Monday, October 27, 2008

Insulating Our Wallets

October 19, 2008

Last summer, as the price of oil zinged up towards $150 a barrel, I was furious. Not with the speculators, who have since (predictably) had their come-uppance. Not with governments, which were no more dozy than usual. Not with the oil companies, which were simply being what they are. You can't blame a jackal for being a jackal.

No: I was furious with myself. I knew perfectly well that the price of oil was, sooner or later, going to the moon. (It is, too – don't be fooled by its present plunge to a mere $75 or so.) I remember the twin oil shocks of the 1970s, and – like the Danes, who took the hint and made themselves into world leaders in renewable energy – I had taken steps to ensure that another oil shock couldn't ambush me.

Then events had forced a drastic change on me, leaving me right in the bomb-sights of the oil jackals – and I hadn't adapted. Why do I ignore what I know?

Here's the story. In 1983, my family and I re-built an 1890s house on the waterfront in our Cape Breton village. We knew then that although oil prices had fallen from their peaks, the supply of oil was (and is) finite. If demand rises sharply and supplies decline, prices will soar. So we meticulously insulated the house, and arranged to heat it with wood.

We stuffed fiberglass batts in the walls, then added a vapour barrier and rigid foam insulation behind the gyproc. We lowered the 9-foot upstairs ceilings enough to allow R40 insulation in the roof. We replaced all 27 windows with new double-glazed ones. I built thick, heavily-insulated front and rear doors. We installed a heat-circulating fireplace and a combination wood/oil furnace, and a huge wood-storage area in the basement. When we were done, the house needed far less heat than it once did – and, if necessary, we could provide that heat by burning wood. (There's a link to a video tour of the house on my web site,

I lived 22 years in that house before health concerns and other issues induced me to move. And now that well-insulated, beautifully-upgraded house is for sale, while Marjorie and I find ourselves in a leaky 1937 house with 13 single-glazed windows, spotty insulation and a complete reliance on oil heat. When I got the oil company's $5500 estimate for the cost of next winter's fuel, I nearly fainted. I have actually bought houses for less money than than that.

Happily, the federal and provincial governments have an EcoEnergy grant program which provides up to $6500 in assistance for appropriate upgrades. We called up Clean Nova Scotia and got an energy-efficiency evaluation.
Our greatest heat loss was through the uninsulated walls. Next was air leakage, and third was the old windows. The wall insulation is eligible for a substantial grant and the air-sealing for a modest one, but the grant for window replacement – which is really expensive – is insignificant. The government program also provides a modest incentive for efficient wood-burning appliances.

So we won't do windows – but the wall insulation should cut the cost of heating by nearly half, and that saving combined with the grant will cover much of the cost. That's a no-brainer.

Air-sealing will include blocking off and insulating our “raccoon hotel,” a crawl-space gap big enough to admit the local wildlife as well as the bone-chilling winds. Another no-brainer, with or without grant support. Finally, an air-tight fireplace insert blocks the heat loss through the chimney, attracts a small grant, and gives us an alternative source of heat. Count me in.

OPEC, Alberta, eat your hearts out. Since we made these decisions, mind you, the oil price has halved – which means the payback time for these improvements will be twice as long. You know what? I don't care. The improvements are good for the planet – and when oil prices next take flight, I'll sleep comfortably.

Almost as comfortably as the new owner of our old house, whoever that lucky dog turns out to be.

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