When my wife and I bought our house in Roscoe Village in 2006, we knew about the energy issues it had. The furnace always ran in the winter, and there were always electric heaters on throughout the house – it was still cold.
Having a career in environmental science and energy efficiency, I was well aware of the problems and how to fix them. Often homeowners don’t know where to begin; here’s a short list of the biggest problems, and where to start.
With the Energy Efficiency Tax Credit expiring, and rebates available from the Chicagoland Natural Gas Savings Program, there may not be a better time to make some energy efficiency upgrades in the home.
- Is your house drafty? It’s probably not your windows. Frame homes built before the 1940s, which is half of Chicago, used balloon framed construction. Air leaks from the outside are able to move throughout the walls and leak in through recessed can lights, molding, electrical outlets, and plumbing and electrical chases. When heat rises in the winter, the pressure forces warm air out of the top of the house, and cold air in from the bottom. Air sealing from a qualified contractor, one who uses a blower door, should make your house less drafty, more comfortable, and more cost-effective. Air sealing my attic, and along the rim joist on the foundation, made an instant difference in our home’s comfort.
- Most people don’t know that Chicago hasn’t had an energy efficient building code until recently. Gut rehabs may not even have adequate insulation. Ours was no exception. I was surprised to find 40-year-old R-11 batts in my attic. The recommendation is R-38 to R-49. Adding insulation where I could after air sealing was cost effective and had a quick payback. Make sure your roof is not leaking before insulating.
- Heating systems are next on the list. Most homes in Chicago have an 80-percent-efficient forced-air furnace or hot water boiler (nameplate – estimates on actual efficiency for many units are less than 60 percent). Many, like mine, have systems that are older than 20 years, which is the expected useful life of a heating system. We will be replacing our system this year and upgrading to a 95-percent-efficient unit to take advantage of the Federal Tax Credit. Before doing so, however, we sealed our ducts with mastic where we could access them and added duct insulation. We’ll get the static pressure of the system tested and fixed before installing a new unit – an inefficient system can erase many of the gains of the higher efficiency unit.
- If your home can accommodate it, side-wall insulation is another good investment. Installed by a contractor, dense packed cellulose insulation can also have the added benefit of air sealing – however, it can only be done when the walls are sturdy. Many of our sidewall cavities had no insulation, which is surprisingly common. We had the contractor insulate and seal the crawl space under our porch as well.
- When we replaced our hot water heater—which was older than 10 years and beginning to leak—we installed a higher efficiency unit and got a rebate from the Chicagoland Natural Gas Savings Program and took advantage of the tax credit.
- Little savings add up as well. Low-flow aerators for the faucets, turning down the hot water heater, low-flow showerheads, water pipe insulation, door sweeps and weather stripping, and, of course, compact fluorescent light bulbs, all contribute to lower energy bills.