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Simple fixes can mean big energy savings

Judith Siers-Poisson, Wisconsin Public Radio

 Sometimes, a homeowner has to take on a home improvement or repair project -- like when water is pouring out of places it shouldn’t or a piece of drywall falls on someone’s head.  But other times, it just makes sense to put some work in to improve how a home functions. Making a home more energy efficient can make it more comfortable and can also save money.

Allie Berenyi, who has been studying and practicing carpentry since 1992 and is an instructor in the construction and remodeling program at Madison College (formerly Madison Area Technical College), said making a home more efficient definitely translates into dollars.

“We’ve all had some pretty eye-popping energy bills this winter, and while it’s still fresh in our minds, as spring is coming, we can look at some of the really low-cost energy improvements that really get you some nice bang for the buck,” she said.

But knowing where the home isn't as tight as it should be can be challenging.

“Getting an energy auditor into your home to do a blower-door test … what they’re going to find how your house is performing overall,” she said. “But also, they’re going to be able to locate all those leaks because they’re going to be sucking air out of your home … and with an infrared camera, they can just see where the air is leaking.”

Chad Speight, the owner of Chad’s Carpentry in Madison, said that the best way to think about energy efficiency is how well the shell of the house keeps heat in or out. In other words, “to make sure that the thermal envelope of the house is reasonably tight,” he explained. “You don’t want air leaking into structure and into the conditioned space … to be able to control the environment inside the space.”

Speight said that as a contractor, that’s his priority.

“When you’re building or remodeling a house, if you don’t get those details right, it’s harder to upgrade them down the road,” he said.

Not surprisingly, windows and doors are the holes in that thermal envelope. So, Speight said that upgrading those features will often make a big difference in a home’s energy efficiency.

Berenyi looks at it like this.

“We’re heating this air in our house, and the thing we don’t want to do is to let that heated air get away,” she said.

In addition to windows and doors, she said that ceilings are a weak point for efficiency and can allow air to escape all the way up to an unheated attic. So, sealing spots like chimneys and light fixtures can be a big help. Berenyi continued by saying “what you can do with a caulk gun and a can of spray foam … will really increase not just the energy efficiency, but the comfort of your home.” 

She added that those simple fixes will allow for a lower thermostat setting, which leads to savings.

If a home has painted wood trim or baseboards, that’s an opportunity to caulk without it being noticeable, Berenyi said. It’s worth it to stop those air leaks, she said, because “that’s what feels drafty, and that’s why we feel uncomfortable when we sit next to a window in January.”

Tightening up a home can lead to other problems, however. Speight said that when a home’s thermal envelope is very efficient, it can lead to air-quality issues. To address that, he said, “You have to make sure that you’ve got good air exchange.”

A good resource for energy audits and other efficiency programs and products is Wisconsin’s Focus on Energy program.

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