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Energy Matters: September 2021

Energy Matters: September 2021

We are thrilled to bring you the twentieth issue of Energy Matters! As we mark issue #20, we’re sharing our Top 20 tips for improving your buildings’ energy and water performance, exploring construction material innovations to help reduce your buildings’ greenhouse gas emissions, and updating you on utility incentive programs for 2022.

We look forward to sharing another twenty issues with you!

In this Issue:

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Top 20 Tips for Maximum Energy Efficiency

We’ve learned a ton while producing our quarterly issues of Energy Matters over the past five years. With this valuable information spread over various articles over 20 issues, we thought it would be useful to sum up the top twenty tips in one place. We hope these lessons learned from the energy and community housing sector have helped many of you improve your buildings’ energy and water performance – and hopefully inspire others who may be contemplating future upgrades.

Take a Comprehensive Approach

Maintenance man inspecting equipment
Source: Porch
  1. Go for low-hanging fruit. Haven’t put in low-flow toilets or upgraded to LED lighting yet? These improvements are easy wins, so get installing.
  2. Practice good maintenance. Leaky pipes and poorly maintained equipment can cost you in wasted water and unnecessary energy use. It’s important to have site staff perform regular walk-throughs to spot issues, and have your contractors check water and space heating equipment settings and schedules. Hiring a reputable contractor and conducting regular maintenance are essential to good utility performance.
  3. Reduce demand. While upgrading space heating and cooling equipment is helpful, addressing air loss and infiltration through windows, entry ways and poorly insulated walls, can significantly reduce your overall need for energy use associated with heating and cooling. A well-insulated, air-tight building will help you maintain thermal comfort with less energy used on space heating and cooling.
  4. Right-size your heating system. Many heating systems were built too large for the buildings they’re in, especially where building envelope upgrades have been completed. A heating system replacement may be in order, and an important first step is to have a “right sizing analysis” done by a qualified professional. If a smaller system is recommended, not only will it cost less to install given its size but will require less energy to operate.
Source: Entek Corp
  1. Replace inefficient electric baseboard heaters with better technologies. Electric baseboard heaters are very inefficient and, unfortunately, were installed extensively in social housing buildings across Ontario. More efficient technologies, such as air-source heat pumps, are available and are being tested and installed by various housing providers.
  2. Consider recommissioning or retro-commissioning your building equipment and systems to ensure they are operating optimally. These processes involve evaluating a building’s energy-using systems and adjusting their settings, controls, components, and design to ensure they function properly according to the needs of the building.
  3. Install an energy management control system to control the operation of heating, water heating, lighting, and ventilation systems in your building and regulate their energy consumption. Don’t forget to train site staff so they know how to operate the system and can respond to any issues it flags.
  4. Think low-carbon. Lowering energy use, especially natural gas, can mean fewer greenhouse gas emissions associated with your building. You can lower energy use through high-efficiency equipment upgrades and tenant engagement. But it’s not simply energy use that impacts emissions – using construction and building components that are produced with less energy in the first place is also important. Check out our low-carbon article in this issue to learn more.
UMP graph sample
  1. Measure your energy and water use and continue to monitor it regularly. By measuring how well your buildings are using energy and water, you will be able to spot trends and identify opportunities to cut your consumption. HSC’s Utility Management Program (UMP) helps you do this by collecting your utility data and reporting on your gas, electricity, and water performance over time, regardless of differences in weather from year to year.
  2. Consider the whole building. There are technical and economical limits to how efficient an individual piece of equipment can be, and even though you may have installed high-efficiency equipment this does not necessarily mean your building is operating as efficiently as it could be. With a whole building approach, you would identify energy savings opportunities from individual systems as well as from the interactions the systems have with each other, such as how a more insulated building envelope can reduce energy use associated with space heating. In other words – don’t think in terms of the parts, think of the whole when you plan improvements in your building.
  3. Prepare for cooling. Hot summers often mean greater use of portable air conditioners by tenants. The units your tenants choose may not always be energy efficient and could cost you if you pay their electricity bills. Some housing providers, such as Toronto Community Housing, are supplying their tenants with portable air conditioners to control electricity costs by ensuring units are efficient and properly installed.

