Helios at Home – Mission Statement

toolbelt-diva-blogWe return, from time to time, to the reason we do this at all, and the reasons we do it this way. Our bias is not hard to spot: in improving the energy behaviors of your family and your home, small moves will be good enough almost every time.

The young woman in the photo is Norma Vally, host of the show Toolbelt Diva. Her approach is to empower women (and men as well) as home maintenance experts and remodelers. We agree wholeheartedly. You can do much more than most folks think, and you can steer clear of trouble by trusting someone like Norma Vally.

 It’s not necessary to strap yourself to a second or third mortgage, call in the solar panel mavens, gut your old kitchen or any other room to strike a blow for energy conservation in your existing home. Some authorities advocate borrowing to your limit, tearing your old house down, and building a new one on the same site. Some experts say old house retrofits are only worth doing as privately funded projects, that retrofits aren’t worthy of tax credits and incentives since they won’t add significantly to the global picture. Thanks a lot. Try that one in Europe, where the buildings are often hundreds of years old and structurally tied to neighboring buildings. Only in America could we entertain tearing structurally sound buildings down to make room for new buildings costing much more and, incidentally, using less energy.

   We always come down on small steps. We always come down on working with what you have. We always come down right next to fiscal caution, reluctance to incur debt, the addition of sweat and toil to your home’s difficulties, and the value of DIY derring-do, within limits of safety and sanity. Don’t try to replace your breaker panel or air conditioning system. I don’t want you on my conscience at 3 AM.  Old men sleep light as it is.

   Energy conservation is cumulative in the sense that dozens of small improvements always add up and sometimes multipy your energy efficiency (adding insulation to your attic and sealing air leaks in your ceiling yield BIG dividends when done together). Twenty five cans of foam and a dozen tubes of caulk will cost you about $200 at the home store. The payback on that application, when the materials are shrewdly installed, is less than one year. The payback on a water-stingy showerhead is mere months, unless your teenagers are seen entering the bathroom with pliers in hand. Weatherstripping can cost hundreds of dollars, if you get excited and treat every window and door in the house, but once again, the payback is perhaps two years, or less.

 We approve entirely of photovoltaics, solar hot water (which we install professionally and advocate with enthusiasm), efficient hvac systems, super-insulated attics, tankless water heaters, geothermal heat pumps and technologically advanced windows. Thank God and the engineers for all that nifty equipment. But don’t tell me I have to buy it to be in the energy game. If it doesn’t make sense financially, and all of those energy improvements return a payback of over ten years, then let’s wait until the piggy bank and the economy have lowered the risks of big energy investments. Meanwhile, please pass the caulk and weatherstripping. I can get by very well on basics until the numbers make sense for me.

So as these posts pile up, you know exactly what we’re selling. We advocate big moves when they’re well planned, shrewdly financed and based on real numbers not smelling of fudge. We advocate replacement of systems and equipment that is worn out or unsafe, or replaceable with equipment that will deliver immediate improvements in comfort and energy savings. We don’t get too excited about payback calculations exceeding about ten years. If the rate of energy return is that gradual, you need another reason to invest your hard-earned cash. And there are other reasons, but don’t kid yourself. Photovoltaics won’t necessarily make your retirement come sooner or float you a free energy tab. Ask hard questions of anyone anxious to sell you on a life-changing investment that costs more than a new car.

  It’s not exciting to look at life this way. It doesn’t make for a buzzy, colorful blog compared to many I read that cover global issues, expensive retrofits and futuristic technology. It does put regular people, I hope, in touch with resources and encouragement that will help them improve their energy efficiency in small moves. And at 3 AM I might be awake over something, but you dear folks won’t be on my conscience. Bless you all, see you next time.

Waste Not, Want Not? Sorry, Forget It

cooling-towers-blogIn the last post I implicitly accused you all of using too much water: you seemed to take it well. Now that you’re grumpy with me, I’m ready to take it all back. Yes, we Americans consume more water (the USGS calls it “withdrawal“) than most other countries, developed or developing (yes, China takes the biscuit, but they’ve got lots, for now). Yes, we squander lots of fresh water in our homes by flushing toilets, bathing, and washing our clothes. All true. But if the American people all stopped using water in their homes entirely tomorrow, water would still be an endangered resource for us.

