Home Energy Renovations: When You Can’t Go Down To The Studs

A couple of months ago I met with a client who wanted to make significant energy improvements to an older house. But because the house was occupied, it wasn’t possible to go down to the studs to do the kind of deep energy retrofit Project Rebuild is doing in Canton. (If you missed that story in The Leaflet, you can find it here in the October issue.) Still, there were a lot of opportunities to reduce the energy usage and lower their utility bills. In fact, the suggestions I made for that house provide a pretty good checklist for things you might want to consider for improvements at your own home.

First, get an audit

An energy audit will provide you with a clear game plan for the improvements you make and help you prioritize the items that will have the biggest impact. Because air infiltration has such a major impact on energy use, and because holes in the air barrier can be hidden in places that are hard to see, a blower door test is important. An auditor will also bring tools like infrared thermographs, along with training in how to identify home efficiency problems. Dominion East Ohio Gas is still offering audits through for just $50, with rebates on the energy improvement work you have done from their list. You can get more information here Home Performance with Energy Star, though as of this writing they were “undergoing administrative updates”. You could also choose to work with an independent home performance consultant to get a more customized evaluation of opportunities and possible solutions. An audit will help you to develop a comprehensive game plan for your improvements, so you don’t make one improvement only to find that you’ve eliminated a better solution to the next thing you tackle.

Wet Basement? Find the causes and decide how to manage it

This isn’t exactly about energy efficiency, but you need to get a wet basement under control before you do anything else. If you seal up the air leaks in a house with a wet basement, your heating bill may be lower but the house may become much more humid, which can lead to mold growth. So check those gutters and downspouts, slope the ground away from the house, and get your footing drains flowing or have new ones installed. If the situation and budget allows, you may want to dig down to the foundation and have new waterproofing added to the outside walls along with new drains. If the roof needs much work, you might decide if you want to have deeper eaves.

Rim joist insulation

The rim joists, where the floor joists meet the outside walls, typically allow a lot of outside air into your house. Adding spray foam insulation or rigid foam insulation sealed in place with spray foam is a great way to improve your energy efficiency. If you are thinking about finishing the basement, be sure to do this first! This air sealing at the lowest level of the house will help to minimize the stack effect that draws heated air out of your house.

Basement wall insulation

Even if the stud walls in your older house have insulation, the basement walls probably don’t. According to Green Building Advisor, “if you live in Climate Zone 3 or anywhere colder, it’s cost-effective and wise to install basement wall insulation”. Our Zone 5 weather is definitely colder. Rigid or spray foam insulation attached directly to the concrete is a great way to insulate existing basements that doesn’t invite problems with wet fiberglass or rotting studs. If you don’t want finished space, you can use Dow Thermax, which has a fire resistant coating attached. Otherwise, a layer of gypsum drywall will be needed to meet flame spread requirements. You may also choose to put a stud wall between the foam and the drywall to make it easier to run wiring and attach the drywall.

New energy efficient furnace, water heater, and air conditioner

If you are building new, a conventional furnace may not be the answer, but for an existing home simply getting a more efficient furnace makes sense. Improved efficiency with natural gas appliances includes switching from an atmospheric combustion unit to a sealed combustion one with direct venting. Here’s a great article describing the hazards of atmospheric combustion and benefits of sealed combustion: Energy Vanguard You may also want to consider providing more managed fresh air for the people in the house, as you are eliminating the accidental air leaks. A heat or energy recovery ventilator (HRV/ERV) is the most efficient solution for this and a must-have for super efficient new homes. Existing homes may want to consider simply providing a fresh air intake connected to the furnace return air duct, so your fresh air will get warmed immediately rather than first running across your toes in a cold draft the way it does in poorly sealed houses with atmospheric combustion furnaces.

Do you need the chimney? If you have a chimney that was only used for the furnace and water heater which now vent through the basement wall, you may want to remove it. Chimneys often have significant air leaks and are just one more hole in your roof. If you are planning to use the top floor as living space, they also tend to be right in the middle of the attic room. So if you don’t need it, take it out!

 

Attic air sealing and insulation- on the floor or at the roof

Take care of both air sealing and insulating the top of your house- in that order! If you insulate first it will be more difficult to do air sealing. This is the top half of that stack effect that started down at the basement rim joists. Seal the bottom and the top and the house stops acting so much like a chimney, sending your heated air up to the sky. The system you choose for insulation will depend on whether you have ventilated, unheated attic space or if you want living space right up to the slope of the roof.

