Easy Efficiency Improvements Pay Off

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Home Thermal Imaging
Bulkhead Door - Before
Bulkhead Door Before
Bulkhead Door - Before (IR)
BULKHEAD DOOR BEFORE: This image of the bulkhead door leading out of the basement shows how air was leaking around it. Flemming recommended I install an insulated door at the base of the stairs, which seemed an expensive fix for such a seldom-used location.
Bulkhead - After
Bulkhead After
Bulkhead - After (IR)
BULKHEAD AFTER: Instead, I installed foam board at the entrance to the stairs. The follow-up audit showed that air was leaking around the duct tape I had sealed it with, so I have since sealed it with spray foam—one example of the value of a second audit.
Attic - Before
ATTIC BEFORE: The entrance to our attic was left open, other than a rickety interior door on the bottom of the stairs. Warm air was rising to escape into the uninsulated attic.
Attic - After
ATTIC AFTER: We fixed this problem by installing foam board over the attic entrance and sealing it tight.
Attic - After (IR)
Attic - After
Basement Window - Before
BASEMENT WINDOW BEFORE: This basement window was a disaster. Flemming recommended replacing it with a new, energy-efficient window, which would have been expensive. Saving that for a later date, I took note that the biggest problem was with air infiltration (shown as dark blue in the photo) and attacked that first.
Basement Window - Before (IR)
BASEMENT WINDOW BEFORE: This basement window was a disaster. Flemming recommended replacing it with a new, energy-efficient window, which would have been expensive. Saving that for a later date, I took note that the biggest problem was with air infiltration (shown as dark blue in the photo) and attacked that first.
Basement Window - After (IR)
BASEMENT WINDOW AFTER: Since the biggest problem was not with the insulating value of the window itself, but with the air leakage around the frame, I inexpensively caulked around the wood frame. Inside heat still permeates the glass, but the air infiltration problem is largely eradicated (notice the warm areas around the window frame).
Rim Joist - Before
RIM JOIST BEFORE: There was serious air leakage coming through the small gap along the rim joist.
Rim Joist - Before (IR)
RIM JOIST BEFORE: There was serious air leakage coming through the small gap along the rim joist.
Rim Joist - After
RIM JOIST AFTER: Sealing the rim joist with closed-cell foam stopped air infiltration, and added insulation to the poorly insulating wood.
Rim Joist - After (IR)
RIM JOIST AFTER: Sealing the rim joist with closed-cell foam stopped air infiltration, and added insulation to the poorly insulating wood.
Living Room (1) - Before
Living Room (1) - Before
Living Room (1) - Before (IR)
LIVING ROOM (1) BEFORE: This blue wall reveals one place where our house lacked insulation. It was improperly installed to begin with and it needed fixing.
Living Room (1) - After (IR)
LIVING ROOM (1) AFTER: Where the insulation was inadequate, we had insulation blown in from the exterior. The result is a warmer, more comfortable house—and lower heating bills.
Living Room (2) - Before
LIVING ROOM (2) BEFORE: Our 1920s-era, board-sheathed, platform-framed house required wind braces—diagonal studs installed at every corner that prevent the house from shifting. This diagonal member bisected the stud bay at the corners of the house. Care hadn’t been taken to completely fill the bays with loose-fill cellulose insulation, as evidenced by the infrared images.
Living Room (2) - Before (IR)
LIVING ROOM (2) BEFORE: Our 1920s-era, board-sheathed, platform-framed house required wind braces—diagonal studs installed at every corner that prevent the house from shifting. This diagonal member bisected the stud bay at the corners of the house. Care hadn’t been taken to completely fill the bays with loose-fill cellulose insulation, as evidenced by the infrared images.
Living room (2) - After (IR)
LIVING ROOM (2) AFTER: A much more comfortable living room, after loose-fill insulation had been blown in from the exterior.
Dining Room (1) - Before
DINING ROOM (1) BEFORE: The insulation in this corner was poorly installed as well. Notice the dark blue line at the seam of the walls, where a small gap between framing studs was left unsealed, letting in cold air.
Dining Room (1) - Before (IR)
DINING ROOM (1) BEFORE: The insulation in this corner was poorly installed as well. Notice the dark blue line at the seam of the walls, where a small gap between framing studs was left unsealed, letting in cold air.
Dining Room (1) - After (IR)
DINING ROOM (1) AFTER: The insulation problem is largely fixed. The air-sealing problem, which could have been prevented during construction with a little caulking, can only be fixed if we were to remove the drywall—a major undertaking. We’ll have to make do.
Dining Room (2) - Before (IR)
DINING ROOM (2) BEFORE: Flemming cited insufficient air sealing during window installation, which accounted for the leakage around this dining room window. He recommended caulking around both the exterior and interior sides of the window.
Dining Room (2) - Before
DINING ROOM (2) BEFORE: Flemming cited insufficient air sealing during window installation, which accounted for the leakage around this dining room window. He recommended caulking around both the exterior and interior sides of the window.
Dining Room (2) - After (IR)
DINING ROOM (2) AFTER: Although I caulked around the window frame, the follow-up audit showed only a small improvement. I have since fixed the problem by filling the old sash-weight cavity with spray-foam insulation.
Fan - Before
FAN BEFORE: Another problem was our whole-house fan. Fantastic as it was at cooling the house in the summer, it had an insufficient cover. In the winter, warm air could sneak past it into the attic.
Fan - Before (IR)
FAN BEFORE: Another problem was our whole-house fan. Fantastic as it was at cooling the house in the summer, it had an insufficient cover. In the winter, warm air could sneak past it into the attic.
Fan - After (IR)
FAN AFTER: I added what I thought to be a quality insulated cover to the fan, only to find out during the follow-up energy audit that the air sealing around the cover was insufficient. I have since tightened the seal with weather-stripping, but it demonstrates the value of a follow-up audit.
Home Thermal Imaging
Bulkhead Door - Before
Bulkhead Door - Before (IR)
Bulkhead - After
Bulkhead - After (IR)
Attic - Before
Attic - After
Attic - After (IR)
Basement Window - Before
Basement Window - Before (IR)
Basement Window - After (IR)
Rim Joist - Before
Rim Joist - Before (IR)
Rim Joist - After
Rim Joist - After (IR)
Living Room (1) - Before
Living Room (1) - Before (IR)
Living Room (1) - After (IR)
Living Room (2) - Before
Living Room (2) - Before (IR)
Living room (2) - After (IR)
Dining Room (1) - Before
Dining Room (1) - Before (IR)
Dining Room (1) - After (IR)
Dining Room (2) - Before (IR)
Dining Room (2) - Before
Dining Room (2) - After (IR)
Fan - Before
Fan - Before (IR)
Fan - After (IR)

