Karla's Story

An energy-conscious homeowner learns about home maintenance and receives free upgrades

Icicles hang outside Karla’s living room window, which overlooks a quiet, snow-covered street in northwest Edmonton. It’s been another bitter winter, with cold snaps dipping as low as -50 degrees Celsius.    

On this day, Karla’s home is abuzz with reporters and teams of contractors who have been hired to replace her furnace with a higher-efficiency model, top up her attic insulation, replace leaky windows, and air seal her home.  

“In the summer, when it’s hot, it’s like a dungeon in here,” she says. “And in the winter, if there’s a breeze, you can feel it.”

Karla learned about the Home Upgrades Program (HUP) through her work with a local non-profit in Edmonton. She received an email describing the program and was asked to forward the information to the families she and her team support.  

“When I started looking into things, I realized I might qualify,” she said. After applying, Karla was approved for significant home upgrades that will help reduce her energy consumption and lower her utility bills, which have been known to exceed $600 in colder months. For a moderately-sized duplex, the cost of her bills is partly the result of poor energy efficiency.  

“I was surprised when the insulation guy went up there and there were only three inches of insulation,” she shared. Karla had never ventured into her attic and, admittedly, wasn’t sure what was up there. “Maybe squirrels?” she suggests jokingly.  

HUP’s Edmonton construction manager, Russ, explains that even in a home built in 1979, insulation levels should have been around seven to ten inches. Today, her home’s insulation will be topped up to around 17 inches, the recommended “R-value” for attic insulation in Alberta. Russ is careful to explain everything simply, allowing Karla to become better acquainted with her home. Their conversations offer an important reminder that the program’s value includes education– a powerful tool to help homeowners feel more confident in their homes moving forward.

Karla with Edmonton's construction manager, Russ.

Yet despite learning new information about her home through her experience with the Home Upgrades Program, Karla was already making conscious decisions to save energy. When asked about her experience during the recent -50C cold snap, she describes her efforts.

“It’s not great,” she says. “I usually keep blankets rolled up around the doors, all the curtains closed, and I have plastic over the windows,” she explains, referring to thermal window film used to insulate windows against the cold.

Still, it can only do so much, she admits. Even with her boys at school and herself at work, the bills creep higher.

“When the furnace is kicking on constantly and the windows are allowing so much heat in or out of the house, what can you do?”

Upon inspection, it was discovered that Karla’s furnace was cracked and had damaged heat exchangers. Not only was her furnace leaving her with high bills, but it was also exposing her and her family to a potentially hazardous situation. With a damaged furnace, the risk of carbon monoxide leaking into the home becomes a more serious consideration. To prevent these kinds of dangerous situations, the Home Upgrades Program installs carbon monoxide and smoke detectors throughout upgraded homes.

Prior to applying to HUP, Karla investigated other energy efficiency programs, only to realize that most programs require homeowners to pay for costs up-front. Best case scenario, homeowners are partially reimbursed for the work. This model, however, has proven difficult for many lower-income families, presenting barriers for households who often don’t have extra cash to allocate towards home improvement projects.

Despite these challenges, Karla continued to look for solutions. Two years ago, when she began noticing the impacts of increased market volatility on her bills, Karla switched from a floating rate to a fixed rate plan. The switch to a guaranteed rate for electricity and natural gas allowed Karla to avoid the “monster bills” she experienced in the past. Yet even on a fixed rate, she sometimes overpays out of fear, doing everything she can to avoid another unmanageable year-end bill. Meanwhile, with two sons in high school and another studying culinary arts in college, Karla already works two jobs to keep her family afloat. High bills, a cold home, and an aging furnace have only added to additional stress.

“I’ve just been hobbling along,” she says, reflecting on how these “big investments into the home” felt out of reach without the support of the Home Upgrades Program.

“I just want to see more people get the help because it’s great. I’m so thankful.”

The program is made possible thanks to the generosity of our funding partners: Alberta Ecotrust Foundation, the City of Calgary, the City of Edmonton, ENMAX, the Alberta Real Estate Foundation, the McConnell Foundation, Suncor Energy Foundation, and Calgary Foundation.

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