The Low Down On Green Living
October 1st, 2008
As we enter fall and head with breakneck speed towards winter, we have many things to look forward to: crisp, clear fall days, beautiful colors on our hillsides, and the return of those pesky drafts underneath our windows and doors.
Believe it or not, a leaky home can waste up to 25% of the energy that you use to heat and cool it - if you add up all of the leaks, it’s the equivalent of having a hole in your wall that you could walk through!
Fully sealing and insulating your home may be a job left to a professional, but you can make a major dent in the problem by doing some simple testing and spending a bit of time on some simple projects. You can make a difference in one day by following the steps below.
- First off, start from the top. You will lose more energy through an equivalent crack in our attic than you will from your basement, since heat rises during the winter. Anytime you feel air coming into your house through a window or door, that means air is leaving somewhere else, typically via your ceilings and attic. So, with both finding and fixing leaks, start with the attic and ceilings first and work down.
- Finding your leaks. The best time to look for leaks is on a windy day when there’s a significant difference between indoor and outdoor temperatures. Hold an incense stick or a blown-out match to the following locations, watching for the smoke to blow in or out:
- Door and window frames
- Around electrical outlets and switches
- Around recessed lights
- Where any plumbing, electrical or ventilation pipes or conduits pass through outside walls or the ceiling
- Around mail slots
- Around your attic hatch
- Through your chimney
- Also, visit your attic (not pleasant if yours is like mine), and look for key problem spots
- Uninsulated spaces behind kneewalls (short vertical walls that connect your attic floor to the roof out towards the eaves, primarily where there is a central finished attic area)
- Dropped soffits (dropped ceiling areas over cabinets, bathroom vanities or recessed lighting boxes)
- Open stud cavities where vertical walls (interior or exterior) meet your attic floor.
- Areas of dirty insulation - indicates air infiltration.
- Assemble the materials you might need for the job. It always helps to have all of your possible materials at the ready, since once you’re in a groove (and possibly very dirty) it’s tough to run out to the store. You can always return unused items. The following items should work for most leak fixes:
- Several bags or batts of insulation of your choice, plus garbage bags in which to stuff it to fix large leaks
- Roll of reflective foil tape
- Caulk and caulk gun for smaller holes
- Utility knife
- Tape measure
- Staple gun and/or reflective tape
- Insulating covers for electrical outlets and switches
- Several cans of spray foam insulation
- If you’ve found leakage through your chimney, a device such as the Chimney Balloon
- Appropriate protective gear (safety glasses, dust mask, gloves, small flashlight or headlamp, and a cell phone in case you get stuck!)
- Fix the leaks, starting with the biggies
- If you have open stud cavities or kneewalls, place insulation in the plastic garbage bags and stuff them into the open areas. Seal dropped soffits by putting a bead of caulk around the opening and sealing it with a piece of reflective foil or rigid foam insulation.
- Seal leaks around wiring, electrical boxes or plumbing using either caulk or spray foam. Make sure that you aren’t insulating around furnace or hot water heater vents - these require special techniques and materials that might best be left to a pro. And, don’t place insulation around recessed lights unless they have an “IC Rated” (for Insulation Contact) indicator. If your testing indicates significant leaks around recessed lights, you can either replace them with insulated versions or call in a pro to seal them safely.
- Seal any leaks in your AC or furnace ducts. If you have ducts in your attic, take this opportunity to make sure they’re pretty tight. Turn on your AC or heater and feel for leaks. A small streamer or piece of napkin/paper can be used to detect smaller leaks as well (don’t use matches or incense up here!). Then, seal any leaks with either duct mastic or foil-backed tape. Believe it or not, good ol’ duct tape isn’t so good - it will fail relatively quickly compared to these better options.
- Insulate your attic hatch. Either buy a pre-made insulated hatch (available at many home improvement stores), or do it yourself. You can do this by placing a line of weatherstripping around the lip of the hole and placing a piece of insulation or foam board insulation on the back of the hatch.
- Now that you’re safely downstairs, start by adding weatherstripping and other sealing products to your leaky doors and windows. There are a variety of products available depending on your door / window configuration.
- Seal leaky cracks or joints using either caulk or spray foam insulation. In general, latex caulk is better for internal applications since it is easier to apply and can be painted. However, silicone caulk should be used for any locations that get wet or are subject to significant temperature fluctuations.
- Insulate electrical outlets and switches. The easiest way to do this is to buy inexpensive pre-made insulating covers / gaskets for switches and outlets. They’re easy to put on and can be removed without any mess if you ever need to make repairs.
- If you have a drafty fireplace, consider purchasing and using a Chimney Balloon. They’re very easy to install and they save significant energy - just make sure you can see the warning tag hanging down in your fireplace so that you don’t mistakenly start a fire with it in place!
- If you have a basement, consider sealing leaks there as well. Similar to the attic, there’s a whole process to follow - check out this guidance from the EPA for more information.
Last, sit back and enjoy your improved home! There’s nothing better than a good book and a warm draft-free corner on a cold winter’s day. Except, perhaps, for the warm fuzzy feeling of less money flowing out of your house and out into the cold.
(NOTE: The EPA guide mentioned above also has great photos and more detailed information on many of the steps mentioned in this post.)
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