Effective Methods of Keeping Your House Comfortable

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Tompkins Weekly   8-25-21

By Becca Harber

Through the years I’ve lived in my one-story house, I’ve gradually made various changes to it that make my home cooler when it’s hot outdoors and warmer during cold weather. With the increases in very hot days and higher temperatures, keeping myself cooler inside is more important than ever.

So many people worldwide continue to die at home during extreme weather events and more so during power outages. Some of the actions I’ve taken to help with both heat and cold are simple and require little money, time or effort.

Luckily, after I moved in, I heard about how Tompkins Community Action (TCA) could possibly insulate one’s home better at no charge if one’s income was below a certain amount. I qualified to receive these services my first autumn here.

Becca Harber. Photo provided.

The TCA workers blew a foot of cellulose insulation on top of the ceiling of my living space over fiberglass insulation that was already in the attic. They also blew cellulose into a newly sheet-rocked uninsulated ceiling in one room. TCA found out that I also qualified for an Energy Star new energy-saving water heater and refrigerator/freezer through NYSERDA (New York State Energy Research and Development Authority) and installed those at no cost to me.

The house had mostly plywood floors with synthetic rugs stapled down. Having lived in simple, bare-bone structures, I knew that bare floors are cold when it’s cold outside. My solution has been to collect free natural fiber rugs over the years and cover the floors.

In this house, I usually have at least two layers of rugs. This makes a huge difference in how comfortable I am with bare feet or socks, as I don’t wear shoes inside. Having cold surfaces means less warming effect from your heat source from the heated air contacting cold surfaces and cooling.

One room has a concrete base with two large windows and a sliding glass door. That room felt like the house’s heat from the wood stove was being sucked right out of it and was cold.

A knowledgeable friend said that insulating the sides of the concrete base outside could make a meaningful difference. So, after pricing materials and getting an estimate of labor, I paid someone to attach two layers of two-inch foam insulation board to the two and a half exterior walls of that room, deal with the drip edges and vinyl siding, and then stucco over the foam board. Labor and materials were $750.

Then, at B&B Flooring in Dryden, I found 100% recycled nonallergenic rug pad material that had an R-value of 2.1. R-values indicate how insulating a material is, and though 2.1 isn’t high, it’s worthwhile. So, I bought the amount of padding needed for $105, cleared the furnished, rug-covered room in sections, laid down the padding and replaced everything.

The combined effect of these changes was that the main area where I spend waking hours became 8 degrees warmer in cold weather — a huge improvement. The draining of heat from that room occurred no longer. This insulation keeps the room cooler in hot weather, too.

A very helpful and simple thing I did and improved upon over time was to cover the windows in hot weather with extra blankets, quilts and other fabrics as thick as I had or could find.

I put up small metal straight pieces and hooks with threaded ends from store hardware departments and screwed one at each upper outer corner of the windows. Then, I attached clip-on curtain rings to corners of the fabrics, stretched the material across the windows and hung them from the corners.

I gradually added one or more layers with a very light-colored one on the window side to reflect light, and thus, some heat, away. These noticeably lower the sun’s heating effect. A couple of window blinds that came with my house also cut down on some sun heat a little.

At night, if outdoor air has cooled, I remove the fabrics and open windows to cool down the house. Then, before sun heat really gets going the next day, I close the windows and replace the fabric coverings. I also cover windows in the cold season to somewhat isolate the cold window glass from indoor heated air. If I pull back the layered fabrics, cold air hits me. I feel cozier as a result.

Another thing I did for cold seasons was imitate someone who’d placed layered unattached bricks like a mini wall behind his wood stove to absorb and radiate heat. I found free bricks online through Ithaca Freecycle and built a similar nice-looking structure.

When the stove’s going, theno bricks get warm. I figure that even small amounts of warmth matter. I’d also seen this idea expressed in a house during a green building tour in Enfield. They’d placed very large lovely rocks around the shared living space for the same purpose.

In the past in simple dwellings I lived in, I covered windows with plastic to keep the place warmer. But plastic back then was not clear for seeing well out of. In my own house, I wanted to be able to see the outdoor natural beauty clearly and didn’t cover my windows because I mistakenly thought that available plastic was similar.

Eventually, I invited an energy navigator from Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County for a free visit. These volunteers share information about energy- and conservation-related resources and programs relevant to a person’s home.

The navigator brought some free items to give me, including a clear plastic kit to cover a window. The extremely lightweight, fragile-looking film didn’t look impressive, but I put it up and bought more locally. I covered most windows, including the sliding glass door, which I decided I could do without using as a doorway. The result was noticeable, about 5 degrees warmer through cold times.

When warm weather returned, I suspected that keeping most windows covered with the plastic would keep my house cooler in hot weather as well. I carefully removed the film from a couple of windows so I could open them to cool the house down at night when needed. But I kept most on.

The effect was great. Whereas the indoor temperature previously would get up to 82 degrees on a very hot day (I have an indoor temperature and humidity gauge inside the main space), now it didn’t go beyond 75 except for a rare 77 degrees. This is the difference for me between feeling hot and feeling comfortable.

I came up with another way to keep cool when my house got hotter than it does now. When I ate cooked food indoors that recently came out of the pot, I’d sweat and feel uncomfortably hot. So, to prevent this, I’d eat while my bare feet were in a basin of cold water. So, if you’re too hot indoors regardless of what you’re doing while sitting, try this out. Odd but very effective and refreshing.

Becca Harber is a local herbalist (Red Eft Herbs) and educator/writer of ecological, holistic health and other issues.

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