There isn’t a handy metaphor that springs to mind, regarding the marrow that is missing from the bones of the house. Actually, that one’s not that bad. The point is, this old house right here needs some stuffing in its walls! It just isn’t Thanksgiving without a good dollop of stuffing, dontcha know!
Now the question is what to put in the walls. I thought about what the energy rater had said on the matter– at one point he’d mentioned cellulose, sprayed with borax, as a recycled material that could be used. But later on, he mentioned spray foam. In fact, he mentioned a company with “Spray Foam” in its name. Were these the same thing?
Nope. There are several different kinds of insulation available. There’s the classic fiberglass, or “glass wool” as our friends on the other side of the pond would call it. There’s cellulose, mentioned above. And spray foam is a different animal altogether, made from polyurethane. Then you start getting into some crazy stuff: actual wool, for example. Or recycled denim, because hey, shouldn’t your house get to wear pants too?
This is getting complicated. Other factors aside, first let’s ask, how do you know which material is the most effective insulator?
Well, it looks like each material type is given an “R-value,” often measured in terms of per inch. As this FTC.gov article explains, R-value means “resistance to heat flow.” And here’s another article from los federales, specifically the Department of Energy, that provides an overview of different insulation materials and gives some general R-value ranges. It’s kind of long and not as bullet-pointy as you might prefer.
But you’ll also want to know the total R-value your house needs. Maybe you need a total resistance of 40 in your attic. That would mean needing over 10 inches of an insulation type rated at 3.8 per inch. Or eight inches of an insulation type with an R-value of 5. If the R-value is lower, just add more of the shit in, I guess.
To take a stab at the total R-value you’d need, the government once again comes gallivanting to the rescue. Who would have thought they’d be this fucking helpful? Check out this chart from Energy Star. Actually, I’m going to grab it and put it right here:
What zone do you live in? It ranges from zone 1 (if you happen to live in Oahu or the reservoir tip of Florida) to zone 8 (if you’re living in some godforsaken place like Nome, which is in a zone one higher than most of Alaska. Think about that for a moment).
I happen to live in southern Maine, part of zone 6 (slogan: “At least we’re warmer than Alaska! And much warmer than Nome, Alaska!”). So the chart recommends, for our (pretty much) uninsulated attic, a total of R49 to R60. And for the walls… well, it’s a little unclear, because I don’t think siding needs to be removed in our case, but maybe R6?
“Okay,” you say, “so just find the stuff with the highest R-value and then you’ll need the least of it to meet your house’s R-value requirements. One and done. Let’s go have a sandwich.”
Yeah, I could go for a sandwich right now. I surely could. But there’s a couple of other questions to ask here about insulation types. The first is cost. Is cellulose more expensive than spray foam, or vice versa? What about the exotic “denim” option? This is a difficult question to answer. One I probably won’t be able to answer until I talk to a couple of the names on the list that Paul Button provided me.
But how about a question we can start to answer: what type of insulation is friendliest to the environment? I.e., is not causing the Earth to burst into toxic flame?
Yes, insulating your house is a “green” action. Congrats. But if you stuff it with dead babies sacrificed on an altar to Walmart, how helpful is that, really? What kind of potential environmental impact does the material itself have? And what kind of effect on the planet did the process of making the material have?
Let’s ask a cellulose manufacturer which material is best for the planet! The answer is… cellulose! Okay, maybe we can try for a less biased examination. Let’s ask “Mother Earth News,” obviously. (Here is part of the problem with advocating for the environment: some of the most dedicated organizations have silly fucking names.) Another vote for cellulose; denim is manufactured using pesticides, and wool is too expensive.
Still biased? How about a piece from BuildingGreen.com called “Avoiding the Global Warming Impact of Insulation.” They’ve done some research and put together a table (based on limited information from manufacturers) that I will steal and put here:
The key number is in the rightmost column, a number they’ve called GWP, or “Global Warming Potential.” Comparing cellulose, fiberglass, rigid mineral wool (whatever the fuck that is), and several types of spray foam, they conclude that cellulose has a far lower GWP than any of the others. And give a big thumbs down to both extruded polystyrene and spray polyurethane foam blown with hydrofluorocarbons (HFC, a greenhouse gas).
If you used one of those two latter types of insulation, it’d take many years for the actual home insulating provided by the materials to offset the environmental damage caused during their production.
“Well, screw BuildingGreen.com,” you say. “I want to hear what Bob Goddamn Vila has to say on this topic.”
All right, let’s traipse on over to ThisOldHouse.com. Their conclusions as follows: Cellulose is better than fiberglass for the environment and just as effective. Though they give a pass to fiberglass. Cotton and wool are good to avoid allergens, they say. And then they give kind of a pass to the foams if they don’t use an HFC blower. Actually, they don’t really come to any conclusions at all. Thanks a lot.
And “How Stuff Works” gives top marks to something called Icynene, a spray foam made from castor oil– even though it costs three times as much as fiberglass and requires a ventilation system! Thanks a lot, ya fucks!
Well, looks like I’ve got to make some calls. Not just to weatherizers and insulators themselves, but also to, say, the folks at the Green Alliance. Maybe they can steer me in the right direction.
