So we bought a house in Ottawa. It’s a house with a lot of old stuff in it — old wooden trim, old light fixtures, old stucco on the outside. Old insulation. And an old gas boiler in the basement, heating water to circulate in the old radiators.

You don’t need to be an engineer to know that a 26-year-old boiler with an open pilot light that runs 24/7 isn’t exactly the green-friendliest appliance on the block, and we decided that while getting it updated wasn’t our No. 1 priority (that was replacing the kitchen and all the old appliances in it, and taking out the asbestos-laden insulation in the attic, on which more later), it was on the list.

At a minimum, though, we wanted to get it inspected to find out just how bad the thing is and to find out, if nothing else, that the boiler is safe.

The heating contractor came yesterday evening, drilled a pinhole in the venting duct and stuck a probe in there. Before activating the probe, the guy told me that if the contents of the duct included more than 100 parts per million of carbon monoxide, he’d have to “red-tag” it as being unsafe to operate. Anything over 50 parts per million in the ambient air will get the fire department to order you out of the house, he said, and if your boiler is spitting out gases quite that poisonous, it’s only a matter of time.

He fired up the handheld computer the probe was attached to. Waited. Watched some numbers climb. Flipped through a couple more screens.

“Huh,” he said, blinked and shook his head. He extracted the probe, waved it in the cool air, reset the computer, started over.

“Huh,” he said again.

Turns out the boiler is safe, amazingly so given its age. Very low carbon monoxide content in the gases coming out. Unfortunately, it’s so safe precisely because it’s so monstrously inefficient. It’s burning so incredibly hot that all the dangerous products of combustion are being obliterated before they get anywhere — specifically, before they ride the tide of that incredible heat all the way along the duct, up the chimney and out the roof.

Out of the box — this is back when I was a small child — the boiler was maybe 75-per-cent efficient. Now, it’s much, much less. Ditto the hot-water heater, which is basically just a big dumb tank in which hot water sits, cooling off and being reheated until it’s used.

For this and other reasons, he successfully sold me on getting on with a high-efficiency upgrade forthwith. Among those reasons was the fact we’d be eligible for a $600 help-out grant from the Canadian government through its ecoENERGY program, and one from the Ontario government to match it. Ballpark, the job will cost something like $10,000, but we’ll start seeing savings on the gas bill right away, and $1,200 worth of help would sure take some of the sting out.

I hit the Web, looking for details.


We are eligible for the $1,200 in grants if we follow this procedure:

  1. Have an energy audit done on the house. This is a two- to three-hour process, generally available only during weekdays, and it costs $350 by itself from a local non-profit that does them (the Ontario government will kick back a bit of the cost). A report would take two to three weeks to get afterward.
  2. Then we’d get the new system.
  3. Then we’d have a second energy audit to demonstrate we’d done the work.
  4. Then we’d apply for the rebate. We’d also get some proportion of the $350 back, too, but we’d only be eligible for the full amount if we followed all the audit’s recommendations, whatever they might be. In an old house, the things we could do might be staggering.

This is accountability run amok. Two separate inspections, a delay of many weeks (with winter approaching), and so much out-of-pocket spending on the accountability process that it eats up a sizeable chunk of the benefits we’d get.

The point of these audits is to grasp the so-called low-hanging fruit, to help people do the stuff that has a financial payoff as well as an immediate environmental one. Somehow, I won’t be surprised if this one fails.


7 responses to “ecoUH-OH

  1. Cool, I never heard about energy audits before. Great post ecolibertarian.

  2. A proper energy audit will measure the rate of air exchange between the interior of your house and the great outdoors.

    I suspect the bulk of your heating bill isn’t due to inadequate insulation or the old furnace but rather you probably have the equivalent of an open window in leaks through various joints, etc.

    Make sure if you replace your cabinets in the kitchen that you seal the wall behind them with tyvek or whatever.

  3. Addenda: the cheap way to measure air currents in your home is with strips of toilet paper hung from beams, etc. It gives you a classy decor, but also lets you track down where the air is leaking out.

    You can insulate the water tank yourself too. Wrap it with a couple layers of reflective bubblewrap, then build a box of 1″ thick styrofoam around it.

  4. Some policy questions, and some practical considerations respecting your boiler.

    Why should you be paid $1200 anyway?

    If it makes sense, do it. If it doesn’t, don’t.

    Maybe the $10,000 price is inflated – in part because there are government subsidies that allow the contractors to up the price.

    Maybe you should pay for a quality energy audit by yourself, too, rather than expecting a government subsidy.

    I say these things not so much from political conviction (though I do recognize the name of this website) but because I know from first-hand experience how such programmes were developed – often by persons who think they know a great deal more than they actually do (been in the midst of it myself – and helped to convince the government to spend over $2 billion on home conservation programmes), and how they were abused by contractors, by home auditors, and by citizens. I mention, again, the immense cost of such programmes – and their inherent flaws.

    Except in very special circumstances, I believe that persons should do what makes sense – and keep the government meddlers and paper processors – and their “qualified” contractors and agents – out of it.

    A few remarks on your gas boiler.

    If it is producing little CO, that is probably because it has enough combustion air. Oil and gas burning home appliances normally don’t produce CO. They always produce CO2 – unless there is insufficient combustion air.

    Less air = less oxygen. Hence, if there is not enough combustion air, the combustion produces a gas with less oxygen – CO rather than CO2.

    Producing CO would constitute an aberration rather than being the norm, and it would usually occur only when there is something amiss that prevents air from getting to the burner (e.g. if the furnace or boiler has been put in an enclosed room without a source of air from inside the house, or the external air source for the combustion air is blocked).

    It appears that you don’t have those problems.

