Advice for homeowners: Inspect your house for these common energy problems to get a better idea on where your money is best spent Owners of older homes often contact Green Building Advisor and ask, "What can I do to make my home more energy efficient?" My standard answer goes something like this: "The first step is to hire a certified rater to perform an energy audit of your home. The audit report will include a tailor-made list of retrofit measures to address your home's specific problems."
The advice is good, but it doesn't do much to educate the questioner. Perhaps you are an intrepid homeowner who is willing to poke around your home's nooks and crannies. Is there anything you can learn about your house without a blower door and an infrared camera?
Yes, of course there is. This article will explain the steps that homeowners can take to assess the condition of their house from an energy perspective.
Inspect the basement If your house has a basement, that's a good place to start your inspection. (If your house has a crawlspace or an above-grade mechanical room, some of the advice in this section also applies to those areas.) The most important tool for this type of inspection is a powerful flashlight.
Check for air leaks. On a cold day, it's fairly easy to locate basement air leaks; you may be able to feel infiltrating air with your bare hand. You may find that an incense stick is helpful in locating air leaks. Another way to locate air leaks is to turn off all of the lights in the basement and look for cracks of light. (This method only works during the daytime, of course.) Typical air-leakage locations include the mudsill, around exterior doors, around windows, at utility penetrations, at pet doors, and at dryer vents. Once you've identified where air is leaking into your house, you'll have to start sealing the leaks. If your house is in bad shape, you may need a new door or window. In most cases, though, you can significantly reduce air leakage with caulk, canned spray foam, and weatherstripping. (For more information on this work, see Air-Sealing a Basement.)
Inspect the rim joist for insulation. Rim joists can be found at the perimeter of your basement, above the top of your foundation wall. (If your basement ceiling is finished with drywall or plaster, you won't be able to inspect your rim joists without cutting a hole in your ceiling.)
Ideally, the rim joists will be insulated on the interior with rigid-foam insulation or spray-foam insulation. If the rim joists are uninsulated, it's a good idea to air-seal the area and install insulation.
If the rim joists are insulated with fiberglass batts, you may have a problem. Pull away some of the fiberglass and inspect the rim joists. If you see signs of mold or rot, it's probable that the fiberglass insulation is the cause of the moisture problem. (This phenomenon is more common in very cold climates than in mild climates.) If you find mold or rot, you'll probably want to remove all of the fiberglass insulation and allow the rim joists to dry. Once these areas are dry, insulate the rim joists with rigid-foam or spray-foam insulation. (For more information on insulating rim joists, see Basement Insulation.)
Inspect your basement walls for insulation. If the insulation is visible, it should be easy to inspect. In this location, what you want to see is rigid-foam or spray-foam insulation. If you see fiberglass batts, that's worrisome. Peel back one of the batts to look for any mold that might be growing behind the batts. If you see rigid foam behind the batts, that's good news, and the batts can probably stay. If you don't see any insulation on the interior of your basement walls, it's possible that your basement walls have exterior insulation. Go outdoors and check the top of one of your walls. If your walls appear to be finished with stucco, pierce the stucco with an awl or a long punch. If you discover rigid foam behind the stucco, that's good news.
For more information on insulating basement walls, see How to Insulate a Basement Wall.
Look for exposed dirt floors. If your basement or crawlspace has a dirt floor, it should be covered with a durable vapor barrier (a layer of polyethylene that is at least 6 mils thick, or a sturdy membrane such as rubber roofing, Tu-Tuf, or a pond liner). If you see bare dirt, it's important to install a vapor barrier soon.
Inspect your heating equipment. Most U.S. homes are heated by a furnace or an air-source heat pumpconnected to an air handler. These two types of systems use ducts to distribute hot air through your house.
A minority of U.S. homes are heated by a boiler that distributes heat through hot-water pipes. If your furnace or boiler is more than 25 or 30 years old, you may want to consider replacing it with a newer, more efficient unit. (Hopefully, you know the age of your heating equipment, either because you remember when it was installed, or you were told how old it was when you bought the house.) If you are planning major energy-retrofit work that will include a new heating system, you may want to read Choosing HVAC Equipment for an Energy-Efficient Home.
Inspect your ductwork. If your home is heated with a boiler, there probably isn't any ductwork in your basement. If you have a furnace or air handler, however, you've got ducts. Inspect the ducts to see if any ducts are disconnected, or if ducts are so poorly connected that there is a visible gap between duct sections. Disconnected ducts will need to be reconnected and sealed with mastic or high-quality tape. If your house has ducts in a vented, unconditioned crawlspace, all of the duct seams need to be sealed with mastic, and the ducts must be insulated. You should also plan on converting your vented crawlspace into an unvented crawlspace. (For more information on this topic, see Building an Unvented Crawlspace.) For more information on duct sealing, see Sealing Ducts: What's Better, Tape or Mastic?
Inspect your water heater. At a minimum, you should note the water heater's age, if known. You should also look for leaks, puddles, and drips. If it is a gas water heater, inspect the flue pipe to see if it looks secure, with flue pipe sections well connected. If your water heater is more than 15 or 20 years old, plan to replace it soon.
If you are contemplating the purchase of a new water heater, you may want to read All About Water Heaters.