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Builders often refer to the exterior of a home as the "envelope" or the "shell." Sealing the envelope or shell against air infiltration (air leaking into the house from outside) and air exfiltration (air leaking from inside the house to the outside) helps reduce your energy expenditure for space heating and cooling. Besides, no one likes to live in a drafty house.
In this article, we'll show you a variety of ways you can seal leaks and improve insulation to make your home cozier and more energy efficient. Once you've sealed and insulated the weak areas, the work doesn't stop there. We'll show you how routine cleaning and water conservation can increase energy efficiency and save you even more money on your energy bills. Begin the improvement process with the following basic sealing guidelines to help you secure your home's exterior.
Testing for Leaks
Technicians use a "blower-door test" to accurately measure air leakage in houses. The test involves sealing a portable, frame-mounted fan in an exterior doorway to the house. Any known openings to the outside, such as the fireplace flue; bathroom vent fans; and the flues to the water heater, furnace, or boiler are temporarily sealed.
After the sealing and setup is complete and the blower fan is switched on, it is possible to measure with precision how much air is entering the house through all the various "unintended" cracks, gaps, and holes in the exterior envelope. Using devices called smoke pencils, technicians can pinpoint areas where air is entering the house while the blower door is in operation.
While every home is different and each has its own set of leakage points, there are areas where infiltration shows up repeatedly in blower-door tests. These often include the seam between the top of the foundation wall and the wood framing that runs above, around, and through doors and windows; along baseboards; through electrical receptacles and switches mounted on exterior walls; and around fireplaces, laundry chutes, attic hatchway doors and pull-down stairways, whole-house fan installations, and pipe and wire chases. A homeowner can go a long way toward increasing energy efficiency by locating and sealing up as many of these entry points as possible.
You don't necessarily need to have a blower-door test done on your home in order to locate the unsealed areas that are leaking air. Knowing that these points of air entry have been routinely and consistently identified in other houses gives you a start on where to look for gaps and cracks in yours. A windy day outside can be helpful in this endeavor. Wind can push air into the house through unseen and unnoticed holes to the point that you can feel the air movement.
Checking Exterior Sheathing
Before plywood and oriented strand board (OSB) were invented, homes were built entirely with solid board lumber. The exterior was sheathed underneath the siding with wide boards that, over time, shrank and cracked. All these cracks -- and the many others inherent in most homes -- are pathways through which air can enter or leave a house. Sidewall sheathing is covered with siding, so all those cracks that appear in and between wide boards on older homes are hidden and inaccessible.
Air enters the sheathing through cracks in the siding; around windows and doors; and through other openings in the exterior envelope that include kitchen and bathroom vent fan louvers, dryer vents, holes bored for air-conditioning lines, electrical and gas service wires and pipes, along the underside of the lowest course of siding, and through other holes. Any time you can find and seal a crack on the exterior of a house, you go a long way toward reducing air infiltration and exfiltration on the inside.
Because of the large size of plywood and OSB sheets, there are relatively fewer seams in the sheathing on newer homes. And the use of products like house wrap on new construction has further reduced air infiltration. Consequently, most new homes are more airtight than older ones. But although the sheathing might be more airtight in a newer home, there are still many places where air is getting in and out. Finding and sealing those leakage points not only reduces drafts and energy usage, but it also helps keep out insects and other pests.
Filling Holes Around Lines
HVAC system installers need to bore a large hole through the exterior wall of the house in order to pass refrigerant lines through to the compressor outside. Most take time to caulk the hole around the lines, but the caulk fails over time, often leaving a gap where air (and insects) can infiltrate the house. A few minutes spent with a caulk gun will close the gap and shut off the flow of outside air into the house.
Caulking the Exterior
Some people find that once an older home has been freshly painted, they suddenly feel warmer or "cozier" inside during the winter. That may be because the painter who worked on the house took time to caulk cracks, gaps, and other holes in the home's exterior "skin." While minute gaps around doors and windows might not seem as though they could possibly add up to much, under certain conditions it is surprising how much air they can let into and out of a house.
Consider a windy day. Wind drives air into gaps and around obstructions. Add rain to the mix, and you've got the recipe for both water and air infiltration. So caulking pays off in regard to both energy savings and building preservation. That's why you don't need to wait until it's time to paint to caulk visible openings on the exterior of your house.
Securing the Perimeter
The wooden framing in most homes rests on top of a solid concrete or concrete block foundation. In homes built before 1980 or so, the lowest section of wood, called the "mud sill," rests directly on top of the concrete. While the connection is secure from a strength standpoint, in terms of eliminating air infiltration, things could be much better. The problem is the rough and variable surface of the top of the foundation wall. While there are many areas where the wood presses down tightly, other areas may leave a gap through which wind can enter.
The gaps, which collectively might add up to a hole the size of a basketball in the exterior envelope, can usually be sealed with either caulk or cans of spray foam. This procedure, which can be done either on the inside or outside of the house (depending on which offers the best access) requires that you first brush away the dirt and cobwebs from the concrete and wood so the caulk or foam will stick to both surfaces.
From that point on it's just a matter of aiming the caulk tube's tip or spray foam applicator tube at the gaps and gunning them full of caulk or foam. It's a job that doesn't have to be neat or precise, just thorough. Once you're finished, you will have stopped up one of the leakiest places in the home.
