Comfortably Using Less Energy

December 28, 2022
A portrait of Connie O'Connor.

A story by Connie O'Connor. This article is also featured in the January 2023 edition of The Ripple.

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I was hot and miserable, holding a $300 electric bill for the month of July, and feeling terrible for using so much coal-generated electricity to keep our house somewhat cool during the humid days of mid-summer. I reflected back on the high propane bills of the previous winter and realized that the time had come to do something about my inefficient 1950s brick ranch.

I started by signing up for one of those free energy audits promoted online. The day of the audit, the assessor poked his head in the attic and told me I needed to put a lot more insulation up there. He said it would increase the R-value and save me money and that someone would call me with a quote. They didn’t. That turned out to be a good thing, I later learned, because blowing more insulation in the attic wouldn’t have solved the problem on its own.

I found a referral to a second company that charged $350 for an energy audit; it was very helpful. The owner and her partner did a complete home inspection and took lots of pictures to put in the inspection report. She introduced me to the world of “building science,” and made the subject relatable.

“Think of how you dress for winter,” she said. “You need an insulating layer like wool or fleece, right? That’s like having insulation in your attic. But you need to keep the wind out too … so you have a windbreaker (or nylon shell) over the wool. That’s like air-sealing your house. If it rains, you don’t want to sweat under your winter layersso you wear breathable Gortex instead of rubber or make sure there are vents in your raincoat. In your house, that’s why we keep an eye on humidity levels, deal with any drainage issues, and install ventilation or even a dehumidifier if needed. With less airflow, we don’t want to create a mold problem.”

It was a lot to take in. Much of what I thought I knew about how to care for my home was outdated. For instance, the old idea of venting the crawlspace has been replaced with the new concept of encapsulating it. Using closed-cell foam on the walls (as insulation and vapor retarder) and sealed thick sheets of plastic on the floor, the crawlspace is turned into something resembling an empty bathtub or hull of a boat, keeping out moisture, cold or humid air, and pests. A little air is intentionally released from the supply vents to condition the air, and the crawlspace is treated as if it were a finished basement. In building science lingo, it’s brought into the “envelope of the house.”

The attic, on the other hand, should be completely excluded from the “envelope of the house”. Up there, every single hole and crack between the attic floor and the walls and ceiling below will be sealed with foam. We needed to remove the whole-house fan, which, to be honest, hasn’t seen much use since Cincinnati summers have gotten as humid as Arkansas (hello, climate change!) All the old mouse-ruined insulated batting would need to be removed. More passive vents (lower and upper) should be installed in the roof, including baffles to guide airflow from soffits to roof peak, and lots of cellulose insulation would then be blown-in.

As I waited for a quote from this impressive company, I got a third opinion, this time from a worker-owned co-op specializing in energy efficiency. This quote included an offer for 0% financing for two years and seemed to recommend improvements very similar to what the second assessor had told me. Before jumping to accept the quote, I contacted the second assessor, asking if I could pay for her advice on the contract since I honestly didn’t know enough to be an informed consumer. It turns out that the two assessors know each other and have worked together.  They are familiar with each other’s work and the owner of the second company offered to augment the third company’s work with things like teaching me how to insulate all the duct boots and other gaps inside the house. She and her team would even crawl into the tight spaces to apply foam in areas where most people miss, such as the corners of the roofline and along the tops of the perimeter walls at the eves. She also did a blower door test so I could see how much more efficient the home would be after all the improvements. The post-test showed a 50% reduction in energy loss!

As the two companies worked with me on this project, I learned more about the social issues related to home efficiency, like how people with lower incomes often live in rentals where there’s no incentive to improve the efficiency, comfort, or safety of a home’s environment. Also, companies may offer the bare minimum so that homeowners will accept the bid and get the tax rebates, but probably will not pay attention to air sealing, humidity, and ventilation, ending up with a drafty house or a mold problem. Some companies don’t pay enough to get trained labor, because homeowners often aren’t willing to pay enough for it. Government incentives could help create a workforce training program, but homeowners need education and resources to interpret bids and know what to look for. I can attest that the work is much harder than I would want to do myself and that so far it sure seems worth the investment.

When it comes to making hard decisions, like spending money on complex projects, it helps to have multiple motives. Here were mine:

  1. My husband and I wanted to save money, having decided we are staying in the house for the next 15 years or so.
  2. We were struggling with a mouse problem, living in the woods, and couldn’t figure out where they were getting in and hoped air sealing would help.
  3. No matter how much we spent on fuel and electric, we still felt that the house was drafty in winter and sticky in summerjust not comfortable.
  4. Since solar isn’t an option for our shady home, and Ohio doesn’t offer much in the way of sustainably sourced energy, the most environmentally responsible thing to do is to use as little energy as possible.

If you are interested in making your home more energy efficient, you might educate yourself at these sites: 

Also, 2023 is a great year for energy efficiency thanks to the Inflation Reduction Act, which increases tax rebates for stuff like this: