Insulating electrical boxes

It’s winter.  Put your hand up to an electrical outlet or light switch in an exterior wall.  Do you feel some cold air coming in?  If so, there is a quick and easy solution.  Pick up a pack of foam outlet and switch covers from a home store and put them behind the plates.  No more air infiltration.  If your electrical boxes are set behind the drywall, it is really that easy.  If you have remodel boxes that sit just proud of the drywall like the one shown above, I find it helps to trim the foam down to size so the plate can fit snugly against the wall.

I put the foam onto the receptacle, press on it to make an imprint of the box on the foam, and then cut around that imprint line.  I leave about an extra millimeter or two around the line to make sure it’s a snug fit and no air can get through.  The edges can be tucked into the box.  If you haven’t turned the power off to the circuit, just be careful not to touch the sides of the receptacle so you don’t get a shock.

Once the plate is back on, it looks just the same as it did before, but no cold air comes through.  It’s a simple and inexpensive way to save a little on heating costs.


Home energy audit

Our local electric utility, Seattle City Light, offers subsidized home energy audits.  Since we knew we were going to be doing upgrades on our house, we decided to take advantage of this opportunity to get some help prioritizing our efforts to make our house more energy efficient.  It’s kind of a no-brainer: making our house more energy efficient will save us money, reduce our environmental impact, and make the house more comfortable to live in.  We put in our request with the city, and I think it may have been about 6 months (maybe longer, I wasn’t keeping track) before we got the green light.  They sent over a voucher for a full home energy audit (typically a $400 service) for only $95 out of our pocket, along with a list of certified home energy auditors.  I decided on Charlie Rogers from Habitat Home Energy Specialist because he has excellent reviews on Angie’s List and also because he doesn’t offer any services other than auditing.  That might seem counter-intuitive at first, but it eliminates any potential conflict of interest.  An auditor working for a company that also does insulation and duct sealing has an incentive to advise customers that those upgrades should be at the top of their list.  I think it’s better if the auditor has nothing to gain from recommending certain upgrades over others.

The audit was done in March (yeah, it took me long enough to blog about it).  It took a couple of hours and we really enjoyed it.  Maybe that’s because we’re obsessed with remodeling our house and we always enjoy talking about that with people, especially people who are knowledgeable and give us advice about it.  It might also have something with all the cool gadgets Charlie brought along.  He didn’t mind us geeking out over his infrared camera and asking to use it to look at our dogs napping in their crates.  What? - you know our dogs are our other obsession.

Charlie asked us some questions and then checked out every room of the house plus the crawl space and the attic.  He did a blower door test using a fan and a computer to see how “leaky” the house is.  Turns out it’s pretty leaky, but we now have a prioritized list to help us seal it up nice and snug (but not too snug - Charlie says the minimum is 0.35 ACH, which means 35% of the air in the house should be replaced with fresh air from outside every hour).  This brings back some fond memories of calculating ACH in industrial hygiene class.  But I digress.

Then we sat down and talked about his findings and recommendations, which was great because we could ask questions and discuss alternatives, like our fireplace-insert-as-furnace plan which is currently in motion instead of a super efficient but decidedly unromantic electric heat pump.  We were already under agreement with the gas company to heat our house with gas, and if we don’t we would have to partially pay them back for installation of the gas line to the house.  Not to mention how excited I am about the whole fireplace thing.  Later that day, Charlie emailed us a 16-page report which included the following:

  • annual estimated energy use and fuel costs (current home compared to what it could be if we do upgrades)
  • summary of energy performance related elements (how good our house is with regard to air leakage, insulation, windows, appliances, etc.)
  • a To Do list in order of cost-effectiveness
  • some resources for info on tax rebates and rebate offers from local utilities for energy efficiency upgrades
  • a very detailed list of recommended energy upgrades, including descriptions of the current condition of our house, what the upgrade would entail, typical cost of upgrade, expected savings in $ and kWh, and no-cost or low-cost strategies to make a dent without doing a full upgrade

Here are a few highlights from the report (sorry they’re hard to read at this size, but click ‘em for larger versions):

We could cut our energy costs by almost 50%.  That would be pretty sweet.

In case you don’t feel like clicking to read that, it says Matt did a good job insulating the walls when he re-sided the house, and that for the full effect we should also insulate the wall between the house and the garage.  In the infrared photo on the left, it shows the studs in the walls (dark color means cold - wood is a terrible insulator but there’s not much you can do about that) and the nicely insulated bays between the studs (light color means warm).  The infrared photo on the right is much more interesting.  The corner of the house sticks out a few feet beyond the garage, and you can see that Matt insulated the exterior wall but not the wall between the house and the garage.