  Who’s getting it all? Industry and agriculture, I’m afraid. Nor are those industries actively pursuing less water-intensive technologies, except where it suits them financially. About one sixth of all U.S. water usage is residential supply for personal use. One third of our “withdrawals” of fresh water goes toward agricultural irrigation. Good cause, actually, and it gets put on the crop and soaks into the ground, but it’s still lost water in many ways. Evaporation claims much of the water used for irrigation, and you can’t control where it comes back down. Certainly not Phoenix, where the water comes from far away in pipelines from reservoirs and evaporates to the air never to be seen again. At least not in Phoenix.

 Fully half of America’s total water usage is for industrial cooling, much of it consumed by evaporating devices called “cooling towers.”   Wherever heat needs to be removed from a process or material, evaporation, the most efficient means of heat transfer on the planet, is called into service. One pound of water, in evaporating, removes 970 BTU of heat from its surroundings. Nothing else compares, not even a cold Bud. And again, the evaporated water is lost to the immediate environment, since rain isn’t fair. Most industrial processes require the services of cooling towers, but the single most demanding industry is electric power generation, including nuclear power. Some plants use salt water, but not all.

   Don’t give up. We all need to become more aware of our consumption of fragile resources, and your water-saving strategies at home are important culturally and politically, as well as financially in your water bill. But, as in so many issues, the picture is much larger than our individual water habits, and we will have to participate in a much larger discussion to bring sanity to our national energy and resource policies. Meanwhile, be glad when your water bill shows that you’ve been conserving. It’s up to us regular folks to lead the charge, and in the greatest democracy in world history, government and industry must surely follow, hopefully in time to protect our fresh water supply from depletion.

Water, Water Everywhere, Nor Any Drop to Waste

water-meter-blogThe device in the photo, a water meter, measures the supply of fresh potable water that enters your house from the city/community/neighborhood water utility. Typically a radio transmitter is attached and the field techs read your consumption from out on the street as they pass by. Gone are the old days when Mom was home all day to let Mr. Waterworks into the basement to read the meter. You are charged by most utilities for the number of cubic feet of water you consume (app. 8.3 gallons per). In some cities you are also charged for your sewer contribution on the assumption that what comes in must go out. Tough to argue with, innit?

 The typical American household consumes 107,000 gallons of water per year. The rule of thumb in our society is 90 gallons per person per day. In Europe, the average is 53 gallons per person per day. In sub-Saharan Africa, 3 to 5 gallons a day per person. They obviously have done away with all their teenagers somehow. Of our lavish allotment, per person, 14 gallons goes right down the drain in leaks and spills. Fix that toilet, fix that faucet, turn off that hose while you soap the car. App. 20 gallons is used for watering and irrigating. Think of all the apartment dwellers spraying their potted pets, and you’ll get an idea of the thirst of America’s corporate and residential lawns. Twelve gallons for bathing, 15 for laundry, 20 for flushing the toilet, 15 more for cooking and doing the dishes, and as Mr. Bojangles says of the rest, we drinks a bit.

  I hear you protesting. You don’t, you say, use your entire average quota. You only flush once in a while, shower briskly and in Navy-inspired bursts of water, you fill the dishwasher every time before running it, run full loads in the laundry, spit on your plants as you walk by and don’t water your lawn hardly ever. Well done. That’s still your quota- 90 gallons per day. Somewhere someone is using all our hard-earned conserved water, and we must hunt that person down and stop him/her. Problem solved.

My house is served by one of the last dug wells in our town. 14 feet deep soaking wet, it supplies all our needs, maintains drinkable quality and needs treating only for acidity. We pump it up into the house, use what we need, send it all out into the septic tank and leach field, it filters through 100 feet of sand and gravel back into the well, and we use it again tomorrow. Sort of like that scene in WaterWorld where Kevin Costner does that thing with the cup and the plunger and then…… drinks it. Yumm….

