Cut energy bills with heating-efficiency home repairs

Posted on Tuesday, January 14, 2014 at 11:50 am

S_I-house-LARGE-optStaff Writer
John Coffelt

 Estimates from the EPA indicate that if the all the drafts in an older home were combined, the energy lost would equal to keeping a window open year round.

While a major overhaul to your home may be a bit out of your budget, there are many do-it-yourself projects that can help with energy costs.

“People often think that windows are the number one thing,” said Mika Dyer, local energy evaluator for Energy Right, a company that conducts home evaluations for the TVA. “We can see the windows, and they are often are weak places, but because they are so expensive, I often recommend doing those last.”

She suggested air leakage, duct leakage and insulation are more important and fixable issues.

Dyer explained that the central heating and air units are the single biggest user of electricity in the home, 40 percent, followed by the hot water heater with 20 percent.

“Insulation and ductwork are much greater issues. People think that if you turn the lights off when you leave a room it will greatly effect the electric bill, and it will effect it a little bit, but not as much as your central heat and air unit.”

She said that one of the best steps to saving energy in the home is to have an air unit tune up.

“You want to make sure that that is running well. And statically speaking, you can lose as much energy to leaky ductwork as to bad windows.”

She cautioned that older unit, while working fine, are much less efficient than it did when new.

“We also look a lot for hidden air leaks.”

She warns that almost all the houses she checks have many of the same types of air leaks. Attic pull down hatches, plumbing penetrations, spaces around trim work are all usual culprits.

“Electrical outlets and plumbing, it’s best to seal those from the basement and crawlspace. What happens is air comes in from where the holes have been cut to insert the wire.

“Air is like water,” she said. “Even if the hole is really tight and the wire is really flush, air will still slip in.”

She said that building codes in Tennessee don’t cover much in the way of guarding against air leaks.

Department of Energy researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratories break down a house into the home envelope, the heated and cooled living space within the home, and the attic and crawl spaces outside that space. Barriers such as insulation and air seals between the living areas and attic, basements, crawlspaces and the outdoors are the front line in the protection of your home’s heat costs.

First, make sure those barriers are as effective as possible. Check attic areas for proper insulation. If you can see attic floor joists, you probably need more insulation.

Check the type and measure the thickness of insulation.

According to the EPA data, loose, lightweight yellow, pink or white fibers are probably fiberglass. To find the R-value take the depth of the insulation and multiply by 2.5.

If the material is dense gray or near white, possibly with black specs you probably have rock wool, which offers an R-value of 2.8 per inch of material.

Small gray flat pieces or fubers (made from newsprint) are most likely cellulose. Multiply depth by 3.7.

If you see granules of a lightweight, pea-size, flaky gray mineral. It could be Vermiculite and could contain asbestos.  Do not disturb vermiculite insulation unless you have had it tested by an approved lab to be sure that it does not contain asbestos. Contact the Coffee County health department for the name of an approved lab.                Vermiculite or perlite offers an R-value of 2.7 per inch.

Batts of                 lightweight yellow, pink or white material are most likely fiberglass. Multiply by 3.2.

In Tennessee, part of zone 4, the ENERGY STAR guidelines recommend a rating of R38 to R60 to be added to un- insulated attics or adding R38 to attics with 3-4 inches of insulation.

Crawlspaces and basements should have a rating of R25 to R30.

Inside the house, three easy methods can be used to find air leaks. Look for light shined in potential leak spots like around dryer vents, outdoor faucets, the wall sill plates and air vents.

Check for air leaks around windows and door with a piece of paper. Shut the door on the paper. If it can be pulled free without tearing, there is a leak.

A third method of checking for leaks is the smoke test. On a cool windless day, create negative pressure in the house by turning on all the exhaust vents or placing a window fan in an open window. Turn off all gas burning appliances and shut flue and all other doors and windows.

Using an incense stick or dust talc powder, check for leaks in problem areas such as electrical outlets and switch plates, door and window frames electrical and gas service entrances, baseboards, weather stripping around doors, fireplace dampers, attic hatches, wall- or window-mounted air conditioners, cable TV and phone lines, where dryer vents pass through wall and vents and fans. Wherever the smoke wavers or is sucked out of or blown into the room, there’s a draft.

Dyer advised that Duck River Electric and the TVA offer energy evaluations.

Fixing the problems

Basically, air leak-sealing products are categorized by what you want to seal. If it’s a movable object like a door, a weather stripping product is called for. For a stationary object, caulk is the answer. Note, if a gap is too large for caulking, foam sealers are available.

Local clerk Joe Tilley, of Eaton Ace Hardware on the Woodbury Hwy., explained that silicon caulk is less prone to cracking than the more economical latex caulk.

“Silicone stays a little more flexible when dry. When things heat up and expands, it’s not going to crack like regular latex.”

A tube of caulk at Eaton ranges from about $5.49 for silicon to $1.99 for the latex. Coverage for GE products are listed as 50 linear feet with a 3/16 inch bead.

Tilley said weather stripping for doors come in various grades with the most economical at $3.29. He said he also stocks older-style felt to seal doors for $2.79.

Shrink to fit window kits, for single pane windows, are around $10.

For more energy saving tips, go to http://energy.gov/energysaver/articles/weatherstripping.

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