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Insulation Troubles: A Story of a House That Never Stayed Warm, Part 1

November 4, 2015 - 5:50pm


A certified Home Energy Professionals auditor can identify sources of energy loss throughout the home. Photo by Dennis Schroeder/NREL

A certified Home Energy Professionals auditor can identify sources of energy loss throughout the home. Photo by Dennis Schroeder/NREL

Ah, contractors. As I type this, several of them are bustling around my home, stomping through the attic, and rattling the walls. I'm listening to all of this activity and getting crazy-super excited to see the results. This work—which should be finished in a day or two—is going to make my home a better place to live. It's going to make it more comfortable to live in and way cheaper to heat and cool.

You see, my house has an insulation problem.

I posted about it last year. I knew my home had a problem when I wrote that, but I had no idea how big that problem actually was. I thought we had a poorly insulated room. It took me another month to realize that we had a poorly insulated house.

In my next couple of posts, I'm going to share my story. I'm going to tell you what problems we had, how we fixed them, and whether it paid off. In this post—my first in the two-part series—I'm going to introduce you to our problem.

And it's a big one.

We had a pretty severe winter in the Boston area last year. We got more than 100 inches of snow and a solid month-and-a-half of unusually cold temperatures. Our house was cold. It was cold everywhere, but the bonus room—the room I complained about in my blog post—could be up to seven degrees colder than the rest of the house. 

Meanwhile, the attic was uncomfortably warm. That meant that all that snow melted and refroze on the gutters, creating what's known as ice dams—sheets of ice that freeze over your gutters, stopping snow melt from running off your home. With nowhere appropriate to flow, the snow melt formed icicles. The largest of these was 12 inches around and ran from the top of our two-story roof to the ground. It was huge. It could have damaged our gutters. It could have seriously hurt someone if it fell off the house at the wrong time.

None of that happened, thankfully, but one of the largest did worm down the side of our house, pool on top of a windowsill, and cause some minor flooding.

The biggest impact was that we were not only still cold and uncomfortable, but we were also paying more than $700 a month for heating. 

We needed professionals. But where could we start?

The Energy Audit

Our energy audit was free! It was also super easy! All we had to do was call our utility company. Ours happened to offer free whole-home energy audits to all its customers. So if you're ready for an audit, ask your utility company if they have any similar programs. You might luck out! (Alternatively, you can go to your state's website and see if they have any opportunities in your region.)

Our energy audit took about two hours. Our auditor went through the house room-by-room with an infrared camera. He looked at our appliances. He took our most recent utility bills, plugged them into a calculator, and gave us a general idea of our house was doing. He then used our energy bills to calculate how much we could save. In fact, the average homeowner can save 5%-30% on their energy bill by making efficiency upgrades recommended by a home energy audit.

His final report included a ton of recommendations, which were all ranked by cost and expected savings. This information was essential as we decided which areas of our home to prioritize. It was also exciting to see.  

The Contractors

We talked to a lot of contractors, walking them around the house, showing them the cold room and the hot attic, and listening to their recommendations. We tried to be very diligent, savvy shoppers. We asked friends who they used. We checked online reviews. We used a find-a-contractor service my husband's work provided. We got as many estimates as we could.

When multiple contractors recommended the same thing, we knew it was probably a real and major concern. When they didn't, we had enough other estimates to compare them with. In the end, we knew exactly what was wrong with our house and what we wanted to do to fix it.

In my next post, I'll walk you through the problems we found and the solutions we decided to implement. Stay tuned (and warm) until next week!