Ways to be Fuel Smart: Get Ready for Winter

Home | Insulation | Conserving Energy

Heating | Books | Links

So you’re standing out in front of the house taking a good look at it. Nice house. Happy memories inside. Pleasant place. You’re proud of it. But even though it may be a warm haven from the troubles of the world, your house may also be leaking heat from hundreds of unseen cracks and openings.

If that’s the case, your home is the enemy of your budget, the destroyer of your plans for a dream vacation, and a secret ally of your predatory fuel supplier. Action is called for.

What you strive for in your residential castle is a place that is secure from invaders.

Today, the invaders threatening to steal your fortune are sneaky drafts, whistling winds, and the silent cold that comes in the dark of the night.

There are various ways to deal with chilly drafts after they get in the house, but the best way is to stop them at the threshold, so to speak, before they get inside. Your goal is to make your house a more airtight package. In most older homes, you don’t need to worry about getting too airtight. The average place will continue to “breathe,” and there will be plenty of fresh air, even after you do your best to fill the cracks.

Filling the cracks is essentially what you’re up to. Here’s why. A crack just ½” wide around an average door is about the same size as a hole in your wall 6 inches square. Just imagine how much cold air can rush through a gap that size.

You will need a few tools for your security effort, but none of them are expensive and all of them are easy to use. As much time as you have available is all you’ll need to begin. You may not get the whole job done right away, but every part of your effort will pay off in lower fuel bills and more comfortable living.

The best time to get at it is late summer and fall. There’s a nip in the morning air to give you an incentive, but it’s still warm enough to comfortably work outdoors. Later on, when winter really hits, some of the things you’d like to do are difficult or impossible: Caulking and glazing compounds gum up in the cold, and patching cement won’t set properly if the temperature is below freezing.

As you read this, is it already too late? Not at all. Even in the middle of December there are still things you can do this season, as well as good resolutions you can make about next year.

Here we go!

Make Your Doors Airtight

A good place to start the security check is with your outside doors. They’re used many times a day all year-round and are likely to lose their tightness of fit more rapidly than windows. Even if you have storm doors, you need to check the main doors carefully.

If you can see daylight around the door when it’s closed, you have a major job on your hands. You may need to reset the hinges to get a better fit. However, adding lath strips on the inside of the doorframe may cover those gaps, and then you can add weather stripping to complete the job. If you feel cold air coming through, weather stripping may be all you need.

The full weather-stripping job on an outside door should cost $10 to $15 and , with a few annual adjustments, should last about 5 years. You may even save that amount in this winter’s fuel costs, which means the job is paid for in the first year. That’s a better return than you get by putting your money in the bank.

Several kinds of weather stripping are available. Some are better than others. Plastic adhesive V-strips are easy to install and will last a long time, depending on how much use the door gets. When installing the adhesive-backed weather stripping, make sure to clean the surface well and reinforce the adhesive with small tacks spaced approximately every 6 inches. Wood or aluminum door kits with vinyl bulb weather stripping last longer and are slightly more expensive.

The bottom of the door is the most important place to get a good seal, and the most difficult. If your threshold is worn, a tight weather-strip job is just about impossible, and a new threshold is called for. A soft wood such as pine planking is the easiest to cut and the cheapest to buy but won’t last a year in a heavily trafficked spot. Make it a hard wood like oak, or get a metal doorsill.

Too Dry?

Is your home too dry In the winter? When your house has the proper humidity level, you’ll be more comfortable at a lower thermostat set ting. Two signs of a house lacking moisture are:

1. Wooden furniture comes apart.

2. Those in the house complain of dry noses and often have head colds.

You can purchase an inexpensive hygrometer that measures relative humidity. During the winter, the corn fort range is from 30 to 50 percent. Try using a humidifier or leaving the lids off pots on the stove to add moisture to the air.

To make a weather tight seal, install a door sweep on the bottom of the door. Several different products are available. Most are aluminum with a vinyl sweep made to withstand light, medium, or heavy use. Automatic door sweeps cause the sweep to lift as it comes over the inside carpet.

