Sunday, July 26, 2009

Insulating Beneath a Bay Window Floor

There's sometimes a fine line between insulating and renovation. Today's task was equal measures of both. The north side of the house features a bay window in the dining room, a humble adornment that breaks up the monotonous lines of a four-square house design. The bay window adds about 36 square feet of floor area with no conditioned space beneath it:

This infrared image, taken from the interior during our March 2009 energy audit, clearly shows heat loss experienced in this area. The cold area, where the floor intersects the baseboard, is in blue. Note also the heat signature of the air behind these fairly sheer curtains!

An exterior shot shows the 1"x5", tongue-in-groove planking that clad the underside of the 2"x9" floor joists:

I knew that 30 plus years ago, some fiberglass insulation batts had been stuffed into joist cavities from the inside. But as I suspected, there was no attempt to air seal those cavities, certainly because of limited access. So with hard-hat, dust mask, and crowbar, I yanked off the 1"x5" external cladding, yielding full access to the joist cavity for the first time in 94 years. The insulation batts were poorly-fitted. They were also soot-stained, which is perfect evidence of air infiltration/exfiltration-- an action which effectively renders the insulation useless. But now at least, the joist bays were fully exposed. The gaps over the sill are wide open, leading straight into the basement utility room:

My insulation solution involved 2"-thick polyisocyanurate foam boards rated at R-12. These were cut for friction-fit, then sealed with expandable foam. Horizontal slabs (about 32"x16") were applied directly to the underside of the floor. Smaller slabs (7"x16") were placed vertically in the bays, directly over the sills. Per the insulation manufacturer's instructions, the reflective foil side faces the exterior:

I'm not done yet. The bays really should use a second layer of insulation boards, giving me a total of 4" thickness and a cumulative R24 insulation value. However, I ran out of time today. For now, there's some 1/2-inch, B-grade, water-sealed plywood screwed into place. After the area is fully insulated, I will re-clad the under-surface with a no-frills trim that is suitable for this little-used utility room entrance.

This image also reveals the archeology of siding applied to this house over the years. The outermost layer is aluminum siding, which I'll guess was applied in the 1970s. The aluminum siding came with its own sub-surface of expanded-cell polystrene panels-- the same stuff that's used for styofoam cups. Beneath that is a layer of asbestos (!) shingles. Then comes the original finish layer of cedar shingles. There were applied directly to the structural cladding of 1"x6" planks fitted horizontally across the studs. As you may know, that was THE way to construct wooden-frame houses before plywood with waterproof adhesive became available in the 1930s:

This task led to the discovery of some unexpected treasures. A previous owner, probably during the Great Depression of the 1930s, used these joist bays to hide away Christmas presents for the kids. The frugal homeowner apparently reused boxes from year to year. Over time, some were forgotten. These empty boxes, tokens of old-house charm, fell out when I removed the bay window's old under-surface cladding:

If you're curious, the card reads "To Helen, from Uncle Elmer and Josie."

[Update, August 3, 2009] Now it's done. A mildew-resistant latex paint was applied to the new plywood cladding:

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Insulating the Crawlspace: My Wonderful, Do-It-Yourself Experience

I spent the better part of my weekend addressing the energy integrity of the crawl space under my kitchen. The issue here is a cold kitchen floor during the winter, along with some mighty drafts. What ensues is a story of air sealing and insulating. It's a story completely devoid of glamour. Here's the recap.

The deck on the rear of our house has no more than three feet of clearance from the ground. So you pull out the trellis and crawl under the deck... around the corner... and voila! Here's the trap door to the crawl space:

What a charming space! It's 6x20 feet, with head clearance of about 40 inches. The floor is concrete. It's home to countless rhaphidophoridae, better known in these parts as "cave crickets." Aside from the fact that they jump AT you when you swat them, they are harmless and no more than a nuisance. Cave crickets love the voids between masonry foundations and rim joists. Of these, I have many:

The crawl space was insulated sometime before we bought the house (1998). Unfortunately, the previous job was ineffective: batts of R-11 fiberglass were installed (nominally) between the floor joists with its foil backing facing down, or in other words, away from the underside of the floor above. By this time, any batts that had not already fallen were sagging and ABOUT to fall anyway. So task number one was to pull out all the old insulation.

My strategy called for the installation of 2" thick rigid foam board insulation rated at R-12:

But before I could do that, I had to remove superfluous 3/4-inch wood planking that was attached to the underside of the joists, covering about half the area in total. I'm not sure what this "sandwiching" of the 8" floor joists accomplished. The lower layer had been busted through in places over the years to accommodate electrical and plumbing work. It was anything but air tight. I removed most of the under layer-- enough to allow me to slip sheets of the rigid board insulation in place, flush against the underside of the kitchen floor. Doing so was tricky, since since there were pipes and struts to work around.

This is what the space looked like after clearing out the old insulation, and air sealing the gaps along the rim joist and where walls intersected with the underside of the floor:

Some of the voids in the rim joist were huge, ostensibly for the purpose of running electrical wires and pipes of various description. The previous owner (or some contractor?) loosely plugged these voids with fiberglass insulation. This stuff was soot-stained-- evidence of air penetration and the general ineffectiveness of this approach. This old insulation was removed, the voids were planked over, and the seams were air sealed with a bead of expandable foam:

So now the insulation boards are in place, fit snug against the underside of the floor. They are sealed in place with the expandable foam which works wonderfully as glue. It's hard to see the insulation boards in the picture because they have a shiny metallic surface. This is the best I could do:

Nothing about this was pretty, but the last photo here captures several elements:

The rigid insulation boards are foil backed-- a bit difficult to see here, but it's cut to fit between the joists. You can also see batts of R-19 fiberglass wrapped in plastic bags and fit snuggly (not compressed) in perimeter spaces. The plastic bags prevent air filtration through the batts. This also shows a 1/2-inch water line that has been wrapped in self-sealing polymer foam pipe insulation. That latter item is a precaution: we've never had the pipes freeze, probably because the pipes have enjoyed heat that radiates downward from the kitchen. But the new insulation puts an end to all that: the pipes will be at risk this winter in a presumably colder crawl space. The "whipped cream" is just the expandable foam, which may be too generously applied to seams and voids. I have gone through a couple dozen cans of the stuff (counting the attic work) and still haven't mastered the flow. It sure is handy, though.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Air Sealing the Attic Knee-Wall Area

The latest episode of my adventure involved improving the insulation of the attic. Once upon a time, I converted this from unfinished to finished space, using knee walls to maximize the occupied space under the hipped roof (the roof slopes at about 45 degrees on all four sides-- a characteristic of four-square house design). At the time, I was not motivated to research proper insulation techniques for attics. I've come to regret that, because in finishing the space the way I did, I lost a number of opportunities to make the house more energy efficient than what it could be. Nevertheless, the cause is not totally lost-- I am making a number of improvements behind the kneewall, in the areas where the sloping roof intersects with the soffit and the top sills of the walls.

Ten years ago, I attached batts of fiberglass insulation backed with kraft paper to the rafters (the sloped beams supporting the roof sheathing). The batts were then faced with drywall:

As you can see, this left a gap at the bottom in the bays between the floor joists. During the winter, heated air simply flowed through these passages as it pleased. One consequence of that is the formation of ice dams and some pretty mean ice cycles whenever we get an appreciable snowfall. The medicine for this is to fill these soffit gaps with insulation wrapped in a vapor barrier that prevents air from passing through it. This was achieved in several steps. First, I pulled back the existing insulation from the rafters and attached baffles to the underside of the roof sheathing. Baffles protect the roof's under-surface from warm air, which would lead ultimately to ice dams and a host of subsequent problems:

The second step involved sealing the top plate of walls with the foam-in-a-can product. This prevents air from escaping into the attic from heated spaces below:

Next, I manufactured a number of insulation "bricks," in this case, using unfaced R-19 fiberglass batts. The batts are sold in 24" by 48" sheets. My rafters and ceiling joists are spaced 24 inches on-center. So I cut the batts into thirds and and quarters, and wrapped them snuggly (but not compressed) in 13-gallon plastic bags, which have a 24" dimension along their bottom edge:

These bricks (or "pillows," if you prefer) are then tucked into the rafter bays:

This was also a good opportunity to fill voids in the interior walls, which are also an escape route for heated air. I'm pointing to such a void here:

This particular gap was filled with styrofoam from a packing crate:

This was then topped of with the foam-in-a-can stuff (applied after this photo was taken). By the way, those latex gloves? Absolutely worthless; they rip with little or no provocation.