  If you are supplied with city or community water, your story is different. Every gallon you don’t flush, shower, leak, rinse or otherwise send down the drain is a gallon for which you don’t pay. So a 1.6 gallon-per-flush toilet, a 2.5 gallon-per-minute kitchen faucet, and a front-loaded low-water clothes washer will save you real cash and pay you back for your extra investment in quality appliances and plumbing fixtures. And sending your teenager to an Outward Bound experience in which he/she will not be able to bathe for two weeks could be a true epiphany and result in shorter showers and a precocious awareness of the fragility of our global water supply. Or it could just send her running to the shower every time she remembers that icky dirty feeling. For years. Costing you bunches of extra money for water. On top of the fee for the Outward Bound trip. Forget it. Just install a stingy shower head and a mixing valve. We’ll talk about those things next time. The title, by the way, is a rip from Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

Pimp My Kitchen– Appliances as Bling

  kitchen-fancy-blogIf you can afford the kitchen design shown in the photo, good for you. Every item shown has either an Energy Star rating or other “green” label, all are at the top of their peer group for energy performance, and the whole ensemble looks terribly impressive. If this is the prettiest, priciest kitchen in the free world, give it a blue ribbon. The basic ergonomic triangle is present (fridge, stove, sink all accessible without traveling far), the storage space makes the supplies for each operation available where the work is to be done, the counters are small but well-placed for staging a meal-in-progress, and there appears to be room for a wheeled workstation that will serve as portable prep space, ingredient setup and serving dish transport. Woof. What a kitchen!

kitchen-basic-blog1Now look at this kitchen. It’s plain, sports simple appliances, is short on storage space (presumably the hidden section at right contains the cabinets and cooking gear), and appears to have been squeezed into the corner of an existing room (the window would have been set higher in a room designed as a kitchen). This kitchen has no unifying theme, no flow of concept, no comforting proportions, no evoked period memory, no sense of who it is, and no self-declaring identity. I made all that crap up. Sorry. It’s a simple little kitchen, low in cost,  ad hoc in design, crude in aesthetics, and it just about works. And oh- the appliances are still green-rated, such as they are.

    Choose your kitchen. They’re both labeled green, both functionally adequate, both capable of facilitating good food preparation. I estimate one cost about $20,000 to install, appliances included. The other cost at least $100,000 dollars excluding structural remodeling. They both contain the same basic  equipment: range, vent hood, toaster, microwave, refrigerator. One has an automatic dishwasher, the other not. They both, surprisingly, use about the same amount of energy to prepare similar dishes. They both accommodate informal eat-in furniture, they both work for either a single cook or a cook with a helper or two. They both work.


 The kitchen in this photo is rated as LEED compliant (Leadership in Environmental and Energy Design), which means it is built to rigid standards for energy conservation and sustainability. There are heat exchangers under the floor to capture the heat from drain water. The appliances are manufactured from materials not harmful to the environment, and the finishes on the natural wood cabinets contain no harmful chemicals. The refrigerator runs on a gas deemed no threat to the atmosphere. Don’t ask what this kitchen cost. Some of you might be able to afford it, but you would choose this kitchen not because it makes the others look wasteful, or pays for itself in energy savings, but because you desire the LEED rating and the prestige that comes with it. Despite its advantages, this kitchen runs on energy, and the more you use it, the more it costs to store and prepare your food.

   Kitchens perform, I’m trying to say, much more according to use than to design. The most energy efficient kitchen is the one never used. The most energy extravagant kitchen is one that is used to prepare foods at high temperatures, that consumes large amounts of water and energy for cooking and washing, and that keeps the fridge door flapping constantly while things are taken out and returned to cold storage. The best kitchen, to sum up, can be either one, two or three from our discussion, according to how it’s used. The best kitchen, actually, is the one used by the smartest cook.

Low V.O.C. Paints Are Not a Food Group

paint-blog Let’s just get this over with, and I can write this post without violence. Yes, some paints are “greener” than others. “Green” paint is sometimes friendly to people and the environment. But I want no comments involving puns on green paint vs. “green” paint. Are we agreed? Ok.

