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Keeping the Heat: Winter Home Heating Guide

The days shorten, the wind begins to bite hard, and we brace ourselves for the high cost of indoor comfort. As of mid-October, prices for heating oil and natural gas were nearly the same as last fall, both locally and nationally; should the forecasts for a long, cold winter be realized, they’re likely to rise. But regardless of commodities markets and weather conditions, the only way to win at winter is to decrease your fossil fuel usage to the bare minimum.

The name of the game is maximum efficiency and leak prevention. There are standard tips that we’ve all heard: take maximum advantage of any south or west-facing glass, open curtains for a passive solar boost, keep furnace filters clean, apply caulk or weather-stripping to major drafty spots, apply a layer of plastic to windows and, for pity’s sake (read in parental tone of voice), turn that thermostat down and put a sweater on.

But no matter how hard you try to prevent heat loss with time-honored methods like these, your home may still be hemorrhaging heat—and hard-earned dollars—if you haven’t paid attention to your attic and your basement first.

“Those little things you can do are fine, but if your building envelope is not addressed at the top and bottom, it’s putting a Band-Aid on one spot while an artery gushes somewhere else,” says Judith Karpova, a Certified Sustainable Building Advisor through the US Green Building Council and an accredited Energy Analyst and Envelope Analyst. “In building analysis, we look at things in ‘ABC order’: attic, basement, ‘conditioned’ space. Attic comes first. Warm air will always be trying to push out the top, and when it leaves air is pulled up from the bottom to replace it.”

Karpova and her fellow analysts are trained to perform home energy assessments that include a blower door test that pinpoints leaks and a boiler checkup. There are certain factors she encounters over and over in the lovely, leaky homes around the Hudson Valley.

“So many people assume that a house leaks because of the windows, but when we do a blower door test, the windows are a very minor factor,” she says. “You’re actually better off with a little fresh air coming in around doors and windows and addressing attic and basement issues.”

One issue you can probably see for yourself: the condition of your attic insulation. The batts of pink fiberglass commonly used in the late 20th century may not be up to the job.

“Put on a breathing mask and take a good look at your attic insulation and make sure it hasn’t been contaminated by rodents,” Karpova says. “If it has, you’re much better off removing it and starting over with cellulose or closed-cell foam: they’re non-toxic, better at resisting airflow, and are far more eco-friendly. And nothing wants to live in it: no mice, no bugs, no mold. If it’s clean, but not sealed, sealing it can make a big difference—fiberglass was always meant to be completely covered, and if it is not sealed you’re only getting half to two-thirds of the advertised R-value.” (R-value is the measure of “thermal resistance” by which insulating materials are rated.)

Moving on down to the basement, Karpova says rim joists—the supports that run around the outer perimeter between foundation and sub-flooring—are a crucial spot.

“Often there’s nasty old fiberglass there or no insulation at all,” she says. “If you do nothing else in your basement, you want to seal that off with a couple of inches of closed-cell foam. You want a sealed, insulated moisture barrier there. If you have sagging fiberglass in your basement, it holds cold air against the underside of your floor. Your very best move is to insulate the walls of the basement and make it part of your building envelope.”

Karpova or one of her fellow certified experts will stop by free of charge, analyze your home’s issues, and spell out what needs doing and available financing options. Landlords can apply based on a tenant’s income for help in tightening up a rental property.

“If you want to say, ‘thanks, now get out,’ and go DIY, that’s fine,” says Karpova. “We’re there to give you the information. There’s the satisfaction of being a better neighbor. In New York, we defeated fracking one small town at a time—we can decrease our carbon footprint one building at a time. So you’re fighting climate change, but you’re also able to live a better life. Healthier, more comfortable, more economically secure. There’s no downside to that.”

In between today and the day that your revamped building envelope saves you enough to free you from the grid completely, you may still need to purchase fossil fuel. If you do, you should know about the Mid-Hudson Fuel Buying Co-op, an outgrowth of Transition Marbletown that’s now serving 90 members.

Collective negotiating power enabled member households to save around $400 each heating season; discounts for this year are still available on oil, propane and kerosene, as well as service contracts and equipment.

For more information, visit the Mid Hudson Fuel Buying Co-op on Facebook, or reach out to Bill Miller  at 845-657-9764 or wvmillerjr@yahoo.com. To schedule your free home energy audit, visit nyserda.ny.gov and search “assisted home performance with Energy Star” or call RUPCO at 845-838-7818.