Uh Oh. Here comes winter. The season that challenges us to heat our homes without hurting our planet or our wallets. Everyone wants to stay warm and comfortable in their home; luckily, there are lots of planet-friendly and cost effective strategies and solutions to help us do just that.
What’s preventing us from being warm in our homes? If a house is cold and drafty it is because heat is escaping through uninsulated walls and attic, and through holes and gaps that let air in. The process of warm air escaping from the interior of your house to the outside and cold outside air coming in is called the “stack effect.” It’s what happens when you heat the interior of your home but that heated air escapes upwards (because hot air rises!), causing a vacuum drawing cold air in from cracks and gaps in your basement. Then, you heat up that new, cold air, and when it’s hot, it rises and escapes!
So what’s the solution? Insulation and air-sealing are two actions that keep the warm air inside your home. The cavities in the walls and in the attic can be fully insulated and there are a number of options you can use to improve the insulation on an existing home. Effective air-sealing of a home is a little like a detective adventure. Starting from the bottom of your house and working your way up, you can locate all the little cracks, gaps and holes—around window frames, places where water or fuel pipes go to the outside, and gaps around doors—that are letting air flow in and out. All of these can be filled with something that will block the air flow, like caulk or spray foam. The best, and free, option for reducing conduction and convection of heat away from your home is to schedule a whole-house energy assessment, which is paid for by NYSERDA, and is performed by a trained contractor. The auditor checks all areas of the home for insufficient insulation and air leaks and provides a detailed report outlining what actions could be done and the approximate cost. You can choose which actions you want to take and choose a contractor to work with. Having an energy assessment qualifies you for incentives, rebates, and low-interest loans that can be applied to your energy efficiency improvements. State and federal incentives can help cover 50%-100% of the work that you decide to do for income-eligible households.
Once you have made your home more energy efficient, it’s time to look at your heating system. Most homes in urban areas throughout the Southern Tier are heated by methane, more commonly referred to as “natural gas. The gas is burned either in a boiler that heats water, or in a furnace that heats air. As the air or water cools, it is returned to the furnace or boiler to be reheated. Homes in rural areas that are beyond where the gas lines reach are heated by other fossil fuels, including heating oil, propane, or coal, or by electricity, wood, or wood pellets. Whatever your fuel source, it is important to check the system annually to maintain efficiency and find and fix problems. In forced-air systems, the metal ducts that move air though the house should be checked for leaks and places where the duct sections are not fitted tightly together, and filters should be checked and replaced regularly. Wood stove chimneys should be cleaned at least annually to prevent creosote build-up which is a fire hazard.
Extracting, transporting, and burning any fossil fuel creates greenhouse gases which trap heat in the atmosphere and create the impacts we know as climate change. To reduce the two main greenhouse gases—CO2 and methane—concerned community leaders throughout the region recommend we stop burning fossil fuels as much as and as soon as possible and make all buildings more energy efficient. Of course, switching heating systems only makes sense when your current system needs replacing. But if it is time to replace your system, you will want to think about choosing a new system that meets all your needs and does the least damage to your bank account and our planet. Heat pumps are a great option, providing both heating and cooling. They run on electricity, which can be supplied by renewables, use the same technology as your refrigerator, and are super-efficient. Or you may consider heating with wood or wood pellets, two local renewable resources. There are significant state and federal incentives to help residents and businesses switch to these renewable heating systems.
So with the winter months approaching the main thing to do to prepare is to tighten up your house for energy efficiency. You will be more comfortable, save money on fuel, and join your fellow residents in reducing our impact on the climate. Contact us and we can help you access an energy assessment and learn about programs and incentives that meet your needs.
(by Anne Rhodes, Energy Team member from Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County, modified by Karim Beers, Get Your GreenBack Tompkins)