Home Improvement Projects to Save Energy and Lower Your Energy Bills

April 28th, 2008

The right home improvements can save you money beginning almost immediately and increase the resale value of your home, while also making your home a more comfortable place to live. In the future many home buyers are going to be much more concerned with energy efficiency and total cost of ownership.

Tighten you HVAC Duct Work – Leaky ducts that run through unconditioned attics or crawl spaces can waste huge amounts of energy.

Upgrade to an On demand Water heater – Replacing your standard water heater with a high efficiency on demand water heater could save you as much as 40% on your water heating bill. However, if you use lots of hot water, and you use it all day and all night long (got teenagers?), then your savings will be less than if you use hot water less frequently. The reason for this is that an on demand heater saves energy mostly because it doesn’t keep a big tank full of water hot 24 hours a day whether you need it or not. On the other hand, if you do have constant demand for lots of hot water, an on demand heater has the added advantage that it never runs out of hot water. The word on the street seems to be that most households will experience long term savings by using an on demand water heater, but I have not been able to verify this by way of a reliable scientific source yet.

Upgrade to a Programmable Thermostat – According to several reliable sources this may be the one home improvement that gives the most bang for the buck. Programmable thermostats are readily available in the $100 price range at home improvement stores, and are not difficult for a do it yourselfer to install. It basically boils down to this; heating and cooling your house is your largest energy expense and if you turn your heating and cooling down or off even for a few hours a day, you will save money. And, a programmable thermostat will take care of it for you like clockwork. You might have heard that this won’t really work, because the system has to work extra hard when the HVAC Kicks back on, but don’t believe it, research has proven that this home improvement really works.

Install a Water Heater Timer – Heating water is the second largest energy hog in your home so installing a water heater timer and setting it to turn the heater off during times of low demand such as over night and during the work day, will pay off almost immediately. Water heater timers are pretty simple to install and cost from $30-$100. FYI, digital water heater timers are available that allow you to have a different schedule for weekends than during the work week. Just Google for “digital water heater timer.” Of course always remember to turn off the electricity before working on any wiring, and if you have any doubts whatsoever about your ability to safely do something like this, then hire an electrician.

A common misconception is that a water heater works harder than normal to recover after the thermostat has been set back, resulting in little or no savings. This misconception has been dispelled by years of research and numerous studies. It is always best to put your water heater on a timer, as the energy lost from a hot water tank depends on the temperature difference between the surface of the tank and its surroundings. It’s a common myth that it somehow takes more energy to keep heating up a tank than it does to maintain it at a normal temperature.

Of course, as with all myths, there are a few “ifs” and “buts”. If the tank is highly insulated (so standing losses are very low) and there is an effective thermostat on the tank, then the losses caused by leaving it on all the time can be much reduced. And some people have a need for large quantities of hot water all day long, in which case they may have no alternative except to leave the heater on all the time. But in general, it is much better to install a timer. A water heater timer, can cost less than $40 and if you can install it yourself safely, could pay for itself in a few months and is an excellent investment. If you have to hire an electrician, then of course it will take longer to recoup your investment, but it can still be worthwhile. FYI, many home improvement stores will hook you up with professional installers for a fixed price. When considering the economics of energy efficient home improvements always keep in mind that the cost of energy will almost certainly continue to increase.

Add a Water Heater Blanket to your Existing Water Heater – Adding Insulation to your water heater if taken to an extreme, might be almost as effective as replacing your water heater with an on demand unit, or installing a water heater timer. However, you would be talking about an awful lot of insulation (like 12 inches or so) including the top and bottom. Just adding a moderate amount of additional insulation probably makes more sense for most people. You can get a water heater “blanket” for less than $20 at home centers and hardware stores, which is made just for this purpose, or you can simply wrap up your water heater with fiberglass insulation and plastic film. Obviously this would be a lot easier if the tank wasn’t already installed, but it’s not too difficult anyway. A nice extra touch would be to put a piece of 1/2″ EPS (Expanded PolyStyrene also known as “Styrofoam” which is a registered trademark of Dow Corning) under the water heater, although I don’t know how much it would really help. Of course, turn off the electricity or gas before you start and don’t get any insulation too close to burners, or vents.

Install Low Flow Shower Heads to Save Hot Water – Low flow shower heads are inexpensive, very easy to install, and simply reduce the amount of hot water that you use.

Upgrade to Low flow Aerators in all Faucets to Save Hot Water – Many faucets already come with low flow aerators, however retrofitting them is as simple as unscrewing the existing aerator and screwing in the new one.

Add Trickler Valves to your Showers to Save Hot Water – A trickler valve allows you to turn off or reduce the flow of water in the shower while you are lathering up or shaving or whatever without having to readjust the temperature when you turn the water back on. Some shower heads include a trickler valve.

Get a new High efficiency Heating and cooling system – If your HVAC is worn out or obsolete, then a new high efficiency professionally installed system is one of the ultimate home improvements for energy savings. Shop around and educate yourself about the different types of systems and how they are rated for efficiency. Go to the effort to find a quality installer too. The best system there is will be lackluster if improperly installed. Keep in mind that you usually get what you pay for as far as quality equipment and workmanship.

