Feb 9, 2009

Getting in Hot Water: A Lesson in Climate Subsidies


My hot water tank blew out just before Christmas. I had no idea, just went down to the crawlspace to get some wrapping paper and found the floor flooded around the old tank. We’d been expecting this for a while, having never had to change the tank since we moved in seven years earlier.

Contemplating my replacement tank I got excited about the prospect of a subsidy (and a better overall flow of hot water). Good timing, I thought. My buddies in the BC government have set up just a program to make sure I go the energy efficient route. Here’s the pitch:

Choose to take advantage of B.C.’s new home energy efficiency incentives. Choose to better insulate your home. Choose low energy appliances, heating and lighting options. Save on power bills. Save on heating and cooling costs. Save on sales tax. Save hundreds to thousands of dollars.

Alas, it was not meant to be. In order to access any federal or provincial subsidies you need to arrange for a full energy audit of your home. You pay part of the cost of doing so, about $150 at the outset and another $150 when the work has been completed. You then can get subsidies on equipment that meets certain standards but they have to be submitted by the auditor before you get your cheque (or cheques, plural, as the federal version of this program does effectively the same thing).

Trouble is, I needed a hot water heater within days, because the other one was leaking. I had no time for an energy audit, and quite frankly my home is in pretty good shape for energy efficiency. The maximum subsidy I would have been able to get was less than the cost of the inspector, so in any event it was not worth doing.

Oddly, the largest subsidies are for natural gas burning water heaters, which are supposedly more efficient on some measure of energy efficiency. But burning natural gas creates carbon dioxide, and this program was brought in ostensibly to get homes to reduce their carbon footprint. The subsidy for electrical hot water heaters (the eco-choice since 90% of BC’s electricity is hydroelectric) is only half as much, at $130. And then at both Rona and Home Depot I found not a single option that actually meets the standard anyway.

So I ended up buying the maximum twelve-year electric hot water heater (they sell them based on expected life). I did the best I could for the planet, but the government was no help in swaying my decision into something more efficient or climate friendly.

Perhaps this program would work if I was retrofitting an old house with new windows, appliances and all that. But for routine upgrades, it is not worth the paperwork.

So here’s an idea. Why not work with Rona and Home Depot to pressure them to meet new efficiency standards for the products they sell. Then send every household a “cheque” for $5,000 (about three times the maximum from the federal home reno tax credit) redeemable for puchase of selected equipment at those stores. Wouldn’t that be a whole lot easier?