SEALING UP THE SHELL
Story by Tosha Kelly
Is your home wasting energy – and your money? It's common for an old or even new home to lose large amounts of energy due to a poorly performing "shell" – that exterior part of the home made up of the outer walls, ceiling, windows and floor.
That's why it makes sense to seal up your shell. In fact, just by properly insulating and air sealing your home, you can reduce your home's energy bills by as much as 30 percent, according to the US Dept. of Energy.
So before the cold winter months roll in again, read up on these tips to help make your home cozier and more energy efficient.
Consider an energy audit. How much energy does your home actually lose? Hire a home energy rater to find out. This pro can tell you where the energy is being lost through your home's shell and what you should do about it.
Rich Seifert, energy and housing specialist at the Cooperative Extension Service, says energy ratings set priorities. "The whole idea of an inspection is to determine where your house's strong and weak points are." A blower door test is the most significant and reliable test, he says. It will enable you to determine how leaky your house is and where you should focus your time and money.
Carol Perkins, owner of Active Inspections and Energy Ratings, says it's always a good idea to get an energy rating, especially if you are buying a home, because some loan programs offer an interest rate reduction. AHFC has a list of energy raters and their areas of service, says Perkins.
Always get an energy rating before trying any do-it-yourself projects, she advises. "I've seen problems where people have done work incorrectly and they think they are improving when in fact they are creating a problem."
Seal up leaks.
According to ENERGY STAR, if you add up all of the hidden air leaks in your home, they can equal a hole the size of an open window! And allowing leaks to go unsealed is literally throwing energy – and money – out the window.
"Most commonly, there is air leakage around outlets, light fixtures, where the plumbing comes through the wall under sinks and around showerheads," says Perkins. "Sometimes we'll find air leakage around the bottom of cantilevers – where the floor projects out past the wall."
Older homes might have a half-inch gap between the frame and the window, with no filler other than some fiberglass, says Perkins. That doesn't stop a lot of air. If you're remodeling and want to fill that space, there is foam that is designed especially for windows and doors. "If you get the wrong foam it swells a lot," Perkins explains. "When caulking around windows, do it on the outside, between the window framing and the siding."
Often in older homes, the amount of insulation in the ceiling and walls is insufficient by current standards. If your home lacks proper insulation, the best option is to bring in an insulation contractor to blow cellulose or fiberglass into the walls. Usually, the easiest and most effective place to add insulation is in the attic. Another candidate for an insulation update is your crawl space.
Changes made to your home can make a significant difference in how much you pay in energy costs, says Seifert. For example, if a home's estimated heating cost per year was $7,092, insulating the foundation alone with four inches of Styrofoam would save the homeowners around $3,000 in less than two years.
"A lot of houses built in the 70s and 80s only have the top two feet insulated," says Perkins. "Now, we insulate all the way down to the foundation wall."
There are many types of insulation. The most common are fiberglass and cellulose, says Perkins. "Most people living in an existing home won't know what kind of insulation is in it," she says. "Some old houses use really odd things like wood shavings and wadded up newspapers. Occasionally, you will be installing something and then you can figure out what's in there."
Upgrade inefficient windows and doors.
About one-third of a home's total heat loss usually occurs through windows and doors. When replacing or adding windows to your home, choose ENERGY STAR qualified windows. In addition to making you feel more comfortable, they also reduce unwanted noise from outside, condensation problems, UV damage to interior fabrics, and help you save money on heating and cooling costs.
Walt Murphy, general manager of Capitol Glass/Northerm Windows, says awnings, casements and tilt-turn windows offer the best sealing capabilities. "If you have a locking mechanism that slides into another part, you have that potential for air leakage all the way around." In a casement system, you have two hollow bulbs that flatten when the lock is engaged, decreasing leakage. For maximum seal, Murphy says their systems use a double- or triple-point locking system, which is controlled and locked by one simultaneous motion.
Use caution when shopping for windows and choose windows that are qualified for your climate zone. Some of the window supply in Alaska comes from the Lower 48 and often those windows are glazed from the outside to keep heat out, he notes. "Anytime you get a window that is glazed from the inside, it is always a better structural product," says Murphy.
Help is here.
Alaska recently signed legislation to award $300 million to the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation (AHFC) for weatherization and energy rebate programs.