For what the
typical family wastes every year on air leaks — about $350 — you can
plug energy-robbing gaps, start saving money, and enjoy a more
Low 1 day-1 weekend per project
Med $350 on heating/cooling costs
Low $100-$350 for materials
Some fresh caulk and new weatherstripping will help seal drafts around windows and doors. Image: RASimon/iStockphoto
A typical family spends about a third of its annual heating and cooling budget — roughly $350 — on air that leaks into or out of the house
through unintended gaps and cracks. With the money you waste in just
one year, you can plug many of those leaks yourself. It’s among the most
cost-effective things you can do to conserve energy and increase comfort, according to Energy Star.
Start in the attic,
since that’s where you’ll find some of the biggest energy drains. Then
tackle the basement to prevent cold air that enters there from being
sucked into upstairs rooms. Finally, seal air leaks in the rest of the
house. Here are eight places to start.
1. Insulate Around Recessed Lights
recessed lights have vents that open into the attic, a direct route for
heated or cooled air to escape. When you consider that many homes have
30 or 40 of these fixtures, it’s easy to see why researchers at the
Pennsylvania Housing Research/Resource Center pinpointed them as a
leading cause of household air leaks. Lights labeled ICAT, for
“insulation contact and air tight,” are already sealed; look for the
label next to the bulb. If you don’t see it, assume yours leaks. An
airtight baffle ($8 to $30) is a quick fix. Remove the bulb, push the
baffle up into the housing, then replace the bulb.
2. Plug Open Stud Cavities
of your house probably has an inner skin of drywall or plaster between
living space and unheated areas. But builders in the past often skipped
this cover behind knee walls (partial-height walls where the roof angles
down into the top floor), above dropped ceilings or soffits, and above
angled ceilings over stairs.
Up in the attic, you may need to push insulation
away to see if the stud cavities are open. If they are, seal them with
unfaced fiberglass insulation (less than $1 a square foot) stuffed into
plastic garbage bags; the bag is key to blocking airflow. Close large
gaps with scraps of drywall or pieces of reflective foil insulation
(less than $2 a square foot). Once you’ve covered the openings, smooth
the insulation back into place. To see these repairs in action, consult Energy Star’s DIY guide to air sealing.
3. Close Gaps Around Flues and Chimneys
codes require that wood framing be kept at least 1 inch from metal
flues and 2 inches from brick chimneys. But that creates gaps where air
can flow through. Cover the gaps with aluminum flashing ($12) cut to fit
and sealed into place with high-temperature silicone caulk ($14). To
keep insulation away from the hot flue pipe, form a barrier by wrapping a
cylinder of flashing around the flue, leaving a 1-inch space in
between. To maintain the spacing, cut and bend a series of inch-deep
tabs in the cylinder’s top and bottom edges.
4. Weatherstrip the Attic Access Door
1/4-inch gap around pull-down attic stairs or an attic hatch lets
through the same amount of air as a bedroom’s heating duct. Seal it by
caulking between the stair frame and the rough opening, or by installing
foam weatherstripping around the perimeter of the hatch opening. Or you
can buy a pre-insulated hatch cover kit for stairs ($150) or doors
($350 and up).
the biggest attic gaps are plugged, move on to the medium-size ones.
Low-expansion polyurethane foam in a can is great for plugging openings
1/4-inch to 3 inches wide, such as those around plumbing pipes and
vents. A standard 12-ounce can ($5) is good for 250 feet of bead about
1/2-inch thick. The plastic straw applicator seals shut within two hours
of the first use, so to get the most mileage out of a can, squirt a
lubricant such as WD-40 onto a pipe cleaner and stuff that into the
applicator tube between uses.
6. Caulk Skinny Gaps
makes the best gap-filler for openings less than 1/4-inch wide, such as
those cut around electrical boxes. Silicone costs the most ($8 a tube)
but works better next to nonporous materials, such as metal flashing, or
where there are temperature extremes, as in attics. Acrylic latex caulk
($2 a tube) is less messy to work with and cleans up with water.
7. Plug Gaps in the Basement
low on a foundation wall matter if you’re trying to fix a wet basement,
but only those above the outside soil level let air in. Seal those with
the same materials you’d use in an attic: caulk for gaps up to 1/4-inch
wide and spray foam for wider ones. Use high-temperature caulk around
vent pipes that get hot, such as those for the furnace or water heater.
Shoot foam around wider holes for wires, pipes, and ducts that pass
through basement walls to the outside.
In most older houses with basements,
air seeps in where the house framing sits on the foundation. Spread a
bead of caulk between the foundation and the sill plate (the wood
immediately above the foundation), and along the top and bottom edges of
the rim joist (the piece that sits atop the sill plate).
8. Tighten Up Around Windows and Doors
the main living areas of your home, the most significant drafts tend to
occur around windows and doors. If you have old windows, caulking and
adding new weatherstripping goes a long way toward tightening them up.
Bronze weatherstripping ($15 to $35 for 17 feet) lasts for decades but
is time-consuming to install, while some self-stick plastic types are
easy to put on but don’t last very long. Adhesive-backed EPDM rubber ($8
for 10 feet) is a good compromise, rated to last at least 10 years.
Nifty gadgets called pulley seals ($9 a pair) block air from streaming
though the holes where cords disappear into the frames.
Weatherstripping also works wonders on doors. If a draft comes in at the bottom, install a new door sweep ($9).
Before Working in the Attic, Take Some Precautions
to do attic work on a cool day. Wear protective gear: disposable
clothes, gloves, and a double-elastic mask or half-face respirator.
Bring along a droplight, plus at least two pieces of plywood big enough
to span two or three joists to support you as you work. To save trips up
and down a ladder, try to move up all of the materials you need before
you get started.
One warning: If you find vermiculite
insulation, hold off until you’ve had it checked for asbestos; your
health department or air-quality agency can recommend a lab.
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