And here’s another group I can try to interrogate: SEAREI, a green energy organization right here on the Seacoast, which I heard about from my new hero, Mr. Lance Keene, who is trying to build a self-sufficient castle in New Hampshire. But more on Lance Keene in future posts.
Why am I doddering on about insulating my house and about climate change? See this post for the beginning of the Fool’s Errand.
“We’ll cross the streams.”
Yesterday we covered ABC: eyeballing the deficiencies in the Attic and Basement. And whatever “C” was supposed to be. So for part 2 of the energy rater visit, we’re going to focus on the actual tools used to get hard numbers about a house’s energy efficiency. And then the costs involved with this bullshit, and how to fix it.
Paul had brought equipment to test how airtight, or rather, how airloose the house was: a blower door and a thermal imager. Top of the line stuff, or so it seemed to me. But we know how much I know.
First I opened all of the interior doors in the house, except for the ones to the attic and basement, as well as the cardboard-sporting door of the stairway closet. And all of the windows were closed already. Paul fitted a canvas covering over the front doorway of the house, rigged with measuring equipment and featuring a round hole in the bottom. He then put a fan in the hole, facing out of the house. This was the blower door setup:
He started up the fan to push air out of the house and, as a result, lower the interior pressure. The gadget on the door blower compared the pressure of outside with the pressure inside the house. Paul said it would simulate twenty-mile-an-hour winds blowing on the house on all six sides, which would be pretty hard to manage in real life.
Then Paul got out his PKE meter to detect the spirits in the house. Okay, no, it was a thermal imaging device, and he was detecting spots in the house where air was escaping. But, you know, almost the same thing! He walked around holding up the thing and looking through it at walls, the tops of windows, around doorframes, that sort of thing. Here’s a shot of the imager in action:
Spooky! There’s that invisible, malevolent phenomenon, caught on camera. Darker areas on the device’s screen showed cold spots where air was escaping. In this picture you can see the window in the kitchen that he’s pointing at, and the dark stream coming from the top of the frame.
If the walls had been outfitted with effective insulation, he said, they’d show up on the thermal imaging screen as dark and light stripes. The dark parts would be the beams within the walls, and the light parts would be the insulation between them. But the walls showed up as all dark, meaning no insulation. And then plenty of those darker spots to show where the air we’d so diligently tried to heat was just whistling out through the goddamn wall. To be replaced, of course, by unheated air from outside.
The blower door gave a reading of .98 natural air interchange per hour. Which meant that 98% of the total volume of air in the house is changed every hour under natural conditions. Now, Paul thought there might be a slight error in the calculation– so close to 100% seemed high– but even so, most of the air in the house has changed by the end of each hour that passes. That’s a lot of (warmer) air escaping and a lot of (colder) air coming in.
He gave me an estimate, based on the heating fuel costs thus far that we’ve paid, that we are seeing an annual air leakage cost of $914.21. Now, this number might not be accurate. The truth could be even higher. The data that I gave Paul reflected, in part, the fact that for the last couple of months we have been keeping the thermostat at 50 degrees during the day and 45 degrees overnight. In other words, far colder than we’d prefer to live.
This “lifestyle,” as Paul repeatedly called it, also accounts for the fact that the Home Heating Index number yielded for our house is not very helpful. It’s 6.16, which is considered “energy efficient,” but… we have been living like fucking wildlings to make it that way. If we’d foolishly spent thousands and thousands on heating oil this past winter, even knowing that the house was drafty and leaky, we would have yielded more accurate fuel expenditure data.
Paul estimated that a thorough, professional job of insulating and weathering the house based on what he’d seen would run into the thousands. How many thousands, of course, depends on who you’re dealing with. But he’s supposed to send a list of reputable contractors, and he suggested joining the Green Alliance, a regional outfit based in Portsmouth, to get more names (and possible discounts).
In the meantime, we can at least defray heating oil costs by going with a cheaper provider– the rate we’ve been paying, $4 a gallon or more, is a ripoff. Paul recommended Simply Green Biofuels for heating oil that’s both more affordable and a little friendlier to the planet. They have a blend called B10 that contains 10% biofuel, made from “locally collected waste vegetable oil.” I.e., the grease that your burger and fries bathed in at the Rusty Hammer before arriving on your plate.
So go ahead, get that second slice of pineapple buffalo chicken pizza at Joe’s on Congress Street. You might just be reducing carbon emissions!
(All right, fact checkers, you win. I don’t know which restaurants Simply Green gets its grease from, I’m just guessing.)
The total cost of Paul Button’s visit? $225. It would have been more if he’d done a full furnace evaluation as well, but that part didn’t seem necessary.
One thing I forgot to mention yesterday– Paul also recommended insulating the ductwork for the furnace, for both the ducts coming from and going to the furnace. Leaky joints decrease the efficiency of the system. And the duct bringing air from outside into the house could be picking up some junk along the way from the air of the basement, like paint can fumes and even radon.
I’ll have to take a break for the next few days from this to do some more catching up in my novel editing.
