Apr 222016

Maple Ridge Celebrates Earth Day this Saturday and it looks like it’s going to be super fun as always.ED2016-Save-the-Date-Poster-791x1024

The theme this year is Energy and today I’m trying to let the positive energy flow.

You see, today our engineer visited (again) and signed off on all the structural work we have done on the house. This is a big deal for any construction project because it means you can get to work on the plumbing, the electrical wiring, the insulation and…everything else.

For Leanne and I, it means we are no longer going backwards (fixing structural deficiencies left by our former contractor) but instead moving forward.

Yay for us. Fantastic. Rah.

Nope. I can’t quite muster a celebration right now. By Saturday’s Earth Day Celebration I’m sure I’ll feel better. Absolutely. (Just don’t remind me that we expected to be able to offer tours of our new ENERGY efficient house by now. Sigh.)

Speaking of Earth Day, in honour of the theme of Energy, I have decided to answer what many people ask me:

“How are you going to heat the house?”

I’m sure my past vague answers have been a little frustrating to some.

The thing is that the question is a little backwards. It assumes that the most important consideration when you want to reduce your greenhouse gas emissions is what fuel you use and how you deliver the heat.

Meanwhile I have been tackling the more fundamental question of how we can reduce the amount of heat needed by the house in the first place. Once we know how little heat (and cooling) we need, we can find the perfect delivery system and the perfectly sized system. Remember, this is the family that spent a full year not using their furnace out of pure environmental stubbornness!

Okay, okay. I’ll talk. Here’s what we know.

  1. No fossil fuels.

As I discussed before, natural gas is a tempting option. It is cheap at the moment (cheap enough to be competitive with the cost of the electricity to run a geothermal heat pump) and it is much more efficient and clean-burning than, for example, fuel oil (which is what we had before) or wood (which is how we survived that winter without a furnace).

However, natural gas, just like oil, is a carbon-based fuel which is extracted from the earth where the carbon in it has been safely stored for thousands or millions of years. When we burn it, we are releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and exacerbating climate change. Everyone knows we have to stop doing that.

Economically, natural gas is a reasonable choice for our home. But I look at my kids and I just can’t do it.

2. Electricity

With no gas or oil, the source of all our power will be electric. In BC most of the electrical power is produced by hydro-electric dams, so this is a very sustainable fuel around here. It can also be produced locally. Like on our roof. A few wires installed now and, in the future (when we can afford solar panels) we can move closer to a net zero annual energy bill.

3. Wood

Yes, we’re keeping our chimney and we’ll make sure it is functional. I would like it to be merely decorative (and heritage) with a pleasant electric simulated fire installed. I’ll miss the real thing, but we know that a chimney is a huge heat loss in a house. However, we may not be able to afford to complete the heating system before winter, so, at least for one season, we’ll probably be burning that big pile of waste wood we’ve accumulated.

4. Ventilation

You need to circulate the air and keep it fresh. You also don’t want to lose heat by blowing warm air outside. The answer is called a Heat Recovery Ventilator. An HRV  warms the incoming fresh air with the outgoing stale air. The more tightly you seal your house, the more you need one of these.

Did that answer the question? What about delivery, you say? Electric baseboards? Air ducts? Ductless mini-splits?

Although the estimate has not come in yet, we are leaning toward delivering the heat by…are you ready?…water!

As you may recall, I discussed air-to-air heat pumps (which are awesome because they deliver 3 times the heat energy for every unit of energy you put in) and it looked like that would be the final decision. When we put the radiant heating pipes in the concrete slab in the basement, however, we started noticing how strange it was to buy water-heating apparatus for the basement floor only and another chunk of technology (the heat pump) to heat the air in the rest of the house.

Looking up at the ceiling in the basement I realized that attaching water-heating pipes to the underside of the floor above was not that difficult. The warm water would gently heat the main floor from our feet, up. The top floor, where we can’t get pipes under the floorboards, could be fitted with hot water radiators, like you see so often in Europe.

A big selling point here is that electric water heaters are 100% efficient. That means all of the energy is converted to heat. Gas boilers can’t beat that.

Someone gave us two hydronic (water) solar panels already so hopefully we will be enjoying warm floors heated by the sun (and a little solar electricity) soon. By heating with water only, we eliminate the need to buy another chunk of technology (a heat pump) and all the air ducting that would be necessary to deliver the warm air. We’re not rich, you know.

Confused? Don’t worry, I’ll be sharing all the details as we proceed.

P.S. I hope you can come out tomorrow for Earth Day in Maple Ridge. Among a lot of other amazing things, our little 2001 Toyota Prius will be there as part of the Vancouver Electric Vehicle Association. My father-in-law has equipped it with a doo-hickey which will allow us to plug stuff into it. He is going to delight crowds with it as part of the VEVA (the Vancouver Electric Vehicle Association) display. He’s going to plug in a few things like a cell phone charger, coffee-maker, lamp, etc.

What’s so cool about that besides the fact we can make coffee at a campsite without a fire? Well, what about power outages? We won’t have to worry about the freezer thawing or our phones dying.

Electrical energy is the energy of the future. I imagine the roof of our garage covered in solar panels charging an electric car inside which is powering key appliances in the house until power is restored.

Come and check it out!

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