Volatile Organic Compounds weren’t so scary until we began to read the acronym, VOC, attached to numbers predicting cancers, birth defects, asthma, auto-immune diseases and environmental disaster resulting from the widespread use of paints manufactured using VOCs. The worst case picture (we don’t say “scenario” any more since everybody wore it out) is you waiting until winter to paint a room or rooms with oil based paint, letting it dry without ventilation, and breathing the fumes until spring. Or using latex (water-based paint) and breathing the vapors as the paint dries. Paint can continue to release (outgas is the word, but doesn’t that sound naughty?) VOCs for over a year after it is applied. The link article is very sobering. Not for the kiddies, really.

   On the outside of your house the issue of personal health and safety while painting is changed a bit. Are you paying a pro painter to risk his/her lungs for you? Well done. Are you going up a ladder with a can of oil based primer (best stuff for durability) and daubing the house, fighting the headaches and that foul taste in your mouth that tells you something horrible is invading your svelte and harmonious body? Did you think latex exterior and interior paints were entirely safe and vegetable derived? Sorry. I used to work for Dow Chemical. I know where latex comes from, and the stork does not bring it. Your exposure to potentially harmful chemical substances is significantly increased when you open a can of any conventional paint, whether oil or water based.

   Low VOC paints have the reputation of being a compromise on quality and durability. That’s partly true. Low cost paints labeled “low VOC” are missing some things that would make them better, and they include some things that should have been taken out to make the paint not just low VOC, but actually safer to breathe and drip onto your skin. You have to spend money, at least 50% more of it per gallon, to get a good quality low VOC paint that has been formulated to be low in toxic substances. You can spend more, even. And when you’re painting the whole house outside or inside, that cost increase is noticeable.

 The truth is, you can ventilate a space, or pick a breezy day to work on the outside of the house, and reduce your immediate exposure to VOCs by quite a bit. But the months of outgassing (what’s that smell?) will still expose you to the bad stuff in the paint. If you want to paint indoors, try to seal the room off and ventilate it for some days after painting. Wait until warm weather to make it easier to do the right thing. Use oil based primer if you can on the outside of the house, because even Ralph Nader will laugh at you if it peels, but be careful, don’t bathe in it, and select a high quality latex for a topcoat. Spend your hard earned cash on premium low VOC interior paint that will protect your lungs and liver without sacrificing color or durability. And still seal off the room and ventilate if you can. Paint can have literally hundreds of ingredients, not all of them listed on the can, and you can’t be sure at all that they took out the right stuff. And if your friend Jeff comes over and asks if you used green paint, and you’re looking at a white room, chase him with a wet roller.

Up On The Roof

roof-shingles-blog  I wish you a lifetime pass on replacing the roof shingles on your house, but I”m a poor faerie godfather. Sooner or later it comes to all of us who own our homes. I did mine two years ago, and it wasn’t too bad.

   When selecting a roofer, ask sharp pointy questions: what written warranty will accompany the shingles to be installed, what repairs to roof sheathing do you expect to do, what is the roofer’s personal guarantee if he/she wants to overlay new shingles over old, what is the wind rating of the new roof, and what color will complement the house and keep my attic cool all summer?

  It is of this last question we will treat here. You know how hard it is to get a roofer to install light color shingles? You know how many major shingle manufacturers offer white or light colors? It’s part of the conservative ballast that holds the building industry down in trendy times when aluminum wire, plastic doors and paperboard siding threaten to run away with us all. It’s good to be slow about questionable trends, but it can be maddening when building science is ignored in favor of  “the way we’ve done it all these years and what’s wrong with it anyway?”

   Light colored asphalt shingles save energy. They aren’t perfect, but they make a difference. The temperature of your attic on a sunny day can reach 150 degrees F. or more. Wood starts to outgas and dessicate at high temperatures, and plywood is also susceptible to damage from repeated overheating. Still, perception and preference keep light colors out of fashion for roofing materials.

