With the price of a barrel of oil topping out close to $100, it won’t be long before the price of gas and electric spirals out of control. Now is the perfect time to comb through your home and find all of those places where your energy (and money) is escaping. There are hundreds of companies trying to sell you ways to do it, but … they all come with a price tag. Let’s talk about bang for your buck.
First of all, let’s break things down by cost. There are the cheap “do it yourself” things, the mid-priced contractor items, and the major improvements like windows and furnaces. Most of the time, unless you are building from scratch, the little things give you the fastest payback. I’ll start at the bottom and work my way up. It’s winter now so I’ll lean toward heating rather than cooling. (oh yeah … I’ll go into details on each in a future post, so you aren’t bored to death before you finish this.)
here we go …. in this post …..CHEAP FIXES
These are my favorite. They can absolutely be the best bang for the buck.
Number 1 on my list … AIR SEALING. It all starts with this concept, … hot air … rises. Sounds simple enough, but it can really change the way you look at things when you are trying to tighten up a house. One of the first things I hear from people is ” My windows are old, I’ll change them and save money”. Well … maybe … maybe not. If your windows close pretty well and there isn’t a major breeze blowing through, you might want to hang on to your money. You are probably losing more heat out the attic than you are through the windows. I’ll talk about windows later. Now then, about that whole hot air thing…
I’m going to simplify this a little bit because the physics of it aren’t that important to us. (all you science majors will be grinding your teeth … sorry) As the air in your house is warmed up, it expands and gets lighter. Since it’s lighter, it rises. The warm air rising causes higher pressure at the top of the house than at the bottom. This is known as “Stack Effect”. The hot air at the top tries to push its way out, and cold air tries to seep in at the bottom. The middle (where the windows tend to be) stays pretty neutral and doesn’t do much of anything. SO… if we are trying to stop the heat from escaping … we should start at the top.
OK, so what’s at the top? Hopefully a ceiling with a lot of insulation on top of it. But, that ceiling has a few holes. Like …. Attic hatches… they’re a real killer. You could easily lose more heat through one than you do through the entire ceiling. Fold down stairs almost never close perfectly …. more money gone. My next post is going to be devoted to fixes for these.
Another spot is recessed lighting, what many people call “highhats”. The old style cans (fixtures) were designed to let air flow through to keep them from overheating. Usually, you had to keep the insulation away from them so they wouldn’t overheat and blink on and off. All that air you just paid to heat is flowing out through the lights in order to keep them cool. Now that doesn’t make much sense, does it? Even those little tiny slots on the sides of the can lose a lot of heat, because of stack effect … Way more than you would think. Changing these may fall under “contractor fixes” but if you are handy, the new sealed fixtures themselves are pretty cheap.
The other big hit you take on the ceiling is for things you never see. All of those pipes and wires inside the walls go though holes in the floor and ceiling. And… hot air loves holes. A few cans of expanding foam and a few hours in the attic can probably save a hundred buck a year in an old home. Once again, I’ll go into details in a future posting.
Now, lets go to the bottom. If you live in the northeast, you probably have a basement or crawlspace. If you live in the south, you may be on a concrete slab. In the west …. well, I have no idea …. I don’t get out much. Anyway … All three of these get handled the same way. First, decide where you want to seal. If you use your basement, you may want to seal around the basement walls. If you don’t, or if you have a crawl space or slab … you’ll want to seal between the floor above and that space. What to seal??? Well, for starters, any place a pipe or wire goes through the floor. A one inch hole in the floor could easily cost you 20 bucks a year. And all those smaller ones add up. Even those little foam pads you put behind outlet plates will save some serious money in the long run. Also, look for places where things penetrate the wall to the outside. there is almost always space around dryer vents. These can move a lot of air.
If you have hot air heat, duct leakage could be your biggest headache. If it leaks into the attic … you pay for the loss twice. First, the hot air you just paid to heat is wasted and (this is the part that hurts) because that air didn’t make it back into the house, cold air from outside has to leak in to replace it. (The same holds true for AC in the summer). Duct leakage is a little harder to find and fix. Even so, a can of duct seal is only about 15 bucks and will probably be enough for your whole system. There is a lot of work involved in getting the insulation out of the way (they had better be insulated if they are in an attic) but if you have some time …..
