April 16, 2024

Sealing your home can save you money and fight climate change


Mike Childs was tracking heat losses.

Childs, who performs home energy audits for the Center for Energy and the Environment, came to the Rambler in Edina at the invitation of owner Rachel Bourque. Bourque wanted to save money on her electricity bill, but she also wanted to stop energy escaping from her home. In the process, she was confronted with one of the biggest sources of pollution that contributes to a warming climate.

Childs installed a big red fabric panel with a fan at the front door to blow air outside the house, then used a thermal imaging camera to pinpoint where the cold air was leaking from.

He walked into a marine-themed bathroom with blue walls and fish ornaments, and Childs aimed his camera at the ceiling above the shower, where dark purple spots appeared on the camera screen.

“There's something at the top of this cavity that's letting cold air in through the wall,” he said.

The solution is obvious, but very effective: insulation.

Your Carbon Footprint

This Earth Day, the Star Tribune is bringing you a guide on the various ways you can take action today to reduce your carbon footprint.

According to the International Energy Agency, heating and cooling buildings and the appliances they use account for about a quarter of global carbon dioxide emissions. In Minnesota, a significant amount of the energy consumed by buildings goes to keeping them warm during the winter, with homes here using the fourth-most heating energy per household out of the 50 states, according to a 2020 study.

Minnesota's Climate Action Framework sets a goal of halving emissions from existing buildings over the next 11 years, and one of the best ways to achieve this is through insulation, which helps ensure our homes' temperature regulation doesn't destroy the planet's climate.

Initiating an Audit

Boake's house is colorfully decorated with political posters, Elvis Presley memorabilia and portraits of his three children, and when he moved in 14 years ago, he said the house hadn't been maintained much since it was built in 1967.

Since then, she's replaced her water heater, roof and furnace twice. Boeke's home still had drafty spots in the winter. Stacey Boots Camp, an outreach coordinator for CEE and a longtime friend, encouraged Boeke to find out if her home needed more insulation.

Childs said the home energy audit program is popular and typically books up six weeks in advance. Xcel Energy and CenterPoint Energy contract with CEE, which performs the audits. In Bourque's case, CenterPoint partnered with the city of Edina to cover the $100 audit fee.

Childs made sure the water heater and gas furnace were properly vented to ensure there was no buildup of carbon monoxide or other dangerous gases. He also inspected the attic insulation to rule out the presence of vermiculite, which could contain asbestos, which he said was unlikely given the house's age. In fact, when he climbed a ladder in the garage and stuck a flashlight into the space above the house's doors, he could see that it was covered in cellulose, or shredded newspaper.

But seven inches is only about half the depth needed, he told Boake.

One reason attic insulation is so important is because of the “stack effect” in winter, says Patrick Huelman, a University of Minnesota researcher who studies safe and efficient homes: Warm air rises, and as it comes up through cracks and thin insulation in the attic and out of the house, it pulls in cooler air through cracks and gaps on the floors below.

While a properly insulated attic isn't necessarily the most cost-saving solution for homeowners, Huelman says it's a “good place to start the process” of airtightness and insulation. Attics are full of gaps and holes that can't be seen from below, but hot air can still escape, Huelman says.

In search of cold

As Childs scanned the house with her camera, she found a succession of small, unexpected cold spots: a single electrical outlet was letting in cold air, and a wide swath of the top of the living room wall was cold, too.

Another problem was the gap between the wall and the brick of the basement fireplace: That corner of the basement was always drafty, so Boake had already put up plastic sheeting over the nearby window.

Childs said this crack and others in the wall can be easily filled with acrylic caulking.

But it turns out that much of the heat escape was actually in Bork's ceiling. When Childs aimed his camera at the recessed lights, the area around the fixtures appeared dark purple on screen. When the lights were turned on, the heat from the bulbs masked the effect, turning the area a bright yellow on the camera's screen.

Huelman says anything that straddles the boundary between a home's conditioned living space and the attic should be air-sealed. Because lighting gives off heat, “you have to be careful about how you seal it and insulate it,” he says.

I hope for warmer days to come

Boake's home avoids some of the more complicated issues that can arise when renovating an older house. Because it's new, it doesn't have knob-and-tube wiring or an antiquated electrical system that requires airflow and limits wall insulation.

The Boquet windows also did not have single-pane windows, which are one of the few types of windows that CEE actually recommends replacing because they are so expensive.

CEE stressed that the attic needed more than double the amount of insulation it currently has, and that was no cheap estimate: The contractor gave Boecke a quote of $9,460, which included installing boxes to cover and insulate all the recessed lighting in the attic.

But a reimbursement from CenterPoint and matching funds from the city of Edina brought the total down to $6,860, and CEE helped Boake find a contractor to whom he could apply the CenterPoint reimbursement before paying for the work.

And Boeke decided to replace his bedroom window himself, after the summer heat caused the frame to expand too much, making the window difficult to open and close. This would be by far the most expensive renovation, at about $23,000.

To pay for it all, she planned to refinance her house. “Hopefully, this will make the house warmer,” Boake said.

Resources to get you started

If you’re interested in getting an energy audit for your home, your best bet is to talk to your electric or gas company.

Xcel and CenterPoint customers should sign up for the Center for Energy and Environmental Protection's Home Energy Squad.

Minnesota Power offers discounts for similar services by participating auditors.

The Minnesota Department of Commerce also publishes a Home Energy Guide to help you decide on insulation methods.

Chloe Johnson covers climate and other environmental issues for the Star Tribune and the Mississippi River Basin Agriculture and Water Desk, a coalition of 10 news organizations. She is a corps member for Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms.

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