How to Make Energy Efficiency Upgrades to Prepare for Winter Cold

by on September 22nd, 2010
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Believe it or not, your house is actually a thermal envelope keeping heated air inside and cold air outside (in the summer, this is reversed with cool, dry air inside and hot, humid air outside). The attic (in most newer homes) is really a quasi-outside space with the roof acting as both heat and rain shield. Since heat energy always moves towards cold surfaces and dissipates, it is important to keep your home’s thermal envelope sealed tightly against drafts and leaks as well as insulate your home to slow down the loss of heat and keep electricity bills low.

Air Sealing

Air-sealing means caulking around windows and doors, squirting expanding foam into a small hole in the foundation’s masonry, or even stapling plastic sheeting over the outside of drafty old windows. Cold drafts entering a house are a symptom of the stack effect. If cold air is flowing into the house, that means that heated air is escaping higher up in the structure. It could be inside a wall where electrical wires travel through studs into the ceiling. Sealing off the cold draft will slow down the stack effect.

Draft Dodging

So, where do the biggest drafts most commonly occur? Around windows, doors, and also electrical outlets. These are easy to find. Just wet the back of your hand and feel for the cold draft. If you’re just seeing how many you have, the area can be marked with a little colored chalk for you to find later.

Getting Sashy

On traditional sash-windows, drafts sneak into your home along the bottom where the window sash meets the sill. This usually happens here because of either dirt and dead bugs or torn/missing weatherstripping. Clean off the sill and the bottom of the sash and install some new weatherstripping. You want the fit to be snug but not unmoveably tight.

Another place is the “meeting rail” where the top of the bottom sash meshes against the bottom of the top window and forms a seal. Older windows use pieces of metal to make a tight seal while newer ones use weather stripping. If the windows close but there’s draft, an easy fix is to fill the space with silicon caulk and cover the length of the seam with duct tape. Also consider putting plastic sheeting over the window outside and plan to repair the window seal in the spring.

Another common window problem is loose or missing glazing compound that holds the glass in place. Cold air and moisture can enter the house here and quickly produce mold and mildew. The quick fix is to seal the edge of the window glass in place with silicon caulk. A more complete job would be to remove the sash and reglaze the glass.

At the Threshold

Doors tend to have problems sealing along the side where they close and latch. One of the first things to do is to make sure the door closes easily. If it is hard to close, open it and check to be sure that nothing is sticking out from the hinges (such as a loose mounting screw) interfering. Also look for loose items or dirt caught in the hinge-side of the door jamb. If the door closes easily and there is still a draft around the latch side, then it’s very likely some weather stripping or caulk will take care of the problem. One tip about weather stripping: always buy a roll or two more than you think you need because after you take care of the obvious windows and doors, you’ll notice other drafts. This is because the stack effect will cause drafts to pull harder on outside air to make up for blocked up volume.

For the complete guide on how to seal your home, visit the EnergyStar Air Sealing page. Other tips and general information can be downloaded in their Do It Yourself Guide.

Hearth and Home

Many homes have fireplaces for both warmth and decor. But what do you do when you don’t want a fire? You’ve still got a chimney that’s letting heated air out of your house.

Most homes with traditional fireplaces are equipped with dampers that were built-in during construction. These “throat dampers” can be closed to prevent the loss of warmed air when there is no fire. Unfortunately, fireplace flues are harsh environments. The hot temperatures can warp damper plates right after the first fire, causing them not to seal very well when closed. A 1990 study by Energy Options Northwest (now Atmosphere Inc. ) showed that fireplace dampers had a leakage area that averaged about 30 square inches when closed. Or to put it simply, it’s like leaving a 6 inch by 5 inch window open all the time.

Chimney top mounted dampers are easier to install, cheaper than replacing throat dampers, and are made with gaskets that withstand the smoke and much lower heat found at the top of a chimney. Another option is using a fireplace damper balloon. These are inexpensive inflatable-plastic barriers home owners can stuff into their chimneys to close them off. The only draw back is that they tend to be short-lived and can be easily forgotten when making a fire. For those home owners who have gas-log fire places, a chimney balloon might be the best option. Since they are not built-in or mounted on the chimney structure, these balloons do not violate building codes for built-in gas-log fireplaces.

The thing that traditional fireplaces and cast iron wood stoves share is that burning wood for fuel is a dirty, toxic, and downright dangerous way to heat a home. Apart from improper venting, the biggest menace comes from a well-used chimney that hasn’t been cleaned in a while. The exhaust from a wood fire leaves a combination of soot, ash, tree resins, and creosote. Creosote is a brown or black tar-like substance produced by incomplete burning (possibly from wet wood or not enough air-flow because an appliance was venting air to the outside). At room temperature, creosote is hard and shiny but when heated it can run down the sides of chimneys and is highly flamable. Over a period of years, creosote can build up on the inside of a chimney and restrict the airflow. A big, hot fire can ignite the creosote in the chimney and cause a chimney fire. According to the Chimney Safety Institute of America, chimney fires burn hot enough (2000°F) to destroy lining metal, crack out brick, and spread rapidly into a home’s attic and roof.

To be safe, have your chimney inspected each fall by an expert chimney sweep. They can also provide you information on how to improve your fireplace or wood stove so you can get the most heat out of it safely.

Duct Season!

Having a properly functioning forced air system can not only save you money but can sometimes help resolve health problems. The first thing to do is to replace your air filter with a clean one. If you have washable air filters, buy a second one so that you can swap in cleaned filters more conveniently.