Plan Ahead

  1. Engage professionals to perform an energy audit to identify priority energy saving projects for your property. Beyond helping you prioritize projects to help you control energy costs, an energy audit can also assist you in identifying other goals, such as increasing the comfort of your tenants and helping to increase the life span of the equipment in your facility. You can use this checklist to prepare for the audit.
  2. Create an Energy Management Plan that outlines savings goals, priority projects, and expected outcomes. This can be a living document that you regularly update and build upon and that is informed by your energy audit and building condition assessment. Having a plan in place can help you stay on track on maintenance work so it doesn’t pile up all at once. It can help you make quick decisions on priority projects should additional funding become available, for example through new government programs or incentive programs from utility companies.  
  3. Be Prepared for potential funding and financing for energy and greenhouse gas emission reduction projects. These tips will help you prepare you application in advance of when funding opportunities are announced.

Educate and Communicate

  1. Educate staff and tenants when planning, installing, or upgrading components, so they understand what the component is, why it is being installed, and how to properly use it. Engaging staff and tenants best practices for energy and water conservation can also go a long way to helping you reduce consumption and control energy costs.
  2. Consider formal training for onsite staff to spot issues and savings opportunities. Be sure to look at available incentives to cover costs of building operator training.
  3. Learn from Others. By staying engaged and connected within the community housing sector, you can learn about exciting projects other providers are taking. We have shared some examples in previous Energy Matters issues, such as Ottawa Community Housing’s townhouse retrofit and CityHousing Hamilton’s deep energy high-rise retrofit. Attending sector conferences and webinars is another great way to stay in the know.

Think Outside the Box to Stretch Your Dollars

  1. Go beyond “simple pay back” in your decision-making. Housing providers often base project decisions on how many years it will take for project savings to “pay” for the project. This approach can be misleading, especially when you consider that social housing buildings are long-term investments, not “quick-flip” investment properties like condos. A project may not seem viable based on simple pay back but could provide significant savings over the building’s life span that make it worth the investment.
  2. Be financially creative. There are many ways to stretch your finances. Check out WoodGreen Community Housing Inc.’s innovative approach to financing their multi-project energy improvements for some ideas.
  3. Take advantage of utility incentives to help cover the costs of energy-related upgrades and improvements. See our update on utility incentive programs for 2022 for more.

Do you have an interesting project or financing model that other providers in the community housing sector might be interested in? Contact us for a chance to be featured in a future issue of Energy Matters!

Going Low Carbon Through Building Materials

Over the past twenty issues of Energy Matters, we’ve featured many strategies to reduce utility use and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with building operations, from upgrading equipment and improving air-tightness, to monitoring utility use and educating tenants. In this article, we take a different approach and look at the very materials that make up buildings and their impacts. We also explore some truly innovative low-carbon alternatives to consider.

In Ontario, buildings are responsible for 22% of the province’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Some of these emissions come from building operations, but the rest are associated with the components used to construct the buildings themselves. For instance, a 2020 report from the Global Alliance for Buildings and Construction found that the production of construction materials including concrete, steel, and glass accounts for approximately 10% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions. And it’s not just the production of such materials that has significant impacts; so do maintenance, repair, and disposal of them. The emissions associated with these activities, along with those related to building operation, make up the total lifecycle emissions of a building.

Lifecycle carbon image
Source: ArchDaily

So, whether you are tackling capital improvements in existing buildings or doing new construction, it is important to consider the impacts of the materials you choose in terms of the building’s overall energy use and GHG emissions. Thankfully, there are some amazing developments in this area you can explore for your next project.


Biomaterials are partially or wholly derived from renewable natural sources, specifically, plants and animals. As construction materials, they can play both structural and non-structural functions within the building fabric. For instance, softwood timber used in framing is considered a biomaterial, playing a structural role in the building. Other examples include natural fibre composites, bioplastics, biorubbers, biofoams, bioadhesives, and biobased paints and coatings.


