People always ask me : ”As a home inspector, what’s the most unusual thing you’ve seen?” I have seen a lot of strange stuff in 18 years of full-time inspecting (whatever you can imagine - I have probably seen it), but the thing that always surprises me is how often I see uninsulated homes here in the Boston area. It may seem shocking, it is to me, that a home in this area would have zero insulation, but yet it happens. People are paying ridiculous amounts of money for energy - in the form of oil, natural gas, propane, electricity, and so on, and why? Why not improve your living space envelope? Why live in a home that is incredibly drafty? Especially in this area, where there are a number of great programs to improve your home and upgrade your heating equipment.
A huge amount of energy goes into heating and cooling our homes, and we see it in our wallet, but we also see it in the total consumption numbers. In addition, all that heating with fossil fuels results in greenhouse gas emissions. 39% of greenhouse gas emissions comes from heating and conditioning our built environment. There are many different forms that construction can take to make drastic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, like Net-Zero, Zero Energy, and Passive House construction, as well as a huge number of new construction methods, product, practices and regulations. However, for this article, we’ll be focusing on capturing energy from the already-existing built environment in our own backyards: our homes. Our existing housing stock is old: New England and the Northeast US have the oldest housing stock, with New York State having the oldest of any state with average at 63 years. Here in Massachusetts we are at 59 years. And much of the multi-unit housing is in the 100+ year old range (pre-1920). And here in the Northeast we have some of the highest property density and the highest property values- This means that even as we build new homes, the existing housing stock is here to stay - it is not getting rebuilt into shiny zero energy construction. And because these homes represent a huge portion of the homes in our community, we really need to improve them and capture the energy loss that’s happening daily!! This is the lowest hanging fruit, and it is still not being harvested (enough).
This is where the rubber meets the road: Millions of old houses are poorly insulated, improperly insulated, are not properly sealed, and not properly weatherized. We’ve seen it time and time again, where it is completely shocking how little homes have been improved.
This is just a partial list of Home Envelope issues:
Attics with missing insulation, uninsulated, or that should have ventilation, but don’t at all, or don’t have enough
Attics that have openings that allow air leakage around stairs, hatches, piping, ducting, wiring, chimney chases, plumbing chases, wall cavities, and other areas.
Basements with air leakage into them through holes and gaps, through foundations with crumbling mortar, and old single pane rotting windows.
Basements with little or no insulation
Basements with openings up into the home around pipes, wires, ducting, stair openings, wall cavities, and other openings
Exterior walls with little or no insulation
Holes and gaps around piping, windows, doors, in siding, trim, and other areas, outlets and switches
Aged windows that have no storm windows, have loose sashes, gaps and air leakage
Doors that do not close properly and have insufficient weatherstripping
These are just a partial listing of the most commonly observed issues and problems that result in heat loss and significant inefficiency. What’s to be done about all this? And what kind of return (ROI) could you expect?
In Massachusetts the first step as a homeowner is to call Masssave. If you rent, then you should talk to your landlord about taking this first step.
This is the lowest-hanging fruit in the process of energy capture in homes, and it is a first-step in this process. Why? Because a huge amount of airflow happens around doors and windows, and most of this work can be done by a homeowner. Replace or improve the weatherstripping on all your exterior doors - and don’t forget about the basement door! Do you have a storm door? Can one be installed? About the windows- there’s lots that can be done here - and it depends on the type of windows you have. If you have old wood windows, see if they can be improved, and add storm windows if not already there. If your windows are in poor condition, consider and budget for replacement. Check with MassSave about this very important step, and what benefits you can get to do this.
Target areas to focus on for weatherization: Doors - look for light and cold air coming in around the door. Door sweeps: check to make sure the door sweep on your exterior door is doing its job! Windows: chcek the frames for cold air around the sashes, but also check the sills and the window trim. Basement doors and attic access doors are a huge source of air leakage and often they are not considered because they are’nt within the living space. Check the basement windows for air leakage.
Air sealing is a huge step to make sure that heat loss is minimized in the home. There are places throughout the basement, the exterior walls, and the attic that can typically be improved to make sure the air does not move through and out of the home. If you are building a new home, there are a lot of important steps in the framing stage, pre-insulation, to make sure the home is properly air sealed. There are even some very advanced technologies that can help make some mahor improvements to the air sealing and prevention of heat loss. If you can prevent air movement through and out of the home, your house will be more comfortable, less drafty, warmer, and most importantly less expensive to heat and cool.
Target areas to focus on for Air Sealing: holes and gaps at the basement sill areas, holes in the subfloor in the basement, gaps and holes in exterior walls, gaps and holes around piping and wall chases in the basement and attic.
In almost every oler home there is always a place where insulation can be improved or installed. Old types of insulation is not as efficient as newer insulation, and the older types of insulation tend to settle, shift, and not perform as well any longer. We’ve found all kinds of stuff inside walls - trash, newspaper, socks, crepe paper, seaweed, shredded kraft paper, denim, UFFI, in addition to the typical old stuff like rockwool, mineral wool, vermiculite, fiberglass, or none at all. Call MassSave to get an evaluation of areas where insulation can be installed! If they can’t do it, check with a local insulation professional.
Target areas to focus on for insulation: Attic, along the entire conditioned space envelope (get access to inaccessible areas to make sure they are insulated!), Basements all around the sill area, Crawlspaces, along the crawlspace foundation wall, and exterior walls.
There are so many ways that energy can be captured in the existing housing stock - (Note: in this article, we’re not even getting into issues with existing commercial buildings. We see a lot of issues here as well in our commercial inspection work, and this is an incredible opportunity to capture energy and prevent energy loss) This is a huge missed opportunity. There’s so much discussion about the new technologies for new construction - but we’re really missing out on this important step to conserve energy in our existing built environment. Capturing all this energy is it the energy of the future? In part, it certainly is. And you can enjoy the benefits and savings by taking these important steps now.