Sunday, January 23, 2011

Wanna see something scary?

Though lately I have been wrapped up in toilets and insulation and HVAC systems, thinking this will be our next big home improvement project, this past week I was reminded of that old adage "Expect the unexpected." The unexpected is, thankfully, not so major a project--just one that must be completed as soon as possible. And if I am truthful, it was not completely unexpected; we had been warned during our home inspection, and kind of had our fingers crossed that we wouldn't have to deal with it so soon.

We had two snow days this week, and while the boys were out playing, B decided to knock the icicles from the eaves. To do this, he stood on the post of our side porch--

Similar to this one

and then immediately found himself on the ground, with no icicle in hand, as the post essentially disintegrated (he was completely fine, and to his credit promptly confessed to his misdeeds).

All the trim fell right off

Around the bottom too

Dry rot we knew about, and probably ancient termite damage as well

C has wedged a board between the porch floor and ceiling to help keep it supported.  The good news: the whole post may not have to be replaced, but instead can be repaired; the rot does not appear to extend through the whole piece.  I also walked around the rest of the porch, stabbing rails and posts with a screwdriver--it all seems fine, except for needing a new coat of paint.

The culprit in this dry rot is most likely our gutter, which, when it dams up with leaves or snow, sends a steady drip of water right down the length of the post. This will have to be remedied as well.

Hopefully we will have our rotten post repaired and good as new in the next week or so!

Saturday, January 15, 2011

And Toto Too?

Yes, and Toto too. But not the dog--the toilet. Last post (sorry it has been so long; I'll fill you in on my insulation/heating saga next time) I mentioned we were expecting a delivery; it was indeed a toilet. A WaterSense, dual-flush Toto Aquia toilet, to be exact.

When C and I went to Italy four years ago, they had these dual-flush toilets everywhere we went, and I thought they were kind of nifty. The idea is that you have a small flush for #1 and a bigger flush for #2 to save water. Sounds logical, right? That's not to say they don't take some getting used to--the water spot is much smaller, and you may have to work on your aim to hit said spot accurately for an optimum flushing experience, if you get my meaning...But if my boys have been able to figure it out, believe me, anyone can.

New toilet in powder room

That button on top is the flush

Little button on left is #1 flush, bug button on right is #2 flush
C installed the toilet in a few hours and found it surprisingly headache-free. The whole experience, from install to actual usage, has in fact been so pleasant we plan on ordering two more for the upstairs bathrooms.

We are continuing our quest to weatherproof the house; this morning we were out buying door sweeps and cans of spray foam and the like. I spent the afternoon placing foam pads inside all the outlet covers and switch plates, some of which were quite breezy indeed. C was working on replacing our few remaining incandescents with CFLs, and will probably be hitting the basement for some projects tomorrow.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Some energy tips and what we've accomplished so far

Lately I've been discussing some pretty large projects to improve the efficiency and comfort of our home, but at the end of his report, Brian left us with a list of easy, inexpensive (or free!) ways we could start making changes today. Without any further ado:

--Lower the set point on your thermostat during heating season. When you aren't home (at work, or on vacation), and while you sleep, you could set it back 5 degrees or more. While you are home, try just setting it one degree lower than usual--it might save you 3% on your bills. If you have a programmable thermostat, it makes all these changes easier, of course.

--In the winter, try to capture any warmth from the sun that shines in your windows by opening curtains and blinds. Conversely, if it is dark or cloudy, shutting the drapes reduces heat loss from the room out that same window. In the summer, best to keep blinds down on sunny hot days so you don't overheat your home (and make your cooling system work that much harder).

--Get your systems serviced on a regular recommended schedule; at the very least change/clean any filters to keep things running clean.

--Shut and lock windows in the winter---it helps make a tighter air seal.

--Lower the set point  on your water heater 5-10 degrees (only if you never run out of hot water). Another thing to look out for---some dishwashers require a certain water temp, so you don't want to go below that.

--Switch out your shower heads for high efficiency ones---they aerate the water so the pressure is good, but you cut water use up to 50%.

--Another bigger project, but if the timing is right: switch out your toilet for one with a WaterSense label. They use 20% less water than current standards but work just as well, and could save you thousands of dollars over the use of the toilet.

--Putting an aerator in your existing sink faucet or getting a new WaterSense faucet could also save you in water usage and hot water bills.

So there you have it--hopefully you will have found at least one of these tips useful!

