Saving heat

My friends over at the NeighborWorks of Western Vt. Heat Squad were pondering the question, “What would make you complete home energy improvements?”

I think they aren’t getting a full picture of the results of their work. We had a home audit done through them, which suggested half a dozen worthwhile projects, ranging from replacing the windows to sealing the spaces between the joists in our basement where they meet the outer sill to basic gap sealing.

Officially, we get an incomplete on their records, so they can’t chalk us up in the “win” column for their statistics as they report back to their federal grant providers, but in reality, we’ve done a lot of the work they recommended:

They said we should stop the flow of air from basement to attic, first and foremost. So I plugged a bunch of little holes from the basement into two-story wall spaces, and insulated and air-sealed the door to our walk-up attic. It cost about $10.

They said we should seal the cool air return to the furnace, to stop cold air being sucked into the basement from outdoors to feed the heating system (instead of recycling the air from the main floor, which is what you want). So I bought a $7.50 tube of gunk and all the duct seams are now sealed. I also wrapped some of the hot-air ducts in insulation … which seemed to provide a small difference in retained heat, so I’ll wrap the rest this year. That’s about $100 when I’m done.

For the joists, they recommended a $1,500 spray-on product that seals both the air coming in through the sill and the bottom of the wall cavity. I’m sure it’s a great product, but for about $45, I installed a heavy poly film and fiberglass (fiberglass for the insulating properties, the poly as an air-flow barrier, both through the side wall and vertically through the floor into the wall cavity). It’s not as good as the spray-on, I’m sure, but if it’s 80% as good, the return on investment of the remaining $1,455 for a 20% gain on a fix that addresses maybe 5% of my heating bill just doesn’t make sense. (.05*.2=0.01 or 1%, at $3,000 to heat the house = 50 year payback … assuming the spray-on stuff has a 50-year lifespan).

I make that a $162.50 investment that has probably already paid for itself (It’s a little over 5% of the annual fuel bill). Throw in the cost of the audit, even at retail (we took advantage of a NeighborWorks subsidy), and I expect we would be ahead of the game financially by this winter. But to “complete” the job would require hiring a contractor, doing the expensive work, then doing another energy audit to verify the work was a success, in order to collect a subsidy for a portion of the cost. It doesn’t make sense, for us.

I would love to do the windows, but they’re about the cost of a new car, and I can’t afford one of those this year, either, even with a subsidy. So I’ll officially be an incomplete, maybe even a failure, on the Heat Squad books, but that doesn’t begin to tell the tale: The subsidy spurred us to get the audit, which in turn spurred us to spend a little money and a few weekends. The end result is that we are burning less fuel than we would otherwise. It’s a great program.


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