   The discussion about roof materials as energy reflectors/absorbers is getting lively, but the shingle industry is responding to market forces that still prefer darker roofs, even in hotter southern climates. Coatings are available, but they’re not cheap and, like paint, they need to be renewed often. The truth is that shingle manufacturers haven’t really tried yet to give us highly reflective coatings on our roofing materials, mostly because we haven’t insisted. They listen, we consistently prefer darker shingle colors, they shrug and say to the nutty green guys, ” See? We give ’em what they want!” 

   But, as Seal in the link will sing to you, a change is gonna come. Some analysts estimate that a highly reflective roof coating saves more energy than a similar square footage of  solar panels. That sounds extreme, but I can testify that the section of white (painted steel) roofing on my addition keeps the attic under that roof much cooler than the medium brown shingles over the main house. Yes, I lost that battle. The roof can be seen from the street,and the point was made rather forcefully to me by someone with overwhelming influence in my affairs that the house needs to look “right” from the street. Sigh……   ok. But perceptions do change, and we’ll be using highly reflective coatings on our roofs someday, as soon as they become fashionable. Until then, sad to say, white roofs just aren’t cool.

Microwaves Are Sooo Cool

micrrowave-blogIn winter, I like the heat my kitchen range adds to the house. It isn’t free, but it’s welcome, and I feel like it’s a twofer, getting lovely food and lovely warmth at once. In our scuffling days, my lovely and I heated and cooked with an ancient Glenwood cast iron kitchen stove. We were young, and it didn’t seem too tedious to build a fire and feed it.

In warm weather, I don’t want that added warmth, not even at dinner time. We try not to use the kitchen range as much, but cold dishes like chef salad and gazpacho are not ok every day. So we microwave a lot in summer, and the range (no pun) of the device has surprised me as my scientist/realtor wife explores what you can and can’t do with that thing in which most folks only warm their coffee .

   The kitchen range generates app. 2kw per burner on high. That’s 6800 btu added to your house for each burner while you’re cooking, and the oven is about 4kw, or app. 1400 btu per hour. That’s about the amount of heat a small window air conditioner can remove from your house in an hour. If you’re running air conditioning, you’re paying twice for the energy that’s cooking your food.

   Enter the microwave. At an average of  1.2 kw, the microwave heats only the mass of the food, leaving the machine itself and your containers relatively cool. And besides using less energy per hour, the microwave pays off in much shorter cooking times. The same steamed veggies take about half the time in the microwave as on the cooktop, and popcorn goes up in five minutes or so. And in America, fast is good. In most areas of life.

   So are we stuck with steamed veggies? Not by a long shot. Chicken breast? 8 minutes depending upon size and mass. Pork chop (yes, pork chop)? 10 minutes, and doing two takes only an extra minute. On a larger scale, a whole roast chicken? 20-25 minutes according to size. Thanksgiving turkey (not kidding, we do this every year)? 9 minutes per pound, so a ten pound turkey is 90 minutes or so, more with stuffing. Pork roast? Ham? 11-12 minutes per pound, and the apples get really good and juicy in there. Fish? 7 minutes per pound, extra for stuffing, varies by species. And my favorite, bacon. Six slices, four minutes, done to perfection; a guilty pleasure for me when the wife is out of town. Squash, butternut and acorn, split in half with sugar or honey on top, 15-18 minutes. Here are some links to microwave recipe sites.

   What can’t you do? Cake is tough, though some fanatics ( not us, in any way whatsoever, thank you) insist they do it. Hamburger not really, although meat loaf works very well with some bread crumbs and a reasonable remnant of the meat’s native fat (fat conducts heat and responds well to microwaves). Eggs in the shell? Don’t even think about it. Eggs out of the shell? Always makes a mess when I try it. Boiled dishes? No, not very well, but I have a separate pitch for the crock pot that complements the microwave nicely, and also saves a lot of energy.

