My Attempts at Energy Efficiency
When my family moved from Buenos Aires to Montreal in 1948 (when I was five years old), we stayed for over a year at my aunt and uncle’s home in Westmount while our house was being built across the river in St. Lambert. The former was an older home, constructed in the late 1800s, and heated by coal. I remember wandering down into the dark basement (where kittens were being born) and watching the coal come rolling down a chute through an opening in the wall. The scene must have made quite an impression on me, for soon after, I drew a coal mine complete with coal car, rail tracks, and about one thousand tiny circles, each representing a piece of coal, filling the entire sheet of paper. Every week I looked forward to the arrival of the ice man, who delivered several large blocks of crystal-clear ice (chopped from the St. Lawrence River) for our wooden ice box; we did not have an electric refrigerator at the time. On every visit the friendly ice man chopped off a piece of ice with his great steel ice tongs, so I could suck on the ice as a treat. Never having seen ice before back home, the frozen liquid held a keen fascination for me.
We were all excited to move to 282 Logan Street in St. Lambert, since our new house included a number of upgrades in modern conveniences, but many technologies and subsidies for energy efficiency still did not exist. As a child, I watched the big oil truck pull up to the Maple Avenue side of the house, the man unwind a long hose, and then pump the fuel into our huge steel tank in the basement. The nearby formidable furnace I found rather scary, with the roaring fire going on inside. However, I did enjoy warming my hands and drying my soaked mitts and socks on the hot-water radiators, which were distributed in every room. Our fireplace in the front room was most welcoming after I built snow forts, participated in snowball mock battles, and skated on icy Maple Avenue to and from Lesperance Park where I played hockey with my friends.
After dinner, I frequently fell into a delicious slumber in the warm glow coming from the granite-faced fireplace. I did not realize then that most of the heat and plenty of unburned carbon soot were being carried directly up and out of the chimney. Without adequate insulation and flashing in the roof, an ice dam built up each winter in one spot near the front door, and melt water eventually forced its way under the shingles and into the plaster ceiling above the cellar stairs. We also had to call our plumber cousin, whom I named ‘Big Bob’, each winter to thaw a basement pipe with his blow torch, so we could operate the washing machine. And of course, all the windows were just double-paned, the outside ones mounted in heavy wooden frames, which posed a major challenge to remove each spring so that they could be replaced by screens. In the autumn, my brother and sisters and I were all recruited to wash the numerous panes with vinegar and newspaper.
Upon graduating from the University of Illinois (south of the snow line) in 1970, I moved to Winnipeg (notorious for being one of the coldest cities on the planet), and being a biologist and keenly interested in environmental issues, it was only natural that I look into energy-efficient, low-polluting means to heat and cool my home, which was built in 1965, before the start of the energy crisis. The house had attracted my wife and me partly because of the numerous large windows that allowed cheerful sunlight to stream into our rooms, and the 4000 sq ft (including a finished basement) that provided ample space for entertaining, work stations, and hobbies. Unfortunately, frost routinely built up along the inside bottom of some windows from condensation; double panes of glass were insufficient to prevent excessive heat from seeping through the single dead-air space between the panes. Also, in those days, walls were constructed with 2x4 frames, leaving space for only 4 inches of fiberglass insulation to keep out the cold that plummeted on occasion to -40 degrees C. The monthly gas bills to heat our large, poorly insulated home, and the electricity bills for lighting, hot water, and air conditioning made quite an impact on our family budget.
Early on, I decided to improve the window problem; I definitely needed three panes on each window in this climate. But why discard two perfectly good windows and have to purchase three new ones in each unit? The cost to replace all the windows (either three panes or two with gas inside) was prohibitive, so I decided to try personally installing another pane of glass on the inside, which fortunately I was able (with careful measuring) to fit into the existing moulding. Some of these panes measured a full 5 x 6 feet and were barely liftable by my wife and me. We positioned these and sealed them in winter when the house humidity was at it lowest, thereby hopefully avoiding condensation between the windows. While it took some time to complete this project, I eventually added over 80 panes of glass on the house and a large porch (optimistically called a ‘Florida Room’). The house became noticeably warmer, and frost and draft free. Cost $6000 for glass and sealant.
Next we decided to increase the attic insulation, and were pleased to find out about a subsidy from Manitoba Hydro which would cover the cost of insulating materials; all I had to do was pay for the labour of two workmen. In a couple of days they raised the attic insulation to over R70, and added missing caulking around vents and the chimney. The new insulation was clearly apparent in better temperature control in all seasons and reduced noise from vehicles and aircraft. Cost $1000.
