As cold weather sets in, have you noticed cold seeping through your closed windows or a draft sneaking under the door? If so, you may be just a few easy steps away from a warmer, more comfortable home and a lower heating bill.
Some home weatherization techniques take just a few materials and simple instructions, as well as a little investigating to discover what needs to be sealed and insulated.
“Both the attic and basement are key focus areas,” said Andy Meyer, a residential program manager for Efficiency Maine, the independent administrator for energy efficiency programs in Maine. “In the basement is where air comes in, and the attic is where it goes out. Both are bad.”
Meyer said there are several benefits of hiring a professional to weatherize your home, especially in complex cases, such as buildings that need insulation replacement. But there are also plenty of things homeowners can do themselves to improve their home’s ability to keep out the cold.
Quick insulation jobs
A good percentage of a house’s heat can escape through windows, even when they’re closed. To prevent this, one inexpensive option is to insulate your existing windows with a plastic film made specifically for the purpose. Available at local hardware stores and online, this film insulation is clear so it doesn’t obstruct your view or block light. Some is designed to adhere to the window frame (away from the glass of the window) using tape. Other films are designed to be applied directly onto the glass using a hair dryer.
Another quick way to prevent heat from escaping your home is by installing foam insulating gaskets behind wall outlets and switch covers found on external walls of your home, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Cold air often seeps through these holes in the wall.
Ventilation is important
One of the most effective ways to weatherize your home is by finding and sealing off cracks where air is entering or escaping a home. However, before you seal off air leaks, it’s important to assess your home’s ventilation, which will likely require the help of a professional.
In a home that doesn’t have proper ventilation, sealing air leaks can sometimes seal contaminants into your home such as formaldehyde, carbon monoxide and radon, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. It can also trap moisture into the building, which can result in the formation of mold.
Therefore, in a home that is sealed up tight (without an “natural ventilation” through cracks), mechanical ventilation — exhaust fans and in some cases, air ducts — is necessary.
Finding air leaks
Once you’re comfortable with your home’s ventilation, it’s time to look for air leaks. Starting outside your house, visually inspect all areas where two building materials meet for cracks or gaps, the U.S. Department of Energy suggests. Then move indoors and do the same thing. Indoors, you can also use your hand to feel for cold drafts to verify that the crack is indeed a spot where air is leaking in.
The top 10 trouble spots for air leaks, according to Efficiency Vermont, are exterior door frames, window frames, outlets and switches, attic entrances, ducts, plumbing and electrical penetrations throughout the home, sill plates, outdoor water faucets, recessed lights and cracks and seams in the ceiling. Other areas to check include where the chimney meets siding, baseboards and the home’s foundation.
“[In the basement], they should look at the junction of where the wooden house meets the cement,” Meyer said. “That’s called the sill plate. They can also look for where there are cobwebs. Spiders build their nests where there are drafts.”
Sealing air leaks
The most common material to seal air leaks is caulking, which is a waterproof filler that hardens when it dries and usually comes in a long tube with a nozzle. Caulking comes in a variety of colors and forms, including clear and white caulking, for aesthetic purposes. It can also be easily smoothed out so it blends into woodwork.
To seal windows, people often coat the edge of window panes with glaze, a putty that holds the pane in place and blocks out the weather. Over time, the window’s glaze breaks down and needs to be replaced.
And for old windows with gaps around the moving part of the window, Meyers suggests using a removable caulking so it can be peeled away come spring and you can open your window once more.
Add weather stripping to doors
Weather stripping is a strip of material that is placed around the edges of doors and sometimes windows to keep out drafts. There are several varieties, including stripping made of vinyl, felt and rubber. Some weather strips fit into groves of door frames, others adhere and others are meant to be screwed or nailed down.
Vital Communities, a nonprofit organization based in Vermont, suggests adding weatherstrips to all exterior doors, as well as doors to cold cellars, crawl spaces and attics. The organization offers several energy saving tips online to help the communities they serve in the Upper Connecticut River Valley of Vermont and New Hampshire, where it gets plenty cold in the winter.
One door people often forget to add weather stripping to is the attic hatch, which Meyer said is one of the most important doors of all. Air often escapes through the attic, and therefore, the attic hatch.
“You won’t feel it like you would a draft coming in,” Meyer said. “It’s leaking out, and it may be why your first floor is cold. It’s sucking air up from the basement.”
Meyer suggests adding weather stripping around the hatch, and he said that professionals will often also add a latch, to keep the hatch shut tight, and insulation to the top of the hatch.
Turning to professionals
If you’re experiencing serious heat loss in your home, an energy audit from a professional may be the wisest course of action, Meyers said. Energy audits usually involve “a blower door test,” which involves using a fan to pull air out of a house, lowering the air pressure inside, which then causes air from outside to rush through cracks and openings, revealing leaks. Energy auditors detect these leaks with infrared scanning and smoke pens, which emit small puffs of smoke to show air movement.
“Many homeowners sit next to a window, feel a cold draft and will invest money in replacing windows when that may not be the problem,” Meyers said. “It may be they needed caulking around the windows or the cold in coming in from somewhere else. An energy auditor could have told them that.”
Many states have programs that offer tax credits, savings and rebates for home energy audits. For example, Efficiency Maine offers a $400 air sealing and energy audit rebate with a $200 minimum copay, as well as rebates on professional insulation projects.
“When to hire a professional and when to do it yourself — it depends on the upgrade,” Meyers said. “For more complex measures, there are advantages to hiring a professional.”