My family’s house in Newton, Massachusetts, is a standard family home, but by making incremental improvements in air sealing, insulation, and lighting—and with the help of a whole-house electricity monitor—we have been able to reduce energy consumption more than 50%. A $1,175 investment is saving us about $1,000 per year in energy costs, and has made our home much warmer and more comfortable.

Last May, Flemming Lund of Infrared Diagnostics in Sudbury, Massachusetts, performed an energy audit for us. The results weren’t entirely surprising; I didn’t expect our aging suburban home to be completely leak-free and perfectly insulated. Nonetheless, the energy audit was extremely useful in pointing out several high return-on-investment steps that we could take to increase our home’s energy efficiency.

But the audit was just a stepping stone; the next step was vital: I got down to it. I installed blown-in cellulose insulation in areas where it was deficient, sealed cracks and gaps, replaced old weather-stripping, and then had a follow-up audit to assess progress.

The photos are from the two audits, and show just how much of a difference the work had made. Although Flemming calibrated the infrared camera to account for temperature differences between the two audits, the outside temperature during the first audit was 50°F and 38°F during the second. The before-and-after results are pretty evident, nevertheless.

Loose-fill insulation was all installed by hired contractors, as was much of the air-sealing work. However, I made many of the most significant improvements myself—looking back over the initial audit report, I simply retraced the steps on a cold day, found air leaks by hand (literally) and sealed them with a caulking gun.

Although the follow-up audit pointed out some problems missed during the upgrade, as well as some new ones that were overlooked during the first audit, it was confirmed that much progress had been made.

Air Sealing...

Aside from the awesome infrared images of improved insulation, perhaps the most valuable information from my follow-up audit was that these simple air-sealing measures more than halved air infiltration, from 0.87 natural air changes per hour (NACH) during the heating season to 0.42 NACH.

The benefits of my air-sealing work confirmed my long-held belief that air sealing should be the first step in improving a home’s energy efficiency. It’s cheaper and easier than an insulation upgrade, and helps prevent air from moving through insulation, losing R-value. It also shows that hiring a contractor to do the job may not be the right course—much of the benefit came from the simple things I did.

Insulation...

Once sealing is done, improving insulation can add to the benefit by helping your house retain heat.

After insulating, we noticed that there are no more cold spots on the walls that create uncomfortable areas in the house. Our upgraded insulation and air sealing made the house more comfortable, easier to heat up in the morning when the programmable thermostat kicks on, and our utility bills much lower.

Lessons Learned...

Having taken these steps, we came to realize that there is no silver bullet: Improving the energy efficiency of our house is an ongoing process, and there is still much to be done. 

Although the follow-up audit pointed out some problems missed during the upgrade, as well as some new ones that were overlooked during the first audit, it was confirmed that much progress had been made.

Payback Time...

My gas utility, National Grid, had a rebate program that paid 75% of the cost of the air sealing and insulation, which made something of a difference. But the savings are staggering: Before improvements, we paid $168 per month ($2,016 per year) for space and water heating, and cooking. We now pay $89 per month ($1,068 per year), which means we save almost $1,000 per year as a result of our minimal investment.

Access

Tom Harrison was turning his thermostat down as a teenager in the first energy crisis, and comes from a family whose motto is “waste not, want not.” His blog, “Five Percent: Conserve Energy” (www.fivepercent.us), details his family’s efforts to conserve energy. He is the chief technology officer at Energy Circle.

This article was adapted from Energy Circle (www.energycircle.com), where you can learn more about residential energy saving, home insulation, and air-sealing.

Comments (1)

zap101's picture

Thermo imaging camera sure makes it clear. The air infiltration sure enough caulking is a game changer.

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