The current economic situation is pushing many Canadians and North Americans to reduce their expenses and consume energy more frugally - but that doesn't mean we have to act like Scrooge as we head towards winter. To face the rising cost of living driven by a growing energy crisis, here are some useful tips... Discover what we can do at home to easily reduce our energy consumption, and how to spend less while staying comfortable, and while making some wins for the environment!

Reducing energy consumption while remaining comfortable is absolutely possible

To reduce the overall cost of housing, reducing energy consumption is an important part of the solution. We cannot completely eliminate our energy consumption, unless we live in a self-sufficient home, specially designed to meet all our energy needs. But in most homes in Canada or North America, it is possible to change our habits, to adopt small winning strategies and to do intelligent and economical home improvement work to significantly reduce our energy bills. These are great ways to economically make a difference to our energy bills and household costs.

What makes a home innefficient? The costs related to energy consumption fluctuate from one house to another, depending on the age and size of the house, as well as the number of occupants and their lifestyle and habits. However, the largest component of residential energy consumption is heating, followed by water heating and home appliance use.

Simple DIY ways to reduce energy use at home

The point here is that greening your home and improving its efficiency does not have to equate to a complete overhaul or expensive reno. Do what you can when you can, and if the first steps you take are the easy ones that pay you back the quickest, you end up with more money in your pocket to take on the bigger projects later on.

  1. It may sound obvious, but turn things off when not using them! This is obvious when it's home electronics, televisions or lights in rooms that aren't being used, but where this is less obvious is all the home electronics that use electric on standby or chargers left plugged in between charging phones, laptops, tablets, or all the other electronic paraphanalia we drag around with us that needs their batteries constantly topping up. These are called phantom power losses and the golden rule is "unplug, unplug, unplug" according to NrCan in Canada. The easiest thing you can do to reduce phantom power is unplug anything you’re not using. This includes unplugging your phone or laptop charger when your device isn’t charging, not simply unhooking the device. Leaving cords plugged in when they’re not connected to anything is a common way phantom power can add up. Get smart with a power barAnother great way to reduce phantom power easily is to plug multiple devices into a power bar. When you’re not using them, simply switch off the power bar and they won’t use any more energy. You can also buy power bars with timers so you can set it to turn off when you know you won’t be using those devices. Better yet – use a “smart power bar” that automatically cuts the power to secondary devices, like your DVD player or game console when the main device, like your TV, is turned off.
  2. Plastic film applied to windows: We're not fans of plastic in general, but if you have old leaky windows, as a temporary winter fix for a few bucks per window you can put a thin sheet of plastic over them that will save you money, keep your windows free of frost, and make your house less drafty. These kits are easily found at a hardware store, and put on with double-sided tape. You just have to run a hairdryer over it to tighten it up and you won't even notice it's there.
  3. Foam draft strip on a roll: Again, if you shop at the right stores this costs only a few dollars and can stop air leaks around doors and window frames without sealing them shut. Pay particular attention to older doors and sliding doors - the draft strips are often perished or missing. 
  4. LED bulbs: The price of power keeps rising while the price of efficient bulbs keeps dropping. Efficient LED bulbs save a lot of energy and money in the long run. See our page all the benefits of efficient home lighting


How to reduce heating bills easily on a budget?

As heating accounts for a large part of residential energy consumption in homes throughout Canada and the northern states of the US: it often represents 50 to 60% of the bills we have to pay, so one way to reduce costs is simply to heat a little less. Small, easy steps can help reduce heating costs while keeping homes comfortable:

  • Dress warmly enough to avoid having to overheat the home, wearing socks and a light sweater is still comfy indoors and allows us to reduce the home temperature a few degrees without feeling chilly.
  • Keep mobile if at home - regular exercise helps blood flow and saves us from feeling cold during the waking hours - especially if working from home.
  • When working from home, use one room as an office and keep the heat in there a little higher to save energy overall in the home. Creating and maintaining a healthy working environment and office space is now more important than ever, here are some extra tips.
  • Program the thermostat to reduce the heat by a few degrees at night, make sure not to block heaters or registers with large pieces of furniture (to allow the heat to circulate properly), and if your home is heated with a radiant floor, try to keep the use of rugs to a minimum as these block the heat. These are all winning strategies to reduce heating bills and to maintain comfort.

