Living rural in the city is great – you can do it, too.

Saving electricity in winter

First, do this test for your electricity efficiency!

the reno-climat program

There’s a difficulty with most so-called economic behaviour in the world: it pays attention only to the first price tag, and rarely to the second. The first price tag is the sticker at the store. The second price tag is the cost of operation and maintenance. Then, there’s the third — the price you don’t pay, but someone else does. It’s called an externality, and there’s a lot of that going on, and it usually falls to government to pay it, or no one at all.

Truly economic behaviour would consider all prices, including these externalities. For these, a mitigation fee could be paid. I’m going to talk about this now, but first, admire this rubber coaster:

Ontario has a Tire Stewardship Program;
this is one of two coasters I have of recycled rubber.

In Quebec, we pay the Electronic Waste fee when we buy electronics. We also pay an environmental tax when we buy tires – at $3 per tire. Then, when you want to scrap your tires, you can bring them to any garage that does tire service, no questions asked. Many go to developing countries for a second life, and those that are not fit for reuse go to a recycling plant. They used to be stockpiled — a good practice where recycling technology hasn’t kept pace with the supply — but then, in the early 1990’s, someone accidentally set one ablaze both in Quebec and in Ontario. That kicked recycling into high gear! Quebec announced last summer (2012) that the last stockpiled tires from its various dumps have now all been recycled.

These three price tags (in fact, there are more) also exist when you buy a home. After the purchase price, you first have to pay the excise/land transfer/”bienvenue” tax (and the seller has other closing/selling costs to pay at end of ownership). Then you have the necessary mortgage and condo fees on a weekly, semi-monthly, or monthly basis. After these, the cost of upkeep: annual taxes, house insurance, and the energy and other utility (e.g. water) bills. Lastly, and inescapably, repairs and renovations.

(When shopping for a home, it’s good to consider all the costs. I created a spreadsheet to track these, along with square footage and features. It helped me consider the objective value of what I was looking at purchasing. I gave properties a star rating for meeting critiria and also the important, subjective value of how the place felt.)

When it comes to energy, as a primary producing nation, Canadians often pay too little, and this bears out in “luxury” (usually: poor) design and build choices. We don’t pay much attention as to how we use it, except of course we always complain when the rates go up, or if there’s a sudden spike in use we didn’t expect, because we don’t pay attention.

Nonetheless, when it’s -25ºC, those winter heating bills are something to contend with.  I ran into someone at Home Depot who was shopping for Roxul, also known as rock wool, to insulate his 1950’s home. He told me about things he had to do and had yet to do to upgrade the insulation – but also the comfort already achieved in his kids’ bedrooms.

There’s a lot of information out there, particularly on YouTube, about how to upgrade your insulation in various parts of the home.

There are also a few tax-incentive and utility company programs that help people pay for the upgrades, too, so look into it. The Rénoclimat program allows you to measure your home efficiency and get a rebate on the work you carry out, and low-income folks can use the Econologis program to improve their own dwelling’s energy efficiency.

When I had my house tested for the Energy Retrofit a few years ago – and I intend to use the Rénoclimat program again this year – I found out that my house exchanges air with the outside 14 times per hour (fresh air every 4-¼ minutes!). My house was rated a 66 after I did the work, but the most efficient houses are rated in the 80’s. I know I can do better than 66.

≈2012 results to the program

Energy efficiency is a mix of habit and customization

For example, you can program your thermostats at 18º (21º in the bathroom for taking a shower, unless you like it cool). Wear a cardigan or a housecoat and slippers, not summer clothing – it’s winter, for heaven’s sake! Everyone needs a couch blanket for cozy reading and TV sessions. Keeping your place cooler in winter surprisingly makes winter a lot more bearable than if you do this…

Jackie Chan does not understand your stupid thermostat decisions

Cold air enters and hot air escapes through various cracks and holes in your building’s “envelope.” These are literally cracks and holes in walls, both intentional and unintentional, and on the outside (perimeter of the inside of your home!) walls, in particular.

Check and replace your weather-stripping on doors and windows, as it does age and get worn to scrap. Also look for and seal off gaps and cracks and edges of mouldings with “backer rod” (pushed into the gap) and caulking, or apply drywall compound and quarter-rounds on the bigger cracks and holes. You can feel a draft with your finger, but an obvious test is lighting a stick of incense and walking it along the edges of the places you suspect a draft.

Electrical outlets also have a draft You can also install weatherstripping kits (“energy gaskets”) to the back of the outlet and switch plates, and (with older outlets) use those little baby-proofing plugs. There are kits that include those, too.

Now for other energy-saving tips

You could run cold water in the laundry (or a tepid 20º-30º). Turn down the hot water tap, so that the cold water is the major supply to your washing machine. If you don’t need super-hot water in your home in general (for example, the dishwasher has its own integrated water heater), you can use the lower thermostat setting on the hot water tank.

Set up your entertainment unit on a power bar so that you switch it all off when you go out or go to bed.  For devices you don’t use often, just unplug them. If they are software enabled, with the Standby power feature, they run what is called a phantom or ghost load. It’s not a lot per device, but 10 devices become the equivalent of 30W x 24 x 7. You don’t need it. Turn things off-off on a weekly basis.

Interesting: phantom power and ghost load have very specific meanings, one for audio or electronic equipment, and one for shotguns.

You can also try, like many country folks (i.e. houses with all four walls exposed), keeping the heating registers closed or off, and closing your bedroom doors so they’re not heated by the rest of the house except when in use. People usually sleep better in the cold.

Final point: it’s okay to use incandescent bulbs in winter, if they’re at person-height. They cast off waste heat. They make you feel good when you’re reading or working next to them. So go ahead and use all your incandescent bulbs in winter, and switch them over in summer.

I reduced the annual electricity consumption of my house by at least 20% after the first two years of living here through habits alone. I saved considerably more compared to the previous owner (whose equalized monthly bills were $140). In fact — I didn’t notice this until now — but in the summer, I joined the 10 kWh club. My daily consumption between May 29th and September 25th, 2013 was 6 kWh per day. That is awesome!

(Of course, now that the heat is back on, it’s over 25 kWh per day. I will add insulation one of these coming years.)

Here is a graph of my electricity consumption since I started the above measures. It doesn’t graph against the weather, but most electricity use depends on the weather.

Date of bill x total kWh of bill. The spike in winter #2 was because I had an obnoxious roommate who kept her room like a sauna, complained about the cold, and then said “you said heat was included!” when I gave her the bill.

Why is this important?

Because HydroQuebec needs to export more electricity to supplant environmentally-damaging sources like coal, without converting to similar methods themselves, as they are planning to do. I’m not talking about windmills — though the monopoly on how we do grids here is a whole other kettle of fish, and making wind power the “enemy” to some people. I’m talking about forest biomass conversion, which impoverishes source ecosystems.

1 Comment

  1. Rusch

    I want to thank you for sharing your winter electricity-saving tips. What practical techniques can households use to cut energy consumption during the winter months?

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