Uh Oh, Here Comes Winter

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Tompkins Weekly 10-22-18

By Anne Rhodes

Winter – the season that challenges us to heat our homes without heating our planet. Everyone wants to stay warm and comfortable in their home, and luckily there are lots of strategies and solutions to help us do just that – including some that won’t add to our climate woes.

What’s preventing us from being warm in our homes? Conduction and convection. If a house is cold and drafty it is because heat is escaping through uninsulated walls and attics (conduction), and through holes and gaps that let air in (convection). The process of warm air escaping from the interior of your house to the outside is called the “stack effect.” It’s what happens when you heat the interior of your home but that heated air escapes upwards (because hot air rises!) causing a vacuum drawing cold air in from cracks and gaps in your basement. Then you heat up that new, cold air, and when it’s hot, it rises and escapes!

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So what’s the solution? Insulation and air-sealing are two actions that keep the warm air inside your home. The cavities in the walls and in the attic can be fully insulated. Check out energy.gov/energysaver/ for ideas about adding insulation to your home. Another useful site, houselogic.com/organize-maintain/home-maintenance-tips/insulation-types/, explains the different kinds of insulation, their efficiency, their cost, and whether you can do it yourself or need to hire a contractor. Effective air-sealing of a home is a little like a detective adventure. Starting from the bottom of your house and working your way up you can locate all the little cracks, gaps, and holes – around window frames, places where water or fuel pipes go to the outside, and gaps around doors – that are letting air flow in and out. All of these can be filled with something that will block the air flow, like caulk or spray foam.

The best option for reducing conduction and convection of heat away from your home, and it is free to you, is to schedule a whole-house energy assessment, which is paid for by NYSERDA and is performed by a trained contractor. The auditor checks all areas of the home for insufficient insulation and air leaks and provides a detailed report outlining what actions could be done and the approximate cost. You can choose which actions you want to take and choose a contractor to work with. Find more information and an audit application at nyserda.energysavvy.com. There are both state and federal financial assistance programs for all income levels to help you pay for any work that you decide to do. If you have questions you can find help at ccetompkins.org/energy/whole-house-energy-upgrades.

Once you have made your home more energy efficient, it’s time to look at your heating system. About half of the homes in Tompkins County are heated by natural gas, a fossil fuel that comes mainly from fracking, likely in Pennsylvania. The gas is burned either in a boiler that heats water or in a furnace that heats air. As the air or water cools it is returned to the furnace or boiler to be reheated. Homes in areas of the county that are beyond where the gas lines reach are heated by other fossil fuels, including heating oil, propane, or coal, or by electricity, wood, or wood pellets. Whatever your fuel source, it is important to check the system annually to maintain efficiency and find and fix problems. In forced-air systems, the metal ducts that move air through the house should be checked for leaks where the duct sections are not fitted tightly together, and filters should be replaced regularly. Wood stove chimneys should be cleaned at least annually to prevent creosote build-up which is a fire hazard.

Extracting, transporting, and burning any fossil fuel creates greenhouse gases which trap heat in the atmosphere and create the impacts we know as global warming. Natural gas, currently the least expensive fossil fuel, is actually the most damaging to the planet, even more damaging in the short term than coal. Our local Energy Roadmap charts a course for reducing the two main greenhouse gases – CO2 and methane – recommending that we stop burning fossil fuels as much and as soon as possible and make all buildings more energy efficient. Of course, switching heating systems only makes sense when your current system needs replacing. But if it is time to replace your system you will want to think about choosing a system that meets all your needs and does the least damage to your bank account and our planet. Heat pumps are a great option, providing both heating and cooling. They use the same technology as your refrigerator, are super-efficient, and run on electricity, which can come from renewables. Ready to make the leap? For information about heat pumps contact HeatSmart Tompkins at solartompkins.org.

So with the winter months approaching, the main thing to do to prepare is to tighten up your house for energy efficiency. You will be more comfortable, save money on fuel, and join your fellow Tompkins residents in reducing our impact on the climate. If you have questions you can call Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County at 272-2292 and ask for a member of the Energy Team.

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