Your house leaks air and how to fix it

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Every home leaks air which causes an increase in your heating and cooling utility bill.

Here is an illustration showing how this works.

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For more detail, see article posted earlier today A High Power Bill Is Not Inevitable 

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A High Power Bill Is Not Inevitable

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If you’re not happy with your current utility bill, get ready! Costs will increase significantly over the next five years.  Extreme weather patterns are becoming the norm all over the U.S. In the last three years, the Mid-South has experienced hotter summer temperatures, drought, higher than normal rainfall, and flooding.  A colder than normal winter this year (2013-2014) caused heating bills to spike and we all felt the pinch.

So what are the most cost efficient home energy strategies? There are many possible energy fixes. Some can be thought of as “low hanging fruit.”  These include controlling your thermostat during summer and winter, replacing incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescent or LED bulbs, turning lights OFF when leaving a room, using Energy Star appliances to replace old units, adding power strips for electronic devices and turning them off when not in use. However, these measures are only the beginning of home energy efficiency.

Most homes have multiple air leaks and cost owners money.  When it comes to your house and air leaks, there are two simple rules: First, heat always moves to cold (nature wants it all the same temperature).  Second, all insulation controls heat but most home insulation does not stop air.

Air conditioned houses are summertime cold spots.  This means summer heat (radiant energy) moves toward cool home interiors (remember rule #1).   The typical Mid-South house is an insulated, cool boat sitting in an ocean of heat.  When the outside temperature rises and the wind blows, air leaks and heat overwhelm the air conditioner (the bailing bucket).  We could buy bigger air conditioners (buckets) but there’s a less expensive solution — fix the air leaks and add insulation.

Where are these air leaks? Take a magnifying glass outside your house.  Look for cracks around your doors and windows at siding or brick.  Notice gaps between (frieze) board and brick. It goes all the way around your house.  Look closely at holes in the brick mortar that AREN’T weep holes (don’t plug those) and all the spaces, voids/knotholes in your siding.  Use the magnifying glass to see gaps where every wire, gas pipe, phone line, TV cable, dog door, light fixture, dryer vent, hose bib, electric meter, etc., create an air leak. This is a partial list for outside your home. The air leak list for living space, attic and ceiling/wall assemblies is just as long.  Ever felt a winter draft at doors or windows?  Summer heat doesn’t stop drafts.  We’re just not as sensitive to warm air movement. Every Mid-South home has these air leaks unless it was built with an energy efficiency certification (Energy Star, Eco-build, etc.).  A whole house remediation plan using caulk, foam and other air barrier materials will significantly reduce air leaks. As a Certified Building Analyst, I’ve seen post work results that prove air leak reduction of up to 60%.  These measures work year round to reduce utility bills, improve indoor air quality, and reduce noise.

Other air leaks that need fixing aren’t in walls and ceilings–they’re in our HVAC systems.  Today most homes are cooled and heated with forced air systems. Pipes and boxes in this air distribution system leak because they’ve never been sealed and are subject to damage and installer error. As a result, HVAC systems average 30-50% air loss from ducts. This means 30-50% of the air we pay to cool and heat NEVER gets to the rooms. The answer to this problem is duct sealing every plenum, connector, bend and register. Fixing this problem requires specialized training and should be left to duct leak experts.

A clear “Energy Efficiency Roadmap” which includes as the first phase whole house air seal, furnace system duct seal, and insulation at second floor attic walls and ceilings is the best plan. Building science experts know these energy efficiency measures can reduce your power bill 25-50%, improve air quality, eliminate drafts and hot/cold spots in rooms while making your home more comfortable.  A more detailed description of these energy measures follows.

Whole House Air Seal:  Air leaks waste energy and increase your power bill. Air seal is the first step to energy efficiency. A thorough job requires air seal to interior, exterior, attic – all windows, doors, drain pipes, water supplies, frieze board, wire, top plates, plugs & switches on outside walls, base shoe at hardwood floors, and interior trim at windows and doors.

HVAC Duct Seal:  30-50% of the air used to heat and cool your home leaks from your furnace and air conditioning systems. To eliminate leaks, duct seal all return and supply plenums, all “T” and “Y” connections, all boots and registers.

Attic Tent:  Attic tents are installed on “pull-down” attic stairs located in heated spaces. The attic tent is an air seal, radiant barrier and insulator. Once installed, you still have full access to your attic!

