May 5, 2011

The $100 Heating Bill Home

Pheasant Hill Homes of Nanaimo has used inexpensive green features to achieve heating costs of less than $100 a year to ‘build a better home.’

BY NINA WINHAM

Many new homebuyers don’t consider the operating costs of the home they’re purchasing. But as energy costs rise, smart buyers are starting to ask whether their dream home is efficient – or an energy hog. Luckily, many builders are now offering homes that are beautiful and energy efficient too. And some are experimenting with ultra-efficiency, like Ken Connolly, the owner of Nanaimo’s Pheasant Hill Homes. Two years ago, Connolly toured a 27-year-old home in Sidney, and had an epiphany. “It’s a 3,300-square-foot house, and their heating bill is less than $100 per year,” he says. “There was no heat pump to reduce the costs – it was just very well insulated and had a very tight building envelope.

I looked at it and thought, ‘We can build better homes than we have been building,’ ” Connolly and his business partner Jason Schmidt are so convinced that there’s value in energy efficiency that they’ve put their ideas to the test. They’ve just completed their own $100-heating-bill home, using innovative techniques that Connolly says were less expensive than people might realize. First, Pheasant Hill incorporated passive solar design, so the home makes the most of the sun’s warmth in the winter but doesn’t gain too much heat in the summer. Then, Connolly’s crew insulated under the basement floor, and used ICF (insulated concrete form) for the foundation.

For the walls, they used structural insulated panels (SIPs), containing eight inches of styrofoam. “The panels are much stronger than conventional framing, have a much higher R-value [a measure of insulating value] and are more airtight,” says Connolly. The SIP construction yielded walls with an R-32 value, which Connolly says is a significant improvement over building to code. “Walls are the largest single interface with the outdoors, so when you increase insulation there you make a big difference in how efficient the house is,” he says. “And although the standard is R-20, that refers to the insulation value of the fibreglass batts in the wall. Take into account all the little gaps where they don’t quite fit, and an R-20 wall really performs at about R-16. So when we put in an R-32 wall, we’ve actually doubled performance; it’s dramatic.” The home was completed with a heat recovery ventilator which ensures fresh air while reducing heat loss, an R-52 attic and triple pane windows, which Connolly says add only 10 to 12 per cent to window costs, yet increase window energy performance by about 30 to 40 per cent.

The insulation and tight envelope reduced the home’s heating load so significantly that neither a furnace nor heat pump was required. Instead, Pheasant Hill installed electric baseboard heaters, but reduced the wattage by 50 per cent. “We want to give clients more incentive to change their way of thinking,” Connolly says. “We could be wrong, and it will take $200 a year to heat this particular house; I don’t know. But we wanted to stick our necks out to encourage people to change.” He says the additional features will pay back in about 3½ years through reduced heating bills; even faster when you add the maintenance savings of not having a furnace or heat pump. “There’s a common misconception that to build green is to build a very expensive home, where the extra money put into green features will not have any economic return,” says Connolly. He says choosing the right sustainable features can give an excellent return – especially over time, as energy costs rise. “If you’re concerned about resale value, build to the standard of the future, not the standard of the past.”

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