The latest issue of Checkbook magazine shares 32 changes you can make around your home to help save energy — from cheap yet effective fixes to upgrades that require some upfront spending but quickly pay for themselves through lower utility bills.
Because heating is by far the biggest energy eater for Philadelphia-area homes, typically accounting for nearly 60% of utility expenses, it makes sense to focus first on cutting that consumption. For many homes, a big money-saver is to install or add insulation in spots that need it, and to seal cracks and gaps to reduce air leakage.
One little leak might not seem to be a big deal but having several can add up to the equivalent of leaving open a small window. It usually costs very little money to identify and fix ways your home passively wastes energy, but it can yield significant savings.
A good energy auditor can use equipment to identify leaks you might not find yourself. But you can sleuth out major leaks on your own. Turn off your furnace on a cool, very windy day; shut all windows and doors; turn on all exhaust fans that blow air outside, such as bathroom fans or stove vents; light an incense stick and move around your house, watching where smoke blows to identify drafts.
Most leaks occur where different building materials meet: brick and wood siding, foundation and walls, and chimney and siding. Other common problem areas are around windows and doors; mail slots; points of entry for electrical and gas lines, cable/internet wiring, and phone lines; outdoor water faucets; where vents pass through walls; cracks or gaps in siding, stucco, masonry, and all foundation materials; and around window air-conditioning units.
Use caulk to seal any cracks or gaps measuring less than ¼-inch wide and use polyurethane foam sealant for larger ones. To minimize leakage around doors and windows, install weatherstripping. Also add sweeps to the bottoms of all exterior doors to seal gaps there.
Prevent drafts around outlets and light switches located inside exterior walls by adding insulating receptacle gaskets, which cost less than $5 each.
Together, these measures can save you 5% to 20% on heating and cooling costs.
Next, check whether you need to add insulation. All structural elements enclosing your home’s living spaces should be insulated, but it’s most practical to add insulation when a home is built or during renovations. Otherwise, accessibility drives costs and often determines what’s worth doing.
Because warm air rises, your attic is the front line in the battle to conserve energy during winter. And because most attics are unfinished and contain a lot of empty space, adding a thick layer of insulation is an easy job.
In this region, the U.S. Department of Energy recommends that attics be insulated at R-38 or better. Check what type of insulation you already have (loose fibers, granules, batts, etc.) and measure its thickness. To achieve an R-38 rating, loose fiberglass particles should be laid at a thickness of about 15 inches, rock wool particles at 13-14 inches, cellulose (looks like shredded newsprint) at 10 inches, and batts (blankets that come in rolls) at 12 inches.
How much you’ll pay for insulation improvements depends on how much you need to add — and whom you hire to do it. For one typical job — adding insulation to increase the rating of an unfinished attic from R-11 to R-38 — area contractors quoted prices to Checkbook’s undercover shoppers ranging from $1,500 to $5,400.
Checkbook’s ratings will help you find a reliable and reasonable contractor to help. Until April 7, Checkbook is offering free access to its ratings of local insulation contractors to Inquirer readers at Checkbook.org/Inquirer/insulation.
Because the work isn’t cheap, even if you hire an inexpensive outfit to do it, is it worth it? For its sample job, Checkbook calculated that the energy savings will eventually pay off project costs: Improving attic insulation from R-11 to R-38 for its sample home would generate utility savings of about $280 a year, which would recover $2,000 in installation costs in about seven years.
Unheated areas underneath ground floors, such as crawlspaces and basements, are also cost-effective targets for improving insulation.
If your home was built in the 1970s or later, its exterior walls probably have adequate insulation. If your home is older, it might be worthwhile to install insulation or improve what has deteriorated. To do so, installers have to drill access holes between each pair of wall studs, blow in insulation, and then patch and reseal the openings. This is much more time-consuming, messy, and costly than insulating an open unfinished attic or a crawlspace. But if you’re doing a major renovation or replacing siding, it’s worth adding this task, if needed: For an average-size home in this area, adding R-11 of insulation to uninsulated exterior walls will likely save $300 to $400 in energy costs a year.
Get several price quotes before contracting for any insulation work. Ask for proof of worker’s compensation and liability coverage. Get a contract that details the size of the area to be insulated, what type and how much insulation will be installed, and the resulting R-value. If the company will be sealing cracks and other infiltration points, make sure the contract specifies the location of these areas.
Unless your job requires more than one day’s work (most don’t), don’t agree to pay until all work has been completed.
Delaware Valley Consumers’ Checkbook magazine and Checkbook.org is a nonprofit organization with a mission to help consumers get the best service and lowest prices. It is supported by consumers and takes no money from the service providers evaluated. You can access Checkbook’s ratings of local insulation contractors free until April 7 at Checkbook.org/Inquirer/insulation