It took me about four hours to complete about twenty linear-feet of rafter bays. Once again, I emerged absolutely filthy from the confines behind the kneewall-- an area that only a contortionist would love. But once again, the pay-off is the immense satisfaction of knowing that this task has been completed. I have two more sessions of this before the entire attic perimeter is finished. Then my attention turns to the floor joists in the basement. Truth be told, I can't wait.

Stopping Air Leakage Through the Dryer Vent

In an earlier post, I introduced the issue of air leakage around dryer vents. So, I went from this:

To this:
I screwed it onto the base of the old vent and caulked around the interface. Like everything these days, it's made of plastic. So I painted it to match the house, and hopefully, to protect it from the sun's ultraviolet rays which will eventually breakdown may kinds of plastic. We'll see. In the meantime, the basic idea of this contraption is to prevent conditioned air from escaping the house. It works very much like an inverted-bucket steam strap , for those of you who are familiar with steam boiler systems. The lid comes off so you can clean the interior. Here's what is looks like with the dryer off:

...and with the dryer on:

As an operating issue, the device "sweats," because after all, it's expelling moist, humid air from the dryer. So it naturally wants to grow "fur" from dryer lint. Periodic cleaning will be necessary. Fortunately, the lid snaps on and off easily, and the bucket slips right out. It's a goofy-looking contraption, somehow reminiscent of a locomotive whistle, but hey, if it saves some energy, I'm all for it.

Monday, May 11, 2009

The Refrigerator Coil Lesson

You probably know that your refrigerator is the single largest electricity-consuming appliance in your household (unless you have a heat pump or a huge air conditioning load). So it makes sense to install a high-efficiency unit. A current "Energy Star" qualified fridge uses 40 percent less electricity than a model sold in 2001.

Refrigerators are a fairly low-maintenance appliance. The key to maintaining its performance is to clean the condenser coils. These are located on the rear or underneath the unit.

So like good little doobies, we sought out an Energy Star Sears Kenmore fridge when we remodelled the kitchen in 2003. Take a look at this picture, and you'll see where I'm going with this. You're looking at the underside of our refrigerator from the front. The grill has been removed, revealing the condenser coils that are arranged in several parallel banks:

All the literature, including the manual that came with this particular unit, tells you to periodically clean the coils. Air being drawn back to the fan passes through the coil fins, which have maybe a one-eighth inch space between them. But lo and behold: the coils are configured SIDEWAYS. You can clean the face of the first bank, but that first bank prevents you from reaching the inner banks. There is no grill for side access, and the coil banks don't pull out. A brush made especially for this purpose is of no use with this configuration.

I called Sears and went through the usual automated response system. I finally found a tech support guy who admitted that this particular model's coil configuration was a "design flaw." He had several suggestions:

(1) Use a high-powered shop vac. Sorry, but that's not strong enough to pull up layers of dust that have been cemented in place by five years worth of humidity.

(2) Call Sears Service, who will send out a guy in a cargo van sometime in the next week who will repeat my shop vac experience, but charge me a couple hundred dollars for it. I'll pass.

(3) Lay the fridge on its back, remove the bottom plate, and get access to the coils that way. This probably is the best "medicine," but I'm figuring that the cure is worse than the disease. By the way, placing a refrigerator on its back or side (even if you have the space and strength to do it) is usually traumatic for the refrigerant system.

Let our experience be your guide. It's fine and dandy to shop for an appliance that is the right size, color, and has the right features, etc. I was aware of coil maintenance five years ago when shopping for a fridge, but took for granted that there would be no issues with access.

