Grass-roots insulating lessens need for tax credits

Posted Jan. 15, 2010, at 6:49 p.m.

There are a lot of tax credits for energy projects for homeowners. You can install a solar hot water or solar electric system and get a tax credit.

A wood boiler or wood stove can get a tax credit. Insulating your house can get you some tax breaks.

Of course, this presupposes that you make enough money to use the tax credits. Tax credits do not necessarily help low-income people who have cold houses.

I am unsure whether tax credits have as much bang for the buck as our legislators hope they do, but I will leave that for someone smarter than I to figure out.

There are a lot of things that we can do without tax credits. One thing that seems to be occurring as a grass-roots effort here in Maine is the construction of indoor storm windows.

Many churches and civic groups around the state are making inexpensive storm windows with wood and plastic film. These insert on the inside of your existing windows and can cut heat loss significantly. These storm windows cost about a dollar per square foot. This investment will pay for itself in about a year.

When we analyze the heat loss of an average house, the easiest hit for insulating is usually the attic. That is because so many attics are underinsulated, and being big flat areas, they are simple to add insulation to. Attics should be insulated to R-50 or R-60 here in Maine.

Walls also should be insulated. If there is no insulation in the walls, it is not as simple to insulate them as a flat attic, but it must be done.

Once the roof and walls are insulated, windows and doors lose more heat than these other areas. And they are small areas that we can easily deal with.

Many older homes have drafty older windows. And many of these windows have older triple-track aluminum storm windows.

You can replace them, and if you do, be sure to purchase low-E, gas-filled windows with a good warranty from a good manufacturer.

If you cannot afford to replace them, it is pretty easy to tighten them up.

The first thing to do with any window is make sure it is closed. This sounds stupid, but it happens a lot. We get distracted and sometimes miss the simple stuff.

If the windows are closed and latched and still are drafty, you can seal them with removable caulk. This is caulk that can be applied and then removed in the better weather without marring the painted finish on the window.

A more permanent approach is to remove the window stops and the window sash and add some weatherstripping. This is simpler than you might imagine. You can try it on one window and see how it goes.

Another trick that I like is to permanently caulk the top sash in place with some latex caulk. This converts a double-hung window to a single-hung window. The caulk will eliminate any air leakage on the top sash. You have now just eliminated half of the infiltration around that window. Of course, you cannot open the top sash anymore, but how many of us do that anyway? And this is reversible.

That extra layer of glazing that a plastic storm window offers also is a simple project. You can build the ones mentioned earlier or you can install the kits that are sold in hardware stores. These kits use double-faced tape to attach clear plastic to the window. The plastic then is made taut by heating it with a hair dryer.

Another option for windows is using pop-in insulating panels. This is another fairly simple project that anyone can do. By cutting some foam insulation to a size that will insert into the window opening, you are going to at least double the window’s insulation value.

Insulating panels can be covered with fabric and have some handles installed on them for simple installation and removal.

It is important to make them fit well. Weatherstripping would be nice, but it is not critical.

The downside of insulated panels is that you need to put them somewhere when they are out of the windows, but they can stay in windows when you want some privacy too.

All this is simple, increases your home’s comfort, and there is no waiting for tax credits.

Questions for Tom Gocze should be mailed to The Home Page, Bangor Daily News, P.O. Box 1329, Bangor 04402-1329. A library of reference material and a home-project blog are at www.bangordailynews.com/thehomepage.html.

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