Wednesday, September 2, 2009

September Frugal Action Item: Insulate

September's Frugal Action Item could be a relatively costly one. Back in June I suggested that those of you who own vehicles "re-invest" some savings to reduce your insurance premiums. I know we haven't had all that many months to build up another pile of savings. But with cold weather coming on again, I'm going to urge you to think hard about improving the energy efficiency of your home. If we wait much longer, it'll be too cold outside (in my part of the world at least) to undertake some of these projects. The good news is that if heating is a major expense for your home, every dollar spent on improving energy efficiency will start paying dividends very quickly.

Because I try hard to come up with Frugal Action Items that suit both renters and homeowners, I've included a few low-cost hacks that will help a little bit with heat loss around windows. But those homeowners who can scrounge up the money to make significant improvements in insulation around the house will see the best return on investment over the long term. We covered pipe insulation back in January, so I won't rehash that here. Instead we'll look at the bigger scale insulation projects.

Basement - If you live in a home with an unfinished or semi-finished basement, the walls are radiating cold during the winter months. Depending on where you live, that could be a whole lotta cold. This is great if you want to portion off one part of it and turn it into a root cellar. But not so great if it simply produces a chilly air mass under your living space. For this sort of project, you'll probably do best to have professionals in for insulation and air sealing.

Attic - Most homes in the US do not have sufficient insulation in the attic space, if there is one. And doubly true for old homes. Fortunately, this is usually one of the easier parts of the home to insulate. Since most attics are used only occasionally it's also one of the less disruptive insulation jobs. Best of all, since hot air rises, insulating above the living space of your home is extremely effective in cutting the heating bill. If you're willing to get a little dirty, this is a project you might be able to tackle on your own. Get a good handyman reference book out of the library to guide you.

Blown-in insulation - This is one of the more disruptive and intrusive type of remedial insulation, addressing heat loss that should have been dealt with when the home was constructed. Basically, it involves filling the spaces between either floor joists or wall studs with loose material that prevents heat from leaking through the walls. A lot of the rentals I lived in in a warmer climate had no insulation whatsoever in the walls. If you've bought such a property, you're paying more to heat your home than you should. Obviously, if you already have insulation between the studs in your walls, no action is needed.

Windows - Window replacement is one of the most expensive insulation projects we can undertake. Really, we're talking some serious outlay of cash here. If you have an old house with single pane windows, you're probably losing quite a bit of heat through them. But replacing them is going to cost dearly too. And replacing a window isn't one of those jobs around the home that I would recommend for a DIY-er. Unless you already have quite a bit of experience doing this job, it needs to be hired out. A poorly installed window could lead to more heat loss and water damage around the window frame, not to mention aggravation and marital discord. If the money isn't in the budget to replace all your windows, consider replacing those located closest to your heating source, if you happen to have a woodstove or other single source of heat. After that, prioritize those windows in the rooms most heavily used during the heating season.

If you have drafty or old windows but simply don't have the money to replace them, here are a few lower cost suggestions. Even if you're a renter, these hacks could be worth your time and effort.

Silicone caulking - this stuff is cheap and easy enough to use that just about anyone can learn to do it. You can use it to seal up cracks around window or door frames. Even if you have modern, well installed windows, you might have some air leaks. Anywhere you see cobwebs, that's an indicator that there's airflow. So when you find them near windows, look to see where that airflow is coming from.

Kathie posted quite a while back at Women Not Dabbling In Normal about a sewing project for window quilts. While this blocks a great deal of light, it also helps keep out the chill radiating from windows in the winter, and helps block drafts if you've got them. This could be a very cheap project if you repurpose the needed fabric and batting, and if you're already a somewhat competent sewer. Although each window quilt is fitted to the window it's made for, if you're a renter, you can take these with you when you leave and either use them as is, or alter them to fit windows in your new location.

Shrink-sealing window kits - These cheap and semi-permanent window seals can help with old windows that leak heat like a sieve. You can find these sorts of kits at a hardware store for not too much expense, and install them around your windows in an afternoon. You'll need a hairdryer, and if you don't dust much you'll need to make sure the window trim is cleaned off. Beyond that, no expertise is required, so any adult could manage this. If your windows lack a wooden frame, or if that frame is blocked by some other architectural feature, it may be tricky or difficult, but you could probably hack something if you put your mind to it.

