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How Did Your Customer’s Home Perform This Winter?

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We are coming off the heels of one of the coldest winters on record, so now is a good time to assess just how well your customers’ houses performed through these frigid months. At the same time, we will look at the quickest, least expensive, improvements we can make now to their houses that will have the biggest impact on their comfort & pocket book.

While everyone is talking about harnessing alternative energy to save us all money, I would argue the cheapest form of alternative energy is capturing the energy that is currently being wasted. What do I mean by this? First, we have to step back into physics class for a short session. We all know heat rises, but did you know (or remember) that heat also seeks cold? That is why when we talk about sizing heating & air conditioning equipment, we talk about heat gain in the summer time & heat loss in the winter, because the heat is always seeking the cold. So in the winter you have two laws of physics working against attempts to keep houses toasty warm. House function like an old-fashioned coffee percolator, the heat your customers are paying the utility companies to generate via their furnace or heat pump, naturally rises and it is seeking colder temperatures. The leakiest surface of most any home is its ceiling, because of all of the lighting & electrical penetrations. Just on, the other side of that ceiling is a cold attic and that’s where the warm air wants to go. Therefore, as the warm air escapes through the ceiling, it creates a negative pressure imbalance, which is filled in around the lower regions of your customer’s home by cold outside air. Keeping in mind for the sake of this article, we are addressing winter conditions. Therefore, it would just make sense that if we can stop or greatly reduce the amount of heat rushing into and out of attics, we would reduce the amount of cold air infiltrating the customer’s living spaces, and thus reduce the amount of work the heater has to perform to keep them comfortable.

Why is it more important to address the warm air leaving before sealing the air entering the house from outside? We have to remember we are talking about most bang for the buck, the air that is leaving the home has been conditioned, so it is “expensive air” and it is a contributing factor to the cause of the air that is infiltrating from outside.

So how do you know if a house has attic issues that need addressing? Begin by inspecting the insulation in the attic. Go look throughout the entire attic. Look for dirty insulation, especially around lights, sill plates, attic hatches, etc. What is dirty insulation and why are you looking for it? A big misnomer many people have is that insulation stops airflow however; it does not it only filters the air leaving the home. Therefore, signs of dirty insulation are tell tale signs that customers are paying to heat their attic.

What else should you look for? Knee walls and for that matter any vertical wall in the attic that needs to be sealed. Stand inside the attic while looking at any wall that has conditioned space on the other side; if the pink, yellow, or white of the wall’s insulation is visible, it needs to be sealed. Why? Remember insulations does not stop air flow, so the air inside the attic flows from the bottom (floor) to the top (roof), that air will flow between the vertical insulation and the wall (sheetrock). The extreme temperatures in the attic come in direct contact with the walls of the living space; just a ¼” gap between fiberglass insulation and the sheetrock lowers the R-value to zero. I am in Georgia, and building code today requires that knee walls have an air barrier, but during the housing boom, this was not code, so the majority of homes in my area could greatly benefit from this one simple repair.

Another tell tale sign is to wait for a good frost and go look at the roof from the outside. A well-insulated and sealed attic will keep the ice on the roof longer, while an inefficient attic will heat up with expensive air and melt the ice.

Lastly check attic hatches and doors. Most attic hatches are plywood and most attic doors are actually interior doors. The R-value of wood is not very good, and interior doors do little or nothing against the extreme temperatures of attics. There are several effective and inexpensive steps you can apply to these doors to help insulate and more importantly stop the air from escaping through these openings.

There are several test methods that you can perform to determine just how severe the level of infiltration issues a house may have. The most common and effective test would be a negative pressure infiltrometer test or blower door. That test coupled with a FLIR (forward looking infrared) camera is a very eye opening test and not very expensive for the homeowner.

If your customers are complaining that they didn’t stay warm enough this winter and/or their heating bills were sky high, then you need to be offering to help them fix the issues now. They will thank you and recommend you for it.

John Waldorf
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Posted In: Building Performance, Residential Buildings

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