Live Net Zero: Turning up the heat

In the heating and cooling challenge, the participating families found ways to improve the energy efficiency of their home’s HVAC – from heat pumps to solar panels

  • Nov 23, 2022
  • 1,547 words
  • 7 minutes
A man installs solar panels to the roof of a home. (Jon Callas/Flickr)
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Canada experiences some of the greatest climate extremes on the planet, from long, cold, snowy winters to extremely hot and muggy summers in some parts of the country. As a result, the HVAC — heating, ventilation and air conditioning — systems in our homes work hard year-round to keep us cozy during the cold months, and cool and comfortable during the hot ones. This comes at a cost to both households’ bottom lines and to the environment; heating accounts for about 64 per cent of the energy used in the average Canadian home, according to Natural Resources Canada, and 18 per cent of our total carbon emissions

Improving the energy efficiency of your home heating and cooling is an effective way to cut down on emissions. That’s why, in Live Net Zero’s fourth challenge, we asked our participating families to consider the different fuels or energy types that power their homes, such as electricity, natural gas, furnace oil and propane, and consider switching to more environmentally-friendly alternatives where possible. 

How did the families approach the challenge? Let’s take a look.

John Leung installs a new electrostatic furnace filter – something that should be changed in a home every three to six months. (Photo courtesy John Leung)
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The Leung Family

For John Leung, a home’s HVAC system is like the engine of a car. It’s a big-ticket item in a house that requires inspection and upkeep to ensure it keeps running in the most efficient way possible. In the Leung house, you can find three different kinds of heating systems: a gas furnace, electric baseboards and electric plug-in heaters. As John’s kids each have their own space heater in their rooms, the family found that they didn’t need to consistently use their furnace to heat the entire house. By shifting their focus to where and when heat is needed in their home, the Vancouver family is saving both energy and money, according to Save on Energy.

The Leungs also spent time exploring which systems in their home need to be replaced. As their furnace is about 18 years old and has about a 60 per cent efficiency rating, they are looking for alternatives. They’ve settled on investing in heat pumps, which use a small amount of energy to pull heat out of a low-temperature area like outside air or underground and pump it into a higher temperature area. These are known to be very efficient at both heating and cooling and can greatly reduce energy costs and related carbon emissions. In British Columbia, which typically has a more temperate climate, they are also gaining popularity with renovations and new home construction, as they are generally 250 to 400 per cent more efficient in heating and cooling a home, according to BC Hydro.

Part of the Loewen-Nair’s AC system that is outside. (Photo courtesy Andrea Loewen-Nair)
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The Loewen-Nair Family

Like the Leungs, the Loewen-Nairs have been looking to acquire a heat pump. However, older versions of the system often work efficiently only in milder climates and wouldn’t be very effective when the temperature in London, Ont. dips below -10°C. 

Newer versions of cold climate heat pumps, in contrast, are designed to be efficient in temperatures as low as -30°C, with a study by Yukon’s Department of Energy, Mines, and Resources finding some systems were even capable of 200 per cent efficiency at -18°C. With this in mind, the Loewen-Nairs are exploring the different options available to them and the best path forward for a more efficient home heating and cooling system. They are currently in the process of installing a split cell unit along with heat recovery ventilators (HRV) and energy recovery ventilators (ERV), which help to enhance indoor air quality.

The biggest challenge for the family has been the hefty price tag. The system they are looking at is expected to cost them around $40,000. Thankfully, the federal government offers Canadians the ability to apply for an interest-free loan up to $40,000 for these types of retrofits.

Additionally, Canadians are now able to apply to a $250-million grant program aimed at helping citizens switch to electric heat pumps. The Oil to Heat Pump Affordability Grant will provide up to $5,000 for low- and middle-income homeowners, and will cover costs such as the installation of heat pumps and the electrical upgrades required for the new equipment.

Calvin, Janet and baby Nathan research HVAC prices. (Photo courtesy Calvin Lai)
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The Lai Family 

As soon as this challenge got underway, the Lais were hard at work researching what kind of heating systems are feasible for their newly-built home and climate and whether it’s cost effective to replace what they currently use.

They were initially interested in heat pumps, but like the Loewen-Nairs, were startled by the cost. Despite wanting to move away from using their already-installed forced air furnace and natural gas-fueled water heater tank, which is what the vast majority of Ontarians have in their homes, the Lais found the alternatives to be simply unaffordable. “I was not expecting the numbers,” Calvin told Canadian Geographic. “$20,000 for a heat pump unit [and] another 10 grand for a heat pump water heater? These are gigantic numbers.”

However, replacing their heating system in the future is certainly not out of the question. “When my equipment eventually breaks down in 15 years, perhaps I can consider moving to a heat pump,” Calvin said. “But right now, it’s just economically impossible.”

Instead, the Lais made the most out of what they already have for this challenge. For example, they already own an ecobee, which is a smart thermostat that can automatically set temperatures depending on whether they’re home or away. With this, they can heat their house only when needed, resulting in both money and energy saved.

A sketch-up of the Richmonds’ house with solar panels. (Photo courtesy Ania Richmond)
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The Richmond Family

Living in Alberta, the province with the highest number of sunny days in Canada (an average of 312 annually), the Richmonds knew they were in a perfect position to utilize one of the most environmentally-friendly sources of energy: solar. Large south-facing windows in their living room already allow a significant amount of passive heat into their home on bright, sunny days. But the Richmonds knew they could do more, Ania Richmond told Canadian Geographic

To reduce carbon emissions, the family is moving towards electrification. But in Alberta, 89 per cent of electricity is generated by fossil fuels and about 10 per cent is produced from renewables, such as wind, hydro, and biomass, according to the Canada Energy Regulator. “Even if we electrify our utilities inside of our house, we’d still be creating a lot of emissions in the grid,” Kit Richmond said.

Thus, the family concluded the best option to reduce their emissions is to install solar panels, which provide clean electricity directly to their home. The carbon footprint of solar panels is roughly 20 times less than the carbon output of coal-powered electricity sources, making it an attractive choice for those aiming to live net zero.

The Live Net Zero challenges have been a whole family effort for the Pistors. (Photo courtesy Jen Pistor)
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The Pistors

Like the other Live Net Zero families, the Pistors found this challenge to be the most difficult one to tackle. The family had always really wanted to install a heat pump, but after getting quotes that ranged from $26,000 to $35,000, they were “very quickly slapped in the face with the reality that that’s not going to be feasible,” Jen Pistor told Canadian Geographic. “We were feeling really defeated and frustrated because it was everything we had hoped we would be able to do with this challenge.”

Initially, Jen said her family was stumped and couldn’t find other heating and cooling solutions that didn’t require ripping their house apart and trying to install new systems. It wasn’t until Jen shared her experiences online that FortisBC, the natural gas provider for British Columbia, reached out to her directly and let her know about another alternative she hadn’t heard of before: renewable natural gas. As she learned, this energy source comes from captured carbon emissions from landfills and green waste, which is then recycled. “It’s not considered a fossil fuel because they don’t dig into the ground,” Jen explained. “They’re repurposing from the surface.”

In the end, the Pistors decided to switch over to this greener solution, which didn’t cost the family any money upfront as they are able to keep all the same systems they have in place in their home currently. Because of the money they saved here, they are now going to invest in tools like a smart thermostat, along with revisiting their home envelope and continuing to seal up any gaps or holes. “So even if we are having to rely on less-than-ideal sources of energy, at least we’re not wasting what we’re using and we’re maximizing it to the best we can,” said Jen.




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