Smell That Fresh Air! Where Do YOU Live?


I put good filters into the HVAC equipment I install. Sometimes, on request, I install special electronic or ultraviolet purifiers that remove living thingies from the air inside your house. But that’s only inside. We can battle the pet dander, dust mites, pollen and even germs floating in your indoor air. But we can’t fight what ‘s going on outside.

The air quality where you live depends upon many things: surrounding plant life, animals living nearby, cities and manufacturing plants upwind of you, and nuclear testing in China, believe it or not. If you live just outside, say, Gary, Indiana, or on the east side of the Bronx, or in LA during smog season, you have to live with what man does to the environment in the course of American living: automobile exhaust, industrial emissions and the smoke from too many chimneys affect us when we breathe.

But I live in the country! Miles and miles of luxurious forest, hayfields, amber waves of grain, native casinos (non-emitters, they swear, very harmonious wit’ nature), placid cattle grazing in fields fenced by rubble-stone walls. I love New England. But the air quality where I live is not free of challenge. Ragweed, milkweed, conifer pollen, asters, wild grasses, oak and the cows’  behinds all emit stuff that I’m allergic to. On sultry August days I have to come inside sometimes to catch a breath of clean air. My house is not a clean-room, but it has a filtered air conditioning system that stands between me and the bad stuff outdoors sometimes when things build up and the Air Quality Index shows a high level of pollutants in the air.

If you’re not susceptible to these changes in air quality, good for you. But most people are, to varying degrees. Even stalwart smokers notice when the air gets heavy with dust, pollen and smoke particles, and breathing can be actually risky for more sensitive types like asthma sufferers.

What to do?  I’m afraid the solution, like so much of life, involves work. To start with, clean your house. Really clean. Use a good vacuum, preferably a hypo-allergenic model, or even a HEPA quality vac, move the piles in the corners, move the couch, move the dog, and vacuum everywhere. Do the walls, too. I’ll wait while you finish.

And vacuum your bare mattress to reduce the number of dust mites living there. What are they living on, you ask? Read the Wiki thing in the link. Or don’t.  Dust mites are icky. Just vacuum your mattress, under your bed, run your bedding through the dryer at high temp once in a while, or, better yet, hang it out on a hot sunny day. Dust mites are like vampires. Sort of.

And once y0ur house is clean, keep it clean. Fry your favorite greasy foods out on the grille rather than indoors. Use a non-ozone air purifier to filter one safe space in your house for you to lurk in on bad air days. Watch the weather thingie for air reports; they’re there, but barely. Don’t look for them in the shots of the weather lady’s legs.

And consider, charming as they may be, that your pets may be part of the problem. Especially if they share your furniture or your beds when you’re not looking. And they do, don’t they? Don’t lie. Of course you love your pets; but they might be as big a factor in your allergies as the ragweed pollen that’s out and bothering everyone now.

Respiratory health is not something you can take in pill form. What goes into your lungs can cause you trouble. Sometimes it comes from upwind, from the factory or the city. Sometimes it comes from the scenic fields and woods around your house. Sometimes it comes from the mattress under your sheets. Or from your dog. And if it’s coming from inside your house, there’s something you can do about it. Those fields may be best viewed through your windows until pollen season is over. Health is an energy issue, as we will see in future posts.

Earth Sheltered Living for Trolls

cave-mouth-blog In the last post we examined the elegances of Bilbo’s earth sheltered dwelling as described in The Hobbit. Careful construction and design can yield a home requiring little energy for comfort, snug and dry and spacious inside. Twelve dwarves, Gandalf and Bilbo could gather in the dining room to feast on Bilbo’s pantry without feeling cramped. Then they had a jam session and stayed up all night plotting Smaug’s demise and the division of an uncountable treasure. All carried out underground.

Living underground is not always so nice. Later in the story the travellers are waylaid by three trolls, and in due course the trolls’ cave is described. Not a nice place. Smelly, with stuff scattered about. Later, the group visit a goblin cave. Likewise, not a nice place. Wet, dark, confusing, windowless. That’s the dark side of earth sheltered living. So take care: while you’re being wooed by the fabulous energy profile of earth sheltered living, be warned about the several things that can go wrong.

  Be aware that the concept of earth sheltered building does not rest on the insulating properties of dirt. The guiding principle, instead, is the thermal mass of the concrete membrane and the earth resting on it, enhanced often these days with layers of rigid foam board. The goal is to create a well-insulated envelope much like that of a conventional frame structure, but with a huge thermal mass on the inside of the insulation as well as on the outside.

 Another unwritten but understood factor in American earth sheltered living is the electric heat added to the space by lighting and appliances. Without this incidental, or “internal” gain, the temperature of an earth sheltered dwelling would come to rest somewhere in the 50s. Call me a wuss, but I like to hunker down at home in less than a parka. And, notwithstanding the somewhat cheeky boast of earth sheltered builders that no hvac system is needed in their homes, most earth sheltered buildings feature a heat pump, furnace or stove to provide comfort as it’s needed.

   Moisture, the bane of many an otherwise well built house, will kill an earth sheltered home. A perfect membrane is important for sealing the concrete against moisture, protecting the insulation and keeping the earth mass dry, . The low air change rate in a concrete, foam and earth envelope can result in a humid, moldy cave, the kind only trolls would want to live in. Forced ventilation through heat-recovery vent systems is an excellent idea. Meticulous construction featuring approved and inspected membranes and a drainage network is also fundamental to success in below-ground living.

   One advantage modern earth sheltered builders have over Bilbo’s hobbit craftsmen is the technology that makes warmth, light, and air movement so much easier to design into a home. Skill with stone and wood will get you so far toward elegant American living, but without skylights, light wells, modern HVAC, kitchen equipment and tons of hot water, the idea of living in a well-designed cave would not appeal to most people. As it is, earth sheltered living is growing on us as a society, slowly. But that’s the pace of change in the American building industry. Slow. And cautious. I think I like it that way.

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.

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.