shannon points at the hole where her chimney used to be. Since they no longer use natural gas, the chimney has become useless. (Photo courtesy the Shannon family)
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Two other families, the Proulx-Coll household and the Shannon household, discovered a similar problem in their home envelopes: holes that were a major culprit for air leakage. A metal tube in the Proulx-Coll’s basement – previously used for an oil furnace that the family got rid of four years ago – has been unsuspectedly letting heat out of their home. Similarly, the Shannons no longer use natural gas in their home. Their natural gas fireplace has become useless, meaning their chimney has been rendered useless.  

Both households filled these wall holes with insulation to ensure heat would no longer unnecessarily seep out. The Shannons used concrete to eliminate air leakage, while the Proulx-Colls used spray foam to fill the tube and hard foam pads to cover other windows in their basement. 

Outlets 

For this challenge, the DePape-Rodrigues conducted a blower door test, which measured how much air passed through their walls and which spots needed patching up. Surprisingly, they found leakage from the light switches and electrical outlet panels. “You can actually feel the air coming out of these things,” said Kari. 

Oli Proulx shows the metal tube in his basement where air has been leaking out. (Photo courtesy the Proulx Coll family)
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Following advice from an energy advisor, the family bought a pack of insulators that fit behind the panels. Not only were they affordable ($30 for a pack of 15), but they were very quick and easy to install, the family says.

Learning and Educating 

Alongside patching up gaps and leaks and inspecting how well their windows and doors hold in heat, some families also used this challenge as an opportunity to educate other Canadians on how they could improve their home envelopes.

The Foreman household highlighted the concept of the “U-factor,” which measures the rate of heat loss. The lower the U-factor, the slower the heat loss. As the family is replacing their windows, they were pleased to discover ENERGY STAR Most Efficient windows, which classify as a U-factor of 1:05 (or lower), qualify for a $250 federal grant. “[This] was definitely a factor when choosing our new windows,” the family said. The Foremans have also applied for the Canada Greener Homes Loan, which can help Canadians finance eligible retrofits that have not yet been started.  

Kari Rodrigues sticks an insulation pad onto one of his home’s electrical outlet panels. (Photo courtesy the DePape-Rodrigues family)
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Meanwhile, the Waddell-Shanklands emphasized the importance of setting realistic budgets. “Once you’re in into the process and getting ideas and quotes on upgrades, it’s easy to get excited by all the different things you can do,” the family said, adding that the key at this early stage is to pick a “north star” number on affordability that you can always refer back to. “This number will guide what interventions you prioritize and how you interact with contractors and funders, and will help ensure you don’t end up in over your head and regretting it later.”

As for the Reid household, they are securing quotes for different upgrades, such as energy-efficient triple pane windows and insulation, which they will also use to apply for an interest-free loan from the federal government. As they already had the exterior of their home professionally caulked before the challenge began, they are now adding foam insulation to light switches. 

As they did in the commuting challenge, the Reids continue to emphasize the importance of communicating with others about what steps they are taking to live net zero, including sharing resources and ideas with people in their neighbourhood. “Lots of people are very worried and anxious about climate change,” the family said. “Creating a community around our transition to net zero has been a powerful way to generate hope as we are researching, implementing, and sharing the solutions.”

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