Install More insulation – Any time you get the opportunity to add insulation to your home you should do so, at least until you have achieved the high end of the industry standard for your area. If you have any under insulated areas of your home which are still accessible, such as unfinished attics or crawl spaces, you should have them upgraded at least to a level which is appropriate for your area. If you are going to replace or install new siding on your home, you can usually have a layer of insulation installed under the siding for a very reasonable cost. If your exterior walls don’t already contain insulation, then it can be blown in to the cavities, and the holes can easily be patched and covered with the new siding. Otherwise, adding insulation to already enclosed areas (like exterior walls) can be cost prohibitive, but it can be done. Holes can also be cut in drywall from the inside of a house, and patched after insulation is blown in, however the drywall repairs will probably cost more than the insulation work unless you do it yourself. However, this kind of drywall repair is something that actually can be done by a determined do it yourselfer.

Install a Radiant barrier in your Attic – A radiant barrier is basically a reflective layer (more or less like aluminum foil) which augments your attic insulation. It can be installed either directly on the bottom side of the roof decking, on the bottom side of the rafters with an airspace between the roof deck and the radiant barrier(the best way), or directly on top of the attic insulation (the worst way, because it will quickly get dusty and loose it’s effectiveness). A radiant barrier is mostly useful for reducing the cooling load on your air conditioner, therefore should probably mostly be considered only if you live in the sunbelt. According to where you live, and the kind of attic that you have, this could be a very cost effective do it yourself project. Lots of technical information on this subject can be found at DOE radiant barrier fact sheet and Florida Solar Energy Center – radiant barrier fact sheet.

Tighten Your Thermal Envelope – The “Thermal Envelope” is the exterior walls, attics, and foundations of your home which contain (or should contain) insulation, and which keeps the heat inside in the winter, and outside in the summer. Air Infiltration can account for a huge percentage of your heating and cooling bill, and tightening up the thermal envelope of your home is one of the most economical and economically rewarding tasks that you can do yourself. Arm yourself with a caulk gun and plug up every hole, crack, or gap you
can find inside and out. Then remove plug and switch covers and install foam gaskets on all of them, while you have them off, also caulk between the drywall, and the box that the wiring device is in, and also any holes in the box and around where the wires enter the device box. Put one of the plastic safety plugs that you find in the Baby Proofing section of the home improvement store into every receptacle that doesn’t have something plugged into it. You can also take down lights (without disconnecting the wiring) and seal around the wiring device box that they are mounted on, and the holes in the boxes where the wires come in. Always turn off the electricity before working around wiring. Give this same treatment to all lights or plugs that are on the outside of your house. If you are competent to work around electrical equipment take off the cover of your electrical panel (if it is inside of the heated space of your house) and seal the gap between the panel and the drywall. But be aware that you can not normally de-energize the entire inside of the electrical panel, so leave the cover on it unless you are sure that you know what you are doing. According to the Canadian Government “Simple Caulk and Seal” can save as much as 30% on your heat bill.

New windows – If your house has old worn out windows, or windows of an obsolete design, then new or replacement windows may be called for. By the way, there is quite a difference between new (New Construction that is) and replacement windows. New construction windows require the replacement of all parts of the old window, including all interior and exterior trim. The advantage to using new construction windows (if it is possible,because it isn’t always) is that you can do a better job of installing and sealing the window to the house. Replacement Windows usually don’t require replacing interior or exterior trim, because the existing trim remains in place and the replacement window occupies the space vacated by the sashes. Some kind of trim work is usually required on the exterior, but it is pretty minor compared to using new construction windows. Installing replacement windows is much quicker and easier than installing new construction windows, and is probably more suited to the needs of a do it yourselfer. In either case, even if you decide to install new windows yourself, I would reccomend that you have the window dealer measure for them, because a small error in measurement can be a big mistake. Also, remember that you will usually get what you pay for, and look for windows that are energy star compliant.

Storm windows – Storm windows might be an economical way to improve the energy efficiency of your existing windows. They are relatively inexpensive, and easy to install. However, storm windows installed over old leaky windows will never be as good as high quality replacement windows, cleaning your windows will be much more of a hassle than with replacement windows, and storm windows will not have much positive impact on the resale value of your home (if any). Nonetheless, if storm windows are all that you can afford, they might make a difference in the heating and cooling costs for your home by reducing air infiltration. However, according to the Florida solar energy research center, storm windows are probably not cost effective in the semi tropical Florida climate.

Repair leaky doors – If your exterior doors are in good shape, but they leak air around the door panel, then repairing the weather strips and threshold can give you results as good as replacing the entire door and jamb system, but for a lot less cash outlay. Once you have caulked and painted it, your door will be as good as new. To make the job easier, take some samples of the old weatherstrip with you to the home improvement store, and match it as closely as possible. Usually you can get material that is a perfect replacement, but even if you can’t, the store will have products that are “universal fit” which will still yield excellent results if you do a good job of installing them. One word of caution though, in most cases adhesive alone will not attach the new weatherstrip well enough to give a trouble free installation, so consider “peel and stick” to be more of an assembly aid than anything.

Install storm doors – Unlike storm windows, installing a high quality storm door over an existing door can give you a better result than a brand new replacement door by itself can. Top quality storm doors are not cheap, but you get what you pay for in both quality, and looks. A top quality storm door also looks good. A cheap one just looks cheap. However, even a cheap storm door will drastically improve the thermal performance of an exterior door if it is well installed.

Ceiling fans – Ceiling fans can save you energy in two ways. In the summer, they can make you feel cooler and allow you to set your thermostat at a higher temperature thus saving money on air conditioning. In the winter, they can help to prevent heat cavitation near the ceiling, and actually make the air near the floor warmer than it would be, especially if you have higher ceilings. As a general rule they should probably be turned off when the room isn’t occupied. Consider looking for energy star compliant fans.

