What would these old walls say about improving energy efficiency?

November 14, 2023

An arieal shot of a home built in the 90’s

If the walls of your house could talk, what would they say? (No, not your deepest secrets.) Perhaps they whisper in drafts under the doors or rattles at the windows. Maybe the windows fog up on a cold day. And in winter, a whoosh of snow falling off the roof might be a telltale sign of heat escaping through the attic. Maybe your utility bill just plain says it costs a lot to heat.

You get to know a house after living in it for a while. Is it telling you it’s time for a renovation—and not just to improve its looks but to change how it feels to live in the house?

While we’re already supporting builders and developers to achieve Step 5 of the BC Energy Step Code with new construction, we’ve found ways to sustainably upgrade older properties, too. 

To make changes to reduce your home’s energy use and greenhouse gas emissions and make it more comfortable, here are some tips and things to consider from contractors and homeowners participating in our Deep Energy Retrofit Pilot Program.

What’s the difference between a home renovation and a deep energy retrofit?

While a renovation might focus on improving certain aspects of a home, such as updating kitchens and bathrooms, a deep energy retrofit aims to improve the home’s energy performance, looking at the whole house as a system.

A couple smiling, standing together on the driveway in front of their home.

Rebecca and Dan Poelman, Deep Energy Retrofit Pilot Program participants

Some homeowners may choose to do deep energy retrofits as part of a bigger home renovation project. Others, like Deep Energy Retrofit Pilot Program participants like the Poelman family and Jonathan Baylis, have already done cosmetic upgrades like kitchens, bathrooms and flooring, but still found themselves needing to replace old heating systems or contending with cold spots or high heating bills. Their energy evaluation might also have revealed how much air their house was actually leaking.

Deep energy retrofits focus on upgrading the building envelope first (including walls, insulation, windows and doors) and then on the efficiency of the heating, hot water and ventilation systems. It aims to improve energy use, airtightness, insulation, comfort and air circulation through a comprehensive package of upgrades such as:

  • new or upgraded insulation in walls, attic and/or basement
  • new cladding to insulate the exterior
  • new energy-efficient doors and windows
  • improved air sealing
  • new heat recovery ventilation system
  • new high-efficiency furnace, boiler or hybrid heating system

While there isn’t an official definition of a deep energy retrofit, our pilot program aims to reduce energy use and greenhouse gas emissions of participating homes and buildings by 50 per cent or more.

This type of study has not been done before in British Columbia to this scale to make significant gains on energy efficiency and performance. It’s a very exciting project we’re proud to be part of.

Einar Halbig, Energy Advisor, E3 Eco Group

It starts with a home energy evaluation

Ryan Coleman, founder of EcoLighten, an energy services consulting firm and implementation contractor for homes in our Deep Energy Retrofit Pilot Program, says the first step in the process is to get an evaluation from a qualified energy advisor. This will help you establish a “baseline” of how your home is performing energy-wise compared to similar houses.

Energy advisors, like Einar Halbig of E3 Eco Group, do measurements and tests such as the blower door test to find out where air is entering or escaping the home. They also use sophisticated software to model or simulate how the house might perform with certain upgrades, whether that’s increased air sealing and insulation or new energy-efficient windows and doors, or a new furnace or heat pump.

An energy advisor, standing and smiling outside a client’s home.

Einar Halbig, Energy Advisor, E3 Eco Group, who provided energy evaluation services for the Deep Energy Retrofit Pilot Program

Even if you think you already know what the house needs, an energy evaluation is an important first step for a deep energy retrofit project. You’ll get a report with a list of recommendations for your house, and you may be surprised at what the walls are telling you. For example, program participants Rebecca and Dan Poelman knew they needed a new furnace and that the windows in their 1990s—built home felt cold, but their energy evaluation revealed how much air was actually leaking through the walls, doors and windows and the need for improved air sealing to reduce the drafts.

Hiring a professional energy advisor may cost a few hundred dollars, but you may get back some of the cost through provincial or federal energy efficiency programs. Having the list of recommended upgrades will also be helpful when you approach contractors.

How can I find a contractor for my deep energy retrofit project?

You can find qualified gas and electrical contractors to install heating systems and appliances through FortisBC’s Trade Ally Network directories, as well as contractors to install insulation, doors and windows, and heat pumps through the Home Performance Contractor Network. (Having upgrades installed by a professional is required if you’re applying for our rebates.)

If you’re a homeowner, you might have to go the extra mile while planning, researching, coordinating and communicating with the various trades and subcontractors, advises Ryan Coleman. This is because of the limited number of general contractors out there that specialize in doing energy-efficiency retrofits as a package.

The good news is that our networks are always expanding, and the program is expected to get better with time.

What can I expect during a deep energy retrofit?

Our pilot program is being designed to minimize disruption to the participating homeowners as upgrades are installed. The deep energy retrofits are focused on the exterior of the house, as well as in the mechanical room/basement, so they should not require residents of the home to move out while work is completed.

The upgrades for participating homeowners begin in fall 2023, so this section will be updated as the installation continues.

For many years I’ve been trying to heat my house at the same time as being sustainable with energy, and this was an opportunity to take a big step forward and I’m delighted to have been accepted for that.

Jonathan Baylis, Deep Energy Retrofit Pilot Program participant

What will the new walls have to say?

When all is said and retrofitted, if done right, a more energy-efficient house may be quieter and less drafty, have reduced energy use and emissions, more even temperatures throughout the year (even in cold snaps and heat waves) and better indoor air quality. And homeowners may save on their heating and hot water bills.

There are aesthetic benefits to a deep energy retrofit, too. Most of our Deep Energy Retrofit Pilot Program participants will receive new triple-pane windows and new doors as part of their upgrades. Experienced renovators will tell you the immediate change new windows can make to the look and feel of a house.

A woman smiling, leaning against a fence in her backyard.

Renee Simard, Deep Energy Retrofit Pilot Program participant

Some participants will receive exterior cladding to insulate their home from the outside, such as Renee Simard, whose 1920s—built home has undergone various additions and renovations over the decades. Replacing the stucco and mix of single- and double-pane windows can be expected to enhance the look of her house, as well as making it less drafty.

Follow along as we see what’s behind the walls

Part of the objective of the Deep Energy Retrofit Pilot Program is to learn how the implementation process affects homeowners and residents, so we’ll be updating this blog as our participants progress with their upgrades. Follow us @fortisbc on social media and watch for more videos and updates!

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