My First of Many Home Efficiency Posts

OK, so it’s not a particularly creative title, but it’s true enough. I’m on the receiving end of a crash course in improving home energy efficiency. There’s a bit of a learning curve, and I’ll blog my way through it. Here’s a nice summary of the process I’m undergoing.

It started simply enough, with my brother performing a home energy efficiency audit. The first step was a blower door test. I’d explain that process, but one of my brother’s instructors found that someone else already did a great job of explaining the process! Click here to read her post. My house looked a lot like that, I just didn’t take the photos to prove it.

The results for my house, of course, were different. My house is less than five years old. It turns out that our house is rated well into the extremely tight range! That sounds great – but that rating comes with its own issues. Mechanical ventilation is vital for an extremely tight house. We don’t have that. Yet. I’m still wrapping my head around why we really need mechanical ventilation.

The good news (to us, maybe not to my brother) is that we open the windows frequently throughout the warmer months. In Colorado, it’s rarely hot enough to warrant running the air conditioning on summer nights, unless allergens are too prominent. In the winter, however, we don’t open our windows much. We have indoor-only cats, and mostly indoor dogs. I’ve been spending a lot of time at home working on various decorating and improvement projects. Fresh air is important for our health.

Stay tuned for more posts on what all this means and what steps we actually have to take to correct our problems. In the meantime, if you’re interested in how any of this might help you, check out this blog series.

At the end of this process, our goal is to have our home rated as an Energy Star house. Unfamiliar with the program? I’m slowly learning. This site helps.

Other tests were performed as well, but I’m still trying to wrap my head around the various tests and our results. More to come!


A Manual for Homeowners

If I were a realtor, home inspector, or other such home-oriented professional, I think I’d have to give my clients a gift. That gift would be a manual for their home. Sounds like a great idea, right? But how do you do that? Easy: the book’s already been published. It’s called How to Operate Your Home, written by Tom Feiza. Every homeowner should have one of these books.

As a homeowner who knows I understand way too little about how my house operates, this book is easy to understand. It has a lot of drawings, tells me how to tell which style equipment my house has, etc. The best part, in my opinion, is the seasonal list of home maintenance items. These include things most of us know we should do, such as regularly change furnace filters and smoke alarm batteries, but it also has a lot of things I didn’t know I need to do. I plan to treat this book like a to-do list to keep my house in tip-top shape. An ounce of preventative maintenance is worth a pound of expensive repairs (at inconvenient times)!

Dealing with Housepests

Unwanted houseguests are called housepests in my book. That’s even more true when they’re not human.

I moved into my current house last Spring. During Summer, I started noticing some mouse droppings in the basement. Before long, I saw droppings in the house. Then I saw the live monsters in my house. Color me particularly unhappy. My cats were useless. Apparently they expect to be fed 100% of the time. They’re clearly not hunters.

I called in an exterminator who left baited traps. He looked throughout the house and told me where mice were likely to come in. He also told me what I could do to keep mice out. The poisons were set, and we scheduled a follow up appointment for 2 weeks later.

In the meantime, I set to work on following his advice. I bought some concrete repair caulk and sealed the basement foundation to the foundation wall. It didn’t look like mice could get through those spaces, but the exterminator assured me they could. I bought several cans of “Great Stuff” – an expanding foam sealant. I used that to seal around larger gaps than between the concrete, such as around plumbing tubes that came up through the foundation floor. I also sealed around plumbing pipes between the finished and unfinished spaces in the basement. There were even some large holes in cabinetry on the main level, but the spaces were too large for Great Stuff. So I got creative – I crinkled up some aluminum foil and Great Stuffed the foil into place.

When the exterminator came back, he was really impressed, but also a little dismayed. Apparently I was supposed to wait until after his second visit to apply the sealant. Oops. Of course, Murphy came to visit and I saw another mouse later that night. It was eating leftovers from the cats’ food, but it had clearly been poisoned anyway. It wasn’t hard for me to trap, but I was a very unhappy homeowner. Murphy also made sure my husband was out of town and unable to deal with it for me. Grump.

Fortunately, that was the last mouse I saw inside the house. I was warned that I should have the poison refreshed around October when cold weather starts to drive rodents indoors, but I didn’t. I wanted to see how effective my sealant work was. I’m thrilled to report the only mice I’ve seen since were outside or in the garage. There have been no further signs of rodents inside the house!

I’ve since learned that my sealant work paid off in two other areas unexpectedly. While I should have used steel wool instead of foil, the foil is perfectly effective, and I ended up sealing up an air duct by sealing one of those holes (more on sealing air ducts in another post). Now that’s just downright cool. But there’s something even better: sealing the concrete means that I’m not only keeping out bugs and rodents, I’m also keeping out soil gasses. I don’t know much about soil gasses, but I know most people are concerned about radon. Sealing out the mice helped me seal out radon, too, according to my home inspector and my brother!

Bottom line: I’m glad I did the simple work of sealing the concrete in the basement. I got some unexpected bennies out of that deal!

