Soaring electricity bills, climate change worries, depletion of the world’s natural resources, water shortages—everywhere you look, there are worrying new statistics about the state of the environment, warnings about how much more we are going to have to pay to run our air-conditioning units during the summer, advice on how to be less wasteful and more efficient in our homes. There is so much advice and information, in fact, that it’s sometimes difficult to know what is real and what is exaggerated. More importantly, what are practical solutions to these problems and what could turn out to be a waste of our hard-earned dollars?
What is real to Bermuda homeowners is the high cost of electricity and the scarcity of water. Around the world, certain residential renewable energy systems that can help with these issues are becoming increasingly popular—solar panels, grey water systems and wind turbines are the most well-known examples, but are they practical for Bermuda’s climate and landscape? How much do you have to invest and at what stage will you start seeing a saving? Is being energy efficient a suitable alternative to alternative energy?
Energy Efficiency—Passive Design
Whether you are building a brand-new home or looking to install renewable energy systems into an existing home, the experts all agree that you need to make your home energy efficient first before you consider these larger investments.
“When you’ve got the opportunity, look at the passive system first,” says architect Geoff Parker. “A lot of the low-hanging fruit in terms of energy efficiency, if you are building from scratch, really comes with the design. Look back to traditional, historic properties, because they were designed when they didn’t have air-conditioning. They were designed with big windows with lots of light; shading on the south and west so the porches would be on the south and west side primarily; rooms that were open to allow cross-ventilation through and sited on a hill or facing southwest. Having a good understanding of the site and the local conditions to that site, and Bermuda generally, is the important starting point if you’re looking to build new and be energy efficient. Most of the technology is used to mitigate problems that you have with a house built inefficiently.”
Parker does recognise, however, that not everyone has this luxury, as huge plots of land sitting on the tops of hills where you can get all the nice breezes can be difficult to come by. There are still, however, things you can do before splashing out on technology, such as considering the shading and breezes, keeping your roof clean and painted white, and painting your outside walls a light colour.
Investing in energy efficient appliances for the home is a proven way to save money on electricity bills in the long run and, according to Eugene Dean, director of Greenrock, people should consider asking about the efficiency of a product before buying it.
“Efficiency is a major thing,” says Dean. “People don’t always consider efficiency at all. They may have heard of Energy Star, but outside of that, I’m not sure how many people go into a place like Sears and say ‘how efficient is this washer over that one?’ People knowing what’s possible is valuable.”
“Look at your appliances,” adds Parker. “Put your water heater on a timer.” Water heating is a large consumer of energy—17 percent of residential electrical usage according to the Bermuda Better Energy Plan. You can buy a variety of timers at most hardware shops and suppliers on the island for around $110–$160 depending on the brand.
Heat pump water heaters are an energy efficient alternative if you have a large family house and space to put one where you won’t be bothered by the noise. “This is your standard water heater with basically a backwards air-conditioner on top,” explains Parker. “It pre-warms up the water by doing a heat exchange with the air in the room and it’s a lot more energy efficient than just a typical element heater but they have to be pretty central to all your plumbing. They’re usually quite large. They need to be in a utility room.
“Because they’re large, you need to loop two or three bathrooms together or a bathroom and kitchen together. They’re usually a lot noisier than a standard heater so you need a garage or somewhere to put it so it’s not in your bedroom closet.”
Parker says that they are more expensive to buy than a traditional water heater but if you have the right location for one, such as a centralised water heater in your garage, close to where the water is being used, it can make a really significant energy saving. BE Solar estimates that a heat pump water heater produces hot water 60 percent more efficiently than traditional water heaters. They also produce cold dehumidified air as a by-product and cost around $2,800 before installation.
The Bermuda Better Energy Plan also assumes that only around 20 percent of the island’s homes use LED or CFL light bulbs. These bulbs may be more expensive to buy at the outset than a traditional light bulb, but according to BE Solar the lifespan of a 19-Watt LED light bulb is 12–17 years whereas the lifespan of a comparable traditional incandescent bulb is only 3–8 months. LED light bulbs are also much more energy efficient. The price for a pack of four in Gorham’s starts at $22.
Swimming pools can be another huge energy consumer, particularly the pumps, but again, this technology has advanced hugely in recent years. Variable speed pumps in particular have been proven to significantly reduce electricity bills. “When you invest in a variable speed pump, you can adjust the speed, therefore you will be taking full advantage of the ‘affinity law’ which has proven that by cutting the pump speed in half, you cut power consumption by 87 percent,” explains Sam DeSilva, senior pool and operations manager at Island Trading. As an example, he says that the cost of a Pentair Intelliflo variable speed pump starts at $1,600 but he also explains that the average Bermuda household savings per year is approximately $1,500 over a single speed pump.