Attic Door:  For “walk-in” attics, air seal the attic door with spray foam, a door sweep, and weather strips, then apply 2” rigid foam to attic side of door for insulation.

Insulation:  Insulation works best when complete home air seal is done first.  Fiberglass insulation to second floor ceilings and attic must be TVA required depth of R-40.

Insulation Second Floor:  Second floor walls between attic and living space are subject to air leaks, hot spots, and humidity incursion. These problems are solved by applying 2” rigid foam panels on the attic side of walls. All penetrations through walls are sealed with closed cell spray foam and rigid panel seams are sealed. This process eliminates thermal bridging at 2x4s and increases wall R-value to R-21.

Now that you know what’s involved, it’s time to assess the condition of your home and take action.  The Tennessee Valley Authority’s (TVA) eScore Program can help manage home energy costs and implement your “Energy Efficiency Roadmap.”  How does eScore work?  Homeowners register online at www.2escore.com. There are two paths to energy efficiency and a perfect eScore of 10: (1) contact a Quality Contractor Network (eScore) member and get a FREE estimate for energy improvements, or (2) for a fee of $75, have a TVA eScore auditor perform an in-home evaluation prior to starting any work.  Once the energy measures are completed, your TVA auditor will return to evaluate the energy work at no extra cost.

Homeowners who have energy efficiency measures installed will reap four major benefits: (1) power bills 25-50% lower, (2) far more comfortable living space, (3) improved air quality, and (4) reduced HVAC equipment failure due to shorter running times.

Now that you understand the benefits of home energy efficiency, you’ll want to enroll in TVA’s eScore program today!

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Financing Energy Efficiency

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In my previous articles, we’ve examined the energy efficiency impact of whole house air seal, full HVAC system duct seal, additional insulation at ceilings or walls common to attic, etc. These measures make our homes safer, more comfortable, and less drafty and lead to lower power bills.

Now let’s consider other financial benefits. Under the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), we benefit from the Energy Right program. When homeowners call for an appointment, TVA sends an auditor to visually inspect and document necessary energy measures. The fee for this service (including a post-work inspection) is just $50. The auditor generates a printed report as well as a list of TVA approved contractors to bid the work.

Once the work has been completed and re-inspected, TVA will issue participating homeowners an incentive check for up to $550. This amount reimburses the $50 inspection fee and 50% of the first $1000 spent on energy measures listed in the initial report. Additionally, 10% of all material costs up to $500 can be taken as a tax credit (consult your tax professional). All this works great for homeowners who have cash to invest because these measures historically “buy back” to zero in approximately 5 years. That’s a 20% return on investment.

So, what if cash isn’t an option? There are two programs: one exists now and the other is beta testing in 7 states (not Tennessee). The first program is offered by Iberia Bank as an unsecured home improvement loan. This loan has no dollar cap, but its maximum term is 5 years. The interest rate is 8-10% APR depending on credit score. As an example, $10,000 at 8.2% APR for 5 years would cost $176.32 per month. Lower interest rates and/or longer terms are available from Iberia as a second mortgage. Other lenders have similar products.

The other program is the FHA Power Saver 2nd mortgage loan program through Sun West Mortgage. This product is currently being beta-tested in 7 states and is approved by FHA for nationwide rollout once the Sun West pilot phase is completed. Homeowners with substantial equity in their properties will be the primary customers. The advantage of the FHA Power Saver loan is its 15 year term and 6% or less interest rate. The same $10,000 loan would cost less than $90 per month. This means dollars saved on power bills would pay the loan. The benefit is obvious – no large initial cash investment required. I mention this program because it will soon be available in Tennessee and I believe it will make energy efficiency measures more attractive and affordable for homeowners.

Generally, TVA reports that the average energy project throughout its area is approximately $5,000. Since there is no way to guess what individual projects might cost, homeowners should take advantage of the low cost audits offered through the Energy Right program. It’s an easy way to get started on an energy efficiency roadmap for your home. You’ll have lower power bills and leave a smaller carbon footprint. 