Dehumidifiers – In some circumstances a dehumidifier can save you money. If your house is humid then you will have to air condition to a lower temperature in order to feel comfortable. This often is the case if your AC is sized too big, because it will “short cycle” and not run long enough to properly dehumidify your home. Try to put your dehumidifier as close as possible to the main air return grill so that dehumidified air is pulled directly into the system and distributed throughout your home. Then you can set your AC thermostat to a higher temp. Many dehumidifiers are quite noisy, so try to get one that is as quiet as possible, and look for the energy star logo.

Replace obsolete appliances – Nothing lasts forever, and technology generally improves over time. Try to anticipate the need to replace an aging appliance, and shop around so that you can become informed. The alternative is to have to buy a new refrigerator before everything in the old (broken) one spoils. Unless you work best under pressure, you probably won’t make the best choice in that situation. Pay attention to the energy ratings, and look for energy star compliant appliances.

Repair appliances that aren’t ready for replacement – Many appliances can be renovated to considerably extend their useful life span. The seals on refrigerators and freezers should be tight enough to clamp down on a strip of paper at all points. If your clothes seem to be taking longer to dry, your electric clothes dryer may just need a new heating element, or the exhaust duct may be clogged or crushed. Oven door seals can often be easily replaced. Some repairs can be easily done by the homeowner.

Compact florescent bulbs – You should make a vow to never buy another incandescent light bulb. They now make high quality compact florescent bulbs that are suitable for almost any fixture, and even though they are a lot more expensive up front, they can pay back in only one year, and they can last for up to 7 years. Look for energy star compliant bulbs. The really cheap ones from the discount club stores often have thermal ballasts and don’t last all that long.

Energy efficient landscaping – Careful placement of the right trees, shrubs and vines can contribute to the energy efficiency of your home. Deciduous trees (those that drop their leaves in the fall) can shade your house in the summer, and allow the sun to shine on it in the winter, thus helping year round. Evergreen trees which are planted to block the prevailing wind can improve the microclimate around your home in the winter. Vines growing on a trellis can accomplish the same things in a shorter period of time. Never plant any tree or shrub close enough to the house to crowd the foundation or hang over the roof though. Either condition will often foster rot and insect damage. The same goes for vines actually climbing on the house. Don’t allow it. Obviously large trees and evergreen windbreaks are long term investments that require careful planning and consideration, and poor choices of species or locations can actually do more harm than good. Also, don’t fail to consider the maintenance requirements of plants. Some require very little maintenance, and some require quite a lot. Look into it before you plant.

Get an Energy Audit – A proffesional energy audit will let you know how you are doing, and will highlight what you still need to do, and there is no substitute for it. In a complete audit they will install a blower door, which is just a door with a fan built into it. The blower door will make the house leak anywhere that it can. Then they will use an infrared camera to find where all of the leaks are. A complete audit will also include a similar test of your HVAC ducts to find if you are leaking conditioned air into the attic or crawl space through leaky ducts. Call your electric utility provider, and ask them how you can get an energy audit. Some utilities offer energy audits free to their customers. Ask about it.

Low Cost Home Maintenance can Lower you Energy Bills

April 28th, 2008

Improve your homes energy efficiency and lower your monthly energy bills with a modest amount of work that you can do yourself, and with only a few very affordable materials. If you are a home owner, then you know that maintaining your home is a never ending process. But, by changing or adding a few maintenance items to your regular routine, you can make your home more comfortable and energy efficient with very little extra effort or expense. In the process you will also help to insure that your home will last longer, and has the highest possible resale value.

Maintain

Change the furnace filter at least every 30 days.

If you have a ventilated crawl space, make sure that the vents are closed tightly when you are heating, and
open the rest of the time. Consider installing automatic vents (about $15 each)

Remove any obstructions around exterior heat pump units, such as overgrown bushes or trees.

Correct any kind of plumbing leak no matter how minor, either from a faucet, pipe or pressure relief valve.
Check all crawl spaces where pipes run for leaking or uninsulated pipes.

Clean the lint filter on your dryer after every load.

Clean the coils on the back and underneath your refrigerator and freezer at least four times a year.

Caulk and seal

Air infiltration is the number one source of wasted energy in most houses, Therefore
it is one of the most important issues to address if you hope to save energy.

If you have leaky doors and windows your preferred first choice would probably be to have them professionally replaced, another choice could be to install storm doors and windows, especially if you live in a cold climate. However, the home owner can often make huge improvements with a very small investment in materials and a weekend or two of effort by repairing and installing new weatherstrips and caulking. Consider covering windows with plastic using one of the kits that you can get at any hardware or home improvement store, especially if your windows are old or of an obsolete design. It may not be pretty, but the results can be dramatic.

After tightening the doors and windows arm yourself with a caulk gun and plug up every hole, crack, or gap you
can find inside and out. Then remove plug and switch covers and install foam gaskets on all of them. Put one
of the plastic safety plugs that you find in the Baby Proofing section of the home improvement store into every
receptacle that doesn’t have something plugged into it. If you are competent to work around electrical equipment
take off the cover of your electrical panel (if it is inside of the heated space of your house) and seal the
gap between the panel and the drywall. You can also take down lights (without disconnecting the wiring) and seal
around the wiring device box that they are mounted on. Also seal the holes in the boxes where the wires come in, and any other holes in the wiring box. Always
turn off the electricity before working around wiring.
According to the Canadian Government “Simple Caulk and Seal” can save as much as 30% on your heat bill.

Hot Water

After heating and cooling your home, the water heater is the next biggest consumer of energy.