Energy Efficiency Technology: Quick Wins
Water heater timers
Energy Star appliances
Variable speed pool pump
On an island that gets as much sunshine as Bermuda does—the annual average is around seven hours a day—solar energy would seem to be the renewable energy source of choice for your Bermuda home but, warns Parker, you need to “understand what your usage capacity is and size the system appropriately to get the best bang for your buck.”
Solar panels are also subject to planning permission; however, there are rules in place for a fast track planning system for a certain size and in almost all cases this is more of a process than a problem, even for listed buildings. “It’s more difficult with historic buildings,” explains Parker, who also sits on the Historic Buildings Committee. “We see a lot of these applications for solar panels on the roofs of listed buildings. We don’t say no. We try to just encourage them and say ‘this would be a better place to put them.’”
So how exactly does solar electricity work in a residential home?
“Solar electric panels, which are also known as photovoltaic or PV panels, are installed on a property and harness energy during sunny periods of the day,” explains Travis Burland, sales and engineering director of BE Solar. “Energy is then converted from direct current (DC) to alternating current (AC) to use on the property.” AC is what we use in our homes when we plug appliances in.
“During sunny periods, any solar energy will be consumed by devices that are using energy at that time, such as fridges, water heaters, pumps, air conditioning and lighting,” continues Burland. “Any additional unconsumed energy is exported back to the grid and BELCO pays per solar kWh received. During the evening, solar owners draw off the solar credit they exported during the day.” What this effectively means is that you can use the excess daytime energy as credit in the evening so you can still save money even when the sun isn’t shining.
BELCO currently pays $1,736 per solar kWh exported to the grid.
Burland emphasises that before installing solar it’s important to make sure your house is as energy efficient as possible and also that you understand your energy usage so you install the right number of panels for your home’s needs. It’s not necessarily a case of the more panels you have, the more you save:
“It is most practical to make a property energy efficient before installing solar so as to get the best return on investment,” he says. “Designing a system requires understanding your energy consumption and in particular your daytime energy consumption in order to offset your bill while minimising too much export to the grid. Each property is unique so it is important to consider all the variables with efficiency, space, budget, aesthetics and overall goals.”
While installing solar panels on your roof or on the ground is a proven way to bring down your electricity bill, how much do they cost to install and maintain?
As examples, with the caveat that every solar installation is specific to each property and the amount of solar power generated will vary according to the orientation and pitch of the panel, BE Solar estimates that if your BELCO bill is between $150 and $300 per month you will need 10 panels at a cost of $15,040. Once installed, your monthly saving will be in the region of $186.
If your monthly electricity bill is between $800 and $1,000, they estimate you would need 50 panels at a cost of $54,000 and you could expect to save around $932 per month. From these costs, however, you can claim back the reintroduced government rebate.
Because of its proven success and in order to encourage the uptake of solar energy technologies in Bermuda, the government made solar panel installation more cost effective by reintroducing the solar technology rebate programme at the end of 2018.
The amount you receive back is correlated to the average rental value (ARV) of your home. Homeowners with an ARV up to $30,000 could receive a rebate of up to $8,000. That figure falls to $4,000 for an ARV between $30,000 and $65,000 and is up to $2,000 for ARVs between $65,000 and $120,000. The amount you receive is calculated according to the installed wattage.
Also available are solar hot water heating systems whereby the solar panels are used just for heating water. There is also a government rebate for these; however, Burland said that they are more appropriate for buildings using large amounts of hot water such as hotels and restaurants. For a home, they are more expensive to install than a heat pump hot water heater and typically not considered as good an investment as the solar electric PV panels.
Depending on the brand, solar PV panels have warranties of 25–30 years.
Where solar power does fall short is in the battery storage technology so you can’t, yet, rely solely on your solar panels. “The limitations are that they’re grid-tied still,” says Parker. “Battery storage technology is just not quite there yet. You only get the electricity when the sun shines. If you were to rely on it only, you would need battery storage to hold it all and release it at night and the storage technology, whether on a utility scale or a home scale, is not there yet.”
As with all technology, however, solar power options are evolving and Burland believes that energy storage capacity will improve. “While it does not currently make economic sense to install batteries to supply energy to a whole household, batteries can be deployed to power certain electrical loads during an outage, such as a water pump, fridge, and some LED lights,” he says. “We see a lot of potential and demand for energy storage increasing over the next five years.”
Given Bermuda’s history with wind is it right to expect a wind turbine in the garden to be an excellent investment for generating your own electricity? According to energy and building experts, on a residential scale the answer is a resounding no.
