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“Typical [energy] savings are usually in the $200-700/year range, even for advanced projects. … If you only want to save money, don’t embark on this process. It’s a waste of time and money.” ???

calum_wilde | Posted in General Questions on

After reading the preview for that book review I wanted to comment on that statement.  I’m saving almost $2500CAD/year* after my retrofit and it really wasn’t that advanced.  I still only have the basic batt insulation between the studs, R60 insulation in the attic, and no insulation under the slab.  And this was on a house originally built in 2004.  How are people seeing such low savings?  Is energy just that much cheaper in the US? 

~25000kWh/year down to ~9500kWh/year @ $0.161/kWh after federal taxes.

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  1. joshdurston | | #1

    It probably depends on your baseline... If you have a leaky house on oil or electric heat you stand to gain much more. I suspect he is referring to a standard suburban house built in the last 40 years with some amount of insulation and vapor barriers, and probably with a mid efficient gas furnace.

  2. Expert Member
    BILL WICHERS | | #2

    It depends entirely on what you do and what you're starting with. Window replacements often don’t save much money, especially if you already have double pane windows, for example.

    Insulation will save a LOT if you’re starting with a drafty old balloon frame house, insulating and air sealing the entire place. Insulation won’t save as much if you’re just going from R30 to R49 in your attic and the rest of the house already has at least code minimum insulation.

    If you’re careful doing your energy retrofit and integrate it with other renovation projects, you reduce your effective cost for the energy retrofit part of the project which is a smart way to go. I would not agree that “energy retrofits don’t save money” as a general rule. It’s always good to try to maximize efficiency, and you’ll always get some savings, it’s just how much you save that will vary.

    Typical kWh rates in the US are probably roughly comparable to Canadian rates in many cases (I’m only familiar with Canadian electric rates around Hamilton though where I have family, I work in the US). Materials costs for construction projects tend to be cheaper in the US though, so Canadians are likely to spend more compared to the savings they see relative to an equivalent project in the US.


  3. Jon_R | | #3

    I think there is a good argument that it is a disservice to warn everyone away from upgrades being cost effective. Some formula based on climate and current usage would be more accurate. Ie, "if you are at ..., then it is likely that there are some cost effective upgrades. Otherwise, consider other benefits."

    1. calum_wilde | | #9

      Agreed, by my calculations I'm saving (if I remember correctly) $60 month just on how water after low flow shower heads, insulation on the tank and pipes, and a DWHR.

      There's a ton of places in normal homes where we can save power and barely even notice it, and it often doesn't require huge outlays of cash.

  4. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #4

    I suspect that a lot of Nate Adams' jobs are in the $20,000 to $30,000 range -- many of his jobs include new HVAC equipment, air sealing, and insulation upgrades.

    If you can cut your energy bill by 30%, congratulations -- that type of savings takes a lot of work.


    If you are currently spending $1,000 a year, then 30% savings means you'll save $300 a year.
    If you are currently spending $2,000 a year, then 30% savings means you'll save $600 a year.

    It's hard to achieve 30% savings. Savings in the range of 10% to 25% are more common.

    The bottom line is that energy is cheap and retrofit work is expensive.

    All of that said, there is such a thing as low-hanging fruit. There is also such a thing as cost-effective weatherization. But Nate Adams doesn't specialize in cost-effective weatherization.

    1. calum_wilde | | #7

      I'm saving 62%. The biggest thing that made that much of a difference was going from baseboard electric to ductless mini splits, it's not a reflection of how much I've reduced our need for btus, but it still reflects on our power bill and the GHG going into the atmosphere.

      I was spending almost $4200 based on our latest rates. Now I'm spending almost $1700 (meter fee included).

      Oh, and as for cost: I'm about $17.5k into the renos,doing everything myself except for installing the heat pumps.

      1. GBA Editor
        Martin Holladay | | #11

        You're a textbook example of achievable energy savings (and dare I say -- cover your ears, Nate -- low-hanging fruit).

        That said, not many homeowners in North America spend $4,200 a year on energy, or heat their cold-climate homes with baseboard electric heaters. Some do, of course. But the most common heating fuel in North America is natural gas, which is dirt cheap.

        1. calum_wilde | | #15

          Yup, I'm all about that low hanging fruit. I have every intention of insulating our slab and wrapping my house in a few inches of rock wool, but that'll happen when the funds free up/the mortgage is finished. My eventual goal is net positive energy with enough extra to power two electric cars for a total of ~30,000kms/year. I'm hoping to get our annual consumption down to about 7000kWh, but that's a lofty goal.

          About the $4200/year on energy, that's actually fairly common here. If anything I was on the low end before I started. My sister in law, living in a duplex, that's 8 kms from my place, two years newer than my house which means under slab insulation, that's ~2/3 the square footage, and with a similar sized family, uses North of $4800/year. My direct neighbours use about $4000 using oil heating, and another is right around the same using a pellet stove.

  5. irene3 | | #5

    Current utility prices are mostly artificially cheap, and in no case reflect the actual cost to the environment. It seems immoral to me not to point that out.

