Keep The Outside Air Outside


Here in Michigan, one of the biggest expenses I have all year has to do with keeping our house at a comfortable level in terms of temperature.  Michigan summers can be hot and the winters can be cold.  There are many days and nights when we can turn the thermostat to the OFF position, but for the days when you are either running the air conditioning or the heat, operating those devices can be very costly.

There are many ways to reduce your bills that tie into the equipment itself (energy efficiency) or things you can do to will make it run more effectively (programmable thermostat, adjust temperature) but those are things I have already covered or will save for another day.

What I’d like to cover today is the savings that you can realize by keeping the outside air out. There are two main ways in which I’ve found that this occurs and you can work to fight against either one of these things.

First is the effect of temperatures wanting to balance.  See, in the winter when it’s cold outside, the house will become cool from two effects, one is the radiant effect of the temperature difference between the colder outside and the warmer inside.  The temperature will always try to achieve a balance, so the warm house will slowly radiate out through the walls, meaning that at the same time the colder air temperatures outside are working their way in.

The best way to fight this is by properly insulating your home.  The better R-value you have for your insulation, the better it will be at keeping the temperature on one side of the wall or the other.

You can control some types of insulation more than others.  Insulation in the wall is probably something you’re going to have to live with unless you want to go through a lot of work.  There are several options I’ve seen over the years.

  • Ripping out the drywall – If you’re doing a remodel and are gutting a room or some rooms, you might just want to clear out the drywall and improve what’s behind it.
  • Going in from the outside – If you’re replacing siding or something on the outside of the house, there could be an opportunity to add or replace the insulation from the outside of the home.
  • Poking holes – This is probably viable only if you have no insulation in your walls.  I’ve seen where they drill holes across the wall and blow insulation in the holes.  Patch up the holes, re-paint, and you’re good to go.  This is expensive and troublesome, but if you have no insulation at all, it could be worth it.

So, the walls are out, but what about the top and bottom?

Get up in that attic and see what you have.  If you have an attic space above the top of your home, chances are this is where the insulation lies that is supposedly protecting the air from escaping above.  It’s also the area that’s relatively easiest to improve, and you can get a meaningful bang for your buck.

One of the first things that we did after we moved into our home in 2007 was to add insulation into the attic. I have a father-in-law who is very handy, so we were able to rent a machine from Home Depot, buy the proper amount of insulation, and spend an afternoon blowing it into the attic space.  It required us to snake a hose up from the driveway (where the machine was) up to the attic using a bedroom window for access.

The total cost of this project was around $350 for us, and it improved the insulation in our home tremendously.  It keeps heat from escaping, and in the summer it minimizes the amount of heat that is trapped up in the attic from radiating into the home, which requires the air conditioner to work all the harder.

You can also insulate from below.  If you have a basement that you use and keep heated, you probably don’t have an opportunity to improve here, but if you have an unfinished basement or a crawl space, you can put insulation between that space and your living space to create a barrier.  These will probably involve the insulation that you buy in rolls and will end up being stuffed between floorboards.

If you work here, just make sure to get the advice of a professional or two.  Basements can be damp places, so you want to make sure that you’re not creating such a tight seal that you trap in all the moisture.  This can lead to mold problems which are going to be far more expensive than the money you’re saving by insulating.

Also, make sure to understand what needs to be done around wiring and plumbing so that you’re not creating a fire hazard by improperly insulating around wiring incorrectly, or doing something that can cause the insulation to become damp if you don’t take the proper steps around the plumbing.

Windows and doors are huge problems. The next area you want to hit is your windows and doors.  If it’s a cold day out and you open the door, what happens?  Cold air goes in, right?  So, what do you do?  Close the door as soon as you can.  That keeps the cold air from getting in.

Or so you think.

Many doors and windows are still letting air in if they are not weather-sealed properly, and even if they are when they’re first installed, chances are they might not be functioning as well as they age.  If you have a door or window that is letting air in, it’s the same as leaving the door ever so slightly cracked or leaving the window open a tiny bit.  It might not even be really measurable (where you can feel a draft) at any one location, but if you add up all the draft coming in across all your windows, it could be the equivalent of leaving a window open a few inches.  On a cold day, think what a difference that would make in keeping your house the right temperature, and the work that your heating or cooling system has to do to combat that.

You can fix that by adding weatherstripping to your doors and windows.  This will create better seals and reduce drafts.  My tool of choice in identifying where problems occur is an infrared thermometer.  You press a button and point it at or around the window, and you can see the exact temperature at any one spot.  Move it around and the temperature moves.

Establish a baseline.  What I do when using this tool is take a reading at all my windows by measuring around the windows and also along the wall a few feet from the window.  I’ll flip it on, and essentially go around the perimeter of each window.  All windows are going to be colder (if it’s winter) than the wall around it, just for the fact of radiant heat, but after a few windows, you’ll be able to see where the readings should be. You’ll start to see a ‘range’ that is likely normal for around windows.  If you have a window that’s giving a much lower temperature or even a spot on a window that’s suddenly dropping, that’s where you’ll get the most bang for your buck for weatherstripping.

This works great for around doors, too.  I knew our front door was a bit drafty as I could actually feel it, but until I used my infrared thermometer, I didn’t know exactly where it was coming from.  By running this around the door, I was able to tell precisely where there was a fault and was able to focus on that area.  It made an immediate difference.

These are all ways that you can use to keep the air that’s inside your house, which you’ve worked and paid to have brought to the temperature that you desire, in your house.  Keeping it in and keeping the outside air out is the best method you’ll have to raise and lower your utility bills.

Thank you for reading.

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