By Laurie Hindman
Winter is finally here, furnaces roar to life on these chilly mornings, and, with escalating utility bills in mind, parents all over town are telling shivering, complaining children to “put on a sweater.” As I write, a toasty fire in our (EPA rated, clean-burning) wood stove is blazing cheerily with our fat cat and two dogs spread on the hearth in a furry, contented heap.
Before we installed the stove in our drafty, un-insulated, built-in-1883, home (formerly a drafty, un-insulated, built-in-1883 church) my husband and I had constant thermostat wars. Jeff wears shorts pretty much year round and is chronically hot. I am always freezing, padding around the home in wool hiking socks and fleece-lined jeans. I’d crank the heat in the morning; he’d turn it down before leaving for work. As soon as his taillights faded, I’d bump it back up a notch or two.
With the addition of the wood stove, the house stays comfortably warm and, as a bonus, we added another chore to our sons’ too short list: chopping, kindling and keeping the woodbin full. Purchasing an EPA approved wood stove is a good way to keep your heating costs down and your wife warm (in other words, happy), but not necessarily practical or possible for everyone.
In lieu of a wood stove, there are many ways to cut heating costs and keep your home warmer. Insulation and air-tightness are the keys to a comfortable, energy efficient home. According to the Smart Energy Living Alliance (SELA) the average home leaks 60% of its air every hour.
The first step is to do an energy audit. You can hire a professional auditor to do this for around $75 or you can do it yourself. Go room-by-room, feeling for drafts, or using a smoke wand, and make a list of air leaks. Leaks can occur in the following areas:
· Gaps along baseboards
· Electrical outlets
· Switch plates
· Door frames
· Window frames
· Fireplace dampers
· Wall or window mounted air conditioners
· Mail slots
· Foundation seals
The best solution for cracks or small gaps is a high-quality silicon/latex paintable caulk; it is water-based and easy to clean up. For large gaps use a non-expanding, water based foam. Where appropriate you can also use expanding foam, but exercise caution—it really expands and can make a nasty mess or actually warp your window frames! For doors, install quality door sweeps on the bottom of the doors and weather-strip around the whole perimeter to ensure a tight seal when closed.
Some of the biggest leaks occur in recessed lights in insulated ceilings, utility cut throughs for pipes and unfinished spaces behind cupboards and closets. Again, caulk and foam are easy ways to fill the gaps. Seal wall switches and electrical gaskets with foam gaskets; they are inexpensive and are available at your local hardware store.
After sealing air leaks the next highest priority is roof insulation. One of the most cost-effective ways to make your home more comfortable year-round is to add insulation to your attic. The best insulation for your attic is blown in cellulose that settles and fills gaps and is made from recycled materials. For this you will need a professional. You can insulate your attic yourself using fiberglass batts, but there are other complications such as poor ventilation and it is not nearly as effective as the cellulose. If after a heavy snowfall your neighbor’s roof looks like a frosted gingerbread house and your roof is bare, you’ll know that your attic could use more insulation
Wall insulation is vital for a warm home, but is best left to the experts. It is often difficult to determine how much or how well walls are currently insulated currently, and can be pretty difficult to do in an older home. They will drill a three-inch hole in the areas needing insulation and blow in cellulose or liquid foam.
Installing good, energy efficient windows will keep your home warmer, but they can be expensive. The payback of high quality windows is usually not realized for years, but can make your house much more comfortable. A less expensive alternative is installing storm windows; this saves energy and keeps the chilly air out. Another solution is to weather-strip windows and doors with a special lining that is inserted between the window and the frame.
There are also no-cost and low-cost tips for maximizing the efficiency of existing windows. Cheapest: Leave curtains and blinds open on your south-facing windows during the day to allow sunshine to warm your home. Cheap, albeit somewhat unattractive: Use a heavy-duty clear plastic sheet on the inside of your window frames. Least cheap: Install tight fitting, insulating drapes or shades on windows.
Many small, seemingly insignificant cracks or leaks collectively can be like leaving a window open. With proper insulation, weather stripping and caulk you should have a warmer winter. And if all else fails—put on another sweater.