The notes in red were added by me in case you’re curious what we plan to do.  There is a lot more detail in the report, and it will be very helpful in planning our projects.  A couple of the specific recommendations are things I wouldn’t have thought of and don’t show up in generic lists of energy upgrades.  Our gas company also offers rebates like 50% off the cost of insulating floors and ceilings.  We will be doing that as soon as we’re done messing around in the attic and crawl space.

If you want to save money and tread a little lighter on the planet, a home energy audit is a great first step.  Check if your electric or gas company offers a program like this.  It’s a good investment and kind of fun.  Especially if your auditor is nice enough to send you infrared dog pictures.  Thanks Charlie!


Programmable Thermostat

Our house came with an old oil furnace.  I have no idea what its efficiency is, but I’m sure it’s pretty bad.  One of the easiest and cheapest ways to reduce a home’s heating/cooling energy usage (and bills) is installing a programmable thermostat and set it so it’s not working as hard when you’re not there.  So that’s just what I did last fall as soon as the heating season began.  It was very easy, and any DIYer can do it in less than an hour, even without any previous wiring experience. Just turn off the power and follow the instructions.

Old thermostat:

Really old.  I was totally fascinated by the ingenious way these old thermostats work though.  A thin strip of metal that slightly expands when heated and contracts when cooled is coiled to amplify that effect.  Attached to the end of the coil is an enclosed glass tube with a big blob of mercury in it.  When the coil contracts enough to tip the tube to the left, the mercury blob moves to that end of the tube where two wires enter the tube.  The mercury touches both wires to complete the circuit and the heat turns on.  When the coil gets warm enough, the tube tips the other way, breaking the circuit and turning off the heat.


I just think that is pretty cool.  Of course, the mercury content means this thing has been sitting on our bookshelf for a year waiting to be taken to the hazardous waste collection place.

And here is the new thermostat (and doesn’t it look great on the wall that is in need of spackle and paint?):

It has four time blocks per day.  I set it to 68 or 69 F in the mornings and evenings, and then I let it go down to 64 (I used to do 62 before animals lived here) at night when we’re asleep and during the day when we’re at work.  If I worked at home one day, I’d just put on long underwear.  It’s a 5-2 setup, meaning you have one program for weekdays and another for weekends.  They also make 5-1-1s if your Saturday routine is very different from your Sunday routine.

So there you go, a quick and easy way to stay comfortable while saving energy.  Now is the perfect time to do it if you haven’t already.  I’ve seen several models on special at the home improvement stores lately, and they are not very expensive anyway.


Heating a home with a fireplace

Our house is very small.  Small enough that it could be adequately heated by an efficient natural gas fireplace instead of a furnace.  This is an idea I had a while ago, and at first Matt thought it was another one of my awesome-but-not-practical ideas, but lately he’s warmed to the concept.  I have done a lot of research on this, and I believe that for our situation, it is possible with available models of gas fireplace inserts.  The one pictured above is a rare gem with efficiency of 93% AFUE - as good as the best new furnaces, and it works with a programmable thermostat to automatically maintain the desired temperature by time of day.  Why aren’t there more of these available?  Who wouldn’t want a nice cozy fireplace instead of a big ugly furnace?  For a larger house, there is nothing on the market as far as I can tell.  We’re still researching and thinking about this, and I will provide updates as we figure it out.  Info and advice welcome!


Obsessively planning remodels

We have been thinking about some major home renovations lately.  Matt has a serious back yard fence project in the works right now (more on that later).  I have been researching upgrades to improve the energy efficiency and comfort of the house before next winter.  New windows are high on the list, and there are many decisions to be made about what kind to get and whether to install some or all of them ourselves, or to have it done professionally.  I am confident in our ability to do it, as we already installed an exterior door, have done tons of research on window installation, and have several friends who have done it, but the question is whether we want to invest the time required.  Also high on the list is replacing our 50-year-old oil furnace with an efficient natural gas one.  We don’t currently have natural gas at the house, but I found out from the gas company that it is available on our address and that the city won’t charge us for repairing the street.  Street repair would have made the cost prohibitive, so I was very glad to hear that.  The gas company’s charge to bring the line to our house and meter it is reasonable.  We’d also get a tankless water heater as part of the upgrade to natural gas.  Sometime down the road we could also get a gas stove, and if we wanted to get really crazy, we could get a gas fireplace insert too. 

Last night for some reason I got deeply engrossed in drawing plans to remodel our kitchen and turn some existing closet space into a half bath.  I drew up a half dozen options on paper, and then I used painter’s tape on the kitchen floor to help envision where an island would go.  I could hardly wait for Matt to get home from picking up a few supplies for the new fence to show him my vision.  I actually went to the window once after hearing a car door.  Matt doesn’t always love my design ideas, but this one makes such great use of our space that he immediately got on board.  Of course, these plans involve knocking out walls and other major changes, so they’ll have to wait.  The windows and furnace are important to do first because they’ll save money in heating costs right away, and because in 2010 there are a lot of federal tax credits and rebates from our local utilities for these improvements.