In newer homes, the gap between the mud sill and the top of the foundation wall is filled with a thin, compressible length of foam material. The foam creates an airtight seal that does not need remedial caulking or foaming. However, it's worth checking along this area anyway, as occasionally the foam sealer didn't get placed exactly where it should have been. Also, the top of the foundation wall might be too uneven for the foam to fill the gap, someone might have forgotten to put it in place, or it might stop short of the corners. In any of those cases, a shot of caulk or foam can quickly remedy the problem.
In the next section, we'll discuss some basic sealing techniques you can use indoors to help make your home more energy efficient.
Sealing the Interior
Once the exterior of the home is sealed as well as possible, it is valuable to do the same to the inside as well. Below are some basic guidelines on areas you can secure to keep heat and air conditioning from escaping.
Baseboards and Floors
Gaps are often left between baseboards and hard floors, such as tile, hardwood, or laminate flooring. These gaps can be successfully and neatly filled with latex caulk, thus preventing air from entering the home at foot level.
Gaskets Can Block Drafts
Wind can sneak in through tiny gaps and cracks that you don't even know are there. Often, the first time you're aware of such a problem is when you flick a switch or plug an electronic device into a receptacle mounted on an exterior wall. Not only does the switch or receptacle feel cold, but it's sometimes possible to actually feel a cold draft blowing into the room.
You can block many of these types of drafts from inside the house by purchasing and installing inexpensive switch and receptacle gaskets from a hardware store or home center. The gaskets, made of nonelectrically conductive fiber matt material, fit snugly around the switch or receptacle after the cover plate is removed. With the gasket in place the standard cover plate goes back on, creating an airtight seal against the wall. For the cost of just a few cents each, gaskets are a worthwhile investment in energy saving and comfort.
Caution: To avoid electrical shock, you should remove cover plates from switches and receptacles only after power has been shut off at the main service panel to the circuits where work is being done. Other than that, each gasket installation will require about two minutes of your time.
A Canister of Trouble
Recessed ceiling canister lights pose special problems for a homeowner bent on making a home more energy-efficient. The older types are extremely leaky and are difficult to make airtight. Because of regulations concerning fire safety, the best you can do is to build an airtight box of flame-resistant material -- sheet metal, for instance, or drywall -- at least three inches larger than the light's housing to cover the portion of the fixture that is in the attic. This box can then be sealed to the drywall. It cannot be covered with insulation, however, as heat buildup inside the fixture could cause problems with the wiring inside.
Heat generated by the bulbs inside recessed canister lights is usually lost to the attic and doesn't contribute to heating the house. This excess heat flowing unchecked into the attic space can cause problems with ice dams on the roof during the winter.
Another solution to older, leaky canister lights is to replace the fixtures entirely with new airtight units. "ICAT" (insulation contact, airtight) canister lights are the most energy-efficient recessed canister lights on the market.
As the name suggests, they are airtight and can also be covered with insulation. To further improve their performance, airtight ceiling canister lights can also be sealed to drywall or plaster with caulk. When you calculate the cost of allowing heat to escape through a leaking ceiling canister light, the cost it takes to replace it with a more energy-efficient model is easy to justify.
Attics and the Stack Effect
The floor of an attic is an important battlefield on the energy conservation front because of a phenomenon known as the "stack effect."
Warm air rises. That much is nearly universally known; it is the reason hot air rises up a fireplace flue or "chimney stack." What isn't so commonly recognized is that rising warm air creates pressure at the top of whatever is containing it. In a household situation the top-floor ceiling acts as a containment barrier to rising warm air. As such, any small hole or gap in that area is subject to pressurized warm air trying to escape.
Warm air loss due to the stack effect has another consequence. As air exits through the top-floor ceiling or other holes, it creates a slight negative pressure inside the house. The air leaving has to be replaced, and that air comes from outside the house: cold, dry air. The incoming air has to be heated, and that's when your furnace or boiler comes on.
Up the Flue
Builders occasionally run into difficulty framing and sealing an opening around a fireplace. There needs to be clearance between the wood and the masonry or metal, so the framing can't fit tightly against those materials. That means the finish wall material -- usually drywall or plaster -- is supposed to bridge the gap for fire safety and also provide an airtight closure. Comprehensive sealing in this area, however, can sometimes be neglected. In some cases that means there are gaps around fireplaces that allow air to leave the house easily.
Take time to look inside and around fireplaces with a good flashlight to see whether there are any holes and gaps that need to be sealed with spray foam, fireproof caulk, or other filler material. Not only will this reduce the amount of air leaving the house via these pathways, but it can also protect areas from sparks or embers leaping out of a fire.
Weatherstripping around doors can help keep drafts out of your house, which can keep your heating and cooling bills under control. In the next section, we'll discuss how to better secure your doors.
Cohen, Zolton. "How to Make Your Home Energy Efficient" 22 May 2006. HowStuffWorks.com. <http://tlc.howstuffworks.com/home/how-to-make-your-home-energy-efficient.htm> 04 November 2011.
Disclaimer: ActiveRain Corp. does not necessarily endorse the real estate agents, loan officers and brokers listed on this site. These real estate profiles, blogs and blog entries are provided here as a courtesy to our visitors to help them make an informed decision when buying or selling a house. ActiveRain Corp. takes no responsibility for the content in these profiles, that are written by the members of this community.