As I mentioned, we have already started the process in our quest to tighten our house (sorry I keep saying that--it just reminds me of the scene in Knocked Up when Katherine Heigl is not so much told to lose weight--which is illegal--but instead is told to "tighten").  Before the audit, we had already decided we had to replace our screen doors. Both of them had been damaged by our dog since our arrival, and they weren't in the best shape to begin with. They also did nothing as far as keeping out the cold winds blowin'.

The other one looked the same, but had chicken wire for a screen.
We had to order custom sizes (since nothing in this house is regular), and even so, C had to do some creative shaving here and there to make them fit (and all with a minimum of swearing; in fact, there was even whistling!), but let me tell you, these doors are awesome! They have retractable screens on the top, so we can have as much or as little screen showing as we like:

Retractable screen
These doors are also thick and substantial, and when they are closed they create a powerful vacuum that seals out everything; it even makes our interior doors more difficult to open. We went from feeling drafts blowing around these doors from across the room to feeling nothing at all using just the storm door! Definitely an improvement.

The door---we initially preferred a solid (not glass) bottom, but this was the only style available in custom sizes.
Thursday afternoon we expect delivery of another energy saver--I'll fill you in then!

Monday, January 3, 2011

Energy Recommendations

Last post I went over the many holes (figurative and literal) in our home's energy use. Obviously there is much room for improvement, both in energy conservation and financial considerations. We're looking for a good balance of both, with an added desire for an increase in our family's day-to-day comfort. And yes, we realize all of this could have been avoided if we'd built a new house, or even bought one built after 1940 when most houses were built with insulated walls standard---but we love this house, so what could we do?

I'll start with a recommendation that I am 100% sure we will not be doing, at least not in the foreseeable future, and that is replacing the original windows with new Energy Star models. Yes, we have air leakage around the pulleys, and yes, they are single pane, but we have exterior storms for the winter and can weather strip/caulk on the inside if need be. Our reasoning to nix the new windows is two fold: 1) we really like the originals and 2) it will cost a ton of money for measly savings. According to our report, laying out tens of thousands of dollars in windows would save us only about $300 a year on our bills and 5% in energy usage. In our opinion, not enough bang for the lotsa bucks.

So what DOES give us the most bang? The winner for cost savings is attic insulation! We would not only reduce our energy use by 23%, but also get back 36% of the project cost in yearly savings. When you combine this with the air sealing (also done in the attic, as well as the basement), we cut our use by an additional 6% and recoup an extra 18% of our project outlay. The project would entail using closed cell spray foam to seal attic leaks and basement rim joists; removing the whole house fan and patching the ceiling; building dry wall boxes around the recessed lights; and insulating the attic door. Additional insulation (R-39) would then be installed with our existing R-11 to bring us up to (actually slightly over) the recommended R-49 for our area. This is definitely on our to-do list.

Now we come to the wall insulation (tops in cutting energy usage, and also helpful in reducing air leakage). This is tricky, as we are not about to gut the place. Brian proposes a dense pack cellulose to be blown into the walls. This can be done from the interior of the house, but drawbacks include holes every 16" in every room/hallway of the house, which then need to be patched and painted. Oh, and there's all the dust and moving furniture around, too. It can also be done from the exterior of the home, which is less messy and disruptive, but this method has its own cons. A row of siding all the way around the house must be removed on each floor; holes are then drilled and patched. The potential problem comes with reinstallation of the siding--ours is aluminum and who knows how old; if it were to crimp, bend,  or be otherwise ruined, we'd have to get new siding to match, which will most likely be darn near impossible and leave us with two discolored bands wrapping around the house, as well as the additional expenses siding replacement would entail.

There is a third option, mentioned by Brian during the audit, which we are hoping works for our home; blowing the insulation into the wall cavities from the attic and basement. The one drawback to this method is that coverage may be less thorough, and we may feel cold spots or experience settling. Our feeling? It's got to be better than nothing, which is what we have now. Insulating the walls could reduce our energy usage by 36% and we'd see a yearly return in savings of 28%.

All of this work is leading up to the big kahuna---putting in some form of a central heating/cooling system. But which kind of system is best for us? I have considered three: a ductless minisplit heat pump; a traditional heat pump, and a geothermal heat pump. With any of these, we'd also be replacing our water heater (15% yearly cost savings, lower energy use by 5%). To be honest, the first one is a non-starter; there is a huge benefit in not needing ducts, but neither C nor I is thrilled with the look of those blowers hanging off the walls ("no better than our window a/c units" says C), and they appear to work better with a more open floor plan anyway. The cost of such a system falls between the other two options, and the energy savings are comparable to a traditional system (16%), but in terms of monetary savings, it's just 4.9% a year of what we'd spend to install it.