For example, statistics Canada state that by using a daytime winter temperature of 22°C / 72°F as the benchmark, setting the temperature at night to 18°C / 64°F results in a 6.5% savings in natural gas and 0.8% reduced electricity consumption, while setting the temperature to 16°C / 60°F at night, and when the dwelling is unoccupied during the day, results in a 13% reduction in the amount of gas used and 2.3% savings in the amount of electricity used. 

As it is also suggested that the optimal healthy sleeping temperature in the bedroom for adults should be around 16°C / 60°F and that bed coverings should be seasonally appropriate, this is a good opportunity to sleep better and reduce energy consumption significantly at the same time - and most of us have simply got into the bad habit of overheating our bedrooms and keeping the same light comforter year round.

The best tips for Energy efficiency upgrades are to do the simple & cheapest ones first © Ecohome
The best tips for Energy efficiency upgrades are to do the simple & cheapest ones first © Ecohome

After simple reductions to home temperature, what other improvements make sense?

Next, take a careful look at how to sensibly reduce the actual heat loss in homes, starting with the easiest steps. Making improvements to the heating system and the insulation and sealing of the building can have a real impact on the heating bill. But it is not always necessary to do major work to improve the energy efficiency of a house and see reductions in home energy bills! To find out which work is the most interesting to do in order to save on heating costs at home, we consider the payback period and Return on Investment (ROI).

Some small improvements, like better air sealing around doors and windows for example, are simple to carry out and since they do not require huge expenses, they pay for themselves quite quickly. This is because every small opening in the building envelope allows valuable heat generated by the heating system to escape to the outside. By improving the airtightness, the amount of heating required can be reduced while stopping draughts and improving the comfort of the home. This also helps keep the water out, which is always a good idea, and we've a guide to choosing the best caulking and sealants here.

L'étanchéité et l'isolation réduise la consommation d'électricité en hiver
Waterproofing and insulation reduce heating needs and electricity consumption in winter. Photo W. Wei

Insulation obviously plays a major role in keeping the heat inside the building. However, improving the insulation of a building may require complex and expensive work where walls are involved. The payback period for insulation improvements is longer, but the easiest wins to make on an existing home relate to making sure the insulation in the roof void or attic space is to a high specification.

Attic insulation in cold climates - how much is needed?

Depending on when your home was built, and whether anyone has upgraded the attic insulation since, could mean that this is one of the easiest and most cost effective areas to improve your homes efficiency and to reduce heat loss. The recommended modern R-Values for attics in cold climates insulated with blown in cellulose are:

  • R-50: Absolute minimum Insulation, between 15 and 19 inches (38 - 48cm).
  • R-60: Better Insulation, between 19 and 22 inches (48 - 56cm).
  • R-70: Good Insulation, between 22 and 25 inches (56 - 64cm).
  • R-80: Best Insulation, between 25 and 28 inches (64 - 71cm).

It's very easy to tell if your attic insulation is any where near the depths above - and if your house is over 1 year old, we're going to guess that it falls very short of these insulation figures. There are still some precautions with adding loft insulation, it's not always easy to know if you're adding too much insulation - and care should be taken to keep eaves ventilation points clear, and to not crawl around in an area that may still be full of asbestos laden vermiculite insulation. If roof insulation is applied incorrectly, it can lead to problems like condensation, mold and ice dams in roofs, so we'd always recommend getting a construction professional to add substantial amounts of loft insulation for you if unsure what's needed and what to avoid.

When building a new home, insulation is a major component of the home's energy efficiency, and the additional expense of insulation will be offset by lower heating costs and an overall better home efficiency rating. Investing in good insulation is the gift that keeps on giving and we can't recommend it highly enough - which is why we systematically specify more than the minimum construction code requirements in our high performance home construction projects and cost effective home improvement guides

Of course, the heating system itself makes a big difference in the cost of heating. Oil used as a heating fuel is expensive, as well as being a major air pollutant and fossil fuel. Replacing an oil fired heating system will save you money in the long run, and regular online searches for your area should find specific grant schemes to help remove and replace old oil fired heating systems and their leaking oil tanks. Also bear in mind that "natural" fossil gas is being phased out of homes in North America, with recent legislation passed to ban gas in Californian homes, so we wouldn't recommend any form of gas heating, recommending high efficiency heat pumps and a zero power backup heat system for security. 

