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Improve the Energy Efficiency of Your West Texas Home With These Projects

Your hard-working furnace, heat pump and A/C systems heat and cool airflow for the home. They do not, however, have any say-so whether the conditioned airflow is efficiently utilized or wasted through the home's envelope. If you would like to reduce your heating and cooling bills, consider these home improvement projects for energy efficiency and greater home comfort.

Attic Air Sealing

The attic is a great place to begin home improvement projects for energy efficiency. Air leaks between the attic and living spaces create discomforts and high energy bills. Some of the signs of a leaky attic, such as air leaks around the hatch, air grills and outlets, recessed lighting and wall switch plates (e.g. in walls with open cavities to the attic), include drafty rooms, uneven temperatures room to room and excessive dust in rooms below the attic.

Start with a visual inspection of common attic leak sites. Turn off the heating or cooling system, and close windows to limit air movement. Turn on all exhaust fans that vent outside the home. The goal is to depressurize the living spaces in relation to attic air pressure. Hold a a smoke pencil or lit incense stick close to common leak sites. If the smoke wavers or is sucked into the ceiling or wall, you have located an air leak.

The basic tools needed to seal air leaks are caulk, a caulk gun, a can of expanding spray foam for larger leaks, a hard hat to protect against roofing nails, walking boards, a mask, goggles and long-sleeve shirt and pants. Once you are in the attic, check for more air leaks that were not accessible from the living spaces, such as around the flue, piping, wiring and cable protrusions.

The last step -- sealing the air leaks -- may be the simplest step. Caulk is used for smaller cracks and gaps. The expanding spray foam is used to fill larger gaps and holes. You may also use this time to inspect the attic insulation for damage, mold, dampness and displacement, which is needed in the next step for evaluating your attic's insulation efficiency.

Attic Insulation

Once you have sealed air leaks in the attic, you can add insulation as necessary to reach up to R-60, as suggested by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). Keep in mind that air sealing and adding insulation are two different home improvement projects for energy efficiency, and each require generous time to do correctly and safely.

Common signs that there are issues with your attic insulation are identical to issues with air leaks, such as uneven temperatures and drafty rooms. As you are evaluating the attic insulation, look for mold and wet insulation. Mold is sign of moisture issues, and wet insulation may indicate a roofing leak. Contact your contractor for a professional evaluation.

Next, determine if your attic needs more insulation. If the height of existing insulation does not rise above the joists, it would likely be cost-effective to add more. The minimum insulation suggested for our West Texas region by the DOE is R-38. Use a tape measure to estimate the R-value. If your insulation is fiberglass batts or rolls, the insulation should be about 12 inches thick to reach R-38, and about 19 inches to reach R-60. Loose-fill cellulose requires about 10 inches to reach R-38, and about 16 inches to reach R-60.

If you find that your attic and energy budget would benefit with more insulation, and you are going to add the insulation yourself, you will need the same safety wear and gear as the air sealing project. Additionally, you will need a tape measure and utility knife if you are installing batts or rolls. If you are installing loose-fill fiberglass or cellulose, the project is best performed using a pneumatic machine to distribute the insulation evenly and more densely.

Basement and Crawl Spaces

If your attic was sealed and insulated efficiently, but you are still experiencing hot and cold spots in the home, cold floors in the wintertime and high energy bills, the basement and crawl spaces should make your list of home improvement projects for energy efficiency.

The procedure for locating air leaks in the basement or crawl space is similar to the attic inspection. However, locating air leaks is performed from inside the basement or crawl space, rather than inside the living spaces. Many homes have ventilated crawl spaces. Generally speaking, this practice is impractical when you consider that insulation is exposed to moisture and cooler temperatures inside a dark confined area, which are ideal conditions for mold and mildew growth. Crawl spaces should be sealed the same as basements.

  • Air sealing: Look for air leaks at wiring holes, piping, vents, windows, between rim joists and under the sill plate, the sill plate and foundation, and around the access door. Use expanding spray foam for sealing cracks, holes and gaps larger than one-quarter inch. Use caulk for smaller cracks and holes. Consider installing thick polyethylene sheeting on the floor of the crawl space.
  • Insulation: Even with the basement or crawl space successfully sealed, you may want to consider alternative insulation materials, such as rigid foam board, rather than fiberglass batts. Rigid foam board performs very well, and it is resistant to mold and moisture. Apply rigid foam board to the walls, foundation and beneath the living space floor.

Ductwork Design

The quality of ductwork design has a substantial impact on the comfort of the home, energy bills and indoor air quality. Unfortunately, the average home wastes up to 30 percent of heating and cooling energy through air leaks and lacking insulation due to poor ductwork design. So, the air ducts are next on the list of home improvement projects for energy efficiency.

The typical ductwork system is manufactured of thin metal tubes that can develop leaks and separate due to prolonged static pressure. If the ducts are not insulated sufficiently, heat gain/loss occurs when ducts are located in the attic, basement or crawl space, which they generally are. Ductwork may also become damaged or tangled, for flex ducts, which hinders airflow and efficiency.

Visually inspect the accessible ducts in your home for air leaks, disjointed seams and insulation issues. Be sure to wear protective clothing and gear any time you venture into the attic, basement or crawl space. Turn on the heating or A/C system, and use the smoke pencil test or lit incense stick to find leaks. Note any damaged portions of ductwork which may need to be repaired or replaced by your HVAC professional.

  • Air sealing: The best tools to use to seal duct air leaks are metal tape and aerosol-based sealant or mastic paste. Spray or paste air leaks and disjointed seams, and then wrap the repaired section with metal tape once the sealant has dried.
  • Insulation: Once you have detected and sealed air leaks, use rigid fiber board or fiberglass batts to insulate all accessible ductwork.

Doors, Windows and Walls

Last but not least of the home improvement projects for energy efficiency are doors, windows and walls. Doors, windows and walls are inherently vulnerable when it comes to energy efficiency. Over time, doors and windows may shift as a house settles. Moisture and heat can also disfigure doors and window frames, which can open cracks and gaps for air exchange.

Just like the other systems in your home, you want to first check for and seal existing air leaks. Check the weatherstripping around entry doors and the door to an attached garage if applicable. Rubber tubing is excellent for sealing doors or to replace old weatherstripping. Door sweeps stop drafts, and should be installed on all entry doors.

Windows are common sites for air leaks in the envelope. Foam weatherstripping and caulk are appropriate for sealing air leaks around window frames. Plastic V-strip tension weatherstripping works well for double-hung windows. Moreover, older windows generally offer poor R-value, and are responsible for substantial heat gain/loss. Window treatments are simple home improvement projects for energy efficiency and interior design.

Two simple window treatments are drapes and shades. Draperies may be layered so you can adjust as needed to allow or block sunlight and heat gain/loss. Shades are available in many styles and designs, and offer good insulation properties in addition to diffusing direct sunlight.

Exterior walls need insulation to keep the home comfortable and efficient. Check to see if wall cavities open into the attic. This is the easiest way to check for insulation. Another option is to remove electrical wall plates to see inside wall boards. Make sure to turn off power to all switch plates that you remove. Check all exterior walls, including upstairs, downstairs and new additions if applicable. Just because one wall has insulation doesn't mean all exterior walls are insulated. If your walls are not completely insulated, contact your HVAC professional for assistance.

If you would like further details about these home improvement projects for energy efficiency, please contact Texas Air Comfort to find a West Texas contractor near you.

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