Almost as important as the door itself is the line where the doorframe meets the house. The door is probably slammed shut more than a thousand times a year, and that can loosen the caulking around the frame. You can buy a caulking gun and some tubes of caulking compound at any hardware store. Do it. Look for a siliconized acrylic latex caulk. Many caulks come in various colors or are paintable. You’ll be using the gun in a lot of other places, so it’s a good investment.

You have a storm door? Good! Be sure the framing of the storm door is screwed tightly to the doorframe.

If you’re installing a storm door, put a bead of caulk across the top and down both sides before you install the frame. Then with the frame screwed in place, you’re sure to have a tight and permanent seal against breezes.

Do a good job on the front door, storm door and all, and you’ll save $50 a year or more on your fuel bills, which makes it well worth the effort. You’ll feel a lot more comfortable, too!

Stop Heat from Going out the Window

Let’s check the windows. That may sound like a big chore, so here’s a priority system: The west-facing windows are most likely to catch the prevailing winds, so do them first; the north-facing windows will be exposed to the coldest air, so do them second. The east-facing windows are next. Southern windows, facing the sun, are probably the least vulnerable, so they can wait till last.

Can you hear your windows rattle in a heavy windstorm? Yes? Then you have an important weather-stripping job to do. Do little breezes sometimes move the curtains even when the windows are closed? Yes? Then you need both weather stripping and caulking.

Two types of products that are easy to install are rope caulk and V-seal weather stripping. The rope caulk is applied in the fall and removed in the spring. With rope caulk in place, you can't open the window. The V-seal is applied on the window jamb and enables you to open and close the window while it is in place.

Windows Shut = Money Saved

The remodeled schoolhouse where I live has four big windows (4 feet wide by 8 feet high). I like them, but they added to my fuel bill every winter. A year or two after I moved in I realized that there was plenty of summer ventilation from other sources and that the big windows were never opened. Now they are nailed shut, their cracks are caulked, and we save money every month.

— Do you have some windows that you never open? Consider shutting them with a permanent seal. Close them securely, then caulk around all four sides. Add a single-pane storm window and install a bead of caulk. The end result will be as airtight as the double-pane fixed window you call a picture window in your living room.

— Cracked panes in your windows, or missing putty around the glass, will let cold air leak through. Get replacement panes for cracked or broken panes and tighten up.

— Don’t use putty, use plastic glazing compound. Putty dries out, cracks, and falls away. That’s probably why the window needs to be repaired in the first place. A good glazing compound will hold up for at least 10 years before cracking and costs little more than ordinary putty. It’s worth the price.

Take a glob of glazing compound and roll it between your hands until it takes the shape of a piece of rope. Then line it into the wedge made by the glass and the window frame. This makes a better seal than trying to press the com pound in a dab at a time. For larger jobs, buy glazing com pound in tubes, which can fit into your caulking gun.

Tricks for Using Glazing Compound

Replacing a broken window in the winter is an irritating chore because the glazing compound gets stiff and intractable. If I have that task ahead of me I tackle it with two cans of glazing compound; one in hand, and one keeping warm indoors on the windowsill. By trading them back and forth, it’s possible to complete the job. If you have only one can of glazing compound, tuck it under your jacket next to your warm body to keep it workable.

— When installing a windowpane, you can use several kinds of glazier’s tips or points to hold the glass in place. Particularly if you’re up on a shaky ladder, the odds are substantial that you’ll break the pane with your hammer when putting in a pane with some kinds of glazier’s tips. Look for the kind with a nib sticking out. You can catch that nib with a screw driver, tap the screwdriver handle with your hammer, and improve your chances of success considerably.

— Getting the glass replaced and reset is the right first step, but a window that is still rattling needs weather stripping. The most satisfactory method is to install V-strips or extruded plastic strips already shaped in a V. If you are weather-stripping many windows, you will save money if you purchase the V-strip weather stripping in 180-foot rolls. Make sure the window channels are free of dirt and grease. Clean with a damp rag before installing the V-strip. and reinforce the V-strip with small tacks.