Oh yeah ….. Storm windows. Take an hour and go around and make sure they are all shut (and that the little weep holes at the bottom are open). Being lazy about it … costs money.
And just to address the question of “will I get sick if my house is too tight?” … Even if you go crazy with this, you still won’t get your home tight enough for it to be a problem. And … (here’s another of those pesky concepts) …. houses don’t need to breath … people do. If your house feels stale when you are in it … open a window for a few …. close it when you are done … problem solved. When your house is empty it won’t be wasting any of your money.
The super sealed houses you read about now use a timed ventilation system to keep the air fresh. You aren’t going to get an older house anywhere near that tight, so don’t worry about it at all. (I’ve got a whole essay planned on sick house syndrome and ventilation … now all I need is an audience)
Next thing to look at is the pipes. A really good one to start with is the domestic hot water pipes. Invest in some of those cheap foam pipe insulation tubes and cover everything that heads out from the hot side of the water heater.( be careful to keep it away from the flue pipe) You may even need to turn the temperature down because the water will start to come out of the tap too hot. And if you do …gee, more money saved. Heating pipes and ducts in cold spaces could use some insulation too … it’s a bigger subject …. I’ll get into it another day.
OK, last thing for this topic … Lighting. Now, as a rule, lighting is one of the worst wastes of energy there is. A regular light is about 5% efficient. A CFL … maybe 10 to 15.
For Incandescent bulbs, the higher the wattage the more efficient it is. Meaning, One 100 watt bulb will give off considerably more light than two 50 watt bulbs. Also, “Long life” bulbs are less efficient then the cheaper ones.
I keep hearing the pros and cons of the CFLs (compact fluorescent lighting) but they tend to wander away from the truth a little bit. Here is the really- really – real truth about CFL’s. (really). First off, forget about the “as bright as” numbers on the packaging. They kinda …. well…. stretch the truth. (notice I didn’t say lie) A better rule of thumb is 1 to 3. A 13 watt CFL is about the same as a 40 watt incandescent. A 19 … as a 60 … etc. The bulbs themselves… cheaper than regular. The very long life of the bulb will offset the initial cost. Mercury? … Yup, thats a problem. The way these lights work is simple. Electricity runs through a small amount of mercury atoms, these give off UV light. The coating on the surface of the tube absorbs the UV and gives off visible light. So, what to do with the mercury? Well, don’t throw the bulbs out when they die. Soon, most towns will have a program in place for recycling them if yours doesn’t already.
How much do they save?
Lets take an example. Assuming you pay 10 cents a kw/h for electric. (here on Long Island it is 19 cents). A 100 watt bulb costs 1 cent an hour to run. If you average 5 hours a day …. thats $18.25 a year per bulb. A CFL would save you about 12 dollars per bulb. If you have a light you leave on all the time (like the one over the kitchen sink) your looking at 88 dollars a year and a CFL savings of about 55 bucks. Count how many bulbs you have on right now and you can see where this is heading.
A word of warning …. you need special CFLs if you have dimmers and CFLs give off a different color light. Be careful about using them in dressing areas or you may find yourself confusing blues and blacks. They make corrected color bulbs … experiment a little bit when you switch.
In my own home, I switched out about 70% of my lights to CFLs. Now, I hate dark houses so I don’t spare the electrons at all …and still … We save about 30 dollars a month on our electric bill with the new bulbs.
So, how much is this all worth? In my never-humble-enough opinion, an average older home would probably save 10% off the top… maybe up to 25%. Outlay for these fixes …. maybe a few hundred bucks for everything? Less, if you work at it a bit? I’ll post details for each of these over the next few weeks (assuming anyone actually read this, of course) and then I’ll move on to the bigger improvements and their details.
And … if you found this useful …. drop me an e-mail …. that way I don’t feel like I’m wasting my time.