Sustainable Arlington

Envision Arlington/Mass. Climate Action Network (MCAN) Chapter


Originally Posted March 27th, 2007

Scott Smith shares his experience of an extensive energy-saving effort.

Spending our first winter in our "new" house, which was built in 1870, was a bit of a surprise.

While the house is generally in very good repair, and has been extensively renovated over the years, we were surprised how much we were spending on gas for heating. After receiving the Keyspan Gas bill for December, I knew something needed to be done. The house is about 20% larger than our previous house, but the gas bill seemed more like twice as large as we had been used to. Part of this is clearly the ever-increasing price of fuel.

I immediately scheduled an energy audit from Keyspan. Unfortunately, we weren’t the only ones becoming sensitized to the high cost of staying warm in the winter, so the auditor was not available until March 8. In the meantime, I started doing some research, and found several projects to take on in the meantime. Here’s a list of things that I did:

1. Insulate heating pipes - My basement has probably 300 feet of copper and iron pipe carrying hot water to the radiators throughout the house. Almost none were insulated. I began to start wrapping them.

2. Weather strip doors - The two doors on the front of my house were not well sealed. I sealed them with various kinds of weather stripping.

3. adjust storm windows - They are almost brand new, but were not well adjusted, such that large (several mm) gaps were present at the bottom side of many of them.

4. mortite windows - I sealed the gaps around all of the older windows with mortite, a kind of rope caulk made for this purpose.

5. gaskets on outlets and switches - Outlets and switches on outside walls can leak cold air into your house. Foam gaskets can be easily put in to reduce this flow dramatically.

6. turn down thermostats to 55 at night - Nobody (including my always-cold wife or 3 and 5 year old daughters) complained when I adjusted the thermostat downward at night. A programmable thermostat can be used to warm the house automatically before you get up.

7. seal cracks in foundation and around basement windows - This helps keep the basement warmer, and reduce the cold air coming up through any cracks in the floor and along the walls.

8. close rooms that aren’t in use - Our dining room isn’t used all the much (and never at night) so we began closing off the room when it’s not in use. This room tends to be a bit colder due to lots of windows, so closing the doors keeps the rest of the house warmer.

9. turn down water heater to "warm" - Our water heater was turned up much too high. The warm setting on most HW heaters will provide water at 115-120 degrees, which is fine for our needs.

10. reflectors behind radiators on exterior walls - Radiators that are installed on outside walls should have reflectors along the wall to ensure that the heat goes into the room rather than heating the wall. These can be made from aluminum roll insulation available at places like Home Depot.

Although it’s difficult to be sure due to weather variability, these actions seem to have cut our bills by about 15%. Given that most of these actions need only be done once, their cost ($400-500) will be recouped in the first year. After that it’s money in the pocket.

On March 8, the auditor arrived. This particular auditor, though contracted by Keyspan, works for Honeywell. He doesn’t sell anything, so I believed that he could be objective, and nearly everything he said seemed quite logical and reasonable. He was pleased to see all the actions that I had been already taken.

However, the big stuff remains, which the auditor dutifully discovered. Specifically:

* He found an opening along the wall in the second floor ceiling that allowed warm air to go directly to the attic. He recommended sealing it with expanding foam. He also estimated that this crack was costing me $300/year! Wow.

* He pointed out that the chimney damper was open (behind glass doors) and recommended closing the damper and/or blocking the flue with an inflatable device. An open or leaky damper is like an open or very leaky window.

* He checked all walls for insulation, finding that only about 25% had any insulation at all. Blowing insulation into the walls would cost $2000-$3000, but would cut my heating costs by more than $800/year, he estimated.

* He recommended adding electronic ignition to my boiler, rather than relying upon a pilot light. This would cost $300, save $124/year.

* He recommended considering a tankless water heater, which are more efficient as well as having other virtues.

* He recommended that I insulate my basement ceiling and attic floor. Cost: $700, savings $380/year.

* He recommended that I finish insulating my hot water pipes. He quoted a figure of $1.50 per foot/season for 1" copper pipes, and for 2" iron, $2.50-3.00. That adds up fast.

* Keyspan rebates/Federal Tax Credits:

$300 for tankless HW + $300 tax credit
Up to $750 for weatherization measures (including insulation)
Up to $500 for high-efficiency heating system
Up to $50 for programmable thermostat

There are also loan programs, at no and low (3%) interest available for making these sort of improvements, so you really shouldn’t miss these opportunities, even if the bank account is presently a bit low.

Overall, I highly recommend getting an energy audit. If you don’t heat with gas, I believe you may be able to get one from N-Star. It’s a great way to learn about your home and what you can do to improve its efficiency. You’ll save money, be
more comfortable, and quite possibly help save the world!