— Another area that may be leaking is around the window frame. A bead of caulking compound down both sides and at top and bottom should seal out vagrant breezes.

— Have you seen those clamshell locks on many double-hung windows? Their purpose isn’t just security but also to pull the sashes together to keep cold air out.

More Places You Should Seal Tightly

Sealing the cracks and holes around windows and doors definitely reduces drafts, saves you money, and keeps you more comfortable. But did you know that the winter cold may be seeping into your house in a number of other ways? Twenty to 40 percent of your heating bill may be due to cold air entering your home or warm air leaving. The technical terms are infiltration and exfiltration.

The wind blowing against one side of your house is one way in which cold air gets in and warm air is pushed out. Another way is through the “chimney effect” or “stack effect.” Heated air tends to rise. This creates a difference in pressure between the top and bottom of the house. At the top, air is pushed out (exfiltration). Air is then sucked in at the bottom. In addition, combustion appliances — from boilers and furnaces to ranges and water heaters — contribute to air infiltration. As air is used during combustion it must be replaced by fresh air. Usually this fresh air is sucked into the house by whatever passageways are available.

All of the holes that were drilled for your plumbing stacks or electrical wires become pathways through which warm air can leave your home. In the attic, the partition walls become an escape route for heated air. In some houses there is nothing behind the kitchen or other cabinets to stop your heat from going into the walls and up to the attic. These paths for cold air to get into your house and warm air to get out of your house are called bypasses.

Finding and sealing major bypasses will definitely result in savings on your fuel bill. Now, there are specialists, often called “house doctors” or “air-sealing technicians,” who are trained to find and seal these bypasses. One of their main tools is a “blower door.” A blower door is basically a fan that is placed inside an exterior doorway and attached to several instruments. Its purpose is to calculate how fast air is leaving your home. With this information, the air-sealing technician can make sure that your home is not sealed too tight. You will also know just how much was accomplished through the air- sealing by comparing the blower door tests done before and after the sealing.

Will air-sealing make your house too tight? No. Will it increase the possibility of radon entering your home? No. By using the blower door, you can make sure your house will not be sealed too tightly. In addition, sealing bypasses in the attic and basement reduces the chimney effect, one of the major forces that pulls any radon from the ground right into your basement.

More and more weatherization professionals are learning about air-sealing and blower doors. Air-sealing techniques are also used extensively in new home construction.

Storm Windows Keep Out the Cold

Storm windows are an excellent buy, particularly in northern climates. Wooden frames are more efficient than metal frames because they conduct less heat from inside to outside. Fixed storm windows are less expensive than storm windows that are storm and screen combinations (tripletrack).

Many storm windows are tested for their energy performance. A high-quality storm window has an infiltration rate of less than 0.5 cubic feet per minute with a 15 miles-per-hour wind. Ask to see the manufacturer’s literature on the product you buy. Make sure any window is installed well and fits snugly.

• In aluminum storm windows, the heavier the gauge of the metal and the deeper the tracks, or grooves, that the windows slide in, the better. Make sure they are weather stripped. Felt- pile weather stripping is most common for storms. Because metal is such a good conductor, look for a storm window with a “thermal break” to stop the flow of warm air at the metal edge of your storm window.

— When installing prefabricated aluminum triple track windows, put a bead of caulking compound between the frame of the house window and the new aluminum framing, to be sure there is a full seal to keep out drafts. Then screw in place.

• If full storm windows aren’t practical for your house, consider plastic storm kits. Several inexpensive kits are avail able. Reusable plastic interior storm kits contain very clear plastic with narrow plastic strips to hold the window in place and adhere to the window frame. These can last five years or more. Another easy-to-use storm window kit is installed with a hair dryer and usually lasts one season.

