This Old House

My first green change hits close to home.
Illustrations by funnelinc.com

The following is an attempt to make insulation sexy. A fool’s errand, I know, but hear me out, because I’ve actually discovered that R-values can make your heart flutter.

I became well acquainted with R-values—a measure of resistance to heat flow—a couple of months ago, when I had three experts (one a thermal-imaging specialist, one from TXU, and one from the Environmental Protection Agency) evaluate my house’s energy efficiency. Now that I was serious about going green, I had to know where to start. The news from my auditors, however, was brutal: My quaint fifty-year-old two-story was about as environmentally incorrect as a house could be. It was leaking warmth in the winter and allowing heat to penetrate in the summer, making both my heater and AC work overtime. My attic, they told me, rated a dismal R-9 (instead of the recommended R-49), my French windows a troubling R-1 (together they amount to a wall, and walls should ideally be R-18), and my floor had basically no R-value. If I was going to reduce my carbon footprint, I would first have to address this woeful energy seepage.

So I decided to start with my attic. My thermal-imaging guy, Tom Mayfield, recommended I call Matt Foerster, of 4 Star Insulation, in Richardson (your energy provider can make similar recommendations for you; the company itself is less important than getting the right insulation). He advised me to take the attic to a full R-49, no half measures. As I researched online, I found that today’s two most common insulation options are cellulose and fiberglass. The controversy I read about each—fiberglass may be carcinogenic, though in insulation form it isn’t necessarily harmful; cellulose is composed of recycled paper and may be a fire hazard—was enough to excite the talking heads on Hardball, so I went with Matt’s opinion and chose fiberglass, which is used in a majority of new homes these days. Getting to an R-49 required that we add sixteen inches of the stuff to the two inches of already existing cellulose (I might have had him remove the existing cellulose, then add even more fiberglass, but that would have been more expensive).

As a home-office kind of guy, this was all a bit of a pain: Matt’s crew had to drag a big pneumatic hose through the front door and up the stairs to a spare bedroom, where our only attic access is, then turn on a blower that sounded like what the first moments of D-day might have. Never mind: I went for my daily jog, then happily paid Matt a mere $632 for the entire enterprise. This, he told me, would save me about 20 to 25 percent on both heating and AC, which translates to at least $75 a month and $900 per year. I haven’t seen my new bills yet, but I’ve already noticed that the heat comes on a lot less.

Now that I had a snug toboggan cap on my house’s “head,” what about the rest of its frame? My floor, said Matt, wasn’t really an issue in our climate. The ground rarely gets cold enough for long enough for crawl space insulation to make much difference. But the French windows—now, those were a problem. “Energy efficiency in Texas is all about that AC and how well you can keep hot air out of your house,” he said. And my windows, I’d learned, were responsible for at least 25 percent of my home’s unwanted heat loss or gain.

This meant more research. I got a fast education from the Department of Energy ( eere.energy.gov) and consulted again with my cohort of auditors. The most energy-efficient solution, it appeared, would be to replace our windows with glazed, double-paned versions, which in our case would have to be custom-made because of the age of the house. But then there was the price tag: at least $9,000. Sure, we could afford it, but was it practical? Talking it through, my wife and I concluded that (a) we probably wouldn’t be in the house long enough to make such a change

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