My wife called me on her cell the other day, complaining that she'd slipped on the ice on the sidewalk as she headed to Starbucks for her early-morning latte.
What's unusual is that she was walking on a sidewalk in Pasadena, Calif., where water from lawn sprinklers on timers had turned her path into a sheet of ice as the mercury dipped below freezing before sunrise.
Back home in southern New Jersey, the overnight temperature had remained close to 50 degrees, as it had for much of December and the first three weeks of January. I'd seen a patch of ice on the sidewalk on my way to work just once, and we'd not yet had snow.
Winter has absented itself from many areas of the country so far this year, while places that usually escape cold weather are experiencing it. Fuel dealers in areas that depend on oil heat have been watching profit margins drop. Many of their customers locked into higher prices early in the season and are beginning to complain. Thanks to lower demand for heating oil, prices at the pump are declining. Utility companies are also seeing reduced demand. Communities that budget lots of money for snow removal may be able to use it for other purposes if this situation continues.
This year's respite, which meteorologists have attributed to a strong El Nino over the Pacific Ocean, may not last, but with winter almost half over, most homeowners will realize a savings on their utility bills.
Before you go out and spend the largesse on a high-definition television, however, let me suggest that you use the money to make your houses more energy-efficient. The summer could be hotter than usual for much the same reason; next winter could be normal or worse.
A Harvard study suggests that 46 million houses in the United States are under-insulated by today's minimum standards. Inadequate insulation is blamed for annual energy losses of 10 to 15 percent. Thanks to federal legislation passed in 2005, there are tax credits available for homeowners who take prescribed steps to improve the energy efficiency of their houses until the end of this year. The Internal Revenue Service website, irs.gov or your tax accountant can provide the latest details on procedure and limits.
There are host of things you can do to increase energy efficiency, but let's talk about adding insulation for now. Homeowners are eligible for a tax credit of up to $500 for 10 percent of qualified energy efficiency improvements such as insulation, according to the North American Insulation Manufacturers Association. So, if a homeowner spends $800 to add the proper levels of insulation to their homes, for example, he or she could take a tax credit of $80.
It is NAIMA's understanding and mine that only the cost of the insulation material counts toward the tax credit. If you hire a professional to do the work, make sure that the insulation contractor provides you with an itemized bill showing you the cost of materials. I insulated the crawlspace under my kitchen addition this fall; materials costs me about $150 and I kept the receipts from the home center and the hardware store to provide to my tax accountant.
There are certain places in the house where proper levels of insulation are critical to energy efficiency, especially the attic, walls, floors and the basement. Insulating your home properly keeps heated air inside in the winter and cool air inside in the summer. Fiber glass and mineral wool insulation offer the highest R-values that can be achieved in a standard wall and are a proven, cost effective way to insulate any part of the home. Insulation can be added over existing materials and R-values are cumulative (i.e. adding an R-30 batt to an R-19 loose-fill will give the homeowner approximately an R-49). Different types and forms of insulation can be combined (e.g. Fiber glass can be added to existing rock wool insulation.)
You can find further information on how to insulate properly as well as how to hire an insulation contractor at NAIMA's. Remember, one problem with houses built after the gas crises of the 1970s was that builders over-insulated houses to the point where the normal process of air exchange between the indoors and the outdoors could not occur. That has resulted in poor indoor air quality and moisture build-up leading to an increase in respiratory illnesses especially among children and mold and mildew issues that can cost more than the market value of a house to correct.
Insulate, but do it carefully. If you do it yourself, make sure you follow manufacturers' and U.S. Department of Energy recommendations. And don't forget to air seal spaces in the walls, attic and basement that can carry cold air into your living space and make your furnaces work extra hard and boost energy costs.