“You need good wind and in Bermuda the wind is very turbulent,” explains Stuart Kriendler, managing director of BE Solar who has analysed the feasibility of small-scale wind turbines on land. “What’s important is understanding what the wind speed is at your property, and it takes a year to measure this accurately.” He also says that the wind turbine should be twice as high as any trees near to it, the engineering is expensive because, unlike solar panels, there are a lot of moving parts and shorter warranties. “Where you have moving parts, things can break and go wrong,” he says. “The engineering for a wind turbine is so expensive, it’s a bad idea, residentially. Offshore wind is a completely different ball game. It’s more predictable, less turbulent; they’re massive and you get greater economies of scale.”
Wind turbines are also difficult in terms of planning, adds Parker, because they are so visual. He explained that there are more aesthetically pleasing wind turbines on the market but, he says, “I just don’t think the amount of energy they create is anything like a solar panel. Wind is really a non-starter in Bermuda unless you’re going for a utility scale offshore.”
Moving away from electricity, the other big concern for Bermuda residents is running out of water. Yes, it can be bought, but that is also expensive and during times of drought, rationed.
For a number of years, people have been trying to develop ways to reuse certain household water and it is now possible to install a grey water system in a home, which captures the water that is going down the drain from your shower, sinks, bath and laundry but instead of going to the cesspit, it is filtered, chlorinated and stored in a holding tank. You can also use water that has run off from a patio or deck. It is then used for toilet flushing.
While this may sound like an excellent system, it cannot be retrofitted into an existing home without doing major renovations, but it can be installed relatively easily into a new home. Is it cost-effective, though?
“A grey water system would only work if you are building a house from scratch but you need to have space for the different tanks,” says Dean. “If you’re young and it’s a long-term investment, you may see it as worthwhile.”
“Because you need a holding tank, for a single family house it doesn’t make sense to have that space to do that,” according to Parker. “You usually have it more in office buildings or condominium developments. For an existing home, it’s not really worth it because it’s just too expensive. You would have to retrofit and put in new supply lines. This is more prevalent in countries where you have to pay for piped water.
“It’s probably more efficient to just replace your toilet with a low flush one and use aerators on your faucets.”
Faucet aerators are the sieve-like devices at the tip of your faucets that separate the single stream of water into many tiny streams. They also mix the water with air. Aerators conserve water by limiting the flow and increasing the perceived water pressure. They are also affordable, with the price starting at $3 at IEL.
Charlie Swan, owner and managing director of Batson Swan Ltd, agrees with Parker about grey water systems: “Their cost/benefit ratio in a home setting is lower than, say, high-efficiency toilets. For large applications such as buildings or facilities that have multiple toilets and high degrees of suitable waste water, this ratio improves markedly.”
Batson Swan Plumbing supplies high-efficiency toilets that use .8 gallons per flush. To put this in perspective, older toilets manufactured in the 1980s and early 1990s use, on average, around 3.6 gallons per flush.
Another alternative device for saving water is a Redwater Diverter. This device is designed to save the cold water that is wasted while you are waiting for the hot water to come out of the tap. It operates using a thermal pressure device and the unused cold water is taken back into the tank via a return line.
Angus MacDonald, who imports the Redwater Diverter into Bermuda and then distributes it through all the major plumbing supply shops, explains: “it’s pretty simple. There are no electrics. It’s not that difficult to install, but a plumber is advised.” He said they cost in the region of $170 before installation costs and as an example, if you waited at your kitchen sink or shower for one minute, you could save approximately two US gallons each time you use the tap.
Swan describes them as a “useful bit of kit” that is “quite workable in new builds.” He warns though, “In an existing home you would need to have a rainwater line close to the install.”
Water Efficiency: Quick Wins
Renewable Technology—Does Investment Add Value?
Whether you are replacing your light bulbs with energy efficient ones or building a new home complete with solar panels and a grey water plumbing system, a certain amount of investment is required. While the possible long-term savings are apparent, is it worth a large investment if you plan to sell your house in the not-too-distant future? What value, for example, do solar panels add to your home?
“There are no statistics available,” says Buddy Rego, president of Rego Sotheby’s International Realty, “but as someone who actually has solar energy for hot water heating in my house, I can attest that it is well worthwhile having. Clearly, with the advent of fuel and energy costs in Bermuda, I don’t see those being reduced anytime soon. I think any discerning buyer is going to welcome an energy efficient home—solar or any other renewable energy.
“I don’t think we are a society yet where people are requesting it in the homes where they wish to buy or rent, rather it is more of a surprise benefit once someone has gone past the bricks and mortar of choosing a particular property. One day, we hope it will be that way.”
Parker advises that the added value to a home depends on how close to the end of its life cycle the technology is. “Invest in technology for you, for now,” he says.