Carleton students greening Ottawa one house at a time

Upon walking into a home in the old Ottawa east community, Hillary Flesher’s stomach sank.

Compact-fluorescent light bulbs. Check. Unplugged appliances. Check. She had unknowingly walked into an environmentalist’s dream home.

Normally, this wouldn’t be a problem but the Carleton engineering student had been sent there to conduct an energy audit.

Like some kind of environmental superhero – equipped with low-flow showerheads, power bars and clothespins – she was on a mission to recommend new habits, renovations and green-energy alternatives in the hopes of reducing residential energy bills.

It wasn’t going to be easy.

“(The homeowner) was up for saving energy but had already done a lot of energy saving tactics herself,” says Flesher, part of a novel Carleton course that teaches engineering communication skills while helping to green Ottawa homes through Sustainable Living Ottawa East, a not-for-profit environmental group.

While most courses focus on theory, instructor Kimberley Davis thought it would be more helpful to give students the opportunity to gain real-world experience – or “community service learning” – while solving a very serious problem in the process.

Ottawa’s homes, after all, are responsible for an incredible amount of pollution. Residential emissions accounted for almost half of the Canada’s total emissions in 2004.

“It’s been interesting because some of the students (like Flesher) have gone to homes that are green already,” says Davis, of her Communication Skills for Engineering Students course. “Where maybe they didn’t have as much of an impact, it’s still making a difference . . . one way or another.

“There’s been a very wide range of experiences,” says Davis. “(The students have) gone to some homes where everyone’s riding their bikes everywhere. (They’ve) gone to others where someone is on social assistance and every penny matters.”

In most cases – even when homes seem completely efficient and homeowners appear to be doing everything they can to cut their energy bills – these audits uncover an additional 10 per cent in savings, says Scott McKenzie, member of Sustainable Living Ottawa East.

Despite her initial discouragement, Flesher, too, managed to find some pretty significant energy savings during her audit.

“(The homeowner) had always been leaving her iron plugged into wall,” she says, adding that the appliance is a “phantom load” – a huge power sucker, even when it’s not being used.

“Students were going in with metres to show (homeowners) how much energy is being wasted even when their computer is turned off or their TV is turned off,” says Davis, adding that the lessons go both ways. “Even the students have been affected by this.

“Students are going home and turning off their power bars now.”

The project is two-fold. After the initial audits and interviews, the students write their reports, recommending customized solutions for the homeowners to maximize energy savings with the smallest possible investment.

“I have had a couple of people who have recently had audits tell me how much they learned and how they are excited that they have more control over their electricity usage,” says Sue McKee, member of Sustainable Living Ottawa East. “One of our goals is to get people thinking about ways they can reduce their electricity usage without it costing a lot of money.”

While top-down policy is necessary to institute any widespread change to the way homes are made in the first place, Flesher thinks the grassroots approach has been most successful.

“It becomes a more personal thing,” says Flesher. “They can actually see it with their own eyes.”

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Daniel Reid

By Daniel Reid

Whether it’s scientific breakthroughs, political manoeuvres or loaded technical jargon, Daniel Reid loves to untangle complex ideas to make them accessible to everyone. He is currently an editor at @newsrooms and is a former web editor at @CTVNews and homepage editor at @TheLoopCA. You can argue with him on Twitter at @ahatrack.

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