Jun 08, 2023

What's it really like to have a highly energy efficient home?

Edmonton's Eco Solar Tour brings together the curious with the homeowners to field answers on questions about ways to transform homes.

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It was a light-bulb moment for Lee Onisko and Howard Saunders. Or as Onisko prefers to call it, an LED light-bulb moment.

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It came as their 72-year-old Belgravia home was getting too costly for them.

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"Owning a home on a large pie-shaped lot in a neighbourhood where values have skyrocketed should be cause for celebration, but punishing property taxes pushed us into our retirement savings each month," said Onisko. "To age comfortably at home, to have the expansive life we envisioned, updates were needed to our living situation and if we did not act quickly, financial resources needed for such changes would be gone."

Act they did and the results can be seen on this weekend's Eco Solar Tour. It's one of 15 sites — 16 if you include the tie-in with an Alberta Motor Association's electric vehicle event — as the tour returns with its 23rd edition.

"The Eco-Solar Tour lets the public direct their questions to the homeowners that have incorporated energy efficiency and solar into their homes, both new homes or retrofit homes," said Andrew Mills, Eco Solar Tour Society president.

It was the mid-1990s. Onisko was house hunting with her mother and came upon the aforementioned Belgravia home — Site 14 on the Eco Solar Tour — and the home spoke to them.

Saunders entered the picture a few years after Onisko purchased the house. By the summer of 2020, they both retired, and that LED light-bulb moment was coming up quick.

They planned to build a cottage in a corner of their huge backyard and rent it out to increase income while staying in the home they loved.

But when they talked to their builder — Rosecrest Homes, which specializes in environmentally friendly homes, and whose president, Heiko Lotzgeselle, was the realtor who sold the house to Onisko — they realized accessibility and efficiency improvements to the existing home would not come close to what they would get in a new build and for less money.

Then, that LED bulb switched on. They realized it made more sense for them to benefit from and move into the new build and they could instead transform their original 1,073-square-foot home into two income producing rental suites.

Their new house, known as "The Pad," is an 1,150-square-foot, two-bedroom home, with another 900 square feet in the finished basement. It takes advantage of passive solar energy and is almost net zero; it will be once they add solar panels.

"An air-source heat pump resembling an air conditioning unit sits along an exterior wall," says Onisko. "The mechanical room houses equipment that harvests or retrieves heat energy that would be lost otherwise. Windows are triple-glazed, double low-e and argon-filled, doorways accommodate wheelchair passage and basement walls are thick. That's what you can see. What you can't see is enhanced insulation, a tight envelope and infrastructure for solar energy production for both the old and new houses."

While the Belgravia Garden Suite (Site 14) showcases an energy efficient new style of retirement living, Mills said this is just one of the tour's highlights.

The tour includes various retrofits, one of which is in Prince Charles where the outside of the house was wrapped to give it an insulated exterior. There's also a focus on Blatchford, a carbon neutral neighbourhood powered by renewable energy. Meanwhile, Site 7 (Bonnie Doon Rebuild) illustrates how one family recovered from a tragedy as their fire-devastated home has been re-imagined with style, function, home protection and energy efficiency as priorities.

"Visitors will see a completely transformed home and view first-hand energy efficiency and home protection improvements that can be incorporated into their own home," said Stephanie Wold, the homeowner of the house in question.

"The original home had basic energy efficient features including well-insulated walls and windows," said Wold. "Many enhanced features such as solar PV and the home protection equipment were not in the original home but were incorporated into the rebuild. After the fire experience, we wanted to make sure that the home has added efficiency and an extra level of protection."

For 2023, the tour has 36 homes in three cities. Edmonton kicks it off and includes an informal tie-in with the Alberta Motor Association's electric vehicle event. A Calgary edition will be held June 10 and June 11, and a Lethbridge version takes place June 17. The Canmore entry is no longer under the Eco Solar Tour Society's banner. It's being run by the Biosphere Institute of the Bow Valley and is now the Green Buildings Open House.

To take part in the 2023 Edmonton Eco Solar Tour, head to the website to find out about the homes and select the ones to visit. The tour, Saturday, June 3, and Sunday, June 4, is a free event.

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