Big City, Little Homestead

Living rural in the city.

Category: Eco-Living (page 2 of 4)

Eco-renovations at the Homestead

As the fall harvest was winding down with frozen vegetables (no pickling this year) and seed preparation, my efforts returned to Green4r, the renovation project consultancy I felt was needed (and I’m still “validating” the service, which means finding out what people want and when). Green4r (Edit, 2017: now Rewilding) is basically about the same philosophy as this blog: if you’ve got space (and if you live in a dwelling, you usually do), use it to

  • produce some of your own food,
  • recreate space that the natural world can “take back,”
  • impact the natural world less by conserving the resources you use,
  • and to protect your abode and your investment in it by enhancing its quality, durability, and appeal.

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Sunlight through the roof to light your home

In November I blogged about changing the lighting in my home, removing recessed lighting from a place it shouldn’t have been (pot lights should not recess into an attic; it is an energy waste and a fire hazard), and moving it to where it was needed (downstairs). All of this was to prepare for something I’ve wanted to do for a long time: bring natural light indoors by installing a solar tunnel!

After getting our permit approval – which we needed, but did not have to send to “study” because it would not affect the appearance of the house from the street – I ordered the solar tunnels from Velux through my chosen installer.

We were really lucky on the late December day when the installer could finally make it. The weather was unseasonably warm. Installing a solar tunnel involves cutting a big hole in the roof and in the ceiling to install the lens and the diffuser, then the tunnels (since I was installing two), and then the light fixtures on the inside. I bought a light kit for each of them, so they would be connected to the light switch for use at night. I also bought the energy kit to make them eligible for the EcoRenov tax credit (now the RénoVert tax credit, good through 2019). This energy kit installs an extra thermal break so that cold is not conducted down into your living space.

The play-by-play

For the work, you need two skilled workers: one in your attic, one on your roof, fitting together the couplings that will seal the unit and keep water out.

Two workman getting ready to install the tunnel

Installing the couplings for the solar tunnel

Tunnel installed with the light kit

“Do not insert into totally enclosed luminaires!” But I did, because the volume of this enclosure is quite large and generally cool.

The result

Afterward, this was the light that brightened a formerly dark stairwell, previously illuminated only by electricity and open doors :

A view of the pendulum lamp above the landing, with the full light of the winter sun filling the space formerly illuminated only by electricity and open doors

Next step: the electrician comes back, removes this last recessed light, and connects the lighting kit so that the lightbulb inside the solar tunnel is connected to the switch.

And in the bathroom, where I’d previously blogged about removing the light fixtures:

Solar tunnel, fully illuminated by day

With the lighting on at night.

Finally, a picture of the central stair column of my house by day, with all the bedroom doors closed, a condition by which the upstairs was rendered very dark and dim before this project was finally done.

The solar tunnels immediately made a big difference in my quality of life in this part of my home. The next steps were to fill in the last holes of removed light fixtures and paint them over. A full bathroom painting updated the look, so here is the last photo:

After: bathroom updated and painted

Why we need to consume less electricity

Here in Quebec, our hydro-electricity is so readily available that we have the cheapest rates in North America. Electricity is abundant, the valleys are already flooded, ecosystems lost ages ago (seriously though: dams are a problem), and the resulting methane production is dwindling. So why would anyone care about how much clean electricity we use? After all, it is the best in Canada (ergo, North America) for GHG emissions. We seem to have done a few things right, no?

Well, yes, but wait. As more people move to the cities [when they should really be moving (back) to the regions], efficiency increases the perception of abundance, and the draw on the power grid increases. The cities are not doing enough, yet, for themselves to keep the demand steady-or-less, or supply more of their own. Until businesses, municipalities, and utilities develop a local private/community power model, that electricity must come from somewhere. HydroQuébec doesn’t have many, or even any, incentive programs to help people switch to off-grid electricity generation, though, unbeknownst to many, it finally established a net metering option for self-generators to feed power back in to the grid. That will help a bit.

“During cold periods, consume wisely.” So unplug unneeded devices, put the dishwasher and laundry on timed delay, and program your thermostats!

Elsewhere, many utilities practice load-balancing: timing periods of demand by offering consumers preferred rates, after businesses close down for the evening and overnight (when one can run the dishwasher, laundry, bathe and shower, and charge electronics). HydroQuébec doesn’t do this, either. And yet meeting future peak demand is why they want to develop new sources.

The kicker is, cheap electricity is practically designed for waste.

Which is a problem, when we could be making more money if we were more conserving of it. HydroQuébec exports its power to Ontario, New York, New Hampshire, Maine, and Vermont, where non-hydro sources are still used: nuclear, coal, other.

If we collectively cut down our electricity consumption, HydroQuébec would be forced to make export deals and improve long-distance transmission to other markets.

This would mean that fewer mountain top habitats in Appalachia (which extends into Quebec, by the way) would be blasted into oblivion to get at the coal.

Load-balancing our demand would send further into the future HydroQuébec’s construction projects, including harmful ones like biomass. By “biomass,” they say liquor from pulp and paper mills, but they also mean forest litter. They don’t mean garbage or sewage digestion, which would be far better used to feed into Gaz Metropolitain’s supply chain, which instead comes from Alberta.

