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Straight Talk Articles

Improve Comfort and Save Energy by Sealing Air Leaks
May, 2016

Dear Pat:

I recently moved into a new home, and it feels drafty. I put some weatherstripping on the doors and windows, but it doesn’t seem to have stopped the problem. What else can I do? – Rob J.

Dear Rob:

Sealing air leaks is one of the easiest and most cost-effective improvements you can make in your home—weatherstripping doors and windows is a great first step and one that will likely pay for itself within a year. However, there are less obvious sources of air leakage that can cause significant discomfort in your home. The average home leaks about half of its air every hour, through various cracks and gaps. All these air leak openings add up to a two-foot-square hole in the average home—that’s like having a window open all day, every day! Air sealing your home can help keep heated and cooled air inside your home, making your home more comfortable and reducing your energy bill.

 

While drafty windows and doors are obvious sources of air leakage, there are other places where air could be leaking out and where moisture, pollen, dust, and pests could be seeping in. For example, holes drilled into your walls, ceiling, and attic for plumbing pipes and electrical lines can be a major source of air leakage. Outlet covers and recessed lights can also have small gaps where conditioned air can leak out. Other sources could be leaks in air ducts in unheated spaces, fireplace chimneys, and attic access hatches.

To find air leaks, you can start with a visual inspection, looking for gaps and cracks where air could escape. Walk around outside and examine closely where different building materials meet, such as around the foundation perimeter, around outdoor water faucets, and where siding and the chimney meet. Then, inside, examine some common sources of air leakage, including electrical and water service entrances, baseboards, door and window frames, and attic hatches.

Though a visual inspection can often identify the most obvious areas for improvement, a blower door test can give you the most thorough accounting of air leaks in your home. A blower door test is commonly performed during an energy audit. During this test, a powerful fan is mounted in the frame of an exterior door, pulling air outside of the house and lowering the air pressure inside. Then, the higher pressure air from outside of the house comes in through any unsealed openings, which the energy auditor locates, often using a smoke pen.

Once you have found the air leaks, the next step is to seal them up. The materials you need will depend on what gap is being sealed. An energy auditor, your co-op’s energy advisor, or your local hardware store can help guide you to the right products:

  • Doors and windows with gaps at the frame need weatherstripping.

  • Small gaps, such as around outlets or between the baseboard and the floor, can be filled with caulk, a flexible material dispensed with a caulking gun.

  • Large gaps and holes, such as around pipes, may need foam insulation, foil insulation, sheeting, or a combination of materials.

 

You may have heard that your home needs some amount of air leakage to stay properly ventilated—and this is true. A home that is too “tight” can have issues with too much interior moisture, as well as carbon monoxide risks if combustion appliances don’t have adequate ventilation. It is especially important that you not plug up vents that bring in outside air to a gas or propane furnace or stove.

However, relying on uncontrolled air leaks instead of using mechanical ventilation, isn’t a good idea—in cold, windy weather, your home will be drafty, but in warm and still weather, not enough air may come in, leaving you with moisture and air quality problems. An energy auditor can use a blower door test to ensure a healthy level of air infiltration for your home and, in the unlikely event that your home is too tight, recommend a good ventilation strategy.

This column is from the May issue of Straight Talk, which is a service of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association to its member co-ops.  Straight Talk is distributed by electric co-ops around the country as part of a monthly print publication or on co-op websites.

For more information about finding and sealing air leaks, see this page with more resources.

Chimneys often have large air leaks around them—sealing these gaps requires special fire-resistent materials.

Caulk is used to seal small gaps and cracks where air can escape.