Refrigerator coils maintenance makes sense as a do-it-yourself activity, assuming you have access to the coils. It's not worth paying someone to do. Consequently, I wonder how many households bother to do this? I'm thinking about my mother-in-law, who maintains TWO refrigerators-- one pre-dating 2001 and the other pre-dating 1994. I promise you the coils have NEVER been cleaned on either one.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Degrees of Heat and Consumption

Let no one, least of all me, be surprised by the relationship between average monthly temperature and a domestic household's monthly therm (natural gas) consumption. Thanks to archived utility bill data, I can plot the January-December gas consumption onward from January 2005:

Two things jump out at me in this picture. First, before 2006, I was not in the habit of turning off the power supply to the boiler each May 1. It ran on standby all summer long. Hence, with the boiler running in 2005, my total natural gas consumption during the summer months was effectively DOUBLE what it should have been for that period. The second point is the normal summer months give me an idea of how much gas is devoted to water heating and cooking combined, since those are the only other gas appliances in use.

The take-away here is that the year-on-year data trends are a way of detecting anomalies in consumption. Note however that this is not "real time" error detection; in effect, such information becomes evident when you get your utility bill, usually a couple weeks after the meter reading date. It's better than nothing, but certainly not as useful as having sub-meters for each appliance. And while electricity submetering is fairly easy to do for domestic appliances, even I am not inclined to pursue that... not yet, at least.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Air Infiltration Around the Dryer Vent

Now I need to decide what to do around the dryer vent. Our dryer is immediately off the kitchen. It's right next to an exterior wall, so the vent has a very short run. However, this configuration allows a LOT of air leakage:

One option is to seal around the orifice with the appropriate insulating material. But what? The foam-in-a-can stuff is combustible above 240 degrees fahrenheit; I'm reading that the high setting on a clothes dryer approaches 350 degrees. Another option involves this contraption:

I know very little about it, other than its supporting webpage.

The blogger at Dover Projects provided a thoughtful post on the same subject. A similar discussion is on Green Talk.

[Post script: I eventually installed one of these; the story is here.]

Monday, April 20, 2009

Insulation DOES Make a Difference

Back to work this morning in the home office. This is located directly beneath the attic area where I was crawling around last Saturday, air-sealing and carefully cutting insulation batts to fit.

The path of heat flow is much like water. If you want to stop a river's flow, a few big obstacles in the river bed just won't do the job-- you need to build a dam. Similarly, you can't insulate an attic without carefully covering the entire surface-- ensuring a snug fit between the ceiling joists, all the way out to the top sills of the walls.

Given the current outside temperature of 46 degrees, the boiler is operating, and the radiators are doing their job. This room is now noticeably warmer than it was before. Lesson learned: partial insulation has the same effect as no insulation. Dare I say it, last Saturday's adventure was worthwhile.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Day After Day One

I've earned my day of rest, so for today's post, I thought I'd share some unexpected highlights from yesterday's experience, good and bad.

First the bad: Performing air-sealing tasks in the attic space over the rear addition got me in direct contact with some vile grit that stained my hands (shame on me for not wearing gloves). This stuff just won't come off:

Now, a bit of background: At some point (probably in the 1970s), a previous owner of this house had stuffed the rim joists with unbacked fiberglass insulation. This measure was of limited effectiveness; I could tell because this insulation was soot-stained by air infiltration. There had been no effort to seal the gaps between the wood frame and the masonry. So I have been pulling out this insulation with the intention of bagging it in small plastic bags for re-stuffing into tight spots where I can't effectively reach (like the corners of the attic). In removing this stuff, I discovered some artifacts that had been tucked away in the space under the floor of the bay-window bump-out. This is a sturdy cardboard box, about six inches square and two inches deep. The label reads "Hochschild Kohn, Hardwater Soap, Baltimore." The box was empty, except perhaps for some mold spores.

