Ask Umbra: What’s the best way to seal up a drafty house?
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Q. This winter is supposed to be very cold in Virginia. What are your top recommendations to renters in drafty homes? We plan to put plastic wrap on the windows and replace the door jamb insulators. Is there anything else we can do?
A. Dearest Kate,
There’s something rather Dickensian and romantic about the idea of huddling ’round the fire as icy drafts sweep through your charming Victorian home. But it’s not so nice in practice, is it? As renters, you may feel limited in what you can do to fortify your house against winter’s chill, but take heart: There are several short-term steps you can take without your landlord’s involvement, and several more long-term improvements to be made with it.
As I’m sure you know, Kate, a drafty domicile does more than make you shiver. When cold air sneaks in and warm air leaks out, your heater works overtime, wasting energy and upping your utility bills. And unfortunately, you’re hardly alone: The typical house has so many inefficiencies and gaps, it’s as if we’re all leaving a window open 365 days a year.
How to best button that up? You’re right to zero in on the windows and doors – according to the Department of Energy (an excellent source for all things efficiency-related, by the way), window leaks account for 10 to 25 percent of your heating bill alone. Plastic wrap over the panes is a fine and affordable solution to block the drafts (just check with your landlord first, as the double-sided tape used to adhere the plastic can damage paint on the sills). You could also use caulk or weatherstripping to seal gaps in windows and doors. A more advanced step would be to install interior storm windows, likely with the support of your landlord.
No matter which window upgrade you choose, adding a set of heavy curtains can further insulate your home from the frosty landscape outside. On sunny days, keep ’em open to capitalize on the free solar power.
Windows and doors aren’t your only concerns, however. Believe it or not, lots of cold air can infiltrate your home through electrical outlets, switches, vents, and the like. Go on a hunt for any gaps or seams in these areas by feeling for a cold draft with your hands, or by holding a lit candle in front of them and watching for flickering. Found a culprit? You can easily insulate outlets and switches with a cheap foam seal kit, which also increases your handywoman status by at least 5 percent.
Your window air-conditioning unit, if you have one, can also be a portal for chills. Pull them out when winter hits, or buy a tight-fitting A/C unit cover (available at hardware and home improvement stores).
If you’re lucky enough to have an amenable landlord, there are also some bigger improvements to be made in the name of energy efficiency. Longer-lasting projects require an investment, of course, but you may point out that he or she will slash utility bills, attract eco-conscious tenants, and boost property value by ponying up. Your landlord may also qualify for a number of tax incentives and rebates designed to encourage just this type of home-energy makeover.
Once you’ve got his or her ear, and especially if you plan to stick around in this house for a while, you can press for a full-scale energy audit, which will help you pinpoint which improvements will get you the biggest bang for your buck. You can hire a professional to use all kinds of high-tech gadgets to do this, or do it yourself. Armed with that information, you’ll probably have a menu of options, among them replacing windows, sealing air ducts, and adding insulation to the attic and basement. It’ll be like your own personal episode of This Old House! At the very least, make sure your landlord is checking and replacing your furnace filter every one to three months.
Even if your landlord is a dead-end, the DIY projects above will do a lot to keep you toasty this winter. In fact, it’s probably time for a new nickname: Cozy Kate has a nice ring to it, don’t you think?
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