Just because colder days are on their way, many homeowners are thinking about ways to cut their heating bills. The truth is that energy efficiency projects reduce your energy bills year-round and make your home a comfortable, happy space for you and your family.
Never fear – not all energy efficiency projects are costly and complex affairs requiring a full crew of pros in protective clothing. Sure, we’ll have to put on our work jeans and roll up our sleeves for one or two that might take some planning and extra time, but these 5 DIY Projects are simple enough for you to complete while using your 54 hours of free electricity during a Live Brighter Weekend.
1) Look for Drafts
Most doors and windows that have seen a few years of wear and tear let drafts into the home. Dirt and use wears down weather stripping. Even newer doors that have adjustable thresholds with a vinyl gasket that can be adjusted in height wear out over time. Windows, too, also use factory-installed weather stripping that can wear out over time require replacing.
Doors and windows should close snugly in their frames. How snug is snug? If you can close a piece of tissue paper in a door and the pull that tissue free without tearing it then the door isn’t closing tightly enough.
Check for drafts is to light a stick of incense and move it slowly around door or windows edges and to see if the smoke is blown by a draft. You can also do this by taping piece of tissue paper to hang loosely form a clothes hanger.
While storm windows can increase the energy efficiency of older sash windows, some window installers unfortunately cut corners and did not seal or insulate the gap between the window frame and the rough opening. Drafts from around the edge of window frames is a good sign that it was improperly installed. The easiest way to fix this is to remove the interior trim and then inject non-expanding insulating foam into the gap between the window frame and the wood framing (expanding foam will bend and deform the window frame — DON’T USE IT HERE!).
Look for gaps on door and window jambs as well and seal these with caulk. Even if you don’t feel a draft, a good indicator will be condensation or mildew on the frame or trim molding.
2) Get Smart About Thermostats
Installing a programmable or smart thermostat can save you on average up to $180 every year in energy costs by allowing you to adjust the temperature settings when you are not home or are asleep.
Keeping your home’s temperature set the same all day actually uses more energy. For example: On a 40° F (5° C) day, it takes 1200 BTUs of energy every hour of an 8-hour work day to keep your home at 72° F (22° C). That’s 9600 BTUs per day. But if you set the thermostat back to 62° F (17° C), the number of times your heating system kicks on decreases.
But if the house cools for four hours, the heat comes on only twice (still using 1200 BTUs each time) to maintain 62° F (17° C). During the recovery phase, it uses 2400 BTUs of energy to heat back up to 72° F (22° C). The day’s total energy usage is 4800 BTUs — half of leaving the thermostat at the same setting.
Why? Newton’s Law of Cooling. As a thing cools, the rate of temperature-loss slows down. In other words, the cooler your home becomes, the slower it loses heat. Heat loss is slower at 62° F (17° C) than at 72° F (22° C).
Swapping in a new programmable or smart thermostat is easy and generally takes less than half an hour. Both kinds let you set your heating and cooling to match your schedule. Smart thermostats offer even more flexibility because you can control them remotely, plus they also collect usage information to help you understand how you can further reduce your energy usage.
3) Insulate the Banding Joist, Rim Joist, and/or Mudsill
Next to insulating your attic, this project is one of the best you can do to quickly improve your home’s energy efficiency — even if you have a crawlspace instead of a basement. However, depending on your home’s age or whether or not the basement is finished, the process can be tough. So, let’s look this one over more closely.
The mudsill (or sill plate) is the board bolted flat on top of the foundation wall to seat the flooring joists and banding boards for the first floor of the house. In older homes, the mudsill’s attachment to the foundation has little or completely lacks any sealing to keep out cold, moist air (or pests).
Where flooring joists attach to both the mudsill and banding joist is a space called a “joist bay”. One of these un-insulated bays may not waste much energy, but 20 or 30 of them on either side of your home make a huge dent. Insulating joist bays requires caulking all the seams and gaps and then inserting a sandwich of rigid foam as an insulating moisture barrier, a 1/2” thick piece of sheet rock (fire barrier), and then some fiberglass insulation.
Now, this project can sound daunting if you have 60 joist bays to caulk and fill. This will also include two banding joist bays at either gable end that span the width of the house. Getting access to these spaces if your basement ceiling is finished also makes the job harder.
The benefit, though, is immediate. Sealing and insulating this space reduces humidity, makes your home warmer, and increases your energy efficiency. Case in point: I once owned an older home with a 1-inch wide gap between the foundation wall and a mudsill that ran 20 feet. Sealing that whole area properly took three hours, cost $25.00, and brought the basement’s winter temperature from 45°F to 68°F. The mold also went away in the summer.
4) Get into Hot Water
Heating water accounts for 18% of your home’s energy bill. Most homes use a storage tank water heater to keep hot water ready for use — even when nobody’s home to use it. Most tank heaters are under-insulated, and the hot water pipes have little or no insulation on them. To prevent stand-by heat loss, wrap a water heater blanket (or “jacket”) around the tank. This will reduce heat loss by 25-40 percent. Make sure that you do not cover the top of the tank.
Also, insulate hot water pipes with foam pipe insulation and include at least 6 feet on the cold water pipe that connects to the hot water heater. If your hot water pipes run through a part of your house that is unheated or cold, put pipe insulation on the entire pipe-run to reduce heat loss and prevent freezing. Also remember to periodically drain your water heater to help rinse sediments from the bottom of the tank. Sediment and lime buildup can reduce heating efficiency.
5) Tidy Up Your HVAC
Forced air systems work by moving LOTS of air. They also move lots of dust and dirt and allergens and other nastiness all through your home. The most effective way to keep the system working efficiently is to keep it clean.
Clean dust and pet fur from return vents. Dust bunnies, pet hair, and even houseplant leaves can easily get pulled into and onto return air vents, blocking them. If they are behind furniture or partially obscured by drapes, you may never know how badly blocked they can get. Depending on your home (and your lifestyle), vacuum them off weekly. This keeps them from getting covered or clogged and it prevents even more dust from clogging your furnace filter.
Check the furnace filter each month. Because homes are closed up during the winter, air filters collect lots of dust and airborne particulates. If someone in your home smokes or you have pets, smoke particulates and pet hair add to the filter’s load. Flat, disposable filters are good for capturing large dust and dirt particles that can damage the handling system, but they don’t do very much to improve air quality or protect your family’s health as pleated filters. Higher MERV-rated pleated filters can trap fine dust, mold spores, chemicals, and even bacteria. If your air filter gets clogged quickly, replace quickly because a clogged filter restricts air flow and makes your heating system run much longer.
Check and seal the ductwork. Leaky return duct work pulls in air from places you don’t want it to. Leaky supply ducts blow heated air into places you don’t want it go. Between 20 and 30 percent of the air that moves through the duct system is lost due to leaks or disconnects — which adds to your energy costs. Fixing it is easy. Refasten loose or disconnected duct work with machine screws and aluminum tape. Seal metal ductwork elbows and joints with sealing mastic (or aluminum tape — NOT the vinyl stuff). You can also retrofit insulation sleeves to your supply ductwork for even more energy savings.
These are just a few energy efficiency jobs you tackle over the weekend. Remember: these projects will not only save energy during the winter but also during summer. They add to your family’s comfort and your home’s value while reducing your carbon footprint.
That’s living brighter!