Hempcrete image

Hemp is a biomaterial that was recently used to complete a 15-unit social housing building in Paris. The architecture firm, Barrault Pressacco, used a combination of “hempcrete” and wood since these biomaterials have much lower embodied carbon compared to conventional materials such as concrete and steel. The material also helped achieve the contemporary look and thick façade of the design. Hempcrete is a low-carbon infill material made from hemp fibres with a lime-based binding agent. For this building, it was sprayed in layers into gypsum-fibre panels that were fixed to the main pine-on-concrete-slab framework. Through its use of hempcrete, this building is already meeting a regulatory requirement taking effect in 2022 that all new public buildings be built with at least 50% timber or other natural materials.

Coffee Waste

Recycled coffee waste, another biomaterial, is being used to build low-income housing in rural and difficult to access regions in Colombia. The husks and other waste from coffee production are formed into light-weight pre-fabricated blocks that are assembled into homes that are easily transported and installed. Using coffee waste instead of conventional materials is helping to reduce the lifecycle emissions associated with these homes. As of May 2021, approximately 3,000 homes have been built in Colombia using this technique.

This one-minute video shows how a local construction company is using waste coffee husks to build affordable and eco-friendly housing for communities in Colombia.


Bamboo is a rapidly renewable biomaterial that is considered a “mega-absorber” of emissions as it grows. It is lightweight and flexible and can be used for structural and exterior grade products such as beams, trusses, and posts. Bamboo is also considered very strong, with US-based building materials supplier, Lamboo, claiming engineered bamboo has 30-50% greater strength than comparable woods. A 2019 article notes that bamboo could replace conventional materials due to its quick growth rate, strength, and low costs. 


Mycelium insulation image
Source: Global Construction Review

You probably consider mushrooms to be more of answer to tonight’s dinner than to low-carbon buildings, but think again. Mycelium, a biomaterial formed from the root systems of fungi, is considered to have good insulating, acoustic, and fire performance properties, and because it can feed on agricultural wastes, is good at sequestering carbon as it grows. A recent article reported that mycelium is being developed into in composite materials to replace foams, timber, and plastics in applications such as insulation, door cores, paneling, flooring, and more.

Concrete 2.0

Concrete has a massive carbon footprint, largely because the production of its key ingredient, cement, requires significant heat typically from burning fossil fuels. Many companies around the world are experimenting with improving concrete to make it less carbon intensive and to improve its longevity. Some examples include:

Carbon-capture concrete: Montreal-based Carbicrete has developed a method to produce concrete using waste slag from the steel-making process and carbon captured from industrial processes. The slag and carbon act as a substitute for cement, which is responsible for half of the emissions associated with traditional concrete. According to the company’s CEO, Chris Stern, “The chemical composition of a concrete block that we make is exactly the same as a regular concrete block but we take a different road to get there.” Several other companies are also  looking alternative methods to reduce the carbon impacts of concrete and cement production.

image of a tube sliced in half of self-healing concrete
Self-healing concrete image
Source: Worchester Polytechnic Institute

Self-healing concrete: Taking another approach, some researches are focusing on making concrete last longer, thereby shrinking the overall demand for new concrete and its associated emissions. Some researchers have experimented with using microorganisms including bacteria to create self-healing concrete. When cracks form, the bacteria feed on compounds added to the concrete mixture to produce limestone to repair the cracks. However, this method is slow, so recent research has focused on alternative techniques, including one using an enzyme found in red blood cells. In that method, carbonic anhydrase is added to concrete powder, turning carbon dioxide in the atmosphere into calcium carbonate crystals. When a crack forms, the calcium carbonate fills it in. A one-millimeter crack can be filled in a day, helping prevent the formation of larger cracks. A similar approach can be applied to traditional concrete.

