Photo: haru__q/ Flickr

When it comes to adding green upgrades to your home, your first instinct might be to jump right into geothermal systems and solar panels — not to fix drafty windows and change air filters.

These may not sound groundbreaking, but they’re the best places to start when it comes to taking steps to greening your home.

“Once we’ve dealt with these unsexy things, then we look at adding renewable energy sources,” says Paul Dowsett, principal designer and co-founder at Sustainable, an efficiency-focused architectural company based in Toronto.

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Before you consider splurging on a new smart thermostat, there’s many high impact, lower cost measures you can take to make your home a more energy-efficient and healthier place to live. You can notch a few green home wins simply with some caulking, or a purposeful decision to purchase sustainable building materials.

“Health is increasingly as important as energy-efficiency when people are talking about green buildings,” says Chris Phillips, president of Greening Homes, a healthy-living renovations firm.

We asked Dowsett, Phillips and Kathleen Narbonne, a building scientist at Sustainable, for their advice on which upgrades first-time home buyers should make that will super-boost their home’s energy-efficiency.

1. Skip the foam and stick with Rockwool

Spray foam insulation is a popular choice among new home developers — it’s relatively cheap, and easy to apply. Yet, the substances found within spray foam — and its efficacy — are questionable.

“We’re finding that there’s more and more research that shows that spray foam is a seriously problematic material to use,” says Phillips. “Yes, there’s an initial higher value per inch, and yes, initially there is air sealing capacity, but that air sealing capacity usually doesn’t actually last very long because the expansion and contraction of micro-fissures that form.”

Phillips explains that spray foam was created during World War II by petrochemical companies. After the war, the industry had a desire to use and experiment with this newly created substance in different ways, leading to its eventual incorporation into residential buildings. Phillips says that, “we’re still following that wave.”

Foam insulation, according to Dowsett, has a tendency to trap water vapor. Vapor will always find a way into your walls, so it’s important that insulation is breathable to allow vapor to escape. Foam insulation prevents this process. As a result, toxic mold can grow on your insulation and walls.

“I think a lot of people associate spray foam with sustainability because it has a high R-value per square inch,” says Narbonne. “We try to stay away from that because it has a high embody of carbon. Spray will act as your vapor barrier. It won’t allow vapor to enter, but it won’t allow that vapor to exit as well.”

Narbonne recommends opting for Rockwool if you’re considering swapping out your current insulation. Rockwool is a mineral fiber made from slag that has better ventilation. It also has a higher R-value — a measurement of how high a substance’s insulating power is — than traditional fibreglass insulation. If you’re digging up your basement, it’s a perfect opportunity to add a layer of rockwool under the floor or in your walls to stop any cold from coming up from the ground.

2. Find leaks in those sneaky nooks and crannies

If your house feels cold, but the heat is cranked up, it might be time to figure out where the warm air is escaping.

A blower door test is one way to measure the amount of outdoor air that penetrates into the home. This is done by installing a special fan device in a doorway that adjusts the pressure of a room to the point where areas of air loss are detected.

“You can actually feel wind coming through the various crevasses that you didn’t realize you had,” says Phillips.

Once air escapes are found, you can close up the leaks with caulking. However, stuffing your home with pink insulation will not make it airtight, according to Dowsett. Up to 40 percent of a home’s heat can be lost through poor insulation and a lack of air-tightness.

“Most people think they can make their house warmer by adding fluffy insulation, but that doesn’t deal with that 40 percent heat loss,” says Dowsett. “Air will just blow right through fluffy insulation.”

Photo: ilovebutter/ Flickr

3. Upgrade your windows to glass-on-glass

Outdated windows are a major culprit for cold drafts and leaking thermal heat. If you’re a first-time buyer and renovating a fixer-upper, Narbonne and Dowsett recommend switching out the old windows for more energy-efficient models. Older windows have no insulating value, but triple-glazed windows with fibreglass frames are the gold-standard as they’re a poor conductor of heat. Because fibreglass frames are made from the same material as the window panes, they expand and contract at the same rate, reducing the size and frequency of gaps through which heat can escape.

“When you replace your windows, you have the ability to address the air tightness of the perimeter of the windows as well,” says Narbonne. “That gives you an opportunity to improve that, which is a huge part of where heat is lost.”

Triple-glazed windows will cost you $1,000 to $1,500 per window for a standard three-foot-wide to four-foot-high size. Narbonne recommends sticking with more fixed frames than sliding windows for maximum heat insulation.

4. Breathe in healthier air

Efficient and green living shouldn’t be limited to the windows and walls — air quality plays an important role too.

When choosing construction materials, Phillips says that it’s important to examine the substances that you’ll be breathing in over time. New homeowners should consider opting for non-toxic and Low Volatile Organic Compound paints when redecorating. Third-party certifications, such as the ECOLOGO, can help buyers distinguish eco-friendly products.

“For a relatively small amount more you can have a healthier indoor air quality,” says Phillips.

Once your home is airtight, Dowsett says to check your filters seasonally to keep the indoor air clean.

“I would say that you should be looking at them spring and fall at the very least—just before they’re being used for heating, and in the spring after they’ve been used for a season of heating,” he says. “If you find then that they’re super dirty, replace them more often.”

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