Insulation: all seasons’ top strategy

Posted Aug. 14, 2010, at 12:47 a.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2011, at 12:47 p.m.

Time to talk winter.

The days are getting shorter and summer is basically done. Are you ready yet?

About 20 years ago, when we were new in radio, another show host referred to our program as “that show that tells you how to insulate your house.”

That’s about it. You insulate in good times to be comfortable and insulate in bad times so you can afford to be comfortable. His description was a little one-dimensional, but I accept it.

Conservation is the simplest and most cost-effective way to make a house affordable and livable in any climate.

Since I live in a house that some might consider woefully overinsulated, I am questioned about the cost effectiveness of my decisions.

Our house is insulated to a minimum of R-65 in the walls and ceiling. I did use standard windows and doors. The windows are off the shelf, low E, argon gas-filled units that are double hung. All the doors are insulated fiberglass.

Only minor attention was paid to solar orientation. Fortunately, the best views are to the south and the poorest ones are north, so we have a lot of south-facing glazing. In fact, a little too much, but I like the view.

All these conservation measures yield a heat and hot water usage of about 200-250 gallons of oil a year. Not as low as I would like, but not bad. We do not use oil anymore. It is there for backup, but we use from 1 to 1.5 cords of wood a year.

That equals a ton to a ton and a half of wood pellets.

I am, however, not happy with this situation. Burning this amount of wood is not bad, but I would like to use more solar. The use of solar for space and hot-water heating is a very good fit in a highly insulated house.

The addition of 200-plus square feet of solar collector will knock off about 200-400 gallons of oil-equivalent heat a year.

You are probably wondering why I would consider installing a solar system that can generate up to 400 gallons of oil energy in a house that only needs 250 gallons of oil heat a year.

Well, mostly because the sun does not shine quite as much in the most serious heating months. Only 100-200 gallons of this solar-oil energy will be available in the heating season. This will, however, halve the heating cost of the house. The wood use gets cut in half. I like that.

A sunny day would not require any wood-burning to keep the house warm since the heat is stored for later use.

When someone is installing a solar space heating system, they must consider how they might use the excess heat that is generated in the summer.

A solar heated pool would be a nice choice.

Years ago, many folks who were into building homes with much higher insulation values than the standard minimums were viewed with great skepticism. They endorsed R-40 walls and R-40-60 ceilings.

About 10 years ago, it seemed logical to increase beyond R-40. I calculated R-60 seemed to be a better number for wall insulation. It can be done affordably with foam and fairly conventional construction.

Some builders are getting to this level and most attic standards are headed to the R-60-90 level.

The problem area is windows. Conventional R-3 windows can represent more than half the heat load of these buildings.

I like using stock materials and not having to import some of the wonderful, expensive windows and doors that are being made in Europe.

One approach is to install low E storm windows over new windows. Another approach that I have tried is to actually install two sets of conventional windows in a window opening. This can be tricky since you can build up heat and cause some problems.

There are triple-glazed windows that look appealing, but they are certainly heavy and expensive.

There are also multiple-layer windows with plastic inner layers. I want to see how these stand up to the test of time. This type of window was made in the past and some of them had issues. Plastic and sunlight do not always get along when it comes to windows.

Insulated window coverings can help tremendously while offering interesting interior design options.

At this point in time, windows will stay as they are. There is no imperative for me to change them. But it is time to get some solar collectors built — before the snow hits.

I will still get the cord and a half ready, just in case.

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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