“Do you experience feelings of dread in your basement or attic?”


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.

Author: Jeff Deck

Author and administrator of this site.