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Home & Garden Special Section Archives The Altamont Enterprise, April 30, 2009

When a Popsicle cost a nickel, heating fuel didn’t cost much more
A practical and modern guide to tightening up the old homestead

By Ellen Zunon

A half-century ago, a small army of builders fanned out through the woods of upstate New York. They cut down trees and cleared the land. They dug foundations and poured cement. They erected frames, pounded nails, and smoothed plaster over grids of stud and lath. They raised roofs and seeded topsoil.

When they were finished, neighborhoods across the Northeast resembling those in Westmere and McKownville were filled with starter homes destined for ex-GIs and their growing families. Many of these homes were designed to allow for expansion by raising the roof to add a second story as the families grew.

This was the postwar boom; the economy was in high gear, as cars crisscrossed the nation along the expanding interstate highway system. The country was converting from coal to the more modern oil as the choice for heating their homes.

A Popsicle cost a nickel, and a gallon of gas or heating oil didn’t seem to cost much more than that. It didn’t matter that these post-war homes were often poorly insulated, and cool air seeped in through loose windows and doors and uninsulated attics. People just put on more sweaters or turned up the heat.

Fifty years later, times have changed.

We are aware now that oil is not an unlimited resource, and we look for ways to reduce its consumption and make our homes, vehicles, and lifestyles more energy efficient. In the last decade in particular, the energy crisis has sharpened awareness.

Take my 1950s-era house, for example: When I purchased my home 10 years ago, my monthly budget plan for home heating fuel was a manageable $62.50. This past winter it had quadrupled to $255. Needless to say, my salary has not quadrupled! I decided it was time to take a hard look at my house in hopes of relieving my budget crunch before next winter’s heating season.

Step one: Diagnosis — the home energy audit

I knew that finding my home’s leaks and other vulnerabilities was the first step in improving its energy efficiency. I decided that, rather than hire a contractor first off, I would try some simple tests myself to find out where my house leaked heat and where cooler air seeped in.

For example, if you can see daylight around your front door, you don’t need a professional to tell you that the door leaks. You can probably feel the draft yourself. And if you can rattle the windows, chances are they leak, too.

To find less obvious air leaks, I turned on the exhaust fan in the bathroom and kitchen, which increases infiltration through cracks and leaks, and used my dampened hand to locate drafts along the baseboards and window frames. Where my hand felt cool, I knew there was air flowing there.

I suspected that cool air also seeped in through the electrical outlets in the outer walls. On last winter’s coldest days, even the walls themselves felt cool to the touch, making me suspect that the old plaster and lath walls are not very well insulated. At least I was glad that one of the first things I did when I bought my house was to insulate the attic, which cut down on heat loss through the roof.

A full-fledged home energy audit done by a professional would be more thorough, taking up to three hours to examine the house’s heating and cooling systems, the hot water heater and level of insulation in the attic, walls, and between the basement and the main floor. A contractor might use equipment such as a blower door – a special door with a fan – to locate air leaks.

He or she may also use an infrared camera to peer into areas to determine where insulation is thin or missing. The contractor will also examine heating equipment and test its efficiency, as well as make sure that it is operating according to health and safety standards.

If you do decide to have an energy audit done by a professional, you should check to make sure the contractor is accredited by the Building Performance Institute, which sets the industry standard for assessing the safety and energy performance of homes. A contractor may charge a fee for such an assessment, but if you hire the same company to make some improvements to your home’s energy efficiency, the assessment fee may be deducted from the total cost of the contract.

Step two: Simple do-it-yourself improvements

I decided to see what improvements I could make myself before calling in the professionals. For less than the price of a dinner out, I was able to purchase some simple remedies at my local hardware store.

Everyone has heard of weather-stripping, but I learned that there are two types: felt and foam. Depending on how wide the gaps are between a door and its frame, one type may work more efficiently than the other.

My first experiment with felt weather-stripping and a staple gun was not very successful. The felt was too thick in places, and prevented the front door from closing properly. Once I removed a section of felt and replaced it with self-adhesive foam weather-stripping, I was able to close the door all the way, and no longer saw daylight through the gap.

The foam type is also easier to use because it can simply be pressed into place, and it comes in a variety of widths and thicknesses depending on your particular needs. Around a door frame, the door should compress the foam when closed, creating an airtight seal. You can also use it on the upper and lower window rails to help seal drafty windows, or around the frame edge of an attic or crawlspace hatch.

Next, I learned how to apply caulking around the outer edges of window frames and along baseboards on outer walls, where gaps allowed cold air to seep in. There are also two basic types of caulking materials: siliconized acrylic caulk, which comes in an oversized plastic toothpaste tube; and rope caulk, a sort of adult Play-Doh, which can be peeled off the roll in varying lengths and widths as needed.

Both are easy to use - “no mess, no waste, no tools required” – and most important for the fledgling do-it-yourselfer – no cleanup! Depending on which type you choose to seal around doors and windows, inside or outside your home, you simply press or squeeze the material in place, then wait the recommended amount of time if you want to paint over the material. In either case, be sure to read the instructions before using.

A third project involved preventing air infiltration through electrical outlets and light switches, a phenomenon that had never occurred to me before I performed my home energy audit. You can purchase pre-cut foam pads to place under switch plates, outlet plates, and phone jack wall plates. Again, this is a simple project, but read the instructions carefully, which advise you to disconnect the electric power before removing the outlets or switch plates.

Once you start sealing up air leaks in your house, you should have a professional check to make sure your heating system, stove, water heater, and clothes dryer are all properly vented, so that carbon monoxide fumes do not seep into the living space. A carbon monoxide monitor is a much-needed accessory in this regard as well.

Step three: Looking ahead to more extensive improvements

These minor do-it-yourself projects are a step in the right direction, but I know that, if I really want to improve my home’s energy efficiency before next winter’s heating season, I’ll have to explore other possibilities.

Other major improvements would be to replace my drafty windows with modern thermopane windows, look into sealing cracks in the foundation, and insert more insulation into the walls. When shopping for new windows and doors, I’ll look for the blue “Energy Star” logo.

You’ve probably seen this label on ads for appliances, windows, and now even entire houses. The first blue logos started appearing in 1992, when the federal Environmental Protection Agency launched the voluntary labeling program to designate products that helped reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Later, the program was expanded to cover heating and cooling equipment, office equipment, and commercial buildings as well as residential housing.

The Energy Star program partners with private sector companies that produce and install products and equipment that meet certain environmental standards. For example, Energy Star windows meet an energy efficiency standard set by the Department of Energy; they may have double or even triple panes of glass, with a special coating that reflects light, and helps keep heat inside in winter and outside in summer.

Now is an ideal time to look into replacing old windows: Tax credits offered by the federal government are a strong incentive to invest in such a home improvement project. During 2009 and 2010, windows, doors, insulation and roofs are eligible for a tax credit equal to 30 percent of the product’s cost up to a total of $1,500.

The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, also offers a low interest rate loan program to homeowners for the purchase and installation of qualified energy efficient improvements, including insulation, and replacement windows and doors — certainly something worth looking into before the snow flies again next winter.

As for drilling holes through my plaster walls to blow in foam insulation, that is another project I will leave to the professionals. In the meantime, I plan to turn off the furnace and enjoy some warmer weather.

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