The planned life span of an electric plant is 50 years. There is only a 2% turnover rate of existing electric plants per year, but plants can be – and hopefully are – upgraded to the greenest technology available. Even hydroelectric plants could have a smaller impact on the environment. Because of the impacts of damming in western rivers, salmon are critically endangered and there is not enough political will to help them, and help the Southern Resident orcas that survive on them.

It’s a sobering thought: what kind of world we have for the next 50 years if, for every upgrade, or new plant installed, they DON’T have the greenest, most low-impact technology possible?


In related news, in 2012, the Nastapoka River has been permanently protected in a new park: Tursujuc. The previous government had wanted to keep it outside of park boundaries to reserve it for HydroQuébec’s future use. (Read about the park – it’s really impressive.)

And a dam removed in the Olympic National Park in Washington state is now being renaturalized by humans and animals alike.

Things to do to consume less heat

So where do YOU fit in with this concern? With energy efficiency, by sealing off heat losses. That’s where, at least if your heat is electric. If it isn’t, try some tips in Saving Electricity in Winter, and consider (a much newer post) installing a Pellet Stove.

With the recent blizzard that swept through Montreal that left about two feet of snow, I had an ample draft of -10º air coming in through cracks (a direct effect of sloppy construction inspection-related to the side effect of cheap electricity in the 1980s). So I went on a hunt to seal them with weather-stripping and caulking – available at any hardware store. I started this process years ago, when I first bought the place. Brrr!

I also wrapped my AC unit in window plastic on the inside and duct-taped it on the outside a few days ago. It is not the best unit for the job, so I will be getting rid of it in the next year or two. They had done a bad job insulating the front of the house where the second floor overhangs my front porch, and I have to keep that bedroom door closed, to keep its cold air from taking the heat from the rest of the house. I will upgrade this, too, with the coming green renovation.

Here’s a little thing you can do, too: I went to the hardware store Thursday morning and picked up these little plug seals. I opened up all the electric outlets and some light switches, and applied the insulating covers. I then put the child-proof seals through the insulation, as shown.

Electric outlets are a major source of drafts and loss of heat. I wish more apartment dwellers would make this small investment (probably $20 to kit out a large one-bedroom apartment) and cut their heating bill in turn.

Today, the temperature difference between the cold bedroom and the rest of the house feels less extreme.


In the meantime, for you, me, and everybody else:

It’s winter, and we’re not in California (where it still gets cold).

  • Wear an undershirt.
  • Put on a sweater or a housecoat and slippers at home.
  • Get good boots and a good coat and a good attitude for the outdoors.
  • The lower you keep your thermostat at home (18º-20ºC – lower overnight, or while away), the easier winter seems.
  • Remember: animals habituate to the cold, and so do we.

Changing the lighting – a renovation to conserve energy

When I came up with the idea for Green4r | V3rt [now Rewilding], I wanted to learn the business by doing it for myself. I identified a bunch of green projects, put them into a table, and identified the priorities based on how they connected to each other, like so:

Click to look closer at how it’s set up

One of the first projects that I could get off the ground was changing the lighting – and it was a lot of changes. Here is one reason it was so necessary:

Though it may not be obvious, that is a recessed lighting pot, with a junction box attached to it

Recessed lighting, so beloved by designers and normal humans alike, should not be put into a ceiling that goes into the attic or space below the roof. It might look nice, but the fact is, you’re creating a hole 5″ in diameter through which all the heat escapes. As heat rises, you’re pulling air in from below, which means you are paying to heat fresh air that must come in from the outside.

My attic has 11 rows of batts, which I will double, to take my attic insulation from R-20 to R-40 or R-50.

Not only that, but unless you had put in a fireproof box surrounding that lighting pot – not many people have done this (it only marginally reduces the escape of heat from your home) – you are putting yourself at risk of an electrical fire in your attic, because like the picture demonstrates, the insulation bats were layered on top. The dark staining that you see on the Fiberglass Pink is where the batt has acted like an air filter. It gets dirty. Fibreglass is slow to catch fire, but it can if things melt down due to heat or sparks fly out due to damage.

One of my priority projects was to remove the seven recessed lights in my attic ceiling, and cut down on those drafts. Three were in the foyer ceiling (pictured below), and four in the bathroom.

The third lighting unit is somewhat obscured by the chandelier

Two removed from the bathroom – with a slot cut for fishing a wire through to a new place for a sconce light

I moved these recessed lights down to my finished basement, which was dreadfully dim, with only one recessed light and a couple of sconces. But first: I finally found some sconces I liked, at ReStore, the store for recycling home renovation materials and decor.

A bad pic, but they are fancy!

Here are some pics of the basement now that I moved five recessed lights down there (there are now six). How dim it was before the change! Although I had two table lamps and two desk lamps that kept things cozy and functional.

The pendulum lamp above my couch is a kitschy red light (so I moved it to the bedroom). My basement is due for a declutter.

The two sconces – they are on a separate switch from the recessed lights


The holes in the ceiling, patched (but not painted yet), and the new sconce, which is connected to the ventilation switch. It more brightly illuminates the shower and the toilet.

Meanwhile, upstairs, I patched over the holes in the ceiling. I also installed a new sconce in the bathroom, and temporarily installed some old track lighting with the fixtures I want to keep, while I wait to get started with the solar tunnel project. That will be happening in December.



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