Five Percent: Conserve Energy

Climate Change Is Important: Energy Conservation is the First Step

December 6, 2010

Step 2: Insulate, Step 1: Stop Drafts

Category: Energy Audit,Household,Save Fuel – Tom Harrison – 1:38 pm

Failed attempt to seal my whole house fan

My First Attempt: Failure (Blue = Bad)

A while back, I had an energy audit and found that my house leaked like a sieve — a condition that left our efforts to insulate, replace windows, replace the gas burner and so on all waiting for me to wake up and smell the … fresh outdoor air.

The audit pointed out where the drafts were. We sealed. We caulked. We foamed. We had all of the identified problems addressed, mostly. And then (as a favor) our energy auditor returned and did a re-test, and found places we had missed. By “we” I mean “I’.

Holey Hole, Batman!

Insulated and Sealed Better Second Time

B&D Thermal Leak Detector: 62 Degrees

The whole house fan was one big remaining hole that I proudly asserted having fixed for $20 — I had built a box out of insulating foam board. I had put a nice cover over the fan, box corners sealed with duct tape, and made a nice seal between the cover and the floor. But the follow-up blower-door test showed: it was still a big hole in the house. By that winter, I knew — I could put my hand up and feel the cool air tumbling down from the attic. For another $8 I fixed the rest of the problem this fall.

Nearby insulated part of attic ceiling

Nearby Part of Ceiling, Insultated Attic 65 Degrees

I realized that air could easily leak between the rafters and the wooden frame I had made (years ago) in the ceiling when I installed the fan. 1/2 can of foam later I had sealed all the interior spaces between the joists and the frame of the ceiling fan; add a nice bead of caulk around the bezel of the ceiling fitting, and I am pretty convinced there are no gaps that will let air leak down that space. I can already tell, even when just low 30’s, it’s hard to find a draft.

It’s actually pretty hard to completely seal a big hole. It’s worth making sure. Actually, I used my new Black & Decker Thermal Leak Detector to verify my solution, and so far, it seems like a significant improvement.

“Were you born in a barn? Shut the door!”

I had done a second significant improvement last year — I blocked off the area between the metal bulkhead door to my basement with 2″ polystyrene panels, then sealed the joints with duct tape. This was nice because we could remove and replace the panels as needed. But it had become clear after it got cold that the duct tape wasn’t doing the job, so I sealed the edges with foam, and that worked very well.

Of Biblical Proportions

Until this spring: the two biggest floods that had happened in New England in 100 years (2 weeks apart) and which were “consistent with the predictions of climate change” filled our basement with water, twice. We had to rather unceremoniously rip out the styrofoam and pump water out of our basement onto the driveway (where it promptly poured back in). Twice. Those floods sucked in many ways — we had to rip out the section of flooring we had installed in a partly finished area because the subfloor never dried out and mold had set in.

But I digress. The problem is that my metal bulkhead door may as well have been a screen door.

Hey Wait, I Just Remembered, I’m A Carpenter!

So a few weeks ago I got motivated and installed a real solution: a door. A solid core door, in a small wall frame. Every gap, the small cavity in the studs, and the space between the door frame and the rough opening: filled with foam. Then, some weatherstripping on all four sides and we have one tight, tight door.

Next time it floods (in another 100 years, perhaps not) we can just … open it. Installing a door isn’t as easy as they make it look on the various Bob Vila videos I found on the web (I had forgotten a little in the 25 years since I did carpentry professionally). It’s a fair amount of work, and some expense (probably $220 total), but I have a permanent and top-notch solution to what I think was the single biggest hole in the house.

And what a difference, in fact, better than the insulating foam boards from last year. It’s not like the basement is cozy or anything (concrete and still some single-glazed windows), but it’s definitely better.

It’s remarkable: the kitchen floor above is warmer, the cabinets are warmer, the basement is more comfortable — without any actual measurement I am pretty sure this problem is well solved.

And Up The Chimney He Rose

The third hole identified by the auditor was our chimney. I had installed a “chimney balloon” but found when I checked that it had sprung another leak so wasn’t doing it’s job very well. It’s not hard to find and fix the leak — pull it out, put it in the bathtub, fill it up, put a thin coat of dish soap over the surface and look for leaks by finding soap bubbles that are getting bigger. Once the leak is found, a little clear packing tape is all you need.

I have to say, I am a little disappointed in the chimney balloon — this is the second leak, and I think they may be another I missed. This is a product designed to be tough enough to withstand the sharp edges of the inside of a chimney, but it seems to be a little on the fragile site. Nevertheless, I can do the leak test and fix again, and even without being fully inflated, it still provides a pretty good air seal.

Snakes On A Plane

So now we have smaller gaps. It’s pretty easy to find them just using your hand on a cold and blustery day. Doors are a problem, even the new one in the basement, especially along the bottom. I just ordered a few of what I think is a good, simple, old-fashioned solution: door snakes.

Door snakes are weighted, flexible, fabric-covered tubes. You throw them on floor at the bottom of the door, and they keep out drafts. Simple.

And Now, Step 2: Insulation

It is very evident where the insulation we installed is working. And the double-glazed low-e windows.

And it is very evident where it’s not working, especially our concrete basement, whose walls radiate a delightful 55° — nice in the summer, not so much in winter. I wonder if there is a reasonably cost-effective solution for insulating our basement. My first thought is to glue some plexiglass over the single-pane windows, then maybe get them replaced next year.

I have to think we could do something with window treatments. In most places, we have mini-blinds (el cheapo, Home Depot type). But as I sit in our sun room/office, I can feel the cold air sliding off the windows. Insofar as this is one of the only South-facing rooms in the house, I would like to take advantage of whatever solar gain I can, and I do want to be able to see outside. In the rest of the house, except kitchen, we have curtains or blinds, mostly for privacy, but I think they do have some insulating effect.

I would love to get advice from anyone who has ideas about how we can reduce heat-loss from our windows (without replacing them).

I think disrupting the flow of cold air (convection, right?) could be helpful. I think even having some blinds in the way, especially at night can help (radiation, right?). Not sure.

All ideas welcome, especially cheap ones :-). I wonder if they have a slightly higher-end version of the shrink-wrap stuff I used to use in my old apartments — perhaps something that didn’t peel off all the paint when removed!


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