Environment

Live Net Zero: How well does your home hold in heat? 

In the home envelope challenge, the Live Net Zero families evaluated their home’s structure, insulation, windows, doors, and air sealing

  • Dec 20, 2022
  • 1,101 words
  • 5 minutes
Jen Pistor installs foam insulation strips around her wall plugs to seal up any gaps (left) and applies weather stripping to her doors to help prevent drafts. (Photos courtesy Jen Pistor)
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As temperatures start to dip below freezing and frost begins to creep into the air, Canadians are chasing a common goal: Keeping the heat in and the cold out. 

Living in a country with four seasons, energy is required to warm our homes during the fall and winter. But if your doors are thin or walls are uninsulated, heat can escape. In turn, you may unintentionally be heating up the planet with unnecessary emissions.

In Live Net Zero’s home envelope challenge, the five participating families were asked to perform an audit of their home’s envelope — consisting of the structural building, insulation, windows, doors, and air sealing — and look for gaps and leakage. With the guidance of energy advisors at Lightspark, the families examined and evaluated ways to improve their home’s efficiency. 

“Up to 75 per cent of your home’s energy consumption can be just from heating the home itself,” says Jack Zhou, a partner and senior registered energy advisor at Lightspark. “The more energy-efficient the building envelope of the house gets, the less energy is required to keep the house warm. As a result, both the energy bill and carbon emissions are reduced.”

The Richmond Family

The Richmond family’s garage attic before and after insulation.
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The key to an energy-efficient home is an airtight structural building. The Richmonds found the blower door test to be very valuable, as it measured how much air passed through their walls and identified the leaky spots that needed patching up. A net zero home has a blower test output value of 1.0 ACH50 and the average new house build is typically less than 3.0. The Richmonds were pleasantly surprised to discover their more-than 20-year-old home currently rests at 2.1. 

To get closer to net zero, the family is insulating the attic above their garage. As cold air gets trapped in there, it pushes into their house and significantly affects heat preservation. Alongside tackling the attic, the Richmonds are also working on insulating their garage door. From a cost perspective, they found gluing on insulation was cheaper than purchasing a new, insulated garage door – which would have been about six times more expensive. 

“The home envelope really challenges you to ask, ‘Where do you put money in your house?” says Ania Richmond. 

As the Leungs wait for their new windows to arrive in early spring, the family is installing insulation film on their windows.
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The Leung Family

The biggest ‘aha’ moment for the Leungs was discovering the root cause of their energy loss is not their home’s heating system, but their windows. After a Capture Energy advisor met with the family and evaluated their home, the Leungs were told to focus on fixing their windows, heating systems and insulation, in that order. 

“If they hadn’t come by, we would have thought about doing other things first,” says John Leung, explaining that they had initially planned to focus on their heating system. “But then they pointed out to us that windows are what keeps your heating and cooling inside.” In other words, it doesn’t matter how good your heating system is if all the hot air escapes through gaps and leakage in the windows. 

The Leungs qualified for a rebate for new windows, combining a $5,000 grant from the federal government, which you can receive after completing an energy assessment, and a $2,000 rebate from BC Hydro.

With this support, they were able to afford triple-pane windows, which are much more energy efficient than single or double-pane ones. Because of a supply backlog, the new windows won’t arrive until the spring, but in the meantime, the Leungs have installed insulation film and have replaced worn-out weatherstripping to keep in the heat and keep out the cold.

The Pistor Family

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Work has begun on the Pistor family’s chimney repair (left), and the family has sealed up other gaps with spray foam insulation.
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By speaking with an energy advisor and conducting a blower door test, the Pistors discovered a major source of heat loss in their home: their chimney. “When he put the air blower on the front door, you could actually feel air gushing from our chimney,” says Jen Pistor. 

The Pistors are now in the process of repairing their chimney and installing a new energy-efficient damper, as their old one was barely sealed. 

The cost of major repairs and renovations can be daunting, but there are smaller, relatively inexpensive steps Canadians can take while working towards net zero. From spraying insulation foam in cracks and gaps to caulking window frames to applying new weather stripping, the Pistors found that while taking big steps to improve their home envelope is important, there are also many inexpensive ways to lower emissions. 

The Loewen-Nairs’ hardware store haul as they geared up to improve their home envelope.
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The Loewen-Nair Family

After hiring a contractor to inspect their home envelope, the Loewen-Nairs discovered their house needs a significant insulation upgrade. “This has been a roll-up-your-sleeves challenge,” says Andrea Loewen-Nair, “and I’m incredibly grateful to the Live Net Zero program because I probably wouldn’t have dug to the degree that I did.”

The family is in the process of pulling the casings off every window in their home and inserting insulation around them, as it is currently non-existent. In addition, Andrea says she was surprised to find that they are losing a lot of heat where their main floor meets the basement, a problem they’re solving by having spray-foam insulation blown into the basement. 

The Loewen-Nairs recommend every Canadian conduct an energy audit of their home envelope, make a plan with achievable goals and then just jump right in. “You’d be surprised how far a caulking gun can get you,” says Andrea.

The Lai Family

Calvin Lai holds up a can of spray foam insulation he used to fill in cracks in their home envelope.
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Armed with the results of their energy audit, the Lais tackled a number of DIY projects to improve their home envelope, including purchasing foam strips to fortify their door seals, caulking their window trim to deal with cracks, spray-foaming a large gap they found by their furnace exhaust piping, and applying plastic window film on some windows.

At the same time, the Lais are contracting out their largest project: attic insulation. This is one of the easiest and most cost effective improvements for homeowners, according to Natural Resources Canada.

Overall, the Lais are working toward increasing their home’s “R” value, which measures the efficiency and performance of a home. A higher “R” value reflects better insulation and indicates a home is more resistant to heat loss. Though the Lais’ home was built to R-32 specifications, it currently sits at R-28. As the Ontario Building Code has since been updated to demand R-60, the family has another reason to work toward net zero. 

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