HVAC systems comprise one of our biggest budget items each month. Energy efficient improvements can chip away at that monthly amount over the year and in Northbrook, where winter and summer can get uncomfortable, DIY improvements can legitimately help to bring down energy bills. Below are relatively simple, affordable projects that you can do to stay more comfortable and keep your energy efficiency in check.
Tighten Up the Attic
Some of the easiest and most affordable energy efficient improvements you can make are in the attic. Improvements here not only keep indoor temperatures more stable and reduce the load on the furnace and air conditioning, but they also protect your home from potentially expensive damage.
The cool air produced by the HVAC finds its way out of every crevice it can, entering the attic and seeping out through through the roof. From there, it’s lost through the roof and the HVAC has to worker harder to replace that lost air and maintain your home’s temperature.
Warm air entering a cold attic also causes condensation. This moisture on the wood attic structure, insulation and drywall can cause these surfaces to mold or rot.
To make matters worse, a warm attic will allow water to stay pooled. This pooled water can damage roofing and cause roof leaks.
Energy efficient improvements in the attic also minimize the effects of the summer sun beating down on your roof. On hot summer days, the temperature in the attic can exceed 150 degrees. If there’s nothing to hold that heat back, it radiates into your rooms and makes for more work for your air conditioner.
Sealing air leaks is the first job to consider. Gaps and cracks around the attic allow for unnecessary airflow between the attic and your rooms. Leaks commonly occur around:
- The attic hatch
- Where the walls and floor meet
- Around kneewalls
- Around dropped soffits
- Around recessed lighting
- Around anything that penetrates the attic floor (pipes, wiring, vent stacks)
First, take care of the bigger gaps, those from 1/4-inch to 3 inches, by sealing them with expanding polyurethane spray foam. Gaps around flues and chimneys can be closed with metal flashing for fire safety reasons. Most cracks of less than 1/4 inch can be sealed with acrylic latex caulk. For metal, silicone is a better choice.
Your next step is upgrading the insulation. Attic insulation keeps more heat in your rooms in winter and, in summer, it defends air conditioned rooms from heat coming through the roof. In the Northbrook area, attics should have a level of insulation in the R-38 to R-49 range. If you have fiberglass batt insulation, you should have a layer between 12 to 16 inches thick. Adding more is one of the easiest and most cost-effective energy efficient improvements you can make.
If you choose to add fiberglass or cellulose batts, you can do the job yourself without special equipment apart from appropriate clothing and eye protection. Loose-fill (blown-in) cellulose insulation is another option. Made of small chunks of fiber, this material fills in small corners and crevices to provide a more efficient layer of insulation. To install it, you’ll need a blower machine.
Improve and Repair Air Ducts
Because the furnace and air conditioner depend on the air ducts, energy efficient improvements you make to the ductwork boost the efficiency of your entire heating and cooling system. If you have certain rooms that are hard to keep warm or cool enough, you may find improvements to the ducts help.
Air leaks in the ducts let heated or cooled air escape while also letting in air contaminants from inside the walls, attic or wherever else the ducts pass. In the average home that hasn’t been upgraded for efficiency, the ducts leak 15 to 30 percent of the air flowing through them. The more air escapes before it reaches your rooms, the more your system has to produce to make up for the loss. That, of course, increases your energy use.
Leaks commonly occur when the points where the ducts connect to the air handler, to each other, and to the registers and vents don’t fit tightly and aren’t sealed. Leaks can also come from damage caused during installation or remodeling, or by pests. Joints should be fit correctly and duct connections sealed with mastic sealant.
To help your home’s ductwork maintain the temperature of the air they carry, install R-6 duct wrap or a similar R-level of fiberglass batt insulation. This is one of the simple energy efficient improvements to reduce the load on your cooling and heating systems.
Upgrade Doors and Windows
Around 10 to 15 percent of the average home’s energy loss is caused by the windows. Inefficient doors, too, are prone to air leaks that waste energy. Making energy efficient improvements to these parts of your home helps you maintain your indoor temperatures and minimizes chilly drafts.
If your home’s window frames and exterior doors are rotting or warped, they should be replaced, ideally with Energy Star-qualified models. If they’re still in good shape, check for air leaks by holding a smoke pen or lit incense stick up to the frames on a windy day. Leaking air will blow the smoke around. These leaks can be sealed with caulk and weatherstripping.
- Caulk – Use a caulk gun to apply a continuous bead of caulk between non-moving surfaces such as door and window frames. Latex acrylic caulk is a good choice for wood frames, while silicone caulk is better for metal frames.
- Weatherstripping – These strips of foam, vinyl, rubber, metal or other material are used to create a seal between moving surfaces, such as the inside tracks of sliding windows. Vinyl gaskets and tension strips work well on double-hung windows, sliding windows, and metal window casements. For door sides, vinyl gaskets are a good choice.
Review Floor To Ceiling For Gaps
Doors and windows aren’t the only places that can leak air. Gaps and cracks in other parts of your home also waste conditioned air, let in contaminants and excess humidity, and cause uncomfortable drafts. Use the same method you used to find leaks around your doors and windows to check:
- Baseboards and crown molding
- Electrical outlets and switches
- Points where pipes, wires and appliance vents penetrate exterior walls
- Kitchen and bathroom ventilation fans
- The fireplace
Leaks in these areas can be sealed with latex acrylic caulk. Larger gaps can be stuffed with cellulose or cotton insulation, then sealed with caulk or foam spray insulation. Insulating gaskets are available for outlets and switches.
After air sealing, consider adding insulation. For the most accurate assessment of the insulation levels in your walls, contact a heating and cooling professional to conduct an energy audit. The technician will take infrared images of your home that highlight areas of energy loss. Loss from the walls and floors can be minimized by improving the insulation. Loose-fill insulation makes this job easy because this material can be blown in through relatively small openings.
Check Basements and Crawl Spaces
Just like the rest of your house, your basement is likely to have small air leaks that make it harder to maintain indoor temperatures. Check for leaks around penetrations for wiring, plumbing, gas lines and appliance vents. These can be sealed with caulk or spray foam insulation.
The rim joists should also be insulated. You can do this by cutting rigid foam insulation to fit against the rim joists in the spaces between the floor joists. Seal the insulation by running a bead of caulk around the edges.
Take a look at the insulation levels in your crawl space, too. The walls should have at least an R-25 level of batt or rigid foam insulation. That’s around 10 inches of fiberglass batts or 8 inches of rigid foam. If you have less than this, adding more will help keep your floors warmer in winter. Once you have enough insulation, add a layer of 6 mm plastic sheeting to the floor to create a vapor barrier that reduces the risk of moisture damage. If you’ve used rigid foam insulation, the edges of the sheeting can be sealed into place with foam spray insulation.