In all the years I've been writing about real estate and home improvement, I don't recall ever fielding as many inquiries about saving energy as I have in recent weeks.
The fear of rising oil, natural gas and electric prices has led just about everyone to look at how they live and make adjustments. This is a situation low-income Americans live with every winter, and while the middle class complains about paying $50 or so more a month to heat its homes, the vast majority can afford the extra money. Higher energy prices are making the poor even poorer, if the utilities haven't shut them off already.
I'm one of the people who can afford to pay the extra costs, but it doesn't stop me from trying to find ways to tighten my house even more without creating moisture or indoor air quality issues.
The house I live in is in much better shape than my last. The old house, built in 1904, was a sieve. The plaster walls from the first to the third floors were on lath nailed right to the exterior stone walls, meaning that they could not be insulated easily, even with cellulose or polyurethane foam. The only alternative was to remove all the plaster walls, insulate and drywall. It was prohibitively expensive.
Cellulose insulation had been blown into the attic, but there was so much of it that some of the ceilings sagged. While cellulose insulation is environmentally friendly (shredded newspapers treated with boron to make it fireproof and pest-free), it often settles at low points in walls and ceilings.
I didn't know about air sealing, and that could have afforded us some comfort from drafts. Older houses have all these openings behind the walls that often run from the basement to the top floors, acting as conduits for heat. These are known in the trade as chase ways, and often carry wiring and plumbing.
The trick is to seal those gaps with foam after stuffing them with unfaced insulation inside white or black plastic bags (the clear plastic deteriorates more rapidly, so I'm told), so that warm air is prevented from going through the roof. You are, as a radio listener told me last week, putting a hat on your house.
These chase ways are everywhere imaginable, often created by plumbers and electricians cutting away the framing contractors' work. Houses dating before 1970 were built with no concern for energy efficiency, since fuel to heat the house was cheap, so it really didn't matter.
The previous owners of my present house had cellulose insulation blown into downstairs walls, which are plaster on lath nailed to the wood frame. The second floor, which is a converted attic, has fiberglass insulation in the ceilings and walls, although not enough of it, and combined with the failure of the previous owners to add second-floor returns when the new HVAC system was added.
The heating system, which is designed around a high-efficiency condensing furnace, can, in combination with the proper amount of insulation, make a house comfortable at lower thermostat settings -- 65 is what we try for. That leaves the second floor at 60 when the programmable thermostat is set at 65, and 57 when the thermostat is at 60 (the daytime and overnight setting).
We have three options to make the second floor more comfortable. One is raising the thermostat to 68, which would boost the upstairs to 63 when we are home and awake, and then setting the thermostat at 63 for daytime and overnight, so that upstairs never falls below 60. There should be no more than five degrees between low and high settings, since you use as much or more energy when the temperature has to climb 10 degrees twice or more a day than if you maintained the temperature at 68, for example.
The second option is to add returns, which, at this juncture, would be very expensive, since ductwork would have to be added.
The third is an electric fireplace, which is the one I've chosen. I've built a wall facing the bed that has the fireplace built in to the wall with a bookcase on either side. The fireplace plugs into a 120-volt standard outlet, produces about 5,000 BTUs an hour at a cost of 2 cents an hour of electricity (which remains cheaper than natural gas in areas where natural gas isn't used to produce it) and looks like a real fireplace. It will heat about 400 square feet of space, which is about the size of the second floor.
There are two added bonuses. One is that it will likely add to the value of a house, since fireplaces in master bedrooms are a feature of new construction. The second is that the heat can be shut off and you can watch the logs "burn."
It's more romantic than air sealing and insulation, and easier to install and less expensive to run these days than a gas insert.