Exterior door weatherstripping This is an in-expensive one you may be able to do yourself. If you are re-siding, you might also check to see whether you even need all of the exterior doors in the house.

Maybe NOT new windows Replacement windows are heavily marketed, but they may not be the energy problem they want you to think they are. There are reasons to replace windows, but dollar for dollar, other improvements may save you more energy.

Other Energy Star appliances and WaterSense fixtures

An Energy Star washing machine will use less hot water, and the super-spin cycle will mean your dryer have less work to do too. Water Sense shower heads can also reduce your hot water usage. Water Sense toilets will reduce your water bill, and will save energy at the water treatment plant. To learn more about the WaterSense Label visit the EPA site.

The value of good planning

Most of these projects can be done without disrupting your life while you live in your home. Like all home improvement projects, you will have a better outcome if you remember the house is an interconnected system and you have a good plan in place before you begin. Afterwards, your home will be more comfortable and you’ll have lower energy costs.

 

Get Ready for Winter

Now that it’s almost November, you’ve probably spent some time getting your yard ready for winter by raking leaves, putting the gardens to bed, and maybe putting away some outdoor furniture. But before you get too comfy with that cup of hot chocolate, you’ll want to make sure your house is ready for winter. And fall is the best time to start planning that renovation or addition you are thinking about for next spring. I’ll give you a few tips on things you can do to winterize your home.

Home Winterization Checklist

Here are a few things you can do so your house is ready for the cold, and keeps you nice and cozy in the next few months. If you’d like to look at a more comprehensive list, check

 Easy Home Winterizing Checklist

  • Schedule a Home Energy audit. This is tops on my list for a reason. An audit is a great way to find out the best ways you can make your particular home more efficient. An auditor can help you determine which improvements have the best return on investment, helping you save on your heating bills this winter, and on air conditioning next summer. Instead of guessing what to do, an auditor will use special equipment like a blower door and infra-red camera to see where your house is losing energy. And now is a great time to get an audit. Dominion East Ohio is offering audits for $50 through their Home Performance with Energy Star Program. Find out more at:

Dominion East Ohio

Or you can look for a certified auditor through the Building Performance Institute at

Building Performance Institute

  • Storm Windows: put them in or close them up. Storm windows do a good job of making older windows more energy efficient, but they only work if they are closed! Take some time and go around your house to make sure they are in place.

  • Put in a clean furnace filter. Your furnace will run more efficiently with a clean filter.

  • Turn off your exterior faucets. Most outside hose bibs need to be turned off at the shut off valve inside the house to protect the pipes from getting damaged by freezing. Even if you have “frost free” hose bibs, you still need to make sure you have disconnected your hoses. And if you have a rain barrel, be sure to drain it and disconnect it from your downspouts!

  • Clean your gutters.  Wet leaves add a lot of weight to your gutters and add to the risk of damage from ice.  Overflowing gutters also mean you have more water against your basement walls, which can lead to a damp or wet basement.

  • Check your fireplace damper. Your damper needs to be open while a fire is burning, but after that it should be closed to keep the heated air in your home from going up the chimney. You may even want to consider a “chimney balloon” to create a tighter seal in the flue.

 

Home Energy Renovations- when you can’t go down to the studs

A couple of months ago I met with a client who wanted to make significant energy improvements to an older house. But because the house was occupied, it wasn’t possible to go down to the studs to do the kind of deep energy retrofit Project Rebuild is doing in Canton. (If you missed that story in the last Leaflet, you can find it here in the October issue.) Still, there were a lot of opportunities to reduce the energy usage and lower their utility bills. In fact, the suggestions I made for that house provide a pretty good checklist for things you might want to consider for improvements at your own home.

First, get an audit

An energy audit will provide you with a clear game plan for the improvements you make and help you prioritize the items that will have the biggest impact. Because air infiltration has such a major impact on energy use, and because holes in the air barrier can be hidden in places that are hard to see, a blower door test is important. An auditor will also bring tools like infrared thermographs, along with training in how to identify home efficiency problems. Dominion East Ohio Gas is still offering audits through for just $50, with rebates on the energy improvement work you have done from their list. You can get more information here Home Performance with Energy Star, though as of this writing they were “undergoing administrative updates”. You could also choose to work with an independent home performance consultant to get a more customized evaluation of opportunities and possible solutions. An audit will help you to develop a comprehensive game plan for your improvements, so you don’t make one improvement only to find that you’ve eliminated a better solution to the next thing you tackle.

