Simple Steps to Improve Home Insulation: Nitty-gritty

August 31, 2011

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Q:My apartment is rented. It has very poor insulation—the walls, the windows, the space around the door are all terribly energy inefficient. What simple steps can I take as a renter to reduce my energy consumption without renovating? How much energy can I save using these steps?

Asked by Jim Salvia, MS ’08, a Stanford PhD student in electrical engineering, Menlo Park, Calif.

So now, you have redecorated your space to liven it up while simultaneously better insulating your apartment. Looks great! But, let's talk a little more in-depth about dealing with air leaks. Sealing air leaks is so important because it is estimated that in older homes, air leaks can be responsible for as much as 20 to 50 percent of your heating bill. The cost of sealing these air leaks is greatly outweighed by the benefits in energy savings and warmth.

Air Leaks

Rope caulk, rubber weather stripping and draft snakes all help reduce energy consumption. Using rope caulk is easy! Just remember to clean all windows before starting so that the caulk sticks well. One tip not often mentioned in the instructions included with rope caulk is to dip the material in water before using it. This will soften the caulk, allowing for a better fit in between window creases (the site of air leaks). Tear off a piece of caulk equal to the length of the window creases, insert between creases and let dry. You now have a draft-free window! You won't be able to open your window when the caulk is in place, but it is removable and reusable, so you can apply rope caulk during the winter and remove it every summer.

On those blazing summer days when you don't want any of the hot outside air to enter your nice cool home, rubber weather-stripping can help insulate your apartment. Cut the strips to fit your window, peel the plastic backing off a strip to reveal the adhesive and press it to the frame of your window, making sure to plug up any gaps you may see. It is possible that rubber weather stripping can slightly damage paint on window frames or leave a sticky residue behind upon removal. But your landlord may not mind you adding the strips and just leaving them in place when you leave—and it can't hurt to ask him or her to actually pay for these little home improvements.

If you are very afraid of possibly peeling any paint, you can always use draft snakes. Though not as good at sealing air leaks as rope caulk or weather strips, they will help insulate an apartment. Draft snakes are not only helpful for windows, but they can be used to close up that pesky gap beneath your front door. Even for those who have never seen an episode of The Martha Stewart Show, draft snakes are quite easy to make. All you need to do is sew a fabric tube that is the length of your windowsill or your door, fill the tube with dried rice, and sew it shut. You can even use an old pair of tights or nylons. It's that easy!

Another source of air leaks in your apartment may be through outlets and light switches. You can either make or buy foam inserts to place behind the cover plates of outlets. To install, remember to first turn off the power to the sockets at your fuse panel. Use a screwdriver to remove the socket cover plates. Place the insulation over outlet plugs and light switches (if you make them, remember to cut a hole for the plug/light switch), and then screw the cover back into place. Oh, and don't forget to switch your power back on when finished.

Window Insulation

To better insulate windowpanes, rather than just blocking leakages, window insulation kits are the perfect choice for renters. These kits can be found in most hardware stores or online. They come with plastic shrink film. You stick the film to the frame with double stick tape (clean the frame beforehand, so the tape sticks well), use a hair dryer to shrink the film to the window, and do your best to remove wrinkles. Though I read many rave reviews, some have complained that the film tends to make windows look a bit cloudy. But the popular consensus is that these kits definitely result in greater warmth. Sounds toasty!

Beyond Insulation

As important as insulation is for reducing energy consumption, there are other small steps that you can also take in your daily life as a renter. First, be mindful of your thermostat. A good baseline for thermostat temperatures, the University of Maine advises, is between 65-68 degrees Fahrenheit in winter (wear warm clothing) and in summer try not to set the thermostat below 78 degrees Fahrenheit (wear light, loose clothing). On days when it's not too hot, try not using fans instead of air conditioning. Do you have a ceiling fan? If the fan allows you to switch the direction that it rotates, it can be used to your advantage summer and winter alike. In summer, set it to rotate counter-clockwise. In winter months set it to rotate in a clockwise direction. Because warm air rises, the clockwise rotation That will help push warm air up against the ceiling and then down the walls, back to where you can feel it. Just make sure the fan is turned low so that it does not produce a cool breeze.

Now that you are equipped with all sorts of tips and techniques to regulate your indoor temperature while reducing energy consumption, I wish you a warm, cozy winter and a refreshing, cool summer!

LUCILA FIGUEROA is a PhD candidate in political science.

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