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Home Heat Efficiency: Six Tips

Home Heat Efficiency: Six Tips
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by in Nov 2008
Tom Silva of This Old House
Photo/Art by Carl Tremblay
Tom Silva of This Old House

1. Air Check

Old houses are going to have air leaks: around your light fixtures; around your outlets; around your windows; around your foundation. Your mission: to fill as many of those holes as possible with insulation.

Tom Silva’s recommended weapon of choice: foam in a can. “It’s a magical instrument,” he says. “It sprays and expands, and you don’t have to worry about forming a vapor barrier because it is its own vapor barrier. Air can’t move through it.”

Consider a typical outside light. Installing it probably required cutting into your home’s insulation, creating holes that now admit cold air. Silva recommends taking out the light and injecting foam just behind the junction box to fill any void that may have been created.

2. Fireplace

Those crackling flames need oxygen, and to feed that appetite, your fireplace pulls air from all parts of your house, including the very air your furnace has worked so hard to keep warm. One solution, Silva says, is to install glass doors in front of the hearth and an outside vent into the firebox. “The fire will take the air from outside the chimney and feed the fire; the fire will heat up the glass; and the radiant heat will heat up the space,” he explains.

3. Heating System

If the only time you think about your furnace is when you adjust your thermostat, you may be paying for it. Silva recommends that you get heating units cleaned professionally once a year and change the furnace filters at least twice a year. “Take the filters out, and if you can’t see through them or they’re starting to get a little gray-looking, change them,” he explains.

Don’t overlook the duct work, either. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, 25 percent of the air traveling through a poorly installed system never arrives at its intended destination. If you find air leaks at the seams, duct putty offers a simple fix, Silva says, as does foil tape, both of which you can use to cover the holes.

4. Pipes & Water Heater

It’s not just your hot-water heater that needs some love (see the main text, above). Your basement water pipes do, too, and insulating them will do the trick. “There are all kinds of insulation options out there, and it’s a great weekend project,” Silva notes. “I recommend insulating as far as you can go, because with every 10 feet of pipe, you lose two to five degrees. That mounts up.”

5. Blow-In Insulation

Not long after Silva purchased his 1865 Victorian, he made the decision, in the middle of one particularly cold winter, to insulate. He opted for the blow-in variety, a cellulose product created from recycled newspaper.

Primarily a two-person job, the work involves punching holes at the bottom and top of each stud bay and filling up the space with densely packed insulation. You can rent a blower, and you can purchase bags of insulation at large hardware stores. The difference insulation can make, Silva says, is astounding.

“It was five or six at night, and we started at one corner of my house in the living room, and I worked across the back of the house, which was the living room, dining room, and kitchen wall,” he recalls. “My wife was inside the house, and as we were blowing each bay of the wall, she could actually feel the difference.”

6. Old Windows

If you’re intent on sticking it out with your old single-pane windows, make sure the glazing is intact. If it’s cracked, repair it. And be sure your windows are locked. “I don’t know how many times I’ve gone into a place where the owner has complained about a draft, and I’ve gone and locked the windows,” Silva notes. “It can make a big difference.”

So can insulating the cavities of your windows. High fuel cost doesn’t mean that you have to retire a home’s old rope-and-pulley windows, Silva explains. Instead, take the interior window trim off and pack the cavity, as well as the top and bottom of the window, with strips of rigid foam insulation.

Next, fill any voids with expanding foam insulation. Finally, in place of the rope-and-pulley, attach a spring balancer where the pulley is and hook it onto the bottom of the window. The result: Old World windows, New Age efficiency.

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8 Responses to Home Heat Efficiency: Six Tips

  1. sue eastburn November 4, 2008 at 5:50 pm #

    HOW ABOUT SOME THERMAL CURTAINS. IDO THIS EVERY YEAR, IT HELPS. ALSO PLACE A BOARD ON TOP OF YOUR A.C. THIS WILL KEEP LEAVES OUT AND RUST FROM GETTING IN. THE AIR WI LL FLOW. HAVE YOUR TREES CUT BACK A BIT. WINTER SNOW CAN BREAK THEM AND CAUSE A PROBLEM. THANKS SUE P.S. MY HUSBAND IS FOR ME

  2. Olga Royal November 4, 2008 at 7:46 pm #

    Let the sunshine help warm your home. Open shades to let sun in and when dark, keep shades pulled down and especially when windy.

  3. Marty Brunskill November 6, 2008 at 4:26 pm #

    Try using the shrink wrap plastic on old windows, my house is 100 years old and has drafty windows. Easy to put on and take off in the spring.

  4. Dave Hoarch November 9, 2008 at 5:24 pm #

    Window Quilts! We have had them in two houses. First learned about them at a workshop over twenty years ago. The performance is amazing.

  5. ERROL TURNER November 21, 2008 at 5:17 pm #

    BE SURE TO CHECK WHERE THE DISCHARGE PIPE LEAVES THE HOUSE—
    REF—CLOTHS DRYER—
    AND WHERE SILL COCKS LEAVE THE HOUSE—
    GO DOWN CELLAR–IN DAY TIME—WITH LIGHTS TURNED OFF
    AND LOOK FOR DAYLITE—YOU WILL BE SUPRISED AT WHAT
    YOU WILL FIND

  6. Barbara Seddon January 24, 2012 at 10:28 am #

    My house is of about the same vintage and blowing in insulation was not an option as this house is plank construction. I now have 8 inch think walls with LOTS of history between the sheetrock and the outside! I still have a problem with a back draft on my kitchen exhaust fan tho

  7. Phil Flohr November 27, 2014 at 1:16 pm #

    If you have an interior door that closes when open how do you adjust that door , you had a video on that in the past.

    Thanks for your help in this matter

    Phil Flohr

    • Brenda Darroch November 28, 2014 at 10:27 am #

      Hi Phil,
      We don’t have that video on YankeeMagazine.com, but you might want to ask that question at thisoldhouse.com.

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