Reduce the temperature of your water heater to 120 degrees F.

Insulate your electric water heater with a water heater “blanket”.

Install a water heater timer and set it to turn the heater off during times of low demand such as over night
and during the work day. FYI, digital water heater timers are available that allow you to have a different schedule for weekends than during the work week. Just Google for “digital water heater timer.”

A common misconception is that a water heater works harder than normal to recover after the thermostat has been set back, resulting in little or no savings. This misconception has been dispelled by years of research and numerous studies. It is always best to put your water heating on a timer, as the energy lost from a hot water tank depends on the temperature difference between the surface of the tank and its surroundings. It’s a common myth that it somehow takes more energy to keep heating up a tank than it does to maintain it at a normal temperature.

Of course, as with all myths, there are a few “ifs” and “buts”. If the tank is highly insulated (so standing losses are very low) and there is an effective thermostat on the tank, then the losses caused by leaving it on all the time can be much reduced. So insulating the tank is more important than installing a timer. And some people have a need for large quantities of hot water all day long, in which case they may have no alternative except to leaving the heater on. But in general, it is much better to install a timer. A water heater timer, will cost between $30 and $100 (according to features – digital timers are more expensive, but allow more flexibility than mechanical ones) and if you can install it yourself safely, could pay for itself in a few months and is an excellent investment. If you have to hire an electrician, then of course it will take longer to recoup your investment, but it still may be worthwhile. FYI, many home improvement stores will hook you up with professional installers for a reasonable firm price.

When you program your timer, you want to try to turn the water heater off and then use up as much hot water as possible so that as small amount as possible is left to slowly cool off and go to waste. For example if your routine is to always take a shower before going to work in the morning, then set the timer to turn off the water heater before you start your shower. In most cases you will still have plenty of hot water. Obviously, you want to do the same thing at night. If you can also run the dishwasher after your shower, then the strategy gets even better. Most modern dish washers will heat their own water if needed, so quality and safety will not be compromised.

Heating Ventilating and Air Conditioning – HVAC

Heating and cooling your home typically uses more energy than everything else put together, so
this is the place where the most improvement can usually be found.

Maintain your system. Clean or replace your air-conditioning filters once a month or as needed.
Clean baseboard heaters and radiators as needed. Make sure they are not blocked by furniture,
carpeting or drapes.

Lower your thermostat setting. The U.S. Department of
Energy estimates that you can save up to $40 for every degree (Fahrenheit) you lower your thermostat
during the winter heating season. The same goes for reducing the load on your air conditioner in the
summer.

Lower the heat even more at night. Pile on the blankets instead.

Reduce heating and cooling drastically when you aren’t home. But always keep in mind that it is possible to cause dammage to your home by turning the climate control completely off for days or weeks at a time. So turn it down, not off.

Automate energy savings by installing a programmable thermostat.

Remember the fuel required to reheat a building to a comfortable temperature is roughly equal to the fuel saved as the building drops to the lower temperature. You save fuel between the time that the temperature stabilizes at the lower level and the next time heat is needed. So, the longer your house remains at the lower temperature,
the more energy you save. So Don’t be afraid to lower your thermostat when you won’t be home. However, if the weather will be very cold, or very hot and humid, then don’t turn the HVAC off, or you run the risk of frozen water pipes (or frozen aquarium fish, or house plants) or in hot humid weather mold could grow in a closed up, un-conditioned house.

Other Maintainance / Improvements

Insulate hot water pipes, especially if they pass through unconditioned areas.

Replace the drip pans under your stove eyes with nice shiny new ones. This will reflect more heat onto
whatever you are cooking.

Change incandescent bulbs to compact fluorescents. Fluorescent lights use only one-third the energy of
traditional lights and last up to 10 times longer. Compact fluorescents are now available in bulbs that look
just like the decorative round bulbs often found in bathroom fixtures, flood light bulbs, and also like regular light bulbs. So you don’t have to display the funny looking curlicue bulbs to take advantage of compact florescent technology.

Getting an energy survey done will allow you to apply your efforts in the most effective manor.
Your Electric Utility company should be able to help you arrange an energy survey, possibly even free of charge.

Get Some Professional Help:

Get an HVAC professional to check:

  • Duct work for leaks, especially if they run through unheated areas like crawl spaces or attics
  • Relays and equipment on baseboard and electric heating units.
  • Air conditioner refrigerant levels.
  • Thermostat operation.
  • Compressor cycling in heat pump unit.
  • Back up heat (in heat pumps) for proper function.

Have a professional inspection of your heating and air-conditioning system done every year. By the way, most people wait until the beginning of the heating or cooling seasons to have work done on their HVAC system, and the technicians are swamped at that time. So, do yourself and your heat and air man a favor and call them when the weather is mild in the spring and fall, or at least not right after the first cold or hot weather of the year.

Resources For additional information on how to achieve energy savings:

Building a Tight Thermal Envelope

April 28th, 2008

The building envelope is the part of the house which separates the indoors from the outdoors, and consists of the floor on the bottom level, the ceiling on the top level, the exterior walls, the exterior floor bands, and of course the doors and windows. The standard house envelope leaks air like a sieve and accounts for something like 30 percent of climate control costs due to air infiltration alone. Fortunately during construction it is cheap and easy to make the thermal envelope much tighter and to make a considerable improvement in the energy efficiency of the finished home. According to the Federal Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy website “Such airtight homes often consume one-third less energy when compared to similar unsealed homes.”

