Ask Eartha: Keeping homes cozy and energy efficient this winter

Cody Jensen
Ask Eartha
Identifying and sealing air leaks in the home is an affordable way to stay warm during the winter.
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Dear Eartha, I’m always shocked this time of year when my energy bills skyrocket. I do not want to face another season of high bills and a drafty home. Is there anything I can do so my house stays warm and my bills stay low?

It’s that time of year: When the first dusting of snow appears on the peaks of the Tenmile Range, it not only announces a change in seasons but also fosters an uptick in calls regarding energy efficiency. Luckily for locals, satisfying the need for a warm, low-cost home is our specialty. For those eager to find out how to best prepare their homes for winter, I’m excited to share what I’ve learned over the years living and working on homes across the county.

An efficient and cozy mountain home

It’s a universal truth that we want to feel comfortable in our homes. For those who aren’t — whether it’s too cold or drafty — it can be hard to know where to start, and you might not realize that you can do something to fix the situation. More often than not, the friends and neighbors I chat with think that improving their home’s efficiency means expensive upgrades to mechanical systems or replacing windows. Fear not! Energy conservation and comfort are pursuits that should never begin with these pricey fixes. Instead, the energy pros like to focus on simple and affordable projects we call the low-hanging fruit.

Most commonly listed on the top of the priority list for weatherizing homes in Summit County is sealing air leaks. Finding leaks — places where the warm indoor air escapes outside — is a common problem. All those tiny gaps and cracks add up, and a home can leak over half its air every hour under normal mid-winter living conditions. It’s not uncommon for these leaks to account for nearly half a homeowner’s total energy costs.

Why seal air leaks?

With the airtightness of our homes accounting for nearly half our annual energy costs, this one factor of a home’s performance claims the single largest piece of the energy-use pie. Even newly built homes are now required to pass airtightness standards. Air leaks can be found anywhere in a home, and during an air-leakage test, an infrared imaging camera can be used to identify visually where outdoor air is leaking in or indoor air is leaking out.

With an infrared thermal camera, we can even take pictures of these leaks to report their locations to a homeowner or contractor. Once identified, these leaks can often be sealed with weatherstripping, caulk, foam or other sealants. Most often, the largest air leaks do not come from our windows and doors, but rather they come from our attic access panels, window trim, door trim, baseboard trim, outlets and switches, bath fans and lighting fixtures. Any penetration in the home’s thermal perimeter can and often does leak air.

Beyond the obvious inefficiency of losing your heated air to the outdoors, air leaks contribute negatively to our homes in other ways. Where we have air movement, we have moisture movement, as well. Air leakage can bring moisture into our homes in areas we don’t want moisture to accumulate. For this reason, air leaks are considered a long-term building durability concern. Secondly, insulation only performs at its best when there is no air movement present. If you want that expensive insulation upgrade to actually perform well, you better have tightened up the home first to minimize air movement through your insulation layers.

What about air quality?

A popular long-standing argument for a leaky home is that the leaks keep our indoor air fresh and continuously recycled. While it is true that our homes require fresh air to maintain a healthy indoor air quality, we should be bringing in this outdoor air on our terms, where and when we want it.

Sticking to the old building adage, “build tight, ventilate right,” we should first build our home as tight as we possibly can to retain the heated air we paid for. We can then ventilate the home through specific systems to keep things fresh. The best ventilation technology today actually recaptures heat from the outgoing air and dumps it into the fresh air entering the home. These heat-recovery systems keep energy efficiency top of mind as they ensure even the tightest homes are plenty healthy for us to live in.

To learn more about air leaks and how they impact your home, contact the High Country Conservation Center to receive a comprehensive energy audit that includes full leakage testing and infrared imaging.

Cody Jensen

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