Option two is the traditional heat pump. Many of our neighbors have successfully had these installed in their older homes, usually with one unit in the attic and one in the basement, and ducts running up and down through closets. As mentioned above, we'd see a 16% reduction in energy use, but the highest savings; while it chops less off our utility bills than the split system, the initial outlay is smaller so we'd see about 6% back per year. This is probably the most straightforward, practical option.

Option three is geothermal, or using the earth as a heat source/sink. These systems can be extremely efficient, but it is by far the most expensive choice upfront. Our energy usage would be reduced by a whopping 33%, and we'd see almost double the yearly savings as the first two options; however, due to the higher initial costs, this works out to just about 5.5%.  There is also a 30% tax credit for these systems through 2016, as well as other incentives offered by our state, which help defray the costs. I think this is the way we'd like to go, if drilling/excavating our yard is feasible and we can get our home "tight" enough to make it worthwhile.

We will be getting estimates for all of this sealing/insulation work in the coming weeks, and hope to have it complete by the spring, when we can start getting estimates for both traditional and geothermal heat pumps.

I've kept you all long enough--I'll pass on those DIY tips tomorrow, along with a few steps we've already taken that have really helped on the draftiness front!

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Happy New Year...and energy audit results!

Sorry it has been so long since my last post; lots of travelling the past two weeks! I do have lots to share, so I will probably be posting more frequently in the next few days. Thrilling, yes? Let's get started.

We received the energy audit report on December 23rd, like an early Christmas present (or not). Since Brian had kept us informed of most findings during the walk through, nothing was too surprising, but it was still a bit of a shock to see all of our facts and figures in black and white. Like how much we spend each year in oil and electricity, even without central air and even with keeping the thermostats at 62 in the winter.

First item in the report: our HERS (Home Energy Rating System) Score, calculated with EPA Accredited software. A 100 means your home is built to current code; an 85 gets you an Energy Star rating---the lower the score, the more efficient the home, in other words. So what did we get? Maybe a 90, or a 104? No. A 147. So, uh, we're pretty inefficient over here. Knew that, but still, it's a bit embarrassing.

Good news! We passed all of our safety tests for carbon monoxide and the like. So at least we are not dealing with danger here, just comfort and cost.

Insulation--ack. Here are some figures for you: our ceiling (attic) currently has an R-value of 11; should be 49. Our basement ceiling is currently at 19; should be 25. And the walls, both basement and above ground? Should be 15-20; we currently have a big fat ZERO. So clearly a lot to be done here.

Air leakage: an average home in our area has an Air Change per Hour rate of .45-.60. Ours is .74---so pretty leaky. We're losing air through the recessed lights on the second floor; rim joists in the basement; first floor windows (original to the house and unlikely to be replaced);  the whole house fan (which should be replaced with a newer tighter model or removed altogether); and again, the fact that the walls are not insulated.

Our oil boiler was determined to be working at 83% efficiency; this could probably be improved with some good maintenance/cleaning. I have been on the waiting list for service since the end of October---perhaps I should give them a call tomorrow to see what's up? We use the oil furnace to heat our hot water as well, and while this is fine in the winter when the boiler is running anyway, it is much less efficient in the summer.

More good news! We are mostly good on appliances and lighting, having installed Energy Star appliances in the kitchen and switched most of our bulbs to CFLs. I know there is some debate on the worth of an Energy Star label, and CFLs have their own issues (disposal, the fact that they need to warm up), but hopefully these changes are at least saving us a few pennies here and there. I am trying to be better about unplugging my computer at night too!

Here is one last statistic from our home--the Energy Usage Disaggregation. This is a breakdown of how we use our energy (heating, cooling, lights/appliances, and hot water) and what percent of our energy bills goes to each. In our neck of the woods, we obviously spend more on heating than cooling, but still--get a load of these numbers:

Cooling (with window a/c units, if anything)   5%
Lights and appliances (apparently about average for our area)   9%
Hot water (high for our area, probably due to inefficiency in the summer)  8%
Heating (combo of oil and electric, thermostats set to avg of 62)  78 %

That 78% is why we scheduled this audit in the first place. Well, the fact that it's 78% of  "what do you mean they are already filling the tank again?" and not 78% of well, anything less.

Tomorrow I will go over the recommendations for our home, as well as provide some of Brian's energy saving tips anyone can implement immediately--see you then!