    As to the temperature of the exhaust gases, if there is more than enough combustion air, that probably means that the stack temperature is at least a bit lower than it would be otherwise – and it may well be operating pretty close to the original spec.

    For any given temperature of the flue gases in the combustion chamber, the stack temperature gets lowered to the extent that the heat exchanger takes heat from the flue gases.

    Unless the heat exchanger is not working well, for example, because a lot of soot has built up on its surface, or because it has been physically damaged or because there is a huge amount of scale buildup in the water pipes, the heat exchanger should perform at or close to its original level.

    Gas normally burns rather clean and a good cleaning should remove any soot.

    I don’t know much about the efficiency impact of scale buildup in the water pipes.

    Efficiency is also lost if the furnace runs for short cycles. That is, it is less efficient in the spring and the fall than in the middle of winter – because during cool rather than cold weather, the furnace is running a greater percentage of the time in “startup” and “shut-down” mode.

    During those periods, the circulation pump is not working – or at least not working as hard (you don’t want to pump cold water around the heating system) and so, more heat escapes up the chimney.

    Some efficiency can be gained to counteract this by lowering the temperature of the circulating water from the normal setting and by making the circulating pump continue to run long enough after the flame goes out so that all of the heat is extracted from the heat exchanger.

    That means that the water in the radiators will be a bit cooler at startup and shutdown, but if it’s warmer than the room, it is giving you heat. In any event, you can adjust it to suit.

    What most new efficient furnaces do is to take more heat out of the combustion gases before they go up the chimney and they do this by adding more heat exchange surface as well as by keeping the mixture of gas and combustion air within close tolerances.

    Making the change to your furnace might not be worth it, particularly if your efficiency is near 75%.

    If money is worth 5% to you, and the new furnace costs you $9000 out of your pocket, that means that putting in a new furnace would cost you $450 a year on top of what you pay for gas. So, you’d have to have an efficiency increase that was enough to save you $450 on your gas bill to make it worthwhile.

    If you could get a new furnace that is 100% efficient (and that’s a pretty tall order), and save $450 on your house heating bill, that would mean that your gas bill for house heating (i.e. not including water heating and cooking) would have to be at least $1800 to start with to make it worthwhile.

    The overall equation is not entirely simple from even the environmental side. You would also have to consider the environmental cost of junking your current working system and replacing it with a new one.

    Throwing out a perfectly good boiler that is working at or close to spec is adding more to the waste stream and causing you to buy something new that, itself, took quite a bit of energy to make.

    Those things said, it might be worth making a change.

    But as an older person, I can say I don’t like throwing things out just because they are old – and not quite as efficient as the newest and best models that are around today.

    Hope this is worthwhile.

  5. Quite. Just a brief note…

    Why should you be paid $1200 anyway?

    If it makes sense, do it. If it doesn’t, don’t.

    Maybe the $10,000 price is inflated – in part because there are government subsidies that allow the contractors to up the price.

    Maybe you should pay for a quality energy audit by yourself, too, rather than expecting a government subsidy.

    No argument from me on any of those points. I can afford all these things myself, and it’s troubling that I’m just as eligible as someone with a lower income for the rebates I wrote about. I’d like the money, since it’s (theoretically) on offer, but I’ll likely go ahead with the replacement regardless.

    That said, I’m looking at the program on its own terms: one whose objective is to get people to do something the government would like them to do. And I’m thinking putting people through all that administrative rigamarole is not helping achieve the program’s goals.

    You could argue that the program is, actually, quite cunningly designed — I’ve looked at how much my time and hassle are worth, and decided, in all likelihood, not to go through the auditing and paperwork process, while someone who had less money in hand might decide the effort was worth it. I’m not prepared to give the government quite that much credit.

    I mention, again, the immense cost of such programmes – and their inherent flaws.

    Again: quite. I mentioned the asbestos-laden insulation in the attic. This is the vermiculite stuff the government subsidized people to spread around under their roofs in the 1970s and 1980s, in the interests of energy efficiency. Turned out, as you probably know, that most of it was (accidentally) poisonous, and it’s now costing us approximately the price of a new boiler to take out again.

    Talk about unintended consequences…

  6. Agree with both of you re: if it makes sense do it, and no need for gov’t involvement. (And understand why David might rightfully want to take advantage of whatever he’s entitled to!)

    We are undertaking a similar project — greening an older home we bought. (In another province, though, where they recently nixed provincial $$ for such eco-renos.) Our town was also hit with a very severe hailstorm this summer, so the whole town is repairing/rebuilding. Prior to the storm, we got a great quote for having our roof reshingled, so we thought, “Awesome. Let’s do it. But, no big rush — just before the end of the summer.” Of course, after the storm EVERYONE was reshingling, and the local building stores couldn’t keep shingles in stock. When we did manage to get a roofer to come out and spruce up our old roof, which was old but hadn’t suffered any hail damage, no one could believe that we weren’t giving the bill to our insurance company! To hear the locals (we just moved here — doesn’t quite feel like home) talk, we should have done X, Y and Z and MADE money on the deal. . . a deal we had already planned to do because it needed to be done and made good sense.

    I’m not trying to sit on some moral high horse, but just to live the example I want to set. Hopefully, we made some people understand that sometimes, it’s just worth paying to have it done the way you want it, when you want it, without any hassle. By all means, take what you’re entitled to, but recognize that sometimes just because you can get it, doesn’t mean you should.

    And, agreed David, that audit is enough to put most people off. That’s the kind of hoop I just refuse to jump through, so although I may pay more out of my pocket, I feel a little more control of the situation. That’s the decision we’ve made, and we have to live with the consequences, intended or otherwise. 🙂

    Good luck with everything! Typed from a house in various states of drywall…..

  7. Pingback: The government’s giving away free money … « The EcoLibertarian

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