Living in the Baltimore and Frederick area can mean dealing with frustratingly high heating and cooling bills unless you take steps to make your home more energy efficient. Improving your home’s efficiency not only will help you control your energy bills, but also keep you more comfortable.
One of the simplest and most budget-friendly ways to do that is to seal and insulate the home envelope. Your “home envelope,” also called the building or thermal envelope, is the physical barrier that separates the conditioned (heated and cooled) part of your home from the unconditioned parts.
Creating or upgrading this envelope is known as weatherization. The most essential steps in this process are sealing the air leaks around your doors, windows and other openings, and adding insulation to your attic, walls and other areas.
Weatherizing your home is especially important if you’re planning to upgrade your air conditioner or furnace. or other heating and cooling equipment. There’s little point in investing in high-efficiency equipment when the building isn’t efficient enough to retain the cool or warm air produced.
The Many Benefits of Affordable Weatherization Steps
Lower energy bills aren’t the only benefit you’ll see when you seal and insulate the home envelope.
Feel more comfortable year round – While you could save a little by turning down your heat and putting on a sweater, for most of us those savings aren’t worth sacrificing comfort. By air sealing and adding insulation, you’ll get the best of both worlds: greater comfort for less money. Sealing air leaks around your home allows you to easily maintain a comfortable indoor temperature without annoying fluctuations and drafts.
It also keeps out excess humidity, helping you feel cooler and drier in summer, and reducing the risk of mold growth in winter. Your walls will feel warmer, so you can place your furniture near them in winter without getting chilled.
Better air quality – If anything’s more important than your comfort, it’s your health. When you seal and insulate the home envelope in tandem with adequate ventilation, you’ll be improving your indoor air quality, which protects your respiratory and cardiovascular health.
Air leaks let in unfiltered outdoor air. Depending on the time of year and your location, this air may contain dust, pollen and mold spores that can aggravate allergies and asthma.
Particularly in urban areas, it also contains car exhaust, fumes from area factories, and other components of smog, all of which pose health risks. As an added bonus, blocking leaks helps keep out pests such as ants, wasps and spiders.
Enjoy a quieter home – The Baltimore area’s urban din can easily make its way into your home through cracks and gaps and through thin walls. Your interior walls and ceiling beams then transmit that noise throughout your house.
Sealing those cracks and adding insulation helps create a sound barrier, deflecting noise and keeping your whole house more peaceful. If you live near a busy road, consider upgrading your insulation for this reason alone.
Fewer home repairs – A well-sealed and insulated attic greatly reduces the risk of ice dams on your roof. Ice dams, typically indicated by icicles, can do serious damage to your home. The leaks they often cause lead to loose shingles, sagging gutters, stained ceilings, crumbling plaster and even rotting beams.
Ice dams are formed when warm air in the attic causes uneven melting of snow on the roof. Weatherizing your attic keeps warm air in your living space during the winter, and out of your attic.
Pay less for heating and cooling – Last but not least, money saved is one of the benefits you’ll gain from thoroughly sealing and insulating the home envelope. Fewer air leaks and better insulation mean more of the cool or warm air your HVAC equipment supplies stays in your home. You won’t need to run your A/C or furnace as long to maintain a comfortable temperature.
Properly seal and insulate the home envelope and you’ll see your annual energy bills drop by up to 20 percent. If you live in an old, drafty home, your savings could be even greater. That means you’ll quickly see a return on your investment in weatherization material and help from a skilled contractor.
Where Air Leaks Lurk
Air sealing is the first step when you plan to both seal and insulate the home envelope. While larger air leaks often cause noticeable drafts, smaller leaks are harder to find. That doesn’t mean they’re harmless, though. Taken together, these tiny leaks can cause so much air lost that it’s as if you had a hole in your wall the size of a basketball.
To track down all these leaks, it helps to know where to look. Common locations for air leaks include:
- Attic plumbing vent stack
- Behind recessed lights and dropped soffits
- Attic hatches
- Ventilation fans in the attic, kitchen and bath
- Duct registers coming from unconditioned spaces
- Top plate of your house frame
- Door and window frames
- Electrical outlets and switch plates
- Lines for your phone and TV
- Water and gas lines
- Vents for your dryer and kitchen range
- Fireplace dampers
- Outdoor faucets
Several methods are available for finding air leaks.
- Check for dirt – Air brings with it dust that leaves dirty streaks on insulation, ceilings, walls and carpets. Inspect your attic and crawlspace insulation for dirty spots. Check the walls and ceilings of your living space, too.
- Smoke them out – On a breezy day, hold a lighted incense stick or a smoke pen up to any area you suspect may leak air. If the smoke blows sideways, you’ll know air is coming through.
- Schedule a home energy audit – Hire a qualified contractor to assess your home’s airtightness and find leaks. Your contractor will bring in specialized diagnostic tools such as a blower door (large fan) for a precision assessment.
Because air sealing alters the airflow through your home, before starting the job, make sure you have sufficient ventilation for your gas appliances and for overall air quality. Hiring a ventilation professional for air sealing is the simplest way to ensure your home doesn’t become too airtight.
Options for Sealing Air Leaks
There are two main products used to seal cracks and gaps in the home envelope: weatherstripping and caulk.
Weatherstripping – This comes in rolls of material such as vinyl, metal or foam that’s laid by hand along the area to be sealed and pressed into place. This is used on areas with moving surfaces, such as the tops and sides of windows and the inside of door jambs. Several forms are available, including foam tape, V-strip and tubes. The type of weatherstripping or caulk you’ll need depends on the surfaces that require sealing.
Caulk — This thick, tacky substance is available in tubes designed to be fit into a caulk gun for application. It’s used to seal gaps between non-moving surfaces, such as door and window frames and penetrations for appliance vent. As with weatherstripping, different types are available for different surfaces. Acrylic-latex is useful for many sealing jobs.
Could Your Home Use More Insulation?
When you seal and insulate the home envelope, eliminating air leaks is the easier part. Apart from high energy bills and cold walls in winter, low insulation levels give few obvious signs. For this reason, it’s a good idea to start your assessment in the attic. Not only is your attic insulation plainly visible, it’s also some of the most important insulation in your home and the easiest to upgrade.
If you can see the attic floor joints, you need to add more insulation. Appropriate insulation levels vary by region. Around Maryland, Delaware and West Virginia, if the attic already has 3 or 4 inches of insulation, you’ll want to add a layer of R38 insulation. That’s around 10 to 12 inches of fiberglass batt or blown-in (loose fill) cellulose insulation.
The insulation in your walls and floors is your next concern. During a home energy audit, a heating and cooling professional can perform a thermographic inspection to assess the insulation in these areas. This inspection involves taking images of your home with an infrared camera. The colors of the image shows points of energy loss where more insulation may be needed.
Choosing the Right Insulation
Insulation is available in batt form (flat sheets) and loose fill, also called blown-in, which consists of small pieces of insulation. Batt insulation is easy to install in the attic, but loose fill blocks small gaps more efficiently. For upgrading wall insulation, loose fill is often preferable.
Beyond common fiberglass insulation, many insulation types are available including cellulose, plastic fiber, and recycled paper and cotton. Each has advantages and drawbacks, but a professional can help you choose the material that meets your needs.
Ready to seal and insulate the home envelope and need a reliable contractor who’ll help you from your initial energy audit through to the final sealing and insulating job? If you’re near Baltimore, Westminster or Easton; Dover, Del., or Martinsburg, W.Va., contact us at Griffith Energy Services, Inc.
Written by Kevin Spain