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Stop Your Home's Energy Leaks | Winter 2008 Out Here Magazine

Take steps this winter to keep warm air in, cold air out

By Noble Sprayberry

Illustrations courtesy of

Some houses secretly seep energy, causing energy bills to rise as winter temperatures tumble.

The solution seems straightforward: a perfectly sealed home to keep the warm air in and the cool air out. Reality, though, rarely proves so simple.

Potential problems can vary with the age of a home, with older dwellings often requiring costly refits. Even new homes, though, can suffer from energy-sapping faults, and anyone assuming all is well risks paying a price.

Evaluate the Home

Guarding against wasting heat begins with a careful home performance test, says Jim Strite, president of Strite design + remodel in Boise, Idaho. A basic energy audit for a 1,700-square-foot home with one heating system will cost about $400 and provide information that can create long-term savings.

A trained technician can identify problems such as leaky window or door seals, inefficient water heaters, or the need for added insulation in areas such as the attic, Strite says.

A more elaborate evaluation, known as a blower test, can search for problems with the heating system, which should be a closed trail of ductwork pushing warm air into a home and pulling air back out for reheating. Any break in the system, could allow loss of heat into the attic or crawl space, Strite says.

For example, a common culprit is the return grate, the point where air is pulled out of the living space and recirculated back through the system. Tape or caulk typically seals the edges of the grate where it meets a ceiling or wall, and break — down of this seal can leak heat.

Homeowners should use only trained professionals. The blower test creates a powerful suction pulling from a home to identify problems such as broken seals in heating ducts or other energy leaks in the system.

"There's a process to these tests, and it's not just someone getting the equipment and coming into your home and telling you where the leaks are," Strite says. Organizations such as the National Residential Energy Service Network can help a homeowner find a qualified professional.

Evaluate the Cost

Even if a test identifies problems, homeowners should weigh the cost of repair against possible benefits, Strite says.

The cost of blowing additional insulation into a home's attic might be quickly recouped in the savings on energy costs. However, if a blower test of an older home identifies significant problems with the ductwork, the cost of replacing the ducts — the process can sometime involve tearing into the walls of a house — might outweigh the potential gains, Strite says.

A homeowner should carefully evaluate the investment before making a decision, he says.

Install a Programmable Thermostat

When it comes to cost-efficiency, installation of a programmable thermostat can quickly return the $70 to $150 investment through savings on heating bills, says A.J. Simon, a residential designer with the S.J. Janis Company, Inc., in Wauwatosa, WI.

These devices will automatically raise or lower a thermostat's settings. For example, it can be made to drop to 60 degrees during hours when everyone is away from home, such as the workday, and raise the temperature just before everyone returns.

"The idea is to control consistency," Simon says. "This way, you're not heating the house when you're not using it, but you can set it to become nice and warm just before you get home."

Remember the Plumbing

Some fixes require neither an expensive investment nor professional help. A poorly insulated plumbing system, for example can zap a home's energy efficiency.

Exposed hot water pipes can make a water heater work harder to provide warm water. With insufficiently insulated cold-water pipes, condensation can build up and drip into unwanted areas.

Inexpensive tubes of insulating foam and a few hours of work can provide the needed protection, Simon says.

A Jacket for the Water Heater

Water heaters are one of the home's workhorses, pumping out warm water on demand. For as little as $20 or $30, it's possible to increase a system's efficiency by adding additional insulation, Simon says.

Always buy an insulating jacket made to match the size of the water heater, determined by the number of gallons it holds. Pay attention, though, when working on gas-powered water heaters.

"Make sure the fit and installation are proper, because you don't want to accidentally set it on fire," Simon says.

Too Much Attic Insulation

When winter comes, some owners attempt to plug every opening to the outside in a home's attic, a move often responsible for new problems, Simon says.

An attic needs fresh air, typically provided in some form of baffle that opens onto the outdoors. Plugging such outlets cannot only let the air stagnate but also create condensation. When this water drips, it can damage a home's insulation, Simon says.

Noble Sprayberry writes from Phoenix, where he's more concerned with keeping his house cool in summer.