Dirty Carpets

Both my old house and my new one have light carpets. In the old one (built in 2003), I had a problem with black dirt in my carpet along the baseboards and under doors I kept closed (utility and linen closets, guest rooms, etc.). I didn’t have that problem in the middle of the floor or where I kept doors open. I assumed I just didn’t vacuum enough, but when I prepared to sell that house, that really was not a possible cause – I vacuumed twice a day! I went through a lot of Spot Shot to clean the carpet. While the issue annoyed me, I didn’t think to look at a cause.

So today I randomly read a blog post about the cause of that problem. While I have several posts planned for the future about sealing a leaky house (and this house isn’t even all that leaky), I’m not yet ready to start blogging about it. However, this carpet issue is too useful to keep to myself right now. Check out the Energy Vanguard blog post on dirty carpets!

Adding a New Electrical Circuit

I was promised help on an electrical project by relatives who have helped other family members install new roofs on their houses. I thought I was asking for something pretty small! Apparently I was very, very wrong. The “helpers” decided that help wasn’t on their agenda, leaving me to figure out an electrical project on my own. Electrical engineering classes in college weren’t about the practical stuff I needed for adding new circuits in my house.

Enter my wonderful big brother, who talked me through a list of the items I needed from the DIY store. Off I went. Some items were easy to find, some were not (or I was less confident about), but the store’s employee helped me find what I needed.

I started the project and sent a quick email to my brother, who sent back a very detailed step-by-step set of instructions instead of just answering my piddly little questions. That was fantastic! At that point, I thought “I can do this!”

How very wrong I was.

In the end, I merely placed the receptacle box (the part the outlet goes into) and ran the wire. Hammering little nails into wood isn’t usually difficult, but I managed to have problems with some of that. I searched the usually helpful internet to get an idea of how to hook up wires to the receptacle (I call it the outlet or socket, but apparently those aren’t proper terms), but Google failed me. How was I supposed to hook up four wires to a receptacle with room for only three?

I wish I’d thought about it in those terms – it would have told me something wasn’t right. The store only had one receptacle fitting my requirements (from the shopping list), so I was certain that was the correct item.

I’d already learned there are different gauges of wire. I didn’t understand why the 12-gauge wire in one town was $50 cheaper than in another, but in each store I only saw one 12-gauge wire option. It turns out that 12-gauge is not the full story. You have to get either 12-2 or 12-3. What’s worse is you have to add one to each of those secondary numbers to determine how many wires are encased in the wire’s cover. The receptacle I had needed 12-2 wire, yet I had 200 feet of 12-3 wire already tacked up through my walls and ceiling.

My brother arrived to tell me how to finish the project in a patient, instructive manner. Finishing tacking the wire was OK. Finding out the wire and receptacle were incompatible was not. He presented us with a few different options on how we could make things work. Of course, he recommended a solution he doesn’t like, so we didn’t feel so great about it. In the end, we bought a different type of receptacle and created two circuits using a single wire, thus sharing a ground wire. And we’re terrified of using the second outlet. In all likelihood we’ll plug in our new appliance and place it in front of the outlet so that the second circuit can’t be used without moving a large piece of equipment. And that’s too bad – we really need some extra outlets in that space!

I learned how to wire the receptacle and how to install new wiring into the electrical box, how to shop for circuit breakers, etc. But I don’t think I’ll ever try to use this newly found information ever again. In the end, that saves me a bit of money, I suppose. I saved money for a sauna, but I’m not going through this very trying ordeal again just to have one. The good news is maybe I can instead spend that money on a vacation to avoid a permanent trip to the funny farm later.

As for those electrical engineering classes I took in college? One taught me how to make wiring one thingamajig to another look neat and tidy, so the newly installed circuit breaker doesn’t look like a sub-amateur such as myself installed it. I’m not sure the homework in that class really paid off.

Poor Man’s Infrared Camera

I got a very unique Christmas gift this year: my brother did an energy performance inspection on my house. He had some new equipment and techniques to get accustomed to, and even called a local acquaintance so they could share recent training with each other. One piece of equipment that both have recently acquired is an infrared (thermal) camera. This camera shows relative heat changes, which is useful for finding areas of heat loss, such as where insulation is inadequate.

When I was searching for a house to buy, I took lots of pictures of each house I was interested in. Before putting in an offer on a house, I made those pictures available to my brother, as he’s able to pick out major issues that way. He taught me what to look for, what pictures to take, etc. These pictures were very different from the images other family members were interested in. Most people want to see room size, layout, and flooring. Not my brother. He looks for things that need to be repaired. Did I mention that my brother is an excellent personal resource?

I ended up using what the pros in the industry jokingly call the poor man’s infrared camera: snow! One house we looked at was built around 1980 and used fiberglass blanket insulation. Sure enough, I could see where the insulation has slipped along a significant portion of the roof line. Now that I have a house and have been working in the attic, moving around insulation, I try to look at my roof every time it snows to monitor any insulation problems. Next time you have snow on your roof, take a look! It just might be an early warning for you.

A Primer on Primer

My first house was new construction, painted inside with one color: contractor white. Boring! While it took me a long time to get around to painting, I learned the hard way that generic construction paint does not include primer. I thought paint primer was used when changing from dark to light colors or between very different colors.

