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From muck to magic, Victoria couple's basement reno is a success

Image of Jennifer and Dean in their renovated Victoria basement suite
Jennifer and Dean are now experienced in renos, and went all out as they moved into the basement suite of their Victoria home.

Relocating a bathroom unveils a mess that leads to a bright new addition

Did you know that grease and oil can help generate acid that can erode cast iron plumbing? Dean Browne found that out the hard way when he took on a basement renovation centred around moving a toilet and shower to create more space.

Instead, that reno created a headache that offered lessons – and helped produce a great addition to their home – for someone who's very comfortable with doing the lion's share of home handiwork.

"It was a win in the end, but sometimes you have to go through poop to get to the sunny side," wrote Browne, a Victoria homeowner who was one of dozens of Team Power Smart members to respond to a call for renovation stories, good and bad.

The stories go hand-in-hand with the new BC Hydro renovations report that found that while COVID-19 caused home renovations to spike, about 20% of B.C. homeowners regret their choices because they focused on aesthetics instead of increasing their home's value. BC Hydro is big on helping customers upgrade the efficiency of their homes through the Home Renovation Rebate Program.

Browne and his wife Jennifer jumped into renovations on their first home. Then along came a second daughter and a move to a new place, a 2,500-square-foot 1957 home with no shortage of problems – especially in the basement rental suite. They inherited both a shoddy basement reno and a challenging tenant, but once he was out, the family moved downstairs so they could rent out the main floor.

Easier said than done.

"The rental was done by the owner sometime in the 1990s, and it wasn't pretty," he says. "There was little or no insulation. Ants were getting in. All the window seals were blown, with moisture and mould everywhere due to condensation issues."

To create more room in the approximately 1,200-square-foot space, Dean and Jennifer chose to move the bathroom. And that's where the muck, and the magic, began.

The cast iron pipes Dean was working with were literally falling apart, mostly due to the fatty stuff that was coming down from the kitchen sink on the main floor. Dean took a jackhammer to the concrete floor to gauge the damage – "after three hours of jackhammering we were five feet from where we started" – and wound up with a plumbing upgrade that also allowed him to add a big new window above a relocated kitchen sink in place of a strange little window.

"Until I looked at the plumbing, I couldn't figure out why this window was so low – so far down that even at 5-foot-9, I had to bend over to look through it," he recalls.

The window had been forced low to accommodate a drainpipe in the wall above it. Working with a plumber, Dean suggested they move the pipe below the window, and voila... light now spills into the renovated kitchen through an energy-efficient window.

"This provides amazing light into what was a somewhat dark space," he says. "It's our little cave, but it's brighter now."

BC Hydro recommends using qualified contractors for major renovations, and has provided additional training to produce Program Registered Contractors (PRCs) specializing in insulation upgrades and heat pump installations. As of April 1, using a PRC is a requirement to be eligible for BC Hydro's insulation rebates.

Image of the newly-renovated kitchen in a Victoria basement suite
Gone is a poorly-placed window in what was a dingy basement kitchen. In its place is a new window, and a sparkling green accent wall – along with new cupboards – has transformed the space.

Trips to the "orange store" continue for Dean and Jen

All windows will soon be replaced, and the suite is now riddled with upgrades and alterations. Insulation has been added in walls that had none, the uneven floor has been levelled out by a contractor, and the floors are a comfy vinyl over cork where they were once linoleum over plywood. The original oil furnace is now a seldom-used backup in a home that was upgraded with a heat pump (for both heating and AC) shortly after they moved in.

"Our dates have turned into visits to what my kids call the 'orange store', to The Home Depot," he says with a laugh.

The work never stops. Laid off from a job amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Dean now stays home with the girls. He spends his free time doing more minor upgrades to a renovated suite that includes a self-installed IKEA kitchen.

"This is our fifth IKEA kitchen, and it looks good," he says, noting that he has installed kitchens on several floors of three different houses. "It's something we can do ourselves, and it saves money. It's like LEGO for adults."

Not everything is as easy as LEGO, however. Asked what advice he'd give to anyone else out there doing a similar reno.

"When it comes to plumbing, just hire contractors," he says. "And for the windows, too. You may save a few hundred dollars, but there's always a risk in doing that kind of stuff yourself. And then there's all the tools you need to buy."

How energy-efficient are the upgrades to Dean and Jen's home? As Team Power Smart members who have earned a $50 reward for cutting their electricity use by at least 10% over 12 months years ago, they're now in the position to start another challenge. And the timing should be right. With all the electricity used for power tools and space heaters during their reno, and the air that leaked through the boarded up hole in the wall while they awaited a new window, their last two-month electricity bill for the whole home was more than $700.

Why you should consider a Program Registered Contractor

A Program Registered Contractor can help you with heat pump and insulation installations. Program Registered Contractors are trained by BC Hydro and FortisBC on installation best practices and on our rebates. They're committed to ensuring you achieve your energy efficiency goals. A recent survey showed that around 96% of our customers were highly satisfied with the services of their PRC.

Learn more about Program Registered Contractors.

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