Ask Brian is a weekly column by Real Estate Expert Brian Kline. If you have questions on real estate investing, DIY, home buying/selling, or other housing inquiries please email your questions to [email protected].
Question from Daniel of Maple Grove, MN: Hi Brian, This is our first winter in our home since moving from a warmer climate. As dad to 3 kids, my energy saving practice has mostly been reminding the kids to close the door and turn off the lights when leaving a room. But I recently got my December heating bill and realize I need be doing more to keep the heat in and the cold out. It’s a 3 bedroom, 2 bath house built about 12 years ago. Where should I start?
Answer: Hi Daniel. The biggest bang for your buck usually starts with your HVAC system. Professionals claim as much as 50 to 60 percent of typical energy costs are spent here. Assuming it is a forced air system, start by making sure all of your ducts are properly sealed. You’re probably going to need to get under the house and up in the attic to inspect these. Since you don’t want to do this every year, be sure you use a good quality sealing material. Most old fashion “duct tape” tends to become brittle and breaks the seal quickly. A better choice can be aluminum foil tape designed specifically for this purpose. Check with a knowledgeable local hardware professional for the best application in your area. Also, be sure to change the filter regularly. With a 12 year old house, you might need to have the furnace cleaned and inspected by a professional.
Next, take a close look at all of the cold and warm air registers providing airflow between the rooms and the furnace. Make sure the grates are clean and there is nothing obstructing the airflow such as an area rug or furniture or a painting on the wall. In many cases, adding dampers and airflow direction devices help. Dampers in seldom-used bedrooms or basements can lower the temperature there and send it where you need it. You can also place thermometers in different rooms in the house to know your heating the entire house evenly or reduce the temperature in certain rooms. Adjust the dampers until you have the temperature that you want.
Next, start looking for sources of cold air entering or warm air leaving the house. There are several things you can do for this. Some are more high tech than others. Begin with a simple visual inspection for any cracks or holes around exterior doors, windows, and electrical outlets. You may want to pull off at least some of the trim so you can see the gap between window or doorframe and the house structure. If you can see any daylight, you need to do some caulking and sealing. A basic test for this without removing the trim is holding a candle next to closed doors and windows. A flickering flame indicates that the sealing needs to be improved.
You can also check the insulation in your walls and floors using a hand-held thermal detector. This is an inexpensive tool you can pick up at most hardware stores. Basically, you take several readings on a wall or floor to establish a baseline. You continue checking other places on the wall or floor to find cold spots. Depending on what you find, you decide what improvements are needed. If you find a few isolated spots where the cold is getting in, you might be able to blow some more insulation into a wall or add insulation under a crawl space. If you don’t like any of the readings, you may be in for a more expensive project to upgrade most of the insulation in the house. You can also use the thermal detector around windows and doors instead of a candle flame.
The next time you paint, plan to take off the trim at the top and bottom of walls. It never hurts adding a bead of caulking or weather stripping in gaps that happen where the sheetrock meets the floors and ceilings. You should also read this article about better insulating attics at: realtybiznews.com/diy-how-to-insulate-your-attic.
There are many other ways to improve the energy efficiency of your home. Some make good advanced DIY projects and others are better left to professionals. Many utility companies provide a free in-home energy assessment. This is a good way to learn both the quick and economical improvements you can make as well as what a professional might offer. Some utilities also offer low interest and no interest loans to lower your energy costs. Please comment with their thoughts and experiences for lowering winter energy costs. Our weekly Ask Brian column welcomes questions from readers of all experience levels with residential real estate. Please email your questions or inquiries to [email protected].