The first snow flurries of winter are just around the corner. For some, living high enough up in the mountains, they’ve already come. We can expect a wet, cold winter this year, thanks to the effects of El Niño.
The question is, are we ready for that cold to hit us? Energy prices are rising, meaning that this might be a very expensive winter, when it comes to keeping our homes warm.
If you live in an older home, chances are pretty good that it is not well insulated. On top of that, the windows and doors might not seal as well as they once did, allowing air leaks that will bring cold air in and let your heated air escape.
Even newer homes might have these problems, as the quality of workmanship in building the home and the components that went into it can make even new homes leak air. The biggest air leak I found in my home was the patio door in the family room, which is in the newest part of the house.
Age also affects the insulation in the attics of our homes. Insulation in the walls doesn’t settle much, as the paper liner for the insulation holds it in place.
But the insulation in our attics is not required by building code to have that paper liner. Even if it does, it won’t prevent gravity from packing the insulation down. What may have started out as 14 inches of insulation, could only be 8 or even 6 now.
Fortunately, it’s not too late to prepare our houses for the coming winter. Winterizing a home really isn’t as difficult and mysterious as people make it sound. You can accomplish a lot, just taking care of air leaks and making sure your attic insulation is up to snuff.
Let’s start with the attic insulation, as that’s the place you can get the most benefit, for the amount of work that you’ll need to put in.
The first thing to do is climb up there with a tape measure and a flashlight, to inspect the insulation and determine just how deep it is.
When measuring the insulation, you want to be sure to measure its thickness to the drywall that forms the ceiling below, rather than to the tops of the ceiling joists. Take care not to step on the insulation or drywall, as it cannot support your weight.
If you live in the north, you want to have 16 to 18 inches of insulation. If you live in the south, 13 to 14 inches is adequate.
The easiest and most cost-effective way of adding insulation to your attic is to use blown-in insulation. There are two basic types available: fiberglass and cellulose. The fiberglass costs more, but it lasts longer as well, so in the long run, the choice ends up being a trade-off; cost for time.
If you buy at least 10 bales of blown-in insulation at any of the major home improvement centers, they will provide you with the machine to blow it in for no rental charge. You will probably need two pickup trucks or two trips with one truck to get both the machine and the insulation home. Once there, two people can insulate an attic in just a few hours.
You need two people so that one can keep loading the machine with more insulation, while the other is up in the attic, spreading the insulation around with the blower. Start from the furthest part of the attic and build the insulation up to the desired depth. Work your way back to the entryway, making sure you don’t miss any parts and that you keep the depth consistent.
Although I said “don’t miss any parts,” if your home has vents in the eaves, you’ll want to be sure not to cover them up, as they are there to allow airflow through the attic. That’s important for your home’s cooling in summertime. So, be sure to check for that before starting and mark where those vents are, so that you don’t accidentally cover them.
Dealing with Air Leaks
The other major part of winterizing your home is dealing with air leaks. This is something that the average homeowner can do themselves.
The challenging part is finding the leaks. But since they are almost always around the doors and windows, that limits your search somewhat.
If you have trouble finding the air leaks in your home, try using a lighted candle. Run the candle around the borders of your windows and doors, watching the flame. Any air movement, in or out, will cause the flame to bend either away from the wall or towards it, showing you where the leak is.
Most of these air leaks can be fixed with self-adhesive rubber weatherstripping, which you can buy at any lumberyard or home improvement center.
Size is important, as too large a weatherstripping will keep doors and windows from closing properly, leaving an air leak. If the weatherstripping is too large, it keeps the door or window from seating all the way. If it is too small, it doesn’t fill the gap.
I’ve found it is best to buy a few different sizes, which allows me to pick the best possible size for each air leak. That allows me to seal the gaps off much better than trying to use the same size everywhere. The weatherstripping isn’t very expensive and will save you more money than what it costs you.
There may be some cases where the home’s trim doesn’t cover something properly, making it impossible to seal the gap with weatherstripping alone.
These pictures below show the bottom of a pair of French doors that can’t seal properly (blue is inside, green is outside).
As you can see from the pictures, there is a considerable gap, which can be seen through. The existing foam weatherstripping, which is damaged, really can’t fill that big a gap well.
This problem goes back to when the doors were installed. Whoever did the installation, didn’t shim the door frame properly.
So, the gap between the doors is much bigger at the bottom of the doors, than it is at the top. Fixing it would require removing the doors and trim, then reinstalling them properly.
Adding to the original problem, the original owner’s dogs scratched at the doors, especially the trim piece that was to cover any gap between the doors. Even if the doors were rehung, it is doubtful that the damaged trim would adequately cover the gap.
The solution, in this case, is not only to install new weatherstripping; but also to make a new trim piece to overlap the gap between the doors. It should be wider than the original, ensuring that it will adequately cover the gap.
It should also be made of a solid hardwood, like 1” oak or maple, ensuring that it is strong enough to withstand any efforts by thieves. While it would normally be attached from the outside, additional screws should be driven through the door from the inside, ensuring that thieves couldn’t remove it with a pry bar.
Such damage can happen with any older or remodeled home, especially in cases where the homeowner did the remodeling job themselves.
Not everyone who does that really understands what they are doing and just watching YouTube videos may not teach them well enough.
Nevertheless, such a repair, whether on a door or window, will do a lot to help eliminate such air leaks.
What About Windows?
Of all the home, the parts which provide the least amount of insulation are the windows. Single pain windows have an R-value of 0.91, which is considerably lower than even an uninsulated wall has (3.0).
If there’s any place in our homes, which needs more insulation, it’s the windows. But replacing old windows with new ones is an expensive proposition.
Few of us can afford to spend an average of $700 per window to replace the windows in our homes. That’s not to say that there’s nothing that we can do.
There are two easy and inexpensive ways of increasing the R-value of windows, neither of which requires replacing the widows.
The first of these is to apply bubble wrap to the inside of the windows. Yes, you heard me correctly. I’m talking about the kind of bubble wrap that is used to package fragile items for shipping, which we all love to pop.
You can buy that bubble wrap in rolls, cut it to fit your window glass, and attach it to the inside of your windows. To attach it, simply spray the window with a small amount of soapy water, then apply the bubble wrap, bubble side to the window.
As the water dries, the soap acts as an adhesive to hold the bubble wrap in place. Bubble-wrapped windows have an R-value of about 2, which is about the same as double-pane windows with a ½” air space.
The second way of improving the R-value of windows is to cover the inside of the window, frame and all, with clear plastic. 3M produces a window insulator kit, that includes a very clear, heat shrinkable, clear plastic film, with an attachment method. Once installed and heated to shrink it, it is virtually invisible, allowing you to look through your windows.
You can do something similar, for a lower price, using clear plastic sheeting, of the kind that contractors use for drop cloths. It won’t come with an attachment system, but you can staple it to the window frame or window trim on the inside of the window, creating an air space.
This isn’t optically clear, so it is hard to see through the window; but it lets light in just fine. A window covered in this manner has an R-value of 1.76.
Adding those two methods together, the bubble wrap and the window film, you should be able to gain an R-value for your windows of roughly 2.75, without spending a whole lot of money.
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