A tad more fascinating, to me at least, was this object:

I believe this is cap from a streetcar motorman's uniform. We have the deed history to this house, so I know the name of the first owners, who were here from 1915 until about 1957. Using online U.S. census data from 1930 and before, I could track down more info about them, like occupation. Sure enough, the original man-of-the-house was listed in the 1910 census as a "streetcar motorman." During the ensuing decade, he exchanged that job for one with the phone company, got married, and took up residence in this house which was built in 1915. All of this could be gleaned from a review of the 1920 census. The motorman's cap was valuable enough to be tucked away in the basement, but not so valuable that it was remembered. Like the soap box, the cap was lost to oblivion until discovered in 2009 by an energy geek homeowner.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Home Energy Audit: Getting Down to Work

At some point, I actually have to do some work to realize the benefits of a home energy audit.

Well, today was the day to get started. I chose what would be one of the hardest spaces to address: above the ceiling of the rear addition. This space has an extremely shallow roof that gives no more than 30 inches clearance at its highest point. This is some TIGHT space. The the overhead is so low that I couldn't even crawl on my hands and knees. I had to slither around like a snake. The footprint of this area is about 8' by 20'.

Last year, and this was before I got the energy audit, I cut away a portion of the inner roof to make hatch to provide access to this space:

At the time, the intent was to insulate the area with R-30 batts of fiberglass wool with kraft paper backing. Having since read up on air sealing, I later realized that I hadn't done a very good job of fitting the batts in the outer, most shallow areas. This is how NOT to fit fiberglass batts:

The infrared images from my energy audit, taken from the floor below, showed where heat was radiating through the ceiling thanks to the gaps I left. So today, I opened up the hatch to this area and began several tasks:

1. Sealing the top of the exterior walls (foam in a can)
2. Fitting styrofoam baffles to the underside of the roof sheathing, which allows air to move from the soffits, and
3. Cutting insulation batts to FIT this time in those tight corner areas.

I'm satisfied with the results this time.

Let me tell you: this work demanded some physical contortion. I wore a respirator, but no gloves. I got stuff on my hands that so far has resisted soap, alcohol, and turpentine. It was time-consuming and down-right exhausting. While I was doing this, I imagined paying someone to do this work. You have to ask yourself-- how well would the job be done? I'm sure that vendors run the gamut from great to gawd-awful, but you can easily imagine someone taking short-cuts to get out of a space like this as quickly as possible. So, yup, I did it myself, and it took about four hours including a couple breaks. Just me, a portable light fixture, a utility knife, a staple gun, a couple cans of foam, and a steadily rising temperature. I was glad when this was over with. But I KNOW that it's done.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Air Infiltration Around Floor Rim Joists

One task that awaits me is inspection of the interface between the masonry foundation and the wood frame structure above it. The floor joists essentially sit on the masonry, capped by the rim joist which runs parallel to the foundation wall and perpendicular to the joists. A house does not have to be 94 years old to yield voids in this interface between stone and wood. Gaps promote not only air infiltration, but also provide entry for spiders and the like. At some of the corners, mice might even be able to whittle a pathway or two.

Here's a view from beneath the deck.
This is actually outside. You're looking at the wall to the crawl space under the kitchen. The joist-to-foundation interface is pretty obvious. I will work on this with a combination of caulk and foam-in-a-can stuff. I know I mention that a lot. I'll need plenty, I think.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

About Attics, Air Leaks, and Foam-in-a-Can...

This photo was taken in the attic, behind the knee wall:

The masonry to the rear is a chimney. The seam where the chimney meets the framing has some gap-filling foam applied (the pale yellow stuff in the upper right corner), but it's poorly done and clearly not finished yet. The slats in the foreground are plaster lath for the ceiling below. The one-by-six plank to the left of the image is an attic floor joist. In the center of this image, parallel to the joist and running perpendicular to the lath strips, is wall top plate (that is, the top of a wall which is located in the room immediately below). All the literature points to wall top plates as a source of air leakage from conditioned space (below) into the attic. The medicine here is to seal the top plate with expandable foam. The foam, when still wet, is also a great adhesive; one can "glue" down a plank wide enough to form an air-tight cap over the top plate. A similar cap needs to be placed over the exterior wall top plate, which can be seen here running from left to right in the back of the image, immediately in front of the masonry.