   I could go on, but you can hit the links and get more ideas yourself. Beware plastic and metal containers unless they’re marked for microwave use. Crockery is usually safe, even the stuff you bought at the craft fair. A little bit of trial and a tiny shred of error, and you’ll be a nouveau expert at cooking in a cooler ktichen and house. And your power bills will show the difference. All this has made me hungry; a single hot dog, right from the freezer? Should be about, oh, four minutes on medium. And I, a kitchen klutz, can do it all by myself. See you next time. Hit this video link, just for fun. microwave a twinkie?

No Hanging Out? Whatsamattawityou?

                                                It costs me (and you, too, dear reader) about a dollar to dry a load of clothes. If you’re one of our Western Canadian readers whose power comes from hydro-plants, it could be 70 cents. But for the rest of us, powered by the modern miracle of nearly-free nucular energy, call it a dollar.

   My loveliest and I dry about a large load a day. What, you say, self-employed old folks, kids long since gone, running a big load a day? Yeah, sorry, I’m a contractor, and I foul at least one, often two sets of clothing a day. So it’s me, ok?

   What could I do with an extra thirty dollars a month? I don’t know, I might just throw it away at Blockbusters. But I could hang my clothes outside, in this fine spring weather, and save that thirty dollars a month. And families with children who are doing two or three loads a day could hang their clothes outside and save much, much more.
   The downside? Oh, Lawdy Lawd, it’s work! Yes, it’s not convenient in the modern, labor saving sense of the word. It’s old fashioned, it’s po-face, it reeks of Waltons’ re-runs, it…… just isn’t cool, is it?
  But it’s economical, and pardon my Chechnyan, green as hell. It’s the way my family dried clothes, even in the humid Florida heat, and Florida was hot and humid before Al Gore made it trendy. It was the way my daughters tottered, in their many layers, out to the clothesline with my wife to make snow angels while mom hung out the wash. Yes, the hippy Robartses hung out their wash, even in winter.
   If I needed to cut my power bills in half, to win a bet or accommodate my straitened Social Security stipend (I’ll never see those checks, I fear, but I do dream), I’d begin by hanging out my wash. And in winter, I’d hang my wash inside under a ceiling fan.
   And second, I’d wash my dishes in the sink. The on-line bric-a-brac about Energy Star dishwashers using less water than the sink is highly suspect and not supported by my experience. Two gallons of hot soapy water in the sink, another one mixed into the rinse water, and the dishes go back on the shelf courtesy of Elbow Grease. Nooooo!! More Work! 
   And third, I’d swear off air conditioning. If I had to. It costs me from 45 to 90 dollars a month to run my central air. I could save that with fans, cool drinks and old fashioned suffering. If I had to. I don’t have to. But if I had to be the Green Gandhi, the Sultan of Sustainability, and my cred depended upon having all the right sacrifices going up in smoke, that’s what I’d do.
   My undies are entirely prosaic, not like the torrid thong in the photo, so the neighbors won’t be talking, unless a high wind carries my stained levis into their yard, sending the goats into a feeding frenzy leading to expensive vet bills for surgical removal of my now useless jeans from the goats’ nether passages. Hanging clothes outside comes with some risk, after all. Oh– and check the local zoning– in some trendy bottled-watering holes it’s not permitted to show a clothesline. You could get into trouble, and Al Gore won’t be galloping in to rescue you.

Tight Walls, Moisture and Dew Point


We promised to grapple this time with the issue that lives at the center of new, tighter construction standards: trapped moisture, which leads to rot.

In a previous post we touched on the subject of dew point, which is briefly defined as the temperature at which moisture begins to condense from the surrounding air. When air holds lots of moisture (we call it humidity) that moisture begins to condense at higher temperatures, sometimes as high as 75 degrees Fahrenheit. Air holding less moisture (lower humidity, think Arizona) condenses at a lower temperature, sometimes as low as 15 degrees F. Don’t worry about the math, unless you spend your evenings that way, but just get it that air can be wet and ready to give up its moisture at a wide range of temperatures, and when it does, the quantity of water condensed can be enough to wet down any available surface.

When air from your house gets into your walls, and almost all houses exhale air through their walls, it cools or warms to imitate outside temperature as it travels outward. In winter, especially a cold winter like this last one, and in Connecticut, where I live, the outdoor temperature can be 15 degrees on most winter nights.