• To seal windows from the outside, 6-mil polyethylene is sold in sheets and rolls at many hardware stores, and it will do a big job at low cost. Measure your plastic to the outer edges of the window frame, cut, then tack through 1 wood slats to hold the plastic firmly to the window frame. A trim, neat job offers minimum opportunity for the wind to catch an edge and tear off the whole thing.

• For a house with smooth wooden siding, measure the plastic to extend beyond the window frame on all four sides and tack through the slats right into the siding.

An Old-Time Design

I remember storm windows from my youth: big, cumbersome items that were stored in the attic or the garage in the summer, if you bothered to take them down at all. One-inch holes were drilled in the bottom of the frame and covered with a hinged flap that could be opened to let in a little fresh air. All told, a very efficient des ign.

Check the Foundation

Masonry work should be pointed before winter, which means filling the cracks in concrete foundations and facing brick work. Your hardware store will have ready-mix mortar for the job, and a small trowel for applying the mortar.

Mix your patching and pointing mortar in an old bucket. Cleaning it out after you’re finished will be darned near impossible. If you don’t finish your job in one day, hose out whatever mortar remains in the bucket; it won’t keep overnight. When the job is finished you can swish the bucket out and hang it in the garage or basement.

The plank on top of your foundation wall is called a sill plate. If there is a crack between the sill plate and the foundation, put the caulking gun to it and fill that crack. For any crack ½-inch wide or more, use non-expanding foam. Look for an “ozone-friendly” foam that doesn’t contain chlorofluorocarbons, more commonly referred to as cfcs.

If you have a major break in the foundation, patching may not be enough. Make a wooden frame, or form, that will cover the crack at least 2 inches on each side and at least 1 inch thick, then pour mortar into the form. Let it set at least 24 hours before removing the form.

The lapped siding used in many traditional homes can develop cracks over the years, and should be sealed with caulking. The best time to do it is just before painting.

Paintable caulk is available as is caulk in a variety of colors so that you can pick out a fairly close match. Make sure that the walls have been insulated before you begin so that the siding won’t have to be removed after you have sealed it.

Be sure that your cellar windows are closed tightly through the winter. Consider boarding them over for the cold season, or at least give them a double polyethylene covering.

Evergreen shrubbery around the base of your home can do much more than just serve a decorative purpose: It cuts the force of the wind at your home’s most vulnerable point. Those evergreens are most important on the northern and western sides, where the winds will be strongest.

Been thinking about a tool shed or another outbuilding? You can put a metal structure up in the middle of your yard, but you’ll get more for your money with a shed built right against the house. It will serve as dead-air insulation against the wall and will also stop the drafts from sneaking through that Section of the foundation area.

For an attached tool shed, the best location is on a west wall; the next best is on a north wall.

If you have an outside tank for fuel oil, a framed cover for it minimizes evaporation caused by heat, tends to keep it from getting too cold for the oil to flow in subzero temperatures, and is more attractive.

Note that most local building codes wisely won’t let you make an airtight structure as a cover. Be sure it is well vented so fumes won’t accumulate and potentially explode.

If you have perennial flower beds at the base of your house, you may bank them with bales of hay or straw in the fall to protect the plants. Good idea. Take into account that the straw is extra insulation around the base of your house. Let your straw bed be deep and generous, but be sure to remove it in the spring or you’ll run the risk of rotting the wood.

How We Use Energy

Pennsylvania State University says this is how energy is used in a home in a northern climate:

  • Heating of space 57.5%
  • Water heating 14.9%
  • Refrigerating 6,0%
  • Cooking 5.5%
  • Air conditioning 3.7%
  • Lighting 3.5%
  • Television 3.0%
  • Food freezer 1.9%
  • Clothes drying: 1.7%
  • Other 2.3%

It is obvious that the big energy users in the home are heating of space and water heating, totaling 72.4 percent. This is where the most can be accomplished in saving energy.

Next: Insulate Now and Save

Prev: Introduction

Top of page  All Related Articles     Products   Home