A few years later, I looked into geothermal heating. I believe this system will eventually be accepted as code for much of North America, and especially in Canada’s exceptionally cold climate. Burning hydrocarbons for fuel is like burning dollar bills to keep warm. These non-renewable resources, which accumulated over several-hundred million years from decomposing plant and animal materials, could be recycled endlessly into countless products instead of burning them up, and at the same time save us from fouling our environment with carbon dioxide and other waste gases, and fine carbon particles -- damaging people’s health and causing catastrophic, global-climate change. Utilizing the concept of heat transfer by means of a water furnace (a compressor and two small circulating pumps) and polyethylene pipes circulating a fluid to depths of 11-15 metres (35-50 ft) in my backyard, the system extracts heat from the ground and distributes it into the house in winter, and a flip of a switch in summer reverses the process and takes heat from the house and deposits it into the ground. I still find it remarkable to stand in my front room, looking out into a snow-filled backyard in winter, and feel the heat arriving from 15 metres underground. We also added a feature that pre-warms the water in the hot-water tank, resulting in further electrical savings. It was a great day when I called the gas company to come and permanently shut off the gas line to our house, and to see the end of gas bills arriving in my mail box. The reasons so many people do not select a geothermal heating/cooling system are lack of knowledge or interest, and the initial higher cost compared to a gas or oil furnace. However, with no fuel needed, and our electrical costs rising only slightly to operate the geothermal equipment, we are saving over $2000 annually in heating/cooling expenses. The cost of the project was $18,000 (including a new electrical panel and an emergency electric heater) resulting in a pay-back period of about nine years. A geothermal system is usually installed when a home is first constructed, but it can also be retrofitted into an existing home and property, as in my case. A drawback of the latter is that the yard landscaping is totally destroyed during the drilling process and installation of the pipes, and it takes a couple of years for the soil to settle before a lawn and garden can be restored. A visitor now looking at our gardens, pathways andgazebo would have no concept of the engineering miracle beneath their feet.
While electricity rates are currently low in Manitoba when compared to other provinces and nearby states, the rates here are increasing every couple of years, and so I have been replacing older light bulbs with energy-efficient LEDs. I had hoped some time ago to add solar power to my home, especially considering Winnipeg’s large number of sunny days and the long periods of daylight in summer months. However, I did not wish to resort to using numerous batteries to store the power, and then have to replace these expensive components every eight years or so. Also, the cost of installing solar power was beyond my retirement budget. Then I read about the temporary program offered by Manitoba Hydro that encouraged homeowners and businesses to install solar power by providing a 35% rebate on the total cost of the project. Any extra power my system accumulated would be sold back to Manitoba Hydro at the same rate I was already paying. No batteries required, and I could have the pleasure of observing the new bidirectional meter running backward on sunny days! There is even an app for our cell phones that shows the current power generation of our system.
So, as I write this article, a local company installed today 32 solar panels on our upper, low-slope roof, which remains largely snow free in winter due to exposure to north winds. Fifty panels would have taken us completely off the grid, but other, lower roof surfaces are snow-covered for almost half the year, and I do not wish to see the panels from the yard or street. The 32 panels will reduce our electricity requirements by over 60%, so our annual cost for electricity and heating/cooling the home will be considerably less than $800, which I find amazing for this climate. My cost $18,000.
One of the factors that was important to me was that no gaseous wastes such as carbon dioxide, or fine-carbon particles, are being produced by my power systems, compared to the typical gas-burning furnaces that pollute the air. However, I do enjoy an occasional log fire in one of our two fireplaces, but these were of the old style in which only a metal plate blocked the escape of warm house air up the chimney in winter. We were therefore losing significant heat at all times in winter months, and when I did have a fire going, only a small portion of the heat was actually entering the room passively.
So I again investigated what I could do to remedy the situation. I went to a local fireplace store and looked at an energy-efficient unit with a sealable glass front. It also draws in extra air into a series of perforated metal pipes to more-thoroughly burn escaping gases and carbon particles. A two-stage fan then blows the hot air directly into the home. I purchased two of these fireplace units at a cost of $6000 (installed). When just one fireplace is operating, so much heat is generated that our geothermal furnace actually turns off, even on the coldest days. I occasionally have to resort to buying a half-cord of wood, but most of the time I utilize local free sources, when I or neighbours cut down a tree, or a new housing development is discarding pieces of wood. Consequently, the cost of wood fuel is minimal. Yes I am adding some carbon dioxide and some carbon particles to the atmosphere, but as one wood provider rightly noted, those logs would also release the carbon dioxide slowly when they would have decomposed on the forest floor. I try not to feel too guilty when occasionally using myfireplace on those cold winter evenings.
I am aware that some of my acquaintances think I have gone overboard with my energy-conservation projects, even if I have implemented them over many years. However I am now contemplating one additional feature -- wind power! My north-facing roof, being quite high and receiving the full blast of winds from the northwest, especially in winter when my solar-power generation is reduced, is a perfect location to instal a wind generator. I am now researching a unit that will have minimal vibration or noise problems, and that can be tied into my electrical meter. I wonder how close I can become to being completely energy independent; fun to think about.
Our home would likely be one of the few in Winnipeg to have non-polluting sources of geothermal, solar and wind power. The projects have been costly, but in the end will save significant money, and will dramatically increase the value of the house when it comes time to sell (hopefully not for at least another 20 years). Until then, I am thrilled to be capturing energy from the thermonuclear, hydrogen-fusion reaction of the sun, and from heat emanating from the interior of the Earth due to its hot molten core, friction from sinking heavy metals, and the decay of radioactive elements.
Front of the house with the edges of the solar panels barely visible.
Backyard garden under which the geothermal pipes descend to 50 feet.
Back yard looking over the new solar panels.