    1. GBA Editor
      Martin Holladay | | #6

      Whether or not it is moral or immoral to fail to point out that energy prices don't reflect their external costs (especially the cost of environmental damage) is hard to say. (If that failure is immoral, how often must I say it to avoid the sin of omission?) But I imagine that the vast majority of GBA readers are well aware of the fact.

    2. calum_wilde | | #8

      I'm well aware. But thank you.

    3. irene3 | | #10

      Oh, sorry, I only meant in relation to the quotation above, not that discussions here tend to ignore the point.

  6. JC72 | | #12

    Cheaper energy and a comparatively milder climate. For example I live in CZ3 and we spend less than $3,000/yr on gas/electric combined for our 2k sqft home.

  7. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #13

    In case there is any uncertainty about my opinion on this issue, here's what I think:

    1. The quote used as the headline for this Q&A thread is a quote from Nate Adams' book. Although I quoted Nate, I don't agree with him.

    2. Nate ignores cost-effectiveness. I believe that it often makes sense to consider cost-effectiveness.

    3. Nate mostly deals with Ohio homes heated with natural gas. His "average" home is probably different from the average home in Maine or Texas.

    4. Low-hanging fruit exists, and it is usually worth picking.

    5. If you want to know whether a proposed energy improvement makes sense, do the math.

    1. Expert Member
      Dana Dorsett | | #14

      Nate lives in a fracked-gas natural gas exporting state that is also a heating dominated climate, that also has residential retail electricity slightly below the US national average.

      What is cost effective and what qualifies as low hanging fruit is QUITE different in his area than in my Massachusetts location, despite a comparable climate. To start with my electricity costs nearly twice what his does, and natural gas it more than 1.5x as much as his:

      So in Nate's relatively low energy cost state, a state that has traditionally had fairly stingy home energy efficiency rebates (that have been cut multiple time under recent administrations) and other state policy supports it's easier for him to make a case for extensive retrofits on comfort basis than on net-present-value-of-future-energy-savings basis. Residiential efficiency programs in Ohio come and go, and often begrudgingly, with lots of push back from the utilities. Ohio's legislature is more interested in subsidizing the coal and nuclear power industries than subsidizing efficiency, and HOME efficiently only begrudgingly.

      The opposite is true near me.

      In my area the raw economics are better right out of the gate due to the higher energy prices, and Massachusetts is a national leader on supporting retrofit efficiency measures, which makes it a LOT easier to take on more extensive air sealing, insulation, and HVAC replacement measures. In MA the areas covered by the larger utilities 75% of the cost of pre-approved insulation & air sealing is normally covered by state programs. Replacing older equipment with more efficient newer versions is subsidized (quite a bit for boilers over 30 years old), and there is also 0% seven year financing available for complete HVAC replacement &/or weatherization.

      I'm pretty sure Nate could make out pretty well here even chasing "low hanging fruit", even though the state programs still miss some of it. He definitely has a better handle on the bigger picture than the average HVAC or weatherization contractor working the state programs, and is willing to go further than even local programs here would subsidize, but it wouldn't take as much marketing to get the full-on treatment clients as it does in Ohio, and the amount of state kick-back would be much higher.

      With 25 grand of 0% loan and a lot of subsidy kick-back a Nate Adams type retrofit is far more affordable and more financially rational here than where his business is located. But given just how fossil-fuel heavy his local residential energy systems are I'm glad he's making a go of it in Ohio.

      1. calum_wilde | | #17

        Where I am the incentive programs aren't nearly as good, I think I received about $1400 back from efficiency Nova Scotia.

        Thank you for breaking down the differences between Nate's economic climate and your, which more closely reflects mine.

        Yeah, I'd love to have someone like that in when I do attend to the bigger cost items. Hopefully someone like that is working in this area when that happens.

        1. Expert Member
          Dana Dorsett | | #18

          >"Yeah, I'd love to have someone like that in when I do attend to the bigger cost items. Hopefully someone like that is working in this area when that happens."

          Hopefully there will be a virtual army of Nates working retrofits in Nova Scotia even before NS policy support becomes similar to Massachusetts.

          Even if the Massachusetts energy policy model were adopted widely it still isn't good enough to avoid the climate abyss laid out in the 2018 IPCC report- it's well past time to get moving on greenhouse gas issues in a serious fashion (as if our futures depended on it?) Hopefully coal-heavy Nova Scotia will climb onto the regional offshore wind bandwagon soon, then steer toward something like Maine's recent increased support for heat pump solutions, and something way better than Massachusetts before 2030.

          1. calum_wilde | | #19

            I've written to NSP a few times about my opinion on the issues. I've never gotten a reply though. A friend of a friend is an engineer that works on such projects, but she's extremely tight lipped about it.

            Canada tried to introduce a carbon tax, NS opted to go with a cap and trade deal. Sigh.

            As for remodel companies that are knowledgeable about home energy retrofits well, I think there's one.

    2. calum_wilde | | #16

      Thank you for clearing that up!

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