Summer, it seems, has turned her back on us. We start out telling ourselves, "That's just a stressed tree," or "We're in kind of a drought, anyway ..." as we pretend not to see the splashes of color. Aug. 6 is when the first red leaves appear. I keep track. That's what it's been for the past eight years since we moved here. This year, July 22.
We can no longer pretend. Mornings are not just cool. There's that nip in the air. The one that has you glancing at the woodpile, wondering if you have enough, or should you order another load? The nip that brings the hoodies out, thoughts of flannel and home heating fuel.
This year though, I'm like, "Bring it!" I can't wait for winter!
Bags of old insulation are thrown out as part of the renovation.
(Photo — Melinda Walton)
Last fall, we heard we could get a home energy assessment by a Building Performance Institute (BPI) accredited contractor through the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority. The Sustainability Program at Paul Smith's College had been educating students on initiatives the state promotes to reduce our energy use. The class needed houses to audit and homeowners willing to let students tromp through while learning the process. We agreed.
The students had finished by late October, so we only had the auditor and contractor present for our assessment.
While the auditor explained the application and we filled out forms, the contractor inspected the exterior of the house, documenting existing conditions.
Next, the house tour. They encourage homeowners to join in. During the tour, the contractor took time to explain building science theory, the process of insulating, and how different areas are ranked in improved insulation value versus expense. There has to be enough cost saving benefit for NYSERDA financing.
They went through every nook and cranny in the entire house, measuring windows, testing areas for insulation ... right up to the attic with its wobbly pull-down ladder. I trailed along. The contractor took numerous pictures and notes.
The dusty attic was filled with lumpy piles of dingy pink insulation, shoved aside in places. I didn't want to admit I'd never been up there. Oh, I'd looked from the ladder and knew we had no insulation over a couple bedrooms. Cringing at the obvious evidence of generations of mice, I had to tell myself they'd seen worse. They assured me they had. Both were respectful of being in our private living space. For them, it's just part of the job - they're focused on their work.
Cobwebs shrouded the low ceiling in the basement. The contractor stepped around the heap of old pallets we use to cross the dirt floor during mud season. He tested the efficiency and safe drafting of our boiler.
Back in the kitchen, they set up a blower door apparatus. With the fan blowing air out to depressurize the house, electronic tools revealed the amount of air leakage. Then another quick look around to locate significant air leaks. Like the back door where snow would drift in a few times every winter. And our son's room, where the record overnight low was 43 degrees.
According to their analysis, our "building shell leakage" was 4,540 CFM50 (Cubic feet per minute at 50 pascals). The contractor likened this to having a 16-inch-by16-inch hole in the wall, straight to the outside. That was no surprise.
"Well, it's never stuffy in here," I laughed, "and I do like fresh air."
Wrapping things up, the auditor emphasized the no down payment aspect of the financing, which sounded good to me. They promised a written energy assessment, proposal and financing options within a couple weeks.
I'd seen the "Have an Energy Smart Winter" nyserda.ny.gov ad in the classifieds and had been meaning to check it out, but never did. The auditor walked me through the entire process from application to loan approval. She followed up, guiding as needed, and reviewing the application for completion and accuracy. It was simple. The process can also be done online.
By the time the assessment arrived, cold weather had settled in, seemingly for good. I loved that it was so cold - it helped cement our decision. The work needed doing and this was a great way to finance. Our primary hold up was the thought that we could do much of the work ourselves but where to begin? And with what time?
Once we agreed on the scope of the work, we signed the proposal. With an expected April start, it was too late for the frigid winter we were in.
As work commenced, a big concern was how to live around the project once underway. With outside access to the basement, and a back door that allowed a quick route to the attic, the crew could mostly avoid our main living areas. The contractor and crew worked at a good pace and were considerate with clean up at the end of each workday.
I can't say it wasn't chaotic or that we didn't tire of it at times. Like any home project in an old house, the proverbial cans of worms got opened. Once the contractor demoed the attic, removing old floorboards and insulation, that left clear access for us to take care of some wiring that needed attention. Other things cropped up, like replacing the back door, then the washing machine was discovered to be leaking in an irreparable way.
After weeks of upheaval, the project wound down. Each completed area was a joy. Seriously. Not just that it was done, but that we could begin to imagine moving on to other projects.
I thought we'd have to wait for winter to appreciate the work, but no. We've been enjoying an "energy smart summer."
One fix we appreciate every single day was the smallest item on the proposal, a new bathroom vent fan. It's quiet, actually works and is properly vented outside, not just into the attic. With the humidity problem gone, that bathroom might finally get painted.
Another noticeable difference has been the comfortable temperature upstairs. In past summers, at the end of even a mildly warm day, it would be stifling. Fans to move the oppressive air around and cool showers were routine in order to sleep.
I had a friend and her husband over recently to see our energy efficiency project as they considered one for themselves. The attic was impressive with its new flooring over the spray foam and dense pack insulation, but it was stifling up there. I remember trying to sleep with that miserable heat and am glad it's a thing of the past.
We went into the basement and, well, it's a thing of beauty. Really. You have to see it to believe it. It can actually be used now and we've got plans.
We look forward to keeping more of the heat we pay for this winter. Armed now with our spray foam, air sealing and blown cellulose insulation, I say, "Bring it!"