Warding off Winter’s Wrath

autumn, winterAs the leaves turn color and the temperatures become crisp, it’s time to be looking at ways to keep the heat we produce in the house inside the house, and the cold winter air outside the house.

Conserving the heat you produce does more than just keeping your bills down – though that is an important part of it — it also reduces the demand on electricity, natural gas, propane or oil supplies: depending on which you use.

Which measures are effective (and cost-effective) will depend a lot on the general construction and condition of your home.  

Windows and Winter

Windows are often cited as the major reason for winter drafts and cold transfer. Aluminum framed windows are particularly bad because aluminum is an excellent conductor of heat and cold. Unless aluminum windows are designed with an efficient thermal break in their framing, these can actually ice up inside the house when winter turns really cold. Replacing improperly made aluminum windows with energy efficient models is the surest answer long term, but this can be very expensive. And the windows need to be the major Achilles heel of your home to see great improvements. There are other areas that can be just as bad.

With wood or vinyl framed windows, start by checking around the exterior framing and trim. If you find gaps, caulk them to prevent air seeping in here. Do the same on the inside. Now check the seals inside the windows especially around the sash that moves. The fuzzy strips or rubber tubes that are meant to block air flow can wear out. Replacing them brings the window back to an efficient stage. Is there a storm window as well as the sash? Check the seals there and close it.

For windows that are old or poorly built, you can add additional air space with a window insulating kit available at most home improvement stores. This kit provides double-stick tape that you apply to the frame of the window and plastic sheeting that sticks to the tape. Trim the excess plastic with scissors and shrink the film with a hair dryer and the new window “glazing” becomes almost invisible and an air-tight shield to create an additional dead air space between your window sashes and the room. In the spring time, remove the plastic and peel off the tape to restore the windows to fully-functional mode. It is all done without damaging the windows.

Energy Efficient Exterior Walls

Too many people have been stung by window replacement companies promising vast improvements in the home’s energy efficiency by installing a full set of expensive replacement windows – only to find that the walls the windows mount in are almost as drafty as the windows were. Little improvement can be gained by installing efficient windows in bad walls.

Newer homes that were built to be energy efficient will have 2×6 exterior wall studs with high R-value insulation between them to help keep the heat where it belongs. They may also incorporate insulated sheathing and siding. Older homes are probably framed with 2x4s, and what insulation was installed may have settled, leaving cold-conducting air gaps at the top of each floor’s walls.

You cannot replace your exterior walls, but you can improve what you have by having more insulation installed. The easiest way is to have a chopped insulation blown in through holes drilled in each stud cavity and sealed with plugs to match your siding afterward. Quick, non-destructive and relatively affordable, this can improve the thermal barrier your external walls provide. Choose a reputable contractor for the best results.

If your home has vinyl siding, or if you’re in the market for new siding, installing Styrofoam insulation board over your homes sheathing under the siding can go a long way toward sealing up drafty walls. Modern versions incorporate a plastic moisture barrier and a foil thermal reflector layer as well as the foam insulation. If carefully removed, existing vinyl siding can usually be reinstalled. Wood or slate: probably not.

Ceilings and Roofs

winter attic insulation

Photo via ahwhisperer.com

If your home has an unfinished attic, simply rolling out more insulation over the ceiling joists in the attic can help prevent your homes heat from escaping into the attic. Blown insulation or fiberglass bats can also be used.

If the attic is finished (and without heat ducts) or semi-finished, look at the flooring first: plank flooring might allow you to take up a few planks to see what insulation – if any – was used under it. Such flooring can be taken up a little at a time to allow installation or upgrading the insulation and fastened back down with little damage done. If plywood decking or a finished floor is installed, you might want to consider adding a new layer of flooring made with insulation under the flooring laminate.

The goal here is to keep the heat down in the inhabited part of the home. If successful, the attic will become quite cold in winter. If it is to be used on occasion, install a separate heater in that space that can be used only when needed.

Floors

Any home without a good basement can suffer cold floors because winter air gets in under the home. Rooms with carpeting may not feel the cold floors so much, but vinyl and especially tile floors will. And this cold air can seep into the home through openings for plumbing, wiring and ducting.

If your home is on a foundation (other than a slab foundation) check the foundation walls for cracks or missing mortar. Seal small cracks with caulk, for larger cracks or gaps use expanding foam like Great Stuff. Once hard, this can be trimmed smooth with the wall and even painted if need be.

If your foundation has vents in the walls to allow summer moisture to escape, close them. If they don’t close, cover them with duct tape.

Check around any door or window frames for gaps and caulk. Look also at their weather seals and repair if they are worn out.

Mobile homes and cabins on a post foundation may have skirting under the home to help keep cold air out, but often this is not very efficient, especially if it has perforated areas for ventilation. In this case adding fiberglass insulation under or between the floor joists is the best way to warm up your floors.

Interior Wall Surfaces

winter insulation switchesIn many homes, innocuous things like electric outlet covers can leak cold air into a room through an exterior wall. Even interior walls can be prone to this if the wiring comes up from below the floor and the conduit was not sealed where it comes through the sub-flooring.

Home improvement centers sell a foam gasket kit that allows you to seal outlets and light switches better. Take the cover off, place the gasket around the outlet or switch, replace the cover. Done: just like that.

Check those window frames too: calk if needed.

Ask Your Utility Company

Many utility companies are offering an energy efficiency assessment kit for free, or minimal cost, that contains a questionnaire and checklist to assess your home’s energy weaknesses. Most also contain sample products like the outlet gaskets. Some utilities will, for a small fee, come to your home and do a survey to tell you where you are wasting energy and what can be done to fix them. So start with a call to your utility company to ask about any home energy efficiency survey they offer.

The Payoff

Making even small improvements to your home can increase your comfort and reduce energy usage. That little gap in the window frame may not seem like much, but when the winter winds blow, having sealed it up can make a difference.


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