Wet Basement? Find the causes and decide how to manage it

This isn’t exactly about energy efficiency, but you need to get a wet basement under control before you do anything else. If you seal up the air leaks in a house with a wet basement, your heating bill may be lower but the house may become much more humid, which can lead to mold growth. So check those gutters and downspouts, slope the ground away from the house, and get your footing drains flowing or have new ones installed. If the situation and budget allows, you may want to dig down to the foundation and have new waterproofing added to the outside walls along with new drains. If the roof needs much work, you might decide if you want to have deeper eaves.

Rim joist insulation

The rim joists, where the floor joists meet the outside walls, typically allow a lot of outside air into your house. Adding spray foam insulation or rigid foam insulation sealed in place with spray foam is a great way to improve your energy efficiency. If you are thinking about finishing the basement, be sure to do this first! This air sealing at the lowest level of the house will help to minimize the stack effect that draws heated air out of your house.

Basement wall insulation

Even if the stud walls in your older house have insulation, the basement walls probably don’t. According to Green Building Advisor, “if you live in Climate Zone 3 or anywhere colder, it’s cost-effective and wise to install basement wall insulation”. Our Zone 5 weather is definitely colder. Rigid or spray foam insulation attached directly to the concrete is a great way to insulate existing basements that doesn’t invite problems with wet fiberglass or rotting studs. If you don’t want finished space, you can use Dow Thermax, which has a fire resistant coating attached. Otherwise, a layer of gypsum drywall will be needed to meet flame spread requirements. You may also choose to put a stud wall between the foam and the drywall to make it easier to run wiring and attach the drywall.

New energy efficient furnace, water heater, and air conditioner

If you are building new, a conventional furnace may not be the answer, but for an existing home simply getting a more efficient furnace makes sense. Improved efficiency with natural gas appliances includes switching from an atmospheric combustion unit to a sealed combustion one with direct venting. Here’s a great article describing the hazards of atmospheric combustion and benefits of sealed combustion: Energy Vanguard You may also want to consider providing more managed fresh air for the people in the house, as you are eliminating the accidental air leaks. A heat or energy recovery ventilator (HRV/ERV) is the most efficient solution for this and a must-have for super efficient new homes. Existing homes may want to consider simply providing a fresh air intake connected to the furnace return air duct, so your fresh air will get warmed immediately rather than first running across your toes in a cold draft the way it does in poorly sealed houses with atmospheric combustion furnaces.

Do you need the chimney? If you have a chimney that was only used for the furnace and water heater which now vent through the basement wall, you may want to remove it. Chimneys often have significant air leaks and are just one more hole in your roof. If you are planning to use the top floor as living space, they also tend to be right in the middle of the attic room. So if you don’t need it, take it out!

Attic air sealing and insulation- on the floor or at the roof

Take care of both air sealing and insulating the top of your house- in that order! If you insulate first it will be more difficult to do air sealing. This is the top half of that stack effect that started down at the basement rim joists. Seal the bottom and the top and the house stops acting so much like a chimney, sending your heated air up to the sky. The system you choose for insulation will depend on whether you have ventilated, unheated attic space or if you want living space right up to the slope of the roof.

Exterior door weatherstripping This is an in-expensive one you may be able to do yourself. If you are re-siding, you might also check to see whether you even need all of the exterior doors in the house.

Maybe NOT new windows Replacement windows are heavily marketed, but they may not be the energy problem they want you to think they are. There are reasons to replace windows, but dollar for dollar, other improvements may save you more energy.

Other Energy Star appliances and WaterSense fixtures

An Energy Star washing machine will use less hot water, and the super-spin cycle will mean your dryer have less work to do too. Water Sense shower heads can also reduce your hot water usage. Water Sense toilets will reduce your water bill, and will save energy at the water treatment plant. To learn more about the WaterSense Label visit the EPA site.

The value of good planning

Most of these projects can be done without disrupting your life while you live in your home. Like all home improvement projects, you will have a better outcome if you remember the house is an interconnected system and you have a good plan in place before you begin. Afterwards, your home will be more comfortable and you’ll have lower energy costs.

