Warm-up home improvements
Q: I see a lot of advertisements for windows, insulation and gadgets that are going to make my home warmer and more energy efficient in the winter. How do I know where to start and what really works?
A: There are many choices when it comes to making your home more comfortable and energy efficient. You have to choose what works best based on your home's needs and your budget. You can hire a home performance contractor to assess and improve your home, or you can incrementally do the improvements yourself. There are three general areas that you should focus on.
1. HVAC duct sealing
A study by Advanced Energy in the 1990s revealed that most homes in North Carolina lose about 20 percent of conditioned air from duct leakage. That means for every $5 you spend to heat your home, $1 heats the great outdoors. I imagine my attic mice are grateful for the years I kept their home cozy.
Ducts are the flexible plastic or rigid metal chases that carry conditioned air from your HVAC unit to the interior of your home. If ducts are located in unconditioned spaces, like the crawlspace or attic, they should also be insulated.
Duct sealing is most often addressed by an HVAC professional or a home performance contractor. If you want to do the work, duct leakage can be assessed by looking for bucket mastic applied to the duct connections. Mastic is a sealant sold in buckets that has the consistency of peanut butter. It can be applied using a cheap paint brush or disposable gloves. You should also caulk the gaps where the metal supply and return boots meet the floor, wall or ceiling.
2. Air sealing and insulation
Insulation is what most homeowners think is going to make their home more comfortable; however, insulation only works if installed after thorough air sealing. Insulation won't stop heated air from rising into your attic. Air sealing all holes, gaps and chases with appropriate caulk or spray foam will stop air flow.
In North Carolina, air sealing and insulation improvements should take priority in your attic, then floors and walls last.
Home performance contractors have the experience to find critical locations that need air sealing. If you are determined to do the work yourself, FineHomebuilding.com has an excellent video series "How to Air-Seal an Attic."
You can also use snow to know where to air seal in the attic. Even when my chimney is not in use, snow does not collect around it. The snow is melted from the heat sneaking up the chimney through the broken damper and behind the crown molding that hides a large gap between the brick and ceiling. Another prime location to investigate is the attic access panel. It should be weather stripped and insulated to create a tight seal that separates your attic from your home. Otherwise heat easily leaks into the attic.
Replacement windows are one of the most advertised energy efficiency items. Beware that many claims for energy savings are false or misleading. Typical replacement windows can take 30 years for the energy savings to pay for the cost of the window.
Replacing a single pane window can have a big impact on comfort, especially if the window is right next to your bed or easy chair. If you're replacing a window for comfort or aesthetic reasons, it's definitely worth it to pay for an Energy Star-labeled window.
If your windows aren't a major source of discomfort, you'll be better off improving your existing windows by repairing and weatherizing your windows. Minimize air leakage by replacing latches and broken glass, repairing glazing putty, and installing weather stripping at sash joints. If you have single pane windows, install storm windows. This is an inexpensive way to keep historic single pane windows, minimize drafts and eliminate condensation. Remember that storm windows only work when you keep them closed.
Don't be overwhelmed by the task of making your home warmer. I've enjoyed incremental improvements in my comfort and power bills over the years. Decide what's important, affordable and feasible and take one bite at a time.