Low-No Money Saving Insulation Solutions

“The cold night will turne vs all to Fooles, and Madmen.” – William Shakespeare, King Lear

Has anyone coined the phrase, Low-No? As in low or no cost. You know, like Bo-Go (buy one get one free). If this isn’t a thing, it should be. Maybe a catchy spelling like Lo-No will help it gain traction – eliminate the W and the conjunction and everyone saves time, right?

Anyway, this post covers some Lo-No insulation fixes for that time in the very near future when tumbling temperatures will spur our furnaces, boilers, and heat pumps into action. Whether your house is a 500 square foot cabin in the woods or a modern-day mansion, understanding the basics of heating and insulating will help you save money and be more comfortable. Let it not be said that we at Virginia Dwelling aren’t doing all we can to keep temperature-induced madness at bay.

Heating: The Basics

Since permanent structures became a thing, the equation for keeping a home warm in the winter has gone something like this: the colder the temperature outside, the more fuel is burned inside. Let’s use an example to illustrate:

As most Winchester residents know, future first president George Washington was stationed here as a surveyor, overseeing the construction of Fort Loudoun from September 1755 to December 1756. Growing up with milder low-country winters, we can imagine that Washington was keenly aware of the sometimes wrathful Winchester Winters. Now, if it was a relatively mild day, say forty-five degrees, Washington may have only thrown three or four logs on the fire. Alternatively, if the temperature dropped down to the single digits, he-of-wooden-teeth may have had to put dozens of logs on the fire. Even with tremendous technological advancements this basic equation has stayed the same over time. In the nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century, the winter-weary would simply shovel more coal into the boiler the colder it got. When fuel was relatively cheap, these spikes in consumption were acceptable.

Pre-WWII postcard of Washington’s Headquarters published by the Boston Public Library: https://www.digitalcommonwealth.org/search/commonwealth:pk02cj02w

Rising Fuel Prices and Insulation Levels:

Since roughly the end of the Second World War, homes have been built with ever-increasing levels of insulation. You still may be inclined to turn up the thermostat at a certain point, but the goal nowadays is to keep as much conditioned air in the house as possible. Door are a good example of this shift in thinking. In George Washington’s day, a primary function of the door was security. If it kept bears, raccoons, and robbers out of the house, it was a good door. Today doors are an integral part of a house’s insulation system, and they need to keep weather and conditioned air in. The ever-increasing cost of fuel, be it electricity, petroleum based, or carbon based, has created a need for better, more effective insulation systems.

As numerous teachers hammered into my addled adolescent mind, the laws of physics don’t change. The lower the temperature the more fuel is needed. But the more well-sealed a house is, the less money has to be spent on heating. For instance, furnaces in townhomes from the late 70s or early 80s are often 60-70k BTUs (don’t worry about the unit of measure). In brand new townhomes of the same size, I often see furnaces between 45-60k BTUs. The effectiveness of modern insulation means that smaller units and less fuel can be used where a larger unit and more fuel were needed to overcome poor heat retention.

Modern insulation contractors have all sorts of ways to seal even old homes, built when insulation was almost an afterthought or much lower than modern standards. Most home owners will recover the investment they make in insulation upgrades, including windows and doors, within a finite amount of time. This said, without having more insulation blown in the attic or replacing the windows, a number of things can be done to help seal your house.

Innumerable studies on home heat loss have been done. Want to spend a week reading about heat loss? You can! But just in case you don’t, I’ll tell you that air leaks account for somewhere between 15% – 30% of the heat loss in a given home. This of course varies depending on age, condition, and size. The following are places I frequently find air leaks when I’m inspecting.

What You Can Do: Air Leaks

Close your windows. Seriously. I’m not kidding. I’d guess that 75% of the houses I inspect have at least one window that isn’t completely shut. Security concerns aside, an open window, obviously, lets conditioned air out.[1] Windows remain open for a number of reasons. They can get stuck, and even new windows can be difficult to latch. With double-hung windows the top sash often falls down and nobody notices because it’s behind a curtain or blinds. Even a few millimeters of opening, however, can make a difference. Most of the open windows I find are in seldom used rooms or areas like “guest rooms” that are really just repositories for all the stuff “I just need a chance to sort through” or the basement window behind “all those boxes I’ve been asking your father to move for years”. The point, of course, is to take fifteen minutes and make sure all your windows are shut.[2]

Look for upper sashes that have slipped down. Even an opening this small can let out a surprising amount of air.

Check the weatherstripping around the doors. Do this by looking for daylight and by using your hand to feel for temperature differences. When it drops below freezing you’ll feel the cold air knifing through any gap it can find. Weatherstripping is relatively cheap and easy to install. The key, as with painting, is good surface preparation. Foam and rubber seals are most effective on smooth, clean surfaces. Remember, too, that the passage door to the garage or the basement (if unfinished) is an exterior door as well. More tutorials on installing weatherstripping than you’ll even need can be found on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=Install+weatherstripping

Misaligned or damaged weatherstripping only LOOKS negligible.

Ok. Now for a more subtle leak: the fireplace. Most homes don’t rely on fireplaces as a primary source of heat anymore, meaning that they can go unattended for weeks, months, or even years. Where the firebox (part where the actual fire is) meets the chimney, there should be a damper. The damper is essentially a metal lid on a hinge that gets closed when the fireplace is not in use to keep weather out and conditioned air inside. I find open dampers all the time. Last winter, I did a pre-sale inspection for a very nice lady who asked me why her living room was always so cold.[3] The room had a grand fireplace and, as you can guess, the damper was open – rusted open actually. If I remember correctly, the damper was 24×8”. Make no mistake, a 24×8” hole will let some cold air into a room! Close the damper, and if you have a fireplace that you never use, it might make sense to stuff some insulation under the damper to restrict air-flow even further.

Consider stuffing some insulation into unused flues.

Another sneaky spot where air leaks out is around attic access hatches or, in older homes, doors. With most unconditioned attics the insulation is between the rafters / trusses and the ceiling below. This makes the hatch a hole in that layer of insulation. The way to address this is by insulating the attic side of the hatch and installing weather stripping around the lip where the hatch sits – essentially you treat the hatch as an exterior door.

Treat attic access hatches like exterior doors when it comes to sealing and insulating.

The Takeaway:

These are easy, cheap or free things that can be done to seal up your house. Insulation contractors and window / door contractors are usually needed to thoroughly upgrade a house’s insulation system. But, as I’ve discussed elsewhere, arresting air movement is central to insulating. Without openings to the exterior, the air movement in the house will decrease. This will, in turn, help keep heated air in the house.

With a little work and not a lot of budget you can save a few bucks on heating this winter and splurge on that second carton of eggnog this holiday season!

  • Joe

[1] I believe it is the Second Law of Thermodynamics that describes how different temperatures seek to equalize.

[2] If you have in-window AC units, removing them before Halloween is also a good call.

[3] It’s always a good idea to ply your home inspector with coffee.