The Energy Audit Saga Continues

In my last newsletter, I wrote about the two energy audits I had done recently: one through Dominion East Ohio’s GoodCents program, the other through a company specializing in audits. If you missed that article and would like to read a comparison of the two audits, just click below: Battle of the Energy Audits. Well, after getting all that information on where my house is losing energy, you might wonder what I’m doing about it.

I’m pretty passionate about the importance of insulation and air sealing, so I would have liked to have done the deluxe package recommended by the one company, pulling back all the existing insulation in the attic and getting thorough air sealing around all of the openings there. However, since I’d had the worst of the holes closed up before insulating 10 years ago, I thought the payback on that would be minimal. So I’m moving forward with adding more cellulose insulation in the attic (for a total of 14” deep), putting air tight boxes around the can lights in the attic, sealing leaks in the basement ducts, and sealing the rim joists around the top of my basement walls. I’m especially excited about the rim joists, because having this done should make it more comfortable in my walk-out basement office. The rim joists have fiberglass batts in them now, but I know that they provide almost no insulation value without a good air barrier. Here are two details of ways to insulate the rim joist.  The one on the upper left is what I had done.  If you want to do it yourself, using rigid foam as shown on the right is a good way to go.

The next question was who to have do the work. While the other company was very knowledgeable and professional, they just couldn’t compete with the rebates available through the Dominion program. By getting the audit done and then having the recommended work done by one of their participating contractors, I’ll get a rebate of 22% of the cost of the work! I’m looking forward to a more comfortable house next winter, with lower heating bills. How about you? I’ve heard that the GoodCents program may be discontinued in the near future, so if you’d like to take advantage of the Dominion rebates, now is the time! For details on the program click on: Dominion East Ohio

First published May 1, 2012

Battle of the Energy Audits

I recently had not one, but two energy audits done on my house. I’ve mentioned before that Dominion East Ohio is offering audits through their Good Cents program for just $50. Then at the Home & Flower Show, I learned that Dr. Energy Saver will do an audit for free. I had wondered before how the Good Cents audit compared to others, so I decided this was a great opportunity to find out. My research isn’t complete though, since I have not (yet?) had an audit from Green Street Solutions, another local company who is currently charging $250. Even at $250, an audit is a great investment, since it provides you with information that can help you save considerably more than that. Here’s what I’ve found so far.

Both companies were very courteous, and the auditors were very knowledgeable. Both audits took about two and a half hours. Both used a blower door to help identify air leaks. Good Cents actually had two people there, one who asked me about drafts, cold floors, & utility bills, jpeg (1)and another who took measurements and helped set things up. One thing I liked about Dr. Energy Saver was that he encouraged me to walk through the house with him during the blower door test so I could feel & see the air leaks for myself, with the help of a smoke stick. The leaks were more evident to me during this audit because Dr. Energy Saver had the fan on the blower door turned up much higher than Good Cents did. They then use a computer to convert the data to the standard 50 Pascals pressurization values. Seeing and feeling the movement of the air was a definite motivator to get these air leaks sealed up! Seeing the recommendations on paper just isn’t the same.

The Good Cents people provided a well organized written report with their findings and recommendations. Dr. Energy Saver did not provide a written report; they concluded their visit with a presentation describing the work they recommended and the costs to have this work done. If you have their complete “core” package of work done, they guarantee the work will pay for itself within 8 years with the energy you save. You would be able to see the improvement in air sealing as soon as the work was completed though, since they re-test the house with the blower door after the work is done. If you do not get the full package, they do not guarantee the return on investment, though I’m pretty certain any of their improvements would pay for themselves in that time frame.

In summary, the Dr. Energy Saver technician seemed more excited about the importance of making energy efficiency improvements, but did not encourage incremental improvements, and provided less documentation for you to follow up on yourself. The GoodCents auditor was professional, but not passionate. This is undoubtedly due at leastjpeg in part to the fact that Dr. Energy Saver was trying to make a sale, while GoodCents was simply performing a service. I think Dr. Energy Saver might do a more thorough job if you are prepared to make a significant commitment to improving your home’s energy performance and want a “one stop shop”. If you want to make more modest improvements, or do work yourself, GoodCents provides good information on how you can most easily save on energy costs. But without the strong sales pitch, and the wind whistling through those holes in your house as the blower door runs at full speed, you might not have as much motivation to make improvements, and miss out on the chance to save money in the long run.

First published March 20, 2012