During the Framing Process

  • Seal under the exterior walls – I recommend that you use construction adhesive to glue your exterior walls down and seal them to the floor all at the same time. You will usually have it on the job anyway for gluing down the floors. Alternatively you can use caulk, foam sealant, or special wall gasket. I’ve used them all and they all work, but I like construction adhesive the best.
  • Use caulk to seal building paper or housewrap (tyveck or equivalent) to the exterior framing at the floor band just below the walls, and to the very top outside of the exterior walls.
  • Tape all building paper or housewrap seams, and repair any rips or tears.
  • Tape building paper or housewrap at windows.
  • Caulk under exterior doors before installation.
  • Seal around windows and exterior doors using caulk or poly foam sealer (great stuff) that is specified for doors and windows. Don’t use the regular expanding foam sealant around windows and doors or it will cause them to bind later on. I highly reccomend the Pella Window and Doors website for its outstanding guides to installing any brand of window or door correctly.

    Framing and Insulation

  • The way most houses in my area are framed there is an area at the junction of exterior walls at the corners and where interior walls join the exterior walls that framers call “Tees, and Corners.” Tees, and corners also refer to a framing detail at these locations that are usually each made out of two studs and three or more blocks of wood, these devices serve as a convenient place to attach the walls together, and to attach the drywall. The problem with tees and corners is that they are almost impossible to insulate so you end up with a three and one half inch area at every one of these locations that has no insulation. In the typical home this adds up to 4-6 feet of un-insulated wall. That is not good. To avoid this situation, don’t use the conventional device; instead just use a single 2×6 stud installed sideways in place of the tee or corner. This gives you a fine place to attach your walls, and drywall. It also saves a lot of labor compared to building the old style devices, and costs less for material, while leaving room to install insulation.
  • Another area of framing that often gets no insulation is the headers over windows and exterior doors. Whenever possible use only one piece of lumber (usually either a 2×10 or 2×12) for the header and put it to the outside of the wall so that there is space left on the inside for some insulation. Usually you will be fine with openings up to four feet wide to use a single header, but this is highly variable because of local codes considerations. Check with your codes inspector first.
  • If your attic will have blown in insulation in it, build a box around the attic access hole so that the blown in insulation can come all the way to the access hole without spilling into the house.

    During the Rough in process

  • Insulate the area of exterior walls where tub/shower units will be installed before the fixtures go in.
  • Try to avoid using recessed fixtures in the thermal envelope whenever possible. They are usually full of holes that leak air, and they cause a void in the insulation. If you must use recessed fixtures always use the kinds that are approved for direct contact with insulation.
  • Often plumbers cut a big rectangular hole under each bath tub for the pipes to go through. This is a challenge to seal up neatly, but I have found that I can do a good (although ugly) job by attaching tyveck from under the floor, and then using a lot of foam to cover and seal it from the top. You could also use pieces of plywood laboriously fitted and then sealed I suppose. If anyone finds a better way, I would like to hear it.
  • After wiring, plumbing and HVAC have been roughed in and before installation of insulation or drywall squirt foam sealant in ALL of the holes that have been drilled through the top or bottom plates of ALL walls – not only the exterior walls. The interior walls are important too, because air can be exchanged from the interior to the crawl space and the attic through interior walls.
  • Seal around all penetrations of the exterior wall sheathing. Electricians are notorious for cutting nasty ragged holes to install exterior wall boxes. You will need to arm yourself with tape, caulk, and foam sealant for this job.
  • Use caulk and foam to seal all of the many holes in all electrical rough in boxes including where the wires go through. This sounds like a bigger job than it is. Since you don’t have to worry about being neat, it really doesn’t take very long.

    While Drywall is being Installed

  • Apply a continuous bead of glue to the top and bottom wall plates behind the drywall. The glue at the bottom prevents air from getting into the wall cavity from inside the house, and the glue at the top prevents air from being pulled from the wall cavity into the attic. Also glue the drywall to the frame around doors and windows for the same reasons. If you are contracting out the drywall installation I highly recommend that you hang out while it is being done just to make sure that they both understand what you want and then actually do it. Subs are notorious for ignoring things like this if they aren’t supervised, because once it is done there is no way to inspect it.
  • Tape and mud every single drywall joint even if it will be hidden behind trim, cabinets or other finishes. It doesn’t have to be pretty in these areas but you want to seal them up.

    After Drywall is Installed

  • Caulk or foam around electrical outlet boxes, recessed fixtures, and where plumbing pipes penetrate the drywall.
  • Before the attic is insulated, get up there and foam or caulk everywhere that you see light coming through around light boxes, bathroom exhaust fans, other recessed fixtures, or anywhere else.
  • If you will have an attic access door, make sure that it is insulated, tight fitting and sealed in place with weather stripping. I usually just use a nice piece of plywood screwed to the ceiling and sealed with stick on weather strip.
  • Use an interior paint or primer that is rated as a vapor barrier.

    This is based upon the Air Tight Drywall Approach developed by the Canadian Government and is intended to result in a tight thermal envelope which is able to resist inappropriate condensation. What you are after is to prevent drafts from moving through the wall cavities, and ceiling. In conventional (not all that tight) construction a couple of things happen which exchange air between outside and in: 1) wind simply pushes air in through the various cracks making the house “drafty” 2) A thermo siphon or chimney effect causes air that heats up in the attic to draw through the wall cavities pulling your conditioned inside air into the wall cavities (by way of receptacles, fixtures, and cracks) and out via the attic.

  • How to Choose Windows to Save Energy

    April 28th, 2008

    NFRC Window label=

    Picture of a typical NFRC window label – Snagged from the NFRC website.