It’s also a great time to check the condition of your duct work. Make sure that there are no gaps or holes in any of the sheet metal or kinks in flexible ducting. In some circumstances, duct work can pull itself apart because it wasn’t installed very well. Another reason may be that changes in temperatures can make the duct material expand and contract. Over time, it can pull itself apart. Fortunately, however, there is usually enough wiggle room in the duct line that will let you fix this without too much problem. Once you have your duct work re-fitting, be sure to seal the joints with UL-181 rated aluminum tape (DO NOT USE “duct tape” -it degrades within one to two years). Check the furnace air housing. With the fan running, wet the back of your hand and feel for drafts. Anywhere you feel one, cover that spot with aluminum tape or air-conditioning duct caulk from your local home center.

By the way, every home’s ducts are different. To really immerse yourself in the sticky business of joining and sealing your ductwork, check out the Environmental Energy Technologies Division of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and read through Assessing the Longevity of Residential Duct Sealants.

Check your cold-air return ducts to make sure they are not blocked or have gaps in them – especially if your home has crawl space and one of the cold air return ducts passes through this space. Cold air return ducts suck air from the home’s inside air space and pass it to the furnace for heating. If you have a crawl space and there is a gap or hole in the duct work then dust, mold, and mildew can be sucked up and blown into your home’s living space. At night, you could be breathing in this nasty stuff for 6 to 8 hours straight!

By the way, if you use natural gas or propane to heat your water or run your furnace, make sure the exhaust piping is connected and sealed and that NOTHING even slightly blocks the gases as they flow out from your house. These exhaust gasses (carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide) usually flow at very little pressure through the exhuast pipes -however, they can very easily back up into your house if anything partially covers the vent pipe. Even at low levels these gasses can cause health problems. Birds and other critters sometimes like to try to nest at the opening of these pipes. To avoid this, make sure a vent cap is fastened securely in place.

Ceiling Fans & Thermostats

Two more things you can do to enhance your heating system’s efficiency: switch the direction of your ceiling fan and install a programable thermostat. Most ceiling fans can be switched to spin in the direction that pulls air up in the middle of the room and blows it down along the room’s walls. At low speeds, this setting can help evenly distribute warm air throughout an entire floor. Programmable thermostats, meanwhile, can control when you use heat. By setting the temperature lower when you are not home or asleep, you can save money on your energy bill.

Into Hot Water

Consider that heating water can amount to nearly 25% of your energy bill. Adding a water heater jacket and putting foam pipe insulation on your hot water pipes will go a long way to cutting your water heating costs. The Department of Energy estimates that adding insulation to a tank-style water heater can lower heat losses by 25%-45% and can save you 4%-9% in water heating costs. It will also cut the time you have to wait for hot water in your shower. Not sure if you need more insulation on your water heater? Touch the side of it. If it feels warm then it probably needs insulation.

Flow restricting shower heads also reduce the hot water you use and save you money. Speaking of showers, let’s move on to humidifying your home. During the winter, you want to keep your home comfortable with a little bit of humidity. Moist air retains heat and is easier on your nasal sinuses when you breathe. When you finish your shower, place a small 6 inch fan near the doorway of your bathroom to blow dry air from your home into your bathroom. This will force the steam and moisture into the rest of your home.

Leaky faucets and toilet valves not only add to your water bill, but they also add to your electric bill. Hot water dribbling from a leaky valve means your heater has to heat more water. Also, if you use a water softener or filtration system or use a well, this means you are paying to treat water that you aren’t using and letting it all go down the toilet. Repairing it sooner than later means one less thing you have to pay for.

That Warm, Fuzzy Feeling

One thing that all homes need to have is an adequate amount of insulation. For many home owners, it’s an unpleasant expense and an unpleasant task to install it. All the same, insulating your home WILL save you money from your electricity bills . And the neat trick is that you don’t need to do it all at once.

To determine if you have enough insulation in your attic, go and have a look. If you can see the joists at all, the you ought to put in some more insulation. Throughout most of the country, the US Department of Energy recommends at least R30 (about 1 foot of blown cellulose or fiberglass) for attic insulation and a minimum of a R13 (a bit more than 3 inches of blown cellulose or fiberglass) in the walls. Unfortunately, most homes built in the past two decades are built with R13 in the walls and attic; few have R30 in the attic. Remember: the best way that insulation performs is when the house has been properly sealed.

Which works best? Blown cellulose/fiberglas or rolls/batts of fiberglass? In terms of effectiveness, both do a great job. In terms of cost and mess, there are trade offs. Blown insulation is cheaper by the bag but requires renting a machine to blown the insulation into place to be effectively efficient. Rolls/batts of fiberglas insulation are easier to handle (make sure you can carry them through your attic entrance) and can be put down quickly -but they tend to cost a little more. By the way, if you’re looking to insulate your attic but hate the thought of the dust and itchy fibers consider taking a look at insulation made from recycled cotton denim. Yep: recylced blue jeans. The cost runs about a third above regular insulation but does not use chemicals, reduces noise, and does not irritate your skin. It also reduces the amount of trash heading to the landfill.

Credit Where Credit is Due

There is still an Energy Tax Credit available until December 31, 2011 for an existing home that is your principal residence. You can deduct 10% of cost up to $500 or a specific amount from $50 – $300. Not all EnergyStar products are elligible for the credit so check product details carefully. This is not the “Cash for Caulkers” bill ( S. 3663, The Clean Energy Jobs and Oil Company Accountability Act of 2010 ) which is still pending in the U S Senate.

For a complete basement to chimney-top guide to tips and a few fixes, check out Bounce Energy’s Do-It-Yourself Energy Efficiency Projects eBook.

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