Home energy assessments or home energy audits

In order to carry out more major energy efficiency improvements that will pay off, you must first get a good idea of the how your home is performing, and identify the specific energy weak points of the home. It is possible to evaluate the airtightness of a building using a blower door test. This test, which must be carried out by a professional using a calibrated tool, makes it possible to identify the air leaks that cause significant heat loss and that can also cause internal structural decay from interstitial condensation - which has similar causes to condensation on windows but is less obvious, and so damages homes from the inside out.

The blower door test is used during the construction of many new homes these days to ensure the effectiveness of the airtightness measures, but it can also be performed in an existing building. The other tool that can prove very effective is an infra red scan of the home to identify invisible problems - like missing or slumped cavity bat insulation, missing attic insulation, or water ingress into sheathing or exterior masonry.

Infra red thermal imaging of a home is a good way to find areas that need improvement
Infrared thermal imaging of a home is a good way to find areas that need improvement for home efficiency


How to find an energy assessment service - US 

In the US, there are several places where you can locate professional energy assessment services - often in conjunction with local grant schemes designed to help improve home energy efficiency of older homes.

  • State or local government energy or weatherization offices can often help list local companies or organizations that perform energy audits.
  • Local energy utility companies may conduct residential energy assessments or recommend local auditors.
  • The Residential Energy Services Network provides a directory of certified professional energy assessors locally throughout the US.
  • Check out the U.S. Department of Energy's Home Energy Score program and Home Performance with Energy Star programs to see if energy assessors associated with those programs are located locally in your state.

In Canada, we have the Canada greener homes grant scheme

Buildings, including homes, account for 18% of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions. With the new greener homes grant the Government wants to encourage Canadians to make homes more energy-efficient so they can be more comfortable and more affordable to run, while also supporting the environmental objectives of reducing carbon emissions. Canada also likes selling surplus green hydroelectric power to their neighbours to the south at a premium, so it's a win/win, eh?

The Canada Greener Homes Grants 2022 have been launched to help homeowners make their homes more energy-efficient, create new jobs across Canada for energy advisors, grow domestic green supply chains, and help fight climate change. One good thing with these grants is that they include money for the energy audit - making it free, (or close to it), but you will need to pay up front for your pre-retrofit EnerGuide evaluation.

The full costs vary across Canada and are dependent on factors such as the location and size of a home. Homeowners can get up to $600 as a maximum contribution toward the total cost of their pre- and post-retrofit EnerGuide evaluations, just remember to keep your receipts, and bear in mind that in some cases, the maximum grant amount for the two evaluations will not cover the full cost of the evaluations needed to fully qualify for the grants available.

Next, how to reduce our energy bills for hot water?

Water heating consumes a lot of energy, the good news being that it's absolutely possible to save money for producing hot water: and bear in mind, it represents an average of 16% of the average household energy consumption in Canada, while in the US water heating accounts for about 20% of your home's energy use. By reducing our hot water consumption and improving our water heating systems, it is entirely possible to reduce our energy and electricity bills.

To consume less hot water on a daily basis, there are three winning tips to adopt asap:

  1. Low-flow showerheads and taps make a big difference; they are a low-cost investment with an excellent return on investment. In addition to reducing the cost of heating water, these showerheads save drinking water, which is not to be overlooked.
  2. Get in the habit of washing hands by just turning on the cold water tap or setting the mixer to cold. What we've realized is that even though we often turn on a mixer tap set to warm out of habit, it's rare that the hot water actually gets to our hands before we're done. This depends how far your washroom is from the hot water tank, but most average homes are too well planned for this, and the hot line isn't insulated either - meaning the hot water just sits in the pipe run and cools down before the next time the tap is turned on. One smart option is to fit smaller on-demand tankless electric water heaters close to or in washrooms - these have the double advantage that you have hot water almost instantly and they reduce energy wastage. 
  3. Washing clothes in cold water; today's laundry detergents are generally designed to work well in cold water and will get your clothes clean without hot water. Think about it: 80-90% of the energy used by the washer goes to heat the water - and saving this on our bills costs nothing except a change of program on the washing machine! If you have an Energy Star washing machine or not, by choosing low temperature laundry detergent you can even use cold water for washing laundry - learn how to save money and get clothes clean in our guide.
La pomme de douche à faible débit permet de réduire la consommation d'énergie pour le chauffage de l'eau
Low-flow showerheads reduces energy consumption for water heating. Photo A. Fife

The choice of water heater affects electricity consumption. If it's time to replace your water heater, there are several options for reducing consumption: ENERGY STAR® qualified water heaters, solar water heaters or heat pump water heaters.

