How to Give Your Home an Energy Checkup
By Fran J. Donegan
Most houses have at least one, but perhaps several, energy vulnerabilities. These are areas that contribute to wasting energy in some form or another. If you want to reduce your energy bills and make your home more environmentally friendly, you must find and fix any problems. Here's a look at some of the most common, along with steps you can take to turn weak points into strong ones.
Check for Air Leaks
One of the easiest things you can do is stop air flow from the living space to unconditioned space like the attic. As warm air rises—the air you paid to heat—it will find its way out of the conditioned space through cracks and other openings. As it does, cold outside air is drawn into the house, especially around the bottom of the house. The process is called the chimney effect. You can reduce the energy loss by sealing, or having a contractor seal, the escape routes.
Even if your attic is adequately insulated, you still need to seal the openings in the attic. Insulation is designed to resist conductive heat loss. Think of a cast-iron skillet on a stove top. At first you can touch the handle, but after the pan is heated, it becomes too hot to touch. Insulation is not designed to stop moving air. It works together with air sealing to stop energy loss.
Where are some important openings?
- Open soffits. Soffits located under the attic are often left open at the top. The top should be covered with a thin layer of board insulation with the edges caulked to prevent air leakage. Then cover the board with whatever other insulation is in the attic.
- Anything that penetrates the floor of the attic. These can include masonry chimneys, metal flues, plumbing stacks and electrical boxes. Seal anything that will heat up, such as a metal flue or masonry chimney, with aluminum flashing and high-temperature caulk. Seal other openings using caulk and expanding foam.
- The attic door or hatch. The opening should be insulated with weather-stripping installed around the edges.
- Recessed lights. Recessed "can" lights are prime escape routes. Standard recessed lights should not be covered with insulation, so there is no stopping heated air from just flowing into the attic. One solution is to replace the fixtures with ICAT (insulation contact, airtight) fixtures. These can be covered with insulation in the attic and they are airtight.
- Windows and doors. Apply caulk and/or weather-stripping around all doors and windows.
- The basement/framing connection. Seal the joint where the foundation wall or slab meets the wooden house framing.
Check Insulation Levels
While most houses have some insulation, especially in the attic, many remain under-insulated. If you can see the tops of the ceiling joists in the attic, you probably need more insulation, but levels vary depending on where you live. Here's the current insulation recommendations for attics, walls and floors over unheated spaces.
Adding a layer of insulation is a relatively simple task, as is air sealing openings in the attic. Unfortunately, while the jobs are simple, the working conditions can be lousy. Depending on where you live, in the winter attics will be extremely cold. In the summer, they will be significantly hotter than the outside temperature. You probably won't be able to stand up in parts of the attic. When you do, you need to watch out for nails coming through the roof deck. You must also avoid stepping between the ceiling joists as the drywall ceiling below is not designed to support your weight.
Here are some tips for adding insulation yourself:
- If some insulation is already there, use unfaced batts and lay them perpendicular to the ceiling joists.
- Install insulation baffles between the roof rafters over soffit vents so that they are not blocked by insulation.
- Keep insulation away from standard "can" fixtures. These should not be covered with insulation. Consider replacing them with fixtures labeled “IC,” for insulation contact.
Check Your Ductwork
If you have heating and cooling ducts in your home, inspect them to make sure they are not leaking. Ducts are assembled in sections and they often leak where sections are joined together, robbing a heating or cooling system of up to 20 percent of its efficiency.
Test for leaks by holding a piece of toilet paper near joints. If the paper is blown away or if it is sucked toward the joint, there is a leak. Seal them using metal foil duct tape and duct mastic.
Ducts that run through unconditioned space, such as an attic, basement, garage or crawl space, should be insulated. Use foil-faced duct wrap, which supplies an R-6 of insulation.
Check Your Light Bulbs
Because lighting accounts for about 10 percent of the average household's energy bill, it makes sense to replace old-fashioned incandescent light bulbs with LED bulbs. They provide the same amount of light at a fraction of the electrical power of incandescents—to provide the same amount of light as a 60-watt bulb, an LED bulb uses about nine watts. The life expectancy of LEDs is measured in years rather than hours, as is the case for incandescent bulbs.
LED bulbs cost a little more than standard bulbs, but the prices have been dropping over the past few years to a point where the difference is not that great. They are available in a range of light types, such as cool white and warm white. Not all LED bulbs are designed for enclosed lighting fixtures, so be sure the bulbs you buy will work in your lighting fixtures.
Check Your Appliances
The suggested maintenance should be up-to-date for your heating and cooling equipment and water heaters. Appliances that are properly maintained will operate at their most efficient.
If a major appliance is more than 10 years old, it is probably using more energy than one you can buy today. Replacing an appliance that is working fine because of the desire to save energy is a personal decision, but if a new appliance is in order, be sure to get one that meets Energy Star requirements. Energy Star is a voluntary program administered by the Environmental Protection Agency that certifies the energy efficiency of many household appliances, including heating and cooling units, water heaters, dishwashers and refrigerators. A product that has the Energy Star label exceeds the energy requirements of standard products.
While Energy Star items are more energy efficient than standard products, certified products vary in their energy efficiency levels. Visit energystar.gov to see a list of certified products and the amount of energy they use.
Fran Donegan writes home- and garden-related content for numerous digital and print publications. He is the author of the books Pools and Spas and Paint Your Home. To learn more about the kinds of insulation Fran talks about in this article, you can go to the Home Depot website.
All posts, sponsored and un-sponsored have been reviewed and approved by the Sustainable Community Media Editorial Team to ensure quality, relevance/usefulness and objectivity.