    Almost everything you need to know about windows can be found on the NFRC label that comes on the window, and your window dealer should be able to furnish you with this information before you place your window order.

    What you will find on the NFRC label

    U-Factor

    This is the energy efficiency rating of the entire window unit including the glass, jambs, and frames. U-Factor correlates directly to R-Ratings for insulation that we are all familiar with. If you divide the number one by the U-Factor you will get the R-Rating equivalent for the window. For example a U-Factor of .25 would be equivalent to an R-4 insulation rating. Notice that a lower U-Factor is better while a Higher R-Factor is better. This along with the air leakage rating is the main indicator of energy efficiency for the window, and is more important than particular construction features such as Low-E and Argon filled glass. Those factors help to determine the overall U-Rating, but other features not withstanding, for energy efficiency you want windows with a numerically low U-Rating above all else. Notice that even a very well rated window has a fraction of the insulation value of a standard exterior wall which will be from R-13 to over R-20.

    Solar Heat Gain Coefficient

    This rating (between 0 and 1) tells you how much heat from the sun is transmitted through the window. What you would like to see here depends upon the circumstances. The lower the number is the less heat will pass through the window – which is usually good. However there may be applications where you want solar heat gain in which case it would be a trade off between insulation value and solar gain. Here in the sunny south you probably want this number to be as low as possible to avoid heat gain during the Air Conditioning season.

    Visible Transmittance

    VT is another number between 0 and 1 that indicates the amount of visible light that passes through the glass. The higher the number the more light the glass lets through. In this case more is better.

    Air Leakage

    AL is an optional rating that some manufacturers use and some don’t. The higher the number the more air the window will leak. The value is supposed to represent cubic feet of air at a standard pressure differential. Obviously less air leakage is better.

    Condensation Resistance

    CR values run between 0 and 100 with a higher value indicating higher resistance to condensation. This is also an optional rating.

    Part 1 Energy Efficient Thermal Envelope – How to build an affordable energy efficient home

    Insulate your Water Heater to Conserve Energy and Save Money

    April 28th, 2008

    After climate control, heating water uses more energy than anything else in your home. Lots of people are using on demand water heaters now in an attempt to reduce their high electric bills. Unfortunately on demand water heaters typically start at over $1000.00 and with the addition of gas and plumbing support the total installation can cost over $3000. BTW, if you don’t have access to natural gas at your address, then an on demand water heater isn’t a realistic option at all. An electric on demand water heater that is big enough to supply an average family draws so much current that it requires electric service similar to that of an entire modest home. The truth is that they just don’t make sense for everyone, and depending upon your usage patterns an on demand water heater may not even save any energy.

    Here’s the good news. For $20-40 and an hour of your time you can improve the efficiency of your plain Jane tank type water heater to rival that of the most expensive models that are made. Where the efficiency of a tank type water heater suffers in comparison to an on demand is when it comes to keeping 40 or more gallons of water hot and ready to use all of the time. An on demand unit just doesn’t do it at all, it only heats water when you need it. So by adding an insulation blanket to your tank you can noticeably decrease the amount of energy that it takes to keep your water hot between uses.

    Water heater tank

    Water heater insulation blanket

    Sneaking that blanket around the tank

    taping it all up

    more taping it all up

    Try to be as neat as possible

    nearly finished

    Nice and neat

    Some pipe insulation would be a nice touch.

    It’s that easy. Now if you also add a 7 day digital timer you will have the most efficient tank type water heater known to man. And if your family keeps regular hours (leave and return home at the same time more or less) it may actually be better than an on demand water heater, and for a lot less.

    Energy Options for a Sustainable Future

    April 28th, 2008

    We can either choose from our options to take control of our energy and environmental problems or we can fail to choose and leave a shameful legacy of pollution, global warming and energy depletion.

    Fossil Fuels

    We have two very large problems with fossil fuel use, not counting wars and geopolitical conflict that are being caused by the struggle to control oil production. Perhaps the most pressing problem at this time is global warming which is primarily caused by the use of fossil fuels. The only immediately available option to combat global warming is to severely limit our use of fossil fuels. Sequestering of carbon dioxide in the deep ocean or underground my become an option in the future, but at this time we are years away from having the infrastructure to make this a practical option. The other big problem with fossil fuels is that the supply is finite, and the demand is without limit.

    Find More Fossil Fuels

    No doubt this is an option that will eventually be exercised, unfortunately even if we access every drop of oil and every lump of coal in existence we will still exhaust the available supply within the foreseeable future. Perhaps this won’t happen in the lifetime of those of us who are now living but it will happen. Even if we stopped burning petroleum for fuel it would still be a very valuable commodity, because it is in everything that we use – plastics, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, clothing, paint, building materials, and even food. Petroleum has become the most widely used raw material in history. Eventually it will just be too valuable to burn. We owe it to our grand children to leave some for their needs.

    Coal

    Coal is just another fossil fuel. The only problem that coal doesn’t have as far as we are concerned is that the U.S. has enough of it at for now, and we don’t have to meddle in world politics to get it. Nonetheless, it won’t last forever, and coal based energy production is a huge source of pollution and greenhouse gasses. Realistically we will probably be using coal for a long time to come, unless we develop cheap fusion technology, which doesn’t look likely right now.