Why am I droning on about energy efficiency? Check out this entry to see how I’m trying to figure out ways to fight climate change on a personal level.
Also, RIP, Harold Ramis.
Been feeling a chill? That’s not your imagination. A troubling phenomenon is happening in your home. An unseen force making mischief, costing you money, giving you grief. It’s not a ghost. What is it?
Air infiltration, baby! Air from outside your house is getting inside like a motherfucker. That’s why it’s so cold.
So who’re you gonna call?
Well, an energy rater, of course. You need to find out exactly where and how much leakage is occurring. In my case, I called Paul Button of Energy Audits Unlimited, based out of the city where I grew up, Manchester (once known ironically as “Manch Vegas”), New Hampshire.
He sensed a bad infiltration rate even before breaking out his gadgets, during an initial inspection. When you’re looking to address trouble spots, Paul said, it helps to remember ABC. Attic, basement, and… well, I forgot what C stands for, but I think the A and B were more important. Caulking? Clean the furnace?
The door to the attic, while fitted on its attic-facing side with a layer of insulation, needed more– perhaps a few inches of foam added. And Paul recommended weatherizing the door frame. Right now air just gallops from the bottom of the house up on through the attic through the “stack effect.”
A peek between the attic floorboards reiterated what I knew: that there’s little insulation down there, and what is there doesn’t do shit. Paul recommended, as a planet-friendly solution, using cellulose insulation under the floor. This type of insulation is made from recycled newspaper.
Insulating under the attic floor– i.e., above the second-floor ceiling of the house– would tighten up the top of the thermal envelope. More on this in a minute.
He then took a look down at the edge of the attic floor and could see down inside the house walls to some extent: noting that they were balloon-frame construction and thus containing little insulation– maybe no insulation at all. This is an older, obsolete type of construction. Which makes sense given that Grover Cleveland was president when our house came into being.
Here, too, cellulose insulation would be helpful. I guess they can just spray it down from the attic into the hollow walls? Paul said that whatever inadequate insulation that might already exist in the walls would simply get pushed down.
Insulating the outer walls of the house would tighten up the sides of the thermal envelope.
What is this envelope? Well, basically the borders of the area that you want to keep heated. If you’ve got a house with two stories of living space, and a basement and attic, you’ll probably want a thermal envelope surrounding those two living-space floors. If you ever wanted to make your attic into livable space– say, converting it into a bar, or, my personal fantasy, into a medieval tavern– you would need to extend the top of that thermal envelope to the attic ceiling. (Or get a couple of oil-filled heaters and pray you don’t start a fire.)
Now, for the bottom of the thermal envelope, we turn to the ceiling and wall-tops of the basement. Paul noted that where the basement ceiling meets the walls (i.e., the walls of the foundation), a lot of air exchange is happening. We should get those areas sealed up.
And then there’s the spiders. We have many. Paul said that if you see a bunch of spider webs near a window, or a wall, or ceiling, that’s usually a telltale sign that air is flowing through that spot. Spiders like to build their webs where they can catch a nice little breeze, because… well? Everybody enjoys a good dose of fresh air? It brings in food? In any case, thanks, little guys. Your function as a draft marker is appreciated. And your days are numbered.
When he saw the oil furnace, he took a moment to appreciate it– as an archaeologist would an artifact. He turned to me with wild eyes and cried, “It belongs in a museum!” Well, no, he didn’t, but that was the general vibe.
The documentation says the furnace is operating at about 83 percent efficiency. Not great. But we can make an improvement to it by having an HVAC company change the nozzle. Currently it’s operating at one gallon per hour; with a smaller nozzle, it could burn, say, .8 gallons per hour. Maybe raising efficiency to 85 percent.
I don’t really understand this stuff, but it seems to make sense, as long as a slower burn rate would still provide the same heating intensity. Maybe it’s two different rates to get the same job done. Well, maybe we should look this up.
Aha! Here is a Department of Energy article on this very topic. Aren’t we learning a lot today?
Still there? Okay. We’re going to have to save for tomorrow’s post the rest of the visit, including the good parts where Paul broke out his energy rater toys (where does he get those wonderful toys?), which will explain both today’s header image and give me justification to use another Ghostbusters reference for the next post’s title (did you catch today’s reference?).
But I’d like to add one more note about the oil furnace before we come up from the basement for air (well, more air than our friends the spiders are currently soaking in). It isn’t just a new nozzle that will help a furnace’s efficiency; it should also be cleaned once a year. Thoroughly cleaned, the kind of cleaning that takes two hours instead of a quick how’s-your-father. Paul called it a “Clean, Tune, and Evaluation,” or CTE (here‘s one nearby state government’s elaboration on what this means, more than you will want to know).
And you’ll want this done by an independent HVAC company– not by the same people who sell you oil. Because… what interest do they have in making your system more efficient? That means they get to sell you fewer gallons of oil. And that don’t make good bidness sense.
One thousand words, children. Hopefully tomorrow’s installment will be less long-winded.
Why am I jawing on about air infiltration and energy efficiency? For Gaia, that’s why. For fucking Lady Gaia. Save the whales. See this post for the beginning of the Fool’s Errand.