This article, provided by Andy Mazal of Sustainably Built, LLC, can be a great asset for anyone in the building industry. Feel free to pass this on to your clients and contacts!
By Andy Mazal
Most people would prefer to live in a more sustainable home, but many people don't know where to start. The good news is that there are lots of relatively inexpensive and simple changes you can make to your home or apartment to increase its energy efficiency and save yourself real money on your energy bills (and help to save the planet, while you're at it.) Because winter is quickly approaching, we'll concentrate on things you can do now to reduce your energy bills during the approaching cold season.
There are probably hundreds -- if not thousands -- of things you can do to your house to save energy, but we’ll focus here on six things that most people can do to get started to prepare your house for winter:
- Get a home energy audit
- Check your attic insulation
- Repair leaks in duct work
- Check the weather stripping on your doors and windows
- Replace or clean the air filters in your furnace (and get a tune-up)
- Winterize your evaporative cooler (if you have one)
1. Get a Home Energy Audit - Before you can fix a problem, you first have to identify the problem. That's where an energy audit comes in. An energy audit is performed by a trained and certified technician using specialized equipment – infrared cameras, blower doors, etc. – to discover where your house (or apartment, condo, whatever) is wasting energy. The auditor will check your insulation and duct work (if you have ducts) and will scan the various penetrations in your house to see where you might be leaking energy. "Penetrations" are things such as your windows and doors, outlets, switches, attic hatches, etc. – basically anywhere that there is a hole in your wall, ceiling or floor. He or she will look for air leaks that can let heat out (and cold in) so you can take corrective action to plug these leaks. They’ll also inspect most of the other sources of energy usage in your house such as furnaces and boilers, water heaters, lighting, appliances, etc. You will receive a customized report detailing the auditor's findings, which will also include advice about what you should do to improve your house's efficiency. Energy audits yield a treasure trove of good information you can use to fix your house's energy problems. It's quite possible that you'll recover the cost of your audit with the energy you save in the first year.
The US Department of Energy has a good web site (http://energy.gov/energysaver/home-energy-audits) with advice on where to find an energy auditor and what to ask them. They even have advice for what to do if you decide to undertake the audit yourself. Also, be sure to check with your local municipality and/or utility to see if they have a subsidized energy audit program or rebate program. Most people will find that audit subsidies or rebates are available to them in one form or another.
2. Check your attic insulation - If your home is more than 10 or 15 years old then it's likely that you could benefit from additional insulation in the attic. Almost all houses built before the 1990s have inadequate insulation (assuming it hasn’t been added since it was built), and even many houses from the 1990s and 2000s could use more. The U.S. Department of Energy recommends that attics in most of the country be insulated to R-49, which is equivalent to about 14-16 inches of blown cellulose or fiberglass insulation. So if you have much less than that in your attic, have an insulator blow in some more (even if you have batt insulation you can blow more insulation on top of the batts). Most attics are easily accessible so it's usually a relatively simple task to beef up attic insulation.
3. Repair leaks in duct work - Ducts are notorious wasters of energy. It's not unusual to have half or more of the air flowing through your ducts escape before it gets to its intended destination because of leaky duct work. Sealing your ducts, therefore, targets a major energy waster by ensuring that your expensive heated (or cooled) air gets to where you want it to go, rather than being leaked into your attic or inside your walls. Sealing your ducts can be very easy or very difficult, depending on the configuration of your home and where your ducts run. If you have a one-story house with a unfinished basement and/or attic and the duct work running along the ceiling of the basement or in the attic, it's easy since you can access the ductwork in order to seal it. However, if your house is two or more stories with duct work running through the walls, it's obviously much more complicated. But, you can usually access some of your duct work, particularly near the furnace, and even if you seal just the little bit you can reach you'll have a positive impact. So how do you seal your ducts? NOT with duct tape! There is a saying in the industry that you can use duct tape for just about anything EXCEPT on ducts. Instead, you should use duct mastic, a thick, gooey paint-like substance that you brush on the joints and connections of your ducts, where it hardens and seals them up. You can find duct mastic at most hardware or home improvement stores.
Hint: Wear rubber gloves and old grungy clothes when you're using mastic, as it will, for sure, get on you. Also, buy a few cheap disposable brushes called "chip brushes" to apply the mastic with because whatever brush you use to apply it will get destroyed. Better to destroy an 89 cent chip brush than a $15 paint brush.
4. Check the weather stripping on your doors and windows - Despite that this is perennially one of the most common pieces of energy saving advice, and one of the easiest to undertake, it's surprising how many poorly sealed doors and windows still exist out in the wild. For doors, a very simple way to check if you need new or better weather stripping is to stand outside at night and close the door while someone inside shines a lamp or flashlight around the edges of the door. If you can see light leaking around the edge of the door, you have a leak where warm air can escape and cold air can get in. Windows need weather stripping also, though the correct type of product depends on the window type and material - ask your local hardware store for advice. There are literally dozens of weather stripping products you can use to seal the door, from very inexpensive foam rubber tape that might cost you $3.50 to vinyl gaskets to felt strips to copper flashing. Some products are better than others, but suffice it to say that anything is better than nothing. Again, the US Department of Energy has a good web site (http://energy.gov/energysaver/weatherstripping) with advice on weather stripping and air sealing.
5. Replace or clean the air filters in your furnace - If you don't have forced air heating or cooling you can ignore this one, but if you do, then do yourself a big favor and replace your filter often. A clogged furnace filter causes the fan in the furnace to run harder and longer, wasting energy in the process. Most filters are the type you simply change out and throw away, but some are reusable after you clean them. Ensuring you have a clean filter can cut $10, $20 or even more from of your energy bills each month, depending on the size of your house and your heating system. Also, note that ASHRAE (The American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air-Conditioning Engineers) recommends a filter with a Minimum Efficiency Rating Value (MERV rating) of at least 6. As the MERV rating gets larger it means that it will filter out smaller and smaller particles, but it also means that the furnace blower has to work harder to get as much air through the filter. So don’t go too high on the MERV scale unless you have specialized allergen-filtering needs.
If you have not done so in the last couple of years – or ever – you should also get a furnace or boiler tune-up. Just like any machine, furnaces and boilers need to be adjusted and tuned up to run at highest efficiency. Most heating and A/C contractors offer a tune-up service where they’ll check the settings, tune the burners and generally ensure that everything is running properly. A tune-up should cost between $75 and $200 or so, and could easily save you that plus much more over the course of the winter, especially if your heating system is older or has not been tuned up in a while (or ever).
6. Winterize your evaporative cooler – This one also won’t apply to everyone, but for those folks who cool their home with an evaporative cooler – also known as a “swamp” cooler – make sure that it gets winterized! Besides draining water from the cooler to keep it from freezing and damaging or destroying the device, winterizing it will seal up the device with a cover to keep cold air from leaking through it. It should also include attaching a cover to the grill of the duct where it enters your house, usually from the ceiling.
While some of these suggestions might not apply to your situation (i.e., you don't need to replace the air filter in your furnace if you live in a house with radiant heat) there is probably something in this list that can benefit you this winter. Remember that energy improvements to your home will keep paying you back year after year.
Andy Mazal is a BPI Certified Building Analyst / LEED AP / HERS Rater and can be reached at email@example.com