Brick Tricks

Like concrete, brick is used extensively in the construction industry and has a hefty carbon impact. While most bricks are made using clay, a fairly abundant resource, they must be cured, which involves heating the clay to high temperatures, usually by burning fossil fuels. Alternatives are being developed to circumvent this process. For instance, Scottish start-up Kenoteq developed a product called K-Briq, an unfired product made of 90% construction waste. It has less than one-tenth of the carbon emissions in its manufacture compared to a traditional brick.  

Refurbishment Versus Redevelopment

When considering redevelopment or refurbishment of an existing building, it is important to take the emissions impacts of the building materials into account. Refurbishing an existing building is considered less carbon-intensive than constructing a new building.

Lifecycle carbon new vs refurb image
Source: Aecom

Think about it – in a new building, the basement and structural frames typically require extensive concrete, steel, and aluminum, which all have high emissions impacts. These components usually remain even in a building undergoing a deep refurbishment, resulting in fewer emissions than if a building was constructed. Using the right materials to improve the building envelope and various systems in an existing building is typically a better way to go when it comes to curbing emissions, compared to a new build.

Building construction and refurbishment are getting more and more innovative with new materials and less carbon-intensive options in research and on the market each year. Before you plan a conventional new build or refurbishment, consider the many possibilities for lowering your building’s greenhouse gas emissions both in the materials you choose and the operational processes it will include.

The above article is provided for educational purposes only. HSC encourages all housing providers to work with professional technicians for advice on the best products and/or techniques that are right for your portfolio and that support your organization’s broader plan.

What Will Incentives Look Like in 2022?

Since the pandemic began, housing providers have faced many more challenges than what is usual in completing energy-saving and building improvements. Lockdowns, inflationary pricing, and lack of supply have resulted in increased costs and uncertainty around timelines. One area that we can help clarify for you is what utility incentive programs will look like going into 2022.

Natural Gas

In the pre-pandemic world, the 2015-2020 demand side management framework that guides natural gas incentive programs would have ended on December 31, 2020, with a new framework and programs taking effect January 1, 2021. However, the pandemic and other factors delayed this process, causing the Ontario Energy Board (OEB) to direct Enbridge Gas (which now includes former Union Gas) to continue delivering its existing gas incentive programs throughout 2021.  

For 2022, the OEB has again directed Enbridge to continue offering its existing programs. Although Enbridge had submitted a new proposed framework and plan to the OEB for the 2022-2027 period, the OEB decided that a comprehensive review of the proposed programs and budgets was needed before it could provide approval. Continuing existing programs in the interim will ensure consistency for gas customers, including housing providers, while the OEB conducts its review.

The next steps of the OEB’s review will not be completed until February 2022, with potential additional steps to follow. Pending the OEB’s approval, it is expected that a new framework with associated new incentive programs will roll out in January 2023.


As reported in our December 2020 issue, the Independent Energy Systems Operator (IESO) rolled out updated programs that took effect this past January. The biggest change came with the replacement of the Home Assistance Program with the Energy Affordability Program, which expanded income eligibility and had different offerings for low-income customers (including social housing) versus moderate income customers.

The Retrofit program no longer included a Custom track, and the list of eligible measures was changed. Since January, the measures list has been updated in response to customer feedback. The IESO plans to update the measures list again in the first quarter of 2022, so if you don’t currently see a measure on it that you are planning, check back again in the new year.

HSC actively engages with Enbridge, the OEB, and the IESO on utility incentive programs. If you have feedback about gas and electricity incentive programs, contact our Energy Services team and we will incorporate your comments and pass them along during a future engagement.

Track Your Utilities with UMP

Sample UMP Chart

How do you know if your utility use is increasing or decreasing when weather changes year to year? How can you tell if any energy and water saving projects are having an impact? HSC’s Utility Management Program (UMP) accounts for differences in weather each year so you can view an apples-to-apples comparison of your building utility performance over time and from one year to the next.

Use UMP to monitor your utility consumption to know if your building is performing better or worse season to season and year to year. Log-in to UMP to view your latest UMP dashboards and Gas, Electricity, and Water reports.

If you have questions on your UMP results, Contact us!

Other Topics? If you’d like to suggest a topic or want a one-on-one review with HSC staff, please contact us!

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