The use of a drain water heat recovery unit allows the heat from the water discharged down the drain to preheat the cold water going into the water heater. A heat recovery unit is durable, requires no maintenance and can save up to 40% on water heating costs.

To act intelligently, switch to a SMART home

Using programmable thermostats helps to reduce heating expenses by adapting heating to real needs for standard appliances. To go further, smart thermostats and connected homes that identify our energy expenses and modify certain consumption habits, make it easy to save energy and up to 15% on bills thanks to electricity tarif optimization! Why opt for the most expensive electricity rate? With more control over your energy consumption, you can benefit from your local electricity suppliers preferential rates for better peak management.

In Canada, according to Hydro-Quebec, the average annual energy cost for a single-family home in Quebec is $2,200. A 15% reduction in energy bills is equivalent to an average savings of $330 per year. It's a smart way to reduce electricity bills and do something concrete for the environment at the same time!

To make sure you get everything you need for a connected, compatible and optimized home to save energy intelligently, we advise you to call on a specialized company or service. Try our directory for local SMART home specialists or some internet searches to find local cheap rate electricity suppliers.

Heating better  

Substantial savings can also be made by installing an efficient heat pump during energy-efficient home renovations. The amount of thermal energy produced by a heat pump is on average 3 times greater than the amount of electrical energy consumed during the process. This means that the efficiency of heat pumps is much higher than that of other heat sources. 

To better understand heat pumps, Ecohome has a guide to finding the best heat pumps for efficiency and reliability in cold climates.

Reduce the consumption of electric appliances

There are appliances on the market that consume less energy than standard appliances. There are two tools that can be used to evaluate the energy consumption of an appliance: the Energuide sheet and the ENERGY STAR® certification. Appliances that use less electricity do as good a job as non-qualified appliances for washing clothes and dishes.

The most energy-intensive appliance is the clothes dryer (and there are few ENERGY STAR® qualified models). About 80 percent of American homes have a clothes dryer, so the savings opportunity is huge. If all clothes dryers sold in the U.S. were ENERGY STAR certified, Americans could save more than $1.5 billion each year in utility costs and prevent greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to those from more than 2 million vehicles. Drying your clothes on the clothes line outside is more environmentally friendly when possible - and we've also found they need less ironing and smell fresher! If not, we suggest you take a look at condensing dryers with heat pumps as a lower energy option. but like we said - seek out the ENERGY STAR® certified clothes dryers when replacing an older model.

How to reduce the food and grocery bill

Another big expense is of course the grocery bill, and there are various ways to save on the cost of food. For example, by making a menu for the week and a shopping list accordingly, you can avoid buying too many perishable foods that are likely to go to waste. Food waste, and therefore unnecessary expenses, can also be countered by good management of the food in the refrigerator.

Various food preservation techniques such as freezing, canning, drying or lacto-fermenting allow for the use of excess food and the building of small reserves to be used throughout the year. Processing local foods in the fall allows for interesting savings on certain products, in addition to encouraging the local economy and contributing to a sense of belonging to our local food production and the seasons!

Soups are a great way to profit from the seasonal glut of produce, they are wholesome, easy to freeze and enjoy for months after you've made them - and root vegetables can also store easily if you've a cellar or unheated storage or garage. Place them spread out on layers of old newspaper, use cardboard or wooden boxes recovered from the local produce stores, and reuse them in spring to create lasagna gardens instead of large mostly sterile lawn areas - which is also better for the bees!

La transformation des aliments permet de réduire la facture
Processing and preserving seasonal foods cuts down on the grocery bill. Photo by Ashun A

Another fun and empowering way to use the abundance of Autumn to reduce the grocery bill is to make laundry detergent from buckeyes - get the kids and the dog, and grab a large hessian sack, and enjoy a balmy autumn day by foraging outside for buckeyes which are often found in parks and older parts of towns - give prizes for who gathers the most, or who finds the biggest. This also helps with stress levels, reconnects the family with nature, and we guarantee that whatever the temperature the thermostat is set to at home - it will feel warm and cosy when you get back before everyone gets a sound nights sleep after all that fresh air... 

We hope these tips for reducing energy consumption and reducing bills are helpful, and if you've any good tips to share please leave them in the comments below.

Now you know more about how to reduce energy bills this winter... find more pages about sustainable and resilient green building techniques here: 

Find more about green home construction in the Ecohome Green Building Guide pages on North America's favorite green building website here.