NPB Retrofits Old Home

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This NPB customer recently celebrated their energy efficiency improvements and renovation at their open house/press conference at their home in Midtown Memphis. They report that their home is now safer, more comfortable, less drafty and 30% LESS EXPENSIVE to heat and cool. This was  the only residential project featured in the “Mayors’ Energy Challenge” Youtube video produced by the  Memphis and Shelby County Office of Sustainability. You’ll notice our name (Neighborhood Pro Builders) as a subtitle while Nikki is talking (starts in the video at 4:54).  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HLT_0R4gKDQ

The event was sponsored by the Memphis chapters of the Sierra Club, the U.S. Green Building Council and Neighborhood Pro Builders.

The Sierra Club’s Healthy Energy Campaign is a statewide initiative which advocates that the Tennessee Valley Authority set a 1% annual energy efficiency standard. Such a standard would enable the TVA to avoid construction of new coal and nuclear plants and would enable them to shut down some existing coal plants. The standard would enable customers to save money through energy efficiency and would have a substantial impact in protecting the environment.

My company, Neighborhood Pro Builders, Inc., completed the energy efficiency upgrades at the Wright’s home and was on site to answer project specific questions. This home is an excellent case study of energy efficiency measures in a structure built circa 1900.

Here are the details of this project:

Wright Residence – Project Overview

(4500 sq. ft. heated, built 1900, 3 high efficiency HVAC systems installed 2006 by previous owner)

Air Seal Energy Efficiency Issues: 

  • multiple openings at first floor to basement/crawlspace
  • cold air return grill at living room wall hiding vent from basement/attic to living space
  • holes cut in closets/stairs for pipe and wire access by previous technicians
  • 2nd floor abandoned dryer vent open and venting attic to living space
  • stained glass panel at front stair landing venting attic to living space
  • multiple double ceilings at 2nd floor closets/bathrooms hiding space that requires insulation/air seal
  • two chimneys acting as fresh air vents due to missing caps/dampers
  • living room pocket door venting to basement/attic
  • customer reported house as very drafty in winter
  • home could not be cooled below 82 degrees in summer—“systems run all day”

HVAC Duct Seal Energy Efficiency Issues:

  • no mastic used at joints, plenums, furnace or register boots
  • no seal at register/ceiling interfaces, house wire/bell wire ran through cold air returns
  • living room floor never cut by furnace installer-first floor missing 50% of required return air
  • chase never completed at 2nd floor cold air return-system drawing air through 2nd floor closet

 Other Energy Efficiency Issues: 

  • active knob and tube wire under attic deck
  • attic under-ventilated
  • attic insulation matted/mildewed
  • leaky water supply pipes in basement/crawlspace
  • cracked/leaking drains, abandoned wire/pipe (basement)
  • first floor/crawl space lacking moisture barrier and insulation

Energy Efficiency Upgrades and Results:

  • Whole house air seal implemented for observed/discovered defects.  Result: 56 % envelope air leak reduction confirmed by 3rd party pressure test.
  • Complete HVAC system (3) duct seal implemented for observed/discovered defects.  Result: 72% duct leak reduction confirmed by 3rd party pressure test.
  • Knob and tube wire replaced, leaky pipes/drains replaced, abandoned wire/pipe removed, crawl space sealed/insulated and moisture barrier installed, attic insulation to R-38.
  • All work completed under MLG&W/TVA “EnergyRight” program to TVA and Building Performance Institute specifications. Pressure testing performed by Jack Cowan, Cowan House Services.
  • Customer reports:  allergy symptoms eliminated, house now cools to 75 degrees and systems shut off, drafts and hot/cold areas eliminated, home is quieter, power bill reduced by 25+%.

Energy Efficiency Roadmap

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Every homeowner needs a home energy efficiency plan to reduce power bills, improve air quality, eliminate drafts, stop hot and cold spots in rooms, etc. Accomplishing this can be very stressful because homeowners must sort through the conflicting claims of where to start and what to do. It’s important that a knowledgeable and highly skilled company implements your plan.

What’s the best energy efficiency strategy? Neighborhood Pro Builders, a licensed general contractor and TVA Energy Right contractor/Building Performance Institute certified Performance Analyst, can help you reduce your power bill 30-50%. This is accomplished through our proven package of whole house air seal, furnace system duct seal, and insulation at second floor attic walls and ceilings. Building science experts agree these three measures should always be done first in any home.