If you try to paint regular interior paint directly on drywall (with or without initial contractor paint), the drywall absorbs the paint. That gets expensive as it requires way too many coats of paint! The solution is easy: prime the walls first! I’m a fan of Behr paint, and they even make a paint with the primer built in. Now whenever I paint a room, I just use the paint-and-primer in one. It sure beats applying a coat of primer and two coats of paint!

A Hole in the Wall

Bad things come in threes, as the saying goes. Sometimes those bad things come in parallel. In this case, they came in series. Sometimes a homeowner – or even a renter – needs to patch a hole in their wall…or ceiling.

The first step in patching a hole is to make the hole a workable shape, such as a square or rectangle. The same size and shape is then cut from a new piece of drywall. There’s a product called fiberglass tape. It’s cream colored and gridded, somewhat like a window screen. The new drywall is initially held in place by the tape. Joint compound is like clay, and can be bought prepared or in powder form. The clay is applied over the tape and covers the tape’s texture. For smooth drywall, the clay should be carefully smoothed over. After the joint compound dries thoroughly, the whole new piece of drywall can be painted and viola – hole repaired!

The Attic is a Jungle Gym

It all started here. I needed to go into the attic so I could see the source of my mold problem, then tell the builder what needed to be fixed. No big deal, right? As a child, I went into the attic frequently where we stored seasonal items. Going into the attic with dad was fun! His guidance was to walk on the wood joists (the 2x4s) rather than the fiberglass insulation. His reason: fiberglass is itchy and bad on the skin.

When I went into the attic in my first house, the insulation was very different. Instead of fiberglass blankets, the insulation was a couple of feet of pulverized newspaper. So there was no issue about walking on the insulation, right?

Wrong. I still needed to walk only on the joists. The ceiling is nothing more than drywall tacked to the joists. Oops.

So yes – you guessed it – I fell through. And I had very ugly bruises for a few weeks as a result. Fortunately (in a way), I landed on a joist and the top of the closet door below instead of falling to the floor. So it could have been worse – I could have broken a leg. The insulation that fell through got all over my closet, so I had to wash every single item of clothes I own.

Over-engineer that he is, my brother wanted to protect me from future damage to my ceiling – and my body. He built a wooden platform for me to stand on if ever I had cause to go into my attic again. The board he selected was one that is interlocking, but he only needed one board. Since the entrance to my attic was small, he had it cut in half lengthwise. He then measured and cut out space for the supports in the attic. He could then use the interlocking feature to hold the two pieces of board together. I never would have thought of that – but then, I wouldn’t have bothered making myself a platform, either. I don’t think I ever went into that attic again.

I have, however, gone into the attic of my new house. I am happy to report my painful lesson from the first house lasted. I now wander easily around my new attic, treating it like a jungle gym and acting like a gymnast, if not a monkey. Score one lesson solidly learned!

Moldy Cold

The first house I bought was brand new, never lived in. I assumed that its newness meant I wouldn’t have any issues. Well that was just wishful thinking. I now know that the first owner of a particular home is likely embarking on a journey as guinea pig.

One of the bathrooms I never used developed a water leak in the ceiling. That room was on the top floor. After a short time, the wet spot turned dark instead of just drying out. I got a respiratory infection. My brother was coming out for a visit, and based on our phone conversations, he thought the infection was likely due to mold. My brother’s not a doctor, so I thought he was maybe a little alarmist.

Not so. Sure enough, when he arrived, he immediately identified mold on my ceiling. His first goal was to contain the mold area. As a mold inspector, big brother taught me that most household mold spores are three microns or larger. Thin plastic wasn’t enough to trap those tiny suckers, so he found some thick plastic that he knew would contain the spores. He then taped up a square of that plastic on the ceiling. Since my home was under full warranty, he didn’t try to clean it up, since all I had to do was call the builder.

Just identifying the problem wasn’t enough for my brother. Good thing, too – the builder certainly wasn’t going to solve the entire problem without prodding from me. Since the bathroom was on the top floor, big brother climbed into the attic and discovered that one of the vents on the roof wasn’t sealed properly.

I later called the builder and had the roof sealed and the moldy drywall ceiling replaced. Sure enough, my infection went away.

The most valuable, long-standing lesson I learned from this experience was actually about the furnace. Sounds odd, right? By explaining the mold spore size, big brother taught me what to look for in a furnace filter. The filter should trap particles three microns and larger. Without that protection, my mold problem could have gotten into my ductwork and caused a much greater issue – essentially causing my house to be an unhealthy place to live. Ouch. I now go for the washable, reusable type of filter. That requires me to clean the filter regularly, but the filter should be changed monthly anyway.

Sidenote: I recently heard from an acquaintance who failed to clean her filters. During a very cold spell, her furnace stopped working. She had to call in a professional, who told her the problem was due to her dirty filter. That mistake cost her $150 in repairs and shivers in the cold. I hope she avoided the problem lots of other area homeowners had at that time: burst pipes.