Gas prices make us misers

Tom Spears
The Ottawa Citizen
January 3, 2001

Rising natural gas prices are pushing Eastern Ontario residents to add insulation, seal cracks and look to newer furnaces, spending money now to be energy misers later.

Since October, when it became clear that soaring gas prices weren’t going to fade away, O’Reilly Brothers insulation contractors in Ottawa have seen their residential work orders jump by 30 to 40 per cent over the same period in other years.

Customers are spending about $800 to $900 on average to insulate their attics, said family member Terry O’Reilly. And the firm has also been busy blowing in foam and sealing cracks where cold, outside air can seep in.

In the federal Office of Energy Efficiency, Barbara Mullally Pauly has noticed that questions about saving energy are picking up again after years of complacency.

“We’re starting to get the same kind of phone calls we used to, after a period of ‘Oh, well, it’s not important.’ Energy costs were comfortable. People were used to them.”

Now people are phoning for advice on furnaces and insulation. This shows up most clearly in a national program to provide cheap energy audits of homes. Paying a contractor to analyse where a house is squandering energy and where it’s in good shape costs about $300 to $350, but the Office of Energy Efficiency is kicking in $150 per home, paid directly to the contractor.

“This has really, really picked up,” Ms. Mullally Pauly said. “We were expecting maybe 9,000 audits this year (across the country), but we’re seeing more than 11,000.”

In Ottawa, anyone who wants a home audit can call 244- 5624.

Eastern Ontario customers have already been using a little less gas every year, figures from the gas industry show.

Higher prices are expected to accelerate that trend. Since 1990, the average customer in this region has cut gas use by 1.3 per cent per year, Union Gas says. And it projects consumption will fall another 10 to 15 percentage points in the next 10 years as high-efficiency furnaces become the norm.

“High-efficiency furnaces are the biggest factor there,” said Union spokeswoman Elizabeth Havelock.

Falling gas use per household “is a trend that has been going on for several years,” says Tom Adams, an analyst with Energy Probe, a Toronto group that studies energy trends and utilities. “Improvements in furnace technology are the biggest factor there,” he said.

“And the utilities have been pretty good about providing information to customers on energy conservation.” Another gain has been made through the rapid spread of programmable thermostats.

But Mr. Adams said the trend to better efficiency has been slowed somewhat by the renovation and expansion of existing homes.

Since gas prices jumped, he adds, “one of the things that has happened is actually kind of nasty for the environment.”

Many industries use a “dual fuel” system that lets them rely mainly on natural gas, while using some oil as well.

The dual system allows these companies to get a cheaper gas rate: They agree to have their gas switched off at the gas company’s busiest time of day and get a discount in return.

Now, says Mr. Adams, these companies are relying more on oil. And oil doesn’t usually burn as cleanly as gas.


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