Tax Credits for Homeowners: Energy Upgrades


I found a wonderful summary of federal tax incentives available to homeowners that choose to make energy efficiency upgrades. This is courtesy of the U.S. EPA's Energy Star program.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Home Energy Audits: The Infrared Advantage

It's fair to say that this house has more than its share of air leaks. The real challenge is to prioritize. That's where the infrared imagery from the energy audit comes in handy. Big leaks come before the little ones. Infrared (IR) imagery helps to put an order of magnitude on these opportunities.
In this case, we're looking at the floor in the dining room where a bay window bump-out extends from the north face of the house. This is an overhang; you can actually go outside and stand beneath this area:

One task for me is to remove the shoe molding and fill behind with caulk or expandable "foam in a can." The other task is to remove the external planking beneath this and install insulation. Given the space available, that insulation will probably be one-inch thick rigid board.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Energy Audits: Revealing Your Home's "Second Price Tag"

The province of Ontario is currently considering a bill that makes energy audits a legal prerequisite to the sale of a home. As you might suspect, this is generating some spirited debate. But the argument brings light to a little recognized fact: a house has two price tags. Here's what I mean:

1. There's the price indicated in the traditional settlement transaction that passes the property title from one owner to the next.

2. There's the present value of all inputs that the house will require for proper upkeep. This covers everything from repairs and maintenance to-- you guessed it-- utility consumption. The new owner will be obligated to make these outlays for as long as he or she owns the property.

The idea here is that a proper energy audit is a window on a property's future energy liabilities. Ideally, the report should show how the house's energy consumption compares to structures of similar size, configuration, appliance profile, etc. Such a comparison requires an analysis of the utility bill history for the property; an inventory and diagnosis of heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems; and an evaluation of leaks in the building shell.

You can't predict future energy prices. But you can use a recent annual utility bill history for comparison to average home data. This is a reasonable way to get a relative measure of the "second price tag" that prospective buyers should consider when purchasing a home.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Energy Star Home Energy Yardstick

There are a LOT of Internet-based, do-it-yourself tools for calculating home energy use. The grand-daddy of these sites is The U.S. Environmental Agency's Energy Star platform.

The "Home Energy Yardstick" is typical of free, online resources. This tool allows you to compare your home's energy consumption to national averages. So, since I already maintain a spreadsheet with my historical utility bill data, it was a fairly simple task to enter a handful of numbers like the house's square footage, zip code, annual consumption and expenditure figures for gas and electricity, and so on.

With the press of the "enter" button, my results emerge: a humbling 5.9 on a scale of 1 to 10, where 10 is "most efficient." The screen also provides a list of prescribed improvements, with links to explanatory pages elsewhere in the Energy Star archive.

Note that national averages are based on other homeowners' self-reported data, which may or may not be correctly entered. However wobbly the data, it's better than nothing. By investigating this alternative route, I find the same leading recommendation: seal the air leaks and improve insulation. The only way to improve this tool is to provide an estimation of dollar savings-- but that result is obviously dependent on the specific improvements that the homeowner elects to make. To be fair, the model can't measure what has yet to be done.

The Blower Door Test

The critical part of our home energy audit was the blower door test. In so many words, this is a diagnostic that measures how much the house leaks. "Leakiness" is crucial for quantifying energy waste. This is not a question of eliminating air infiltration, but instead optimizing it. The house needs to breathe, especially so that excess water vapor can escape. If it doesn't, you develop mold problems. At the other extreme, if too much air escapes, your furnace and air conditioner have to run longer to compensate-- driving up your utility bill in the process.

