Thursday, March 27, 2008

Retrofit to Save Money!

So How’s Your House Doing?

Rich Seifert

The reality of a few days at 40 below is always an impressive reminder of where we live. There you are listening to the furnace running and running, on and on. Darn, I should have added insulation to the attic or weather-stripped the doors. Now there’s that frost on the door threshold, and I can see air leaking out the gable ends of the attic.

Spring officially begins today, signaling the time to start on projects around the house. So what to do? Since I work at the University’s Cooperative Extension Service, I have some helpful suggestions. Not only that, but these suggestions are in a high priority order. That means what’s at the top of the list is the most effective thing to do, and doing those things first saves the most money. All this comes from our publication “Tips on Insulting an Existing Home”, available on our website ( or by calling 474-7201.

This checklist assumes that you are starting with a fairly standard existing house relative to energy features: for example, an uninsulated basement: 2x4 walls insulated with R-11 fiberglass; a flat ceiling insulated with R-19 fiberglass; insulated-glass windows or single-pane windows with storm windows; a relatively leaky 5-7 air changes per hour at 50 pascals (ACH50), and an atmospherically vented furnace or boiler. The checklist starts with easy, low-cost measures, and includes progressively more costly or difficult measures.

So here’s the list of winning actions for warming up the home team:

- Air seal foundations and attics. Identify and seal major holes in the foundation and attic; patch holes in ducts through unconditioned spaces.

- Fix moisture problems and insulate basement walls.

- Air seal the house; weatherstrip windows and doors. Be aware that tightening up a house can lead to higher moisture levels that may have to be dealt with.

- Add insulation to the attic, but air seal the attic first! It is best to install attic insulation by blowing it on top of the old insulation. This adds insulation value and fills voids in the insulation blanket.

- Insulate the water heater. If you haven’t already done this, it is always a good idea. Water heater insulation blankets can be purchased at many local building supply stores.

- Tune up the heating system, inspect it and ensure that the mechanical systems are in top working order, efficient and reliable. This is always a good plan when we need the heat so much!

- Finally, a good idea but expensive, is to replace your boiler or furnace. This is especially wise if it is more than 20 years old. Newer boilers and systems are more efficient than the older models and you should buy a heating system with its own air supply directly from outdoors and with a closed exhaust, so that it cannot be “back drafted”. This can occur if the exhaust stack is not sealed from possible negative pressure from other appliances such as a clothes dryer.

This checklist gives you some money-saving ideas for getting started with your own retrofit. Visit the Cooperative Extension website or give our office a call for more information.

Rich Seifert is Energy and Housing Specialist for the Cooperative Extension Service at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. His professional mission is to retrofit Alaska's homes with insulation for the future, and helping Alaska to a sustainable economic future.