Effectively, these shrink kits add a pane to your window. So single pane windows become double pane, and double panes become triple pane windows. I used these kits during my student rental days and they helped enormously. Once installed, these seals aren't all that noticeable, and they block no light. So they're suitable for just about any leaky window in your home. The kits are cheap enough that you could take them down each year in spring and replace them each fall, though it's better in the long run to just upgrade your windows.

Finally, the ultimate cheap window insulating hack is simply to lightly mist the pane of glass with water and then place a cut-to-fit piece of bubble wrap over it. The water helps the bubble wrap stick to the glass, but if you have trouble with this, you could try adding a bit of dishwashing soap to the water before spraying the glass. This is cheaper and less labor intensive than the window quilts. It also lets more light come through. It doesn't look too great, I have to admit, and it only covers the cold glass; it doesn't do anything much about drafts. But if you have windows which usually have blinds drawn in front of them anyway, it won't change the appearance of the room.

Doors - If you don't have proper exterior doors on your home with good weather stripping, replacing them should be very high on your list. Interior doors are not made with weather or security in mind. On the other hand, replacing an exterior door that's in decent shape just because it's old or you find it ugly probably isn't going to make much difference for your heating or cooling costs. Upgrading an older exterior door might save you $15 over the course of a year, but you'd get a better bang for your buck with a different efficiency project. It is however worth checking the frame around your door for air leaks, just as recommended for window frames.

If you live in the US, one thing to keep in mind before beginning any insulation upgrade to your home is that many of these expenses can reduce your income taxes. Tax credits for 30% of the cost, up to $1500, are available for various energy efficiency home projects. If you live in another country and can link to any tax credits or incentives available in the comments, I'd appreciate it.

New to these Frugal Action Items? More here:

January: Compact Fluorescent Bulbs & Hot Water Pipe Insulation
February: Kitchen Competence
March: Rein In Entertainment Spending
April: Go Paper-less
May: Solar Dryer
June: Increase the Deductible on Your Auto Insurance
July: Stay Cool Without Touching that Thermostat
August: Repair It!
October: Preventative Health Care
November: Frugal Holiday Wish List
December: Plan Next Year's Garden


Wendy said...

I can't say enough about what a fantastic idea this one is! After living many years in this house and being resigned to the fact that it was just cold and difficult to heat, and we just had to deal with it, we did a renovation project and discovered that there was no insulation in the attic above our kitchen - of all places (before the renovation, there was no access to that area).

We fixed it, and the difference has been incredible - and the cost savings? Well, let's just say that we heated our entire house with wood last year - most of which was given to us for the cost of our labor to haul it, split it and stack it ;), and the temperature in the kitchen, which is a room away from the wood stove, stayed at about 70° even when I wasn't cooking (most of which I did on the wood stove anyway :).

Kimberly said...

We used the window insulation kits on our North windows last year and it made a huge difference.

Kate said...

Wendy, I know - it's amazing, isn't it? We have an old farmhouse that was built about 130 years ago. We're fortunate that the previous owner addressed a lot of issues with the house, but there's still plenty for us to do. I think that as more people come to realize that the home they're in is probably going to be theirs for some time to come, the nation as a whole will get more serious about remedial insulation and energy efficiency.

Kimberly, I found them very effective too. Thanks for adding your experience though. I've seen some negative reviews of those kits and couldn't understand why. They worked great as far as I could tell.

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Sadge said...

Sewing up draft dodgers for your exterior doors is a simple, inexpensive way to help keep warm air in and cold air out. We also use a sheet of rigid foam insulation cut to fit inside the bottom half of the frame of an old glass sliding door:

Anonymous said...

I'd like to put in a good word for window insulation kits myself. We used them in our house in Ontario, Canada where we'd get incredible cold and wind off the frozen lake. Those things make a huge difference!

Kate said...

PES, thanks.

Sadge, I remember seeing that fitted foam on your blog quite a while ago. Pretty cool idea.

Anon, thanks for chiming in to share your experience with the window sealers. I plan to get them on a few of our windows later this month.

Tracy said...

We bought the shrinking seal window kits last night and have so far installed it in the maste bedroom & bath. We'll install more tonight.

We'll get to test out in a couple days as to whether it makes a noticeable diffrence in blocking drafts as the temps are to get down into the 30s at night.

We spent less than $29 at Lowe's for three kits - one for the sliding glass door, and two kits that cover up to five windows each.

Thanks for sharing this, Kate, otherwise I'd have never known about it! :)

Kate said...

Tracy, good for you! Ten windows and a door improved for under $30 seems like a pretty good deal to me. Thanks for letting me know you found this useful.