So here’s the picture: fairly warm, moist air (you probably maintain a fairly low humidity, but there’s still a lot of moisture in your air, or your lungs would complain) from your living space is traveling out into your walls, cooling as it goes, and it reaches its dew point and drops its load of moisture. Don’t think thunderstorm here, think more like the bathroom after a teenager’s shower. The moisture can be deposited on your actual inner walls (I’ve seen it, it’s awful), in your insulation (if you have any), on your structural framing (2x4s, outer sheathing) or, in extremely embarrassing cases, on the outside of the house near the site of a terrible air leak. Your attic is the most likely source of terrible air leaks and condensation, since it’s probably vented to the outside. Warm air escapes through lighting boxes and structural cracks, cools to dew point in the attic, and the moisture settles on rafters or forms icicles under your eaves. Note the difference: icicles that form at the gutter or drip edge are probably due to daily warming of roofs and refreezing of drippy drops. Icicles forming under eaves or around air vents are probably due to moist air escaping into the attic and outside. That leads to trouble.

In this photo, note that some of the icicles are on the eaves and others are attched to the attic vents under the eaves. Those inner icicles spell trouble due to condensation in the attic.
 Why am I nagging you about icicles in this glorious weather? Does the name Eeyore ring a bell? It was supposed to be about dew point, remember, but I always get carried away. And when it’s 90 degrees this summer, with 90% relative humidity, and you’ve got your head in the refrigerator for some relief, and your shirt is stuck to you but the shower is still steaming up the bathroom but it won’t go away, you’re still dealing with dew point. It’s an everyday thing.
   So Mr. Natural says,  tighten up your house to prevent excessive air leakage to the outside. You don’t have to do the math; just do the caulking, foaming and light carpentry that helps you save energy and keep your walls dry and safe from rot.

House too tight? Not Likely

In this season of airing linens, opening windows and putting up screens, the subject of a tight house isn’t really pressing. But if you start now, you can get yourself ready for a tighter, less energy-hungry house next winter, ant-and-grasshopper style, while your neighbors are all atwitter about poisoning their crabgrass.

The basics of tightness are not too tough, even for non-techies who don’t do carpentry. In New England, barring new, super-sexy LEED or Energy Star homes, it’s difficult to achieve “too-tight” status in an existing, conventionally constructed house. I’ve seen too-tight skirts and too-tight sweaters causing problems for passing traffic, but houses can get very tight without causing much trouble if you know the secret.

And here’s the secret: start from inside the house. There you go. The house in the photo, which by the way is actually in Bulgaria, is open to the air in every way possible, and, as a questionable result, will probably never rot and fall down. Accumulated moisture is the root cause of most “sick” buildings, and of most structural and health-threatening rot in residential construction.
Start inside the house, reducing the escape of moist air into walls and ceilings in winter, and you will also, happily, be reducing the source of trapped moisture that produces dry rot, mold, insect damage and peeling paint.

Caulk. Learn to caulk. If you can’t learn to caulk, learn to wipe up caulk. That will do for a start.
Find the gaps in your walls, floors and ceilings and fill them (within reason– up to 1/4 inch gaps, rule of thumb) with an appropriate type and color of caulk. Use paintable caulk on your house’s interior; true silicone is a wonderful product, but it looks like poo when you can’t match the color, and it REALLY won’t take paint.

Foam. Learn to foam. But don’t try to wipe up foam. It’s not like caulk. Use foam for gaps too large for caulk, and if you havc some large gaps visible from inside your house, don’t hang your head in shame. It’s no disgrace to have large gaps, it’s only a disgrace not to fill them.

Weatherstrip. Learn to weatherstrip. Make old doors and windows tighter, not with paint (unless you’re desperate and you’re REALLY SURE you’ll never have to open that window/door/access panel again) but with those nifty engineered strips and flaps that allow things to move without being drafty.

Well done. And equally helpful, by the way, during cooling season if you use air conditioning. Next time we’ll delve a little into the wall/moisture/tightness question so you can see what all the fuss is about.