    Biofuels

    Biofuels are the favorite energy option of agribusiness. These options include all burnable products and by products of living things, both plants and animals. Biodiesel, gasohol, methane, switchgrass, firewood, camel dung etc all have some degree of practical use, but share similar problems. Biofuels are primarily agricultural products, and we don’t have enough agricultural production capacity for biofuels to satisfy our current energy consumption. Also, over reliance on biofuels could lead to deforestation, and could cause farmland that is currently being used to produce food to be converted to fuel production. Additionally, currently used intensive commercial agricultural methods rely on large inputs of petroleum fuel for tractors and transportation, and fertilizer that is also a petroleum product (made primarily from natural gas). The upside to biofuels includes the fact that non-agricultural biofuels (wood, and cellulose-based alcohol for example) wouldn’t result in a net addition of carbon to the atmosphere if produced in a sustainable manner. Unfortunately, sustainable production is very limited for all biofuels. If petroleum fuel and fertilizer is removed from the biofuel equation then production is severely limited. By the way, the total cost of agricultural products is much higher than we realize, but is difficult to see because of federal subsidies. Of course if you included the cost of oil motivated warfare at the pump then gasoline prices would be much higher too. In any event, biofuels won’t be a substantial part of the solution.

    Hydrogen Fuel

    This technology could be a very important part of our energy future. The byproducts of using hydrogen fuel are primarily water and energy, and hydrogen could conceivably replace petroleum fuel in all applications. There is a safety issue, but not an insurmountable one. Unfortunately, hydrogen technology is not a method for producing energy, but rather a way of storing it. Hydrogen can be produced in several ways, but all of them require another source of energy. Nonetheless, hydrogen technology or something like it could be a key in continuing to enjoy our energy intensive lifestyles.

    Nuclear

    Nuclear energy production has it’s obvious downsides – safety issues and nuclear waste, but the biggest problem with nuclear fission technology is that it always produces byproducts which can be used to manufacture atomic weapons. If we don’t work with the world governments to outlaw the use of nuclear fission worldwide, it is inevitable that atomic weapons will be used again sooner or later in warfare or by terrorists. Even if it were possible to keep nuclear energy technology for the sole use of ourselves and our allies, eventually some madman will use them for destruction. Nuclear proliferation in the form of atomic power plants is not a good option for the human race.

    Solar and Wind Power

    I am putting these two together because they have so much in common. Both are completely sustainable, inherently unreliable, and non-polluting (to the extent that non-polluting is possible), and we need to embrace them fully. The fact that solar and wind can be used to produce energy near the point of use also helps to mitigate power outages. Solar and wind power won’t solve our energy problems, but they will take a big bite out of it. The main drawback at this time is relative cost. That is not to say that they are too expensive (they aren’t) but only that they are more expensive than fossil fuels. There should be a solar installation on every rooftop in America.

    Fusion

    Nuclear fusion could well be the magic bullet for our energy future. The fuel is sufficiently available. It’s safe – fusion reactors can’t melt down, or start a chain reaction. It’s clean – no nasty byproducts are produced. And best of all, it doesn’t look like it will make a practical weapon at all. Unfortunately, we have not yet been able to build a fusion reactor that produces more energy than it consumes. However, the only reason that we haven’t done so is that we haven’t really tried. Don’t get me wrong, scientists have been working on fusion technology for years and have made great progress. As a matter of fact the technology has become accessible enough that a Canadian high school student built a fusion reactor in his garage in 2006 using some hardware that he got off of ebay. No kidding, this really happened. The only reason that we don’t have commercial fusion energy is that too many people are making too much money off of oil. When we invest some real money into research we will soon have fusion as an energy option.

    Conservation

    For some reason, it appears that this is the option of last resort. We could probably reduce our total energy usage in America by as much as 30% without substantially effecting our quality of life. Our houses and cars are too big and their efficiency is too low. Developers are planning to build an indoor ski resort in Texas so that people can snow ski in the middle of the summer. We eat food that is produced thousands of miles away and is flown in on airplanes so that we can have grapes in the middle of the winter. We choose to live many miles away from our work and then spend hundreds of hours driving back and forth. We have pools and hot tubs that we run continuously and use only occasionally. We have big lush over fertilized yards that we mow with riding lawnmowers. We drive around and round the parking lot to avoid walking a few steps farther. Our lifestyles are founded on wanton waste of cheap energy, and future generations may curse our memory for it.

    29 Free Ways To Save Energy and Money at Home

    April 28th, 2008

    Most of the ways that you can save energy at home can be divided into two categories: things that can be done (or not done) without spending any extra money (sometimes called lifestyle choices), and actions that require some financial investment, which are often referred to as energy efficiency measures. In some ways lifestyle changes are the hardest measures to implement, especially if you have teenagers in your home. Nonetheless, changing how we use energy can make a substantial difference in our consumption, and maybe more important it will change the way we think about conservation.

    Heating and Cooling

    In most homes regulating the temperature is the largest single energy expense

    It is also most often

    the main area where real savings can be made.

    Dress appropriately for the season so that you can adjust your thermostat to save energy.

    Adjust your thermostat higher in warm weather and lower in cool weather so your heating and cooling

    systems don’t have to work so hard.

    If you don’t have a programmable thermostat, then manually change the settings at night

    and when leaving the house.

    The sun is the most readily available source of heat there is – and the cheapest! So make the most of it in the heating season by opening internal doors of any rooms which get more sun than others and let the warm air travel through your home.

    Shut the door. The biggest heating and cooling loses are from air infiltration, and leaving external doors open

    will sure infiltrate a lot of air. Consider putting a closer on the most often used door to your house so

    that it will close itself.

    Keep draperies and shades on sunny windows open during the heating

    season to allow sunlight in; close them at night and during the air conditioning season to reduce heat transfer.

    Kitchen and Cooking

    Don’t use the heavy wash settings on your dishwasher or clothes washing machine unless they are

    really needed, instead scrape plates thoroughly and presoak clothes when possible. Your teenagers will be glad to hear that most modern dishwashers can handle dishes that have not been pre-rinsed. So to save hot water, don’t pre-rinse your dishes.

    If you have a water heater timer, run your dishwasher as soon as possible after the timer turns the water heater off. That way you will use up the residual hot water instead of leaving it to slowly cool and go to waste. Only do this if you have a reasonably modern dishwasher that will bring cool water up to the proper temperature. Watch for this feature when shopping for a new appliance.

    In the summer, cook outside whenever possible to avoid adding heat and humidity to the house. conversely,

    in the winter, the heat and moisture that cooking produces is a big plus to your indoor environment

    during cold weather. So fire up a mess of comfort food on a cold winter afternoon.

    Keep your refrigerator and or freezer full. A full refrigerator will cost less to operate than an empty

    one. Also, in the event of a power outage, frozen bottles of water that you have used to take up space will

    help to keep the real contents from spoiling. Anyway, in the event of an emergency you can never have too much ice or bottled water.

    Try to think before you open the refrigerator and get as much out (or in) at one time as possible. When

    putting away groceries stage everything that goes into the fridge and then put them all away at one time.

    Keeping your refrigerator or freezer neat and well organized will help to reduce the amount of time you

    spend looking for ingredients.

    When using the dishwasher, avoid using the heat dry cycle. Instead open the door and allow the dishes to air dry. In the summer time, wait a few minutes before opening the door to avoid dumping all that steam into the house. In the winter the hot moist air is a good thing. If you use a product like Jet Dry and load carefully, most of the water will drain right off without any need for additional heat drying.

    When cooking, choose the right pan size for the food and the stove eye. Cut food into smaller pieces and put lids

    on pans when possible as the food will then cook a lot quicker, and less energy will escape as steam. If you are defrosting food, or just warming things up, then microwave ovens are ideal as they use much less electricity than conventional ovens. Use the microwave whenever possible. For example potatoes baked in the microwave for 5 minutes are almost identical to ones that bake in the oven for an hour.

    Regularly check the seals on your fridge/freezer to ensure no warm air is getting in – the seals should be tight enough to hold a piece of paper securely when closed.

    Laundry

    Efforts in the laundry room are mostly aimed at saving Hot Water. Water heating is the second largest

    use of energy in the home, after climate control.

    A cheap way to save on hot water all the time is to insulate your water heater.

    Try to have full loads when using the washing machine.

    Use the lowest possible temperature to wash, and always use a cold rinse. The Laundry detergents available

    today are designed to do a good job in cold water. Another benefit is that your clothes will last longer if you

    wash them in a cooler temperature.

    If you have especially dirty of stained clothes, then spot treat them with one of the many fine products available

    and/or presoak them.

    When the time comes to shop for a new washing machine seriously consider an energy efficient front loader. I have

    seen claims of up to %40 energy savings for these machines; Plus, they use less water which results in even more

    savings, also they claim to do a better job in the spin cycle which means even more savings in the dryer.

    Use a clothes line instead of the dryer for a 100% energy savings and fresh smelling laundry.

    General Conservation Practices

    Turn your water heater thermostat down to 120 degrees.

    Turn off lights, TV sets, appliances, and other electricity users when not needed.

    Change your Computer’s Energy Settings to save energy.

    Clean light bulbs globes and shades.

    (The cleaner the bulb, the brighter the light and the less tempted you will be to change to a higher wattage

    or turn on a second light.)

    Seriously reconsider your use of things like security lights, swimming pools, and hot tubs. If you have things

    like this that consume energy continuously for months or even years at a time, but are only used occasionally,

    you should consider the real long term costs involved. By the way, putting your swimming pool pump on a timer and only running it for 2-3 hours a day can very significantly lower your electric bill, without making any real compromise.

    Take a shorter cooler shower. In the summer time when you are trying to keep your

    home cool and dehumidified, a cooler shower will save energy in two ways, first it saves hot water,

    and it releases less warm moist air into your house. Installing a trickler valve will

    make it more convenient to turn the water flow off or down while you lather up or shave. Turning

    the water off when you don’t need it could reduce the hot water used by 50% or more. Also, cooler water temperatures help to avoid over drying your skin.

    Don’t run water continuously for activities like shaving, tooth brushing or rinsing dishes. Run the water

    into the sink (or a cup) and use only what you really need.

    Don’t leave kitchen or bathroom ventilation fans running any longer than needed. The conditioned air that they blow out has to be replaced by unconditioned outside air.

    Whenever you have the occasion to shop for new appliances consider their energy efficiency,

    and look for the energy star compliance logo.

    The most wasteful appliances are the ones that you don’t really need. If you have an old refrigerator

    out in the garage or basement just to keep a few drinks cold, consider getting rid of it altogether, or at least

    replacing it with a new efficient compact (aka “dorm room”) model.

    Call your Electric Company about discounts they may offer during off-peak hours, and try to cook and wash during those times

    whenever possible.

    Want to find out if your energy use is above average? If you have five minutes and your

    energy bills are nearby, this government Web site can tell you: www.energystar.gov. Click on the “Home

    Energy Analysis” link. You will be asked to enter information about your home’s age, square footage, number

    of occupants and energy bill totals for a consecutive, 12-month period. If you don’t keep your bills, your

    utility company can send you a 12-month summary.