A brief description of these energy measures follows:

Whole House Air Seal

Air leaks waste energy and increase your power bill. Air seal is the first step to energy efficiency. A thorough job requires air seal to interior, exterior, attic – all windows, doors, drain pipes, water supplies, frieze board, wire, top plates, plugs & switches on outside walls, base shoe at hardwood floors, and interior trim at windows and doors.

HVAC Duct Seal

30-50% of the air used to heat and cool your home leaks from your furnace and air conditioning systems. We thoroughly duct seal all returns and supply plenums, all “T” and “Y” connections, all boots and registers.  Then we set your system fan to run and check our work visually for signs of air leakage and seal any remaining leaks with mastic.

Attic Tent

Attic tents are installed on “pull-down” attic stairs located in heated spaces. The attic tent is an air seal, radiant barrier and insulator. Once installed, you still have full access to your attic!

Attic Door

For “walk-in” attics, we air seal the attic door with spray foam, a door sweep, and weather strips, then  apply 2” rigid foam to attic side of door for insulation.

Insulation

Insulation works most effectively when a complete home air seal is done first. We blow in fiberglass insulation to second floor ceilings and attic. We add the required R-value to achieve R-40 at completion.

Insulation Second Floor

Second floor walls common to the attic are a source of air leaks, hot spots, and humidity incursion. We solve these problems by applying 2” rigid foam panels on the attic side of knee walls and room walls. We seal all penetrations through these walls with closed cell spray foam and seal panel seams with tape. This process eliminates thermal bridging at 2x4s and increases R-value of second floor walls to R-21 minimum.

Dave Trentlage and NPB’s All Electric Nissan Leaf

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Dave Trentlage and all electric Nissan Leaf

Air Leaks Are Costing You Money!

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When it comes to home envelope air leaks, there are two simple rules: First, heat always moves to cold (nature wants it all the same temp).  Second, all insulation controls heat but most home insulation does not stop air.

 Air conditioned houses are summertime cold spots.  This means summer heat (radiant energy) moves toward cool home interiors (remember rule #1).   These homes are very leaky, under insulated cool boats sitting in an ocean of heat but when the temperature rises and the wind blows, air leaks overwhelm the air conditioners (the bailing bucket).  Homes sink into an ocean of heat because our air conditioners can’t keep up.  We could buy bigger air conditioners but there’s a more energy efficient and less expensive solution — fix the air leaks and add insulation.

Where are these air leaks? Take a magnifying glass outside your house.  Look at the cracks around your doors and windows at the siding or brick.  Notice the gap between the (frieze) board and brick that goes all the way around your house.  Look closely at the holes in the brick mortar that AREN’T weep holes (don’t plug those) or all the spaces, voids/knotholes in your siding.  Use the magnifying glass to see the gaps where every wire, gas pipe, phone line, TV cable, dog door, light fixture, dryer vent, hose bib, electric meter, etc., create an air leak. This is a partial list for outside your home. The air leak list for living space, attic and ceiling/wall assemblies is even larger.  Ever felt a winter draft at doors or windows?  Summer heat doesn’t stop drafts.  We’re just not as sensitive to warm air movement. Any Mid-South home potentially has these air leaks unless it was built with an energy efficiency certification (Energy Star, Eco-build, etc.).  A whole house air seal using caulk, foam and other air barrier materials will significantly reduce air leaks. As a certified building analyst, I’ve seen post remediation test results confirming air leakage reduction of up to 60%.

Other air leaks that need fixing aren’t in walls and ceilings–they’re in our HVAC systems.  Today most homes are cooled and heated with forced air systems. When we want the house colder, our thermostat triggers a blower fan. This fan moves interior house air across a cooling element until it’s reached the desired temperature.  The pipes and boxes in this air distribution system leak because they have never been sealed and they are subject to damage and installer error. As a result, HVAC systems have an average 30-50% air loss from ducts. This means 30-50% of the air we pay to cool and heat NEVER gets to the rooms. The answer to this problem is full system duct seal of every plenum, connector, bend and register. Fixing this problem requires specialized training and is best left to energy remediation specialists.

My next article will examine insulation and the relationship between heat loss and air loss.  Remember: all insulation controls heat but only certain insulation controls air.  For more information about energy efficiency, improved air quality, and related subjects, I recommend Bruce Harley’s Lower Your Energy Bills Now from Taunton Press. Meanwhile, don’t hesitate to e-mail me your questions.

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