The blower door test puts a physical measure on air flow in and out of the house. To conduct this test, the audit technician sets up an apparatus like the one shown in the picture:

The key component is a high-power electric fan that essentially sucks air out of the house. To conduct this test, all other doors and windows are closed, and all house fans plus the clothes dryer are turned on. The remaining gaps and penetrations are then the collective "pathway" for air infiltration. Gauges on the blower door apparatus indicate the volume of air movement, measured in cubic feet per minute (CFM). The data generated by these gauges are compared to engineering standards for how much air should infiltrate a house of a given square footage.

The results for us: A house of our size should be "breathing" at a rate of 1,800 CFM. The blower door test shows that the current rate is like 5,300 CFM-- three times what it should be. Before this test, I had only a vague understanding of my home's heat loss. My understanding now has an order of magnitude-- which is my motivation to do something about it.

Only one word of caution: the blower door test moves a SERIOUS volume of air. Nothing in the house was disturbed or damaged. But I will say that it effectively pulls dust out of every imaginable recess, like from the interior spaces between walls. Don't be surprised if the house has develops a musty odor for this reason. Fortunately, it dissipates after half a day or so.

The number-one item on my summer improvement list is to seal air leaks. We'll discuss that exercise in future posts.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The Drafty Door Issue

A few years ago, we remodeled the kitchen. I decided at the time to replace the old kitchen door that provides access to the back yard. I thought I was being frugal in merely replacing the slab (i.e. the "door" panel itself) while leaving behind the jamb and related trim.

Bad choice. I got the new slab to fit, but it was a chore and the results weren't great. Subsequent weather stripping was only a partial solution. Consequence: we experienced some ferocious drafts around the door, especially on the coldest of winter days. LESSON LEARNED: install pre-hung doors! They are manufactured to provide a snug, weather-sealed fit.

Our energy audit confirmed what I already new to be true: this calls for a retrofit. This will be a do-it-yourself job for later this summer when the weather gets warmer. I expect to pay about $250 for materials.

"Free" Home Energy Audits

I'm not sure why, exactly, but a lot of people expect energy audits to be gratis, free of charge. Lo and behold, there are a couple forms of "free" energy audits available to homeowners: those provided by utility companies, and those provided by vendors of certain home improvement products. If you were to investigate, here's what you'd find out:

Utility-provided energy audits.
This service is often provided in response to consumer complaints about rising energy bills. It's a good idea, but think about it: how many resources can a company put into a service that generates no revenue? Despite the best of intentions, a "free" energy audit purposely cuts corners to produce what is often a simple, generic checklist. Not much in the way of cost-benefit analysis specific to YOUR situation.

Vendor-supplied energy audits.
Let's put is this way: If you get an energy audit from a company that installs windows, don't be surprised if their report concludes that your best option for saving money is to buy new windows.

That leaves you with the option of actually paying for an energy audit. This means making an outlay for the time and expertise that it takes to thoroughly diagnose your home's building envelope and appliance functionality. It means paying for a report that provides a cost-benefit analysis of specific improvements for your home.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Why an Energy Audit? About Us...

We are a family of three: husband, wife, and daughter in the third grade. The house represents over 1,800 square feet of conditioned space, more if you count the attic and basement.

We use natural gas for space heating, water heating, and cooking. Space heat involves a boiler in the basement that provides hot water to a system of radiators on the first and second floors. The water heater incorporates a 40-gallon tank, also in the basement. The free-standing gas range fills out this triumvirate. Electricity, of course, covers everything else.

I've been tracking our energy bills on a rolling twelve months basis. I've watched our annual expenditure grow from $2,000 to $2,600 over the past year. For now, our "environmental footprint" remains a question, but the dollars are not-- our outlay for utilities is the fastest-growing item in our household budget. That's why we pursued an energy audit.


An energy audit; a blog. Why not?

On one (pragmatic) hand, utility bills are a fact of life. On the other (moralistic/idealistic) hand, all things "green" are of great general interest, yet remain poorly understood by the casual observer. As a blogger, I wear several hats at once: homeowner, economist, writer of muse, and self-made energy geek. Having secured an energy audit for my own home, I am taking my own medicine. The posts that follow will reveal snippets from that audit, as well as a diary of implemented projects. Perhaps this platform will generate some conversation. There's only one way to find out.