It’s that time of year again where the temperatures are dropping and everyone is preparing for winter. Around this time two years ago we were rushing to get our house ready for our first winter in it. Having a large older home and living in a cold climate we knew the heating bills were going to be high. Before we bought our house we had asked the previous owner for utility bills but she just made up a bunch of excuses on why she couldn’t provide us with any. Instead I called the company that she was using for fuel oil and just about feel out of my chair when I heard how much she had spent the previous winter. In a period of eight months she had spent nearly $6,000 on fuel oil! She went through the whole 225 gallon tank nearly every month and had two fill ups in December and January.
Now most people would have not bought the house after seeing those kind of bills but we knew there were a lot of things we could do to reduce how much energy the house used. Plus we were completely in love with the location, land, and potential the house had. So we bought it anyway and spent the fall doing everything we could to reduce our heating bills that winter. We did 4 simple things that cut our fuel oil usage in half. Here they are:
1.) We re-insulated the attic. During our inspection we found out that there was only 5” of blown-in insulation in the attic and most of that had been tunneled through by mice living up there. The insulation looked like swiss cheese. According to my handy dandy ASHRAE Fundamentals Book that equates to an insulating value of R-11 (probably less because of the holes but we’ll ignore those) which is nowhere near the R-38 recommended for our area by ASHRAE 90.1. Because our house is a ranch style the attic insulation is even more important because we have a huge attic at 2140sf!
We could have just blown in more insulation over the top but that would have meant we would need to put up vent guards between every truss to keep the soffits clear. Additionally we don’t like how blow-in settles over time and needs to have more added to it to maintain the R-value. But the nail in the coffin was that we were planning to do a lot of renovating that would involve tearing into the ceiling. The thought of being able to roll up the insulation and move it temporarily was much more appealing than constantly being rained on with insulation. So we went with two layers of R-19 unfaced batt on top of our existing blown-in.
Even though our attic covers a large area it is very short so I voted Flannel Man be the one in the attic while I squeezed the bundles of insulation up through the attic access. The insulation expands to be twice the size of the packages so we wanted to open them in the attic even if it meant a lot of squeezing them go get them through the access hole.
Flannel Man started by clearing out all of the debris in the attic. Workers from the original construction had left everything from pop cans to material scraps. He also found a lot of mice skeletons and stashes of acorns so he cleaned out as many of those as he could. It seemed like the mice were no longer a problem because everything we found was very old but just in case he scattered some large chunk mouse poison on top of the existing insulation in the areas that were the worst. Next he started rolling out the batt in between the trusses making sure to keep plenty of air space along the soffit vents. The second layer he put perpendicular to the first to help cover any gaps.
We went from a measly R-11 to an R-49! And because we did it ourselves it only cost $1500.
And just for fun this is where I found Sophie after pushing insulation up the access hole.
2.) We put plastic on every window. We have 16 large, single pane windows in our house and most of them are 6’x4’ so there is a lot of glass! We love the view out of them and understand why the original owners had the house built with so many windows but they are a huge waste of energy. At least they have storm windows though even those are ill fitting. So we have vowed to religiously put up the dreaded plastic on every old window until we have them all replaced.
Because our windows are so big we have to buy the extra large sheets of plastic that are meant for 5 windows but they only cover two of our windows. The price can add up but even buying 8 boxes only cost us __. Over the years we’ve gotten really good at putting on the plastic so it’s virtually invisible. It’s all about making sure there are minimal creases in the plastic where it sticks to the tape; with our size windows it’s a two person job. We also put clear packaging tape on all of the sides to help hold the loose ends in place. When you have the plastic on for a long period of time the ends tend to come loose especially the areas over a vent. We don’t care about the current 70’s trim because we’re going to replace it but we’ve had very little finish come off with all of this tape on it. And we’ve found that 3M is by far our favorite window plastic.
3.) We replaced the patio door that was rotten open! Yes that’s right the previous owner was living with a door that was permanently open. Not only did it let a ton of energy out but it let a lot of critters in! The whole basement was filled with every bug imaginable and of course there were mice living in the basement. But the mice didn’t stop there no a slim gap wasn’t enough for them they had to go and chew a huge hole in the corner of the door to allow for easier access!
Now why was this door permanently open? Because the house didn’t have gutters and all the rain from the large roof would fall onto the exposed basement. The wooden patio door was so rotten along the bottom that it wouldn’t budge. But instead of doing anything about it the previous owner just left if like that for 2-3 years. The first thing we did when we moved in was fill all of those holes with Great Stuff. Then in the fall we replaced the door for a more permanent solution.
I know this one doesn’t apply to everyone but it’s a good reminder to check the seals on all of your doors and windows because even a small leak can cost you a lot on your heating bill.
4.) We turned down the thermostat. The previous owner was unemployed and had some health conditions so she spent all day at home with the heat cranked way up. The first time we toured the house in November it was a sweaty 78 degrees in there! The thermostat was also non-programmable but we decided not to replace it since we knew we were going to be replacing the furnace in the next year. Instead we just kept the temperature down to as low as we could stand it and wore warm clothes. We also used an electric oil space heater for supplemental heat if we were spending a lot of time in just one room. We like that style because you can turn it on for an hour or two until the oil is heated up then turn it off and it will still be putting out heat. Electric heat isn’t the most cost effective way to heat but heating only one room vs the whole house is.
So here are the numbers:
$5740 what the previous owner spent on fuel oil in one winter
1910 gallons of fuel oil the previous owner used
$3.00 the cost of one gallon of fuel oil
$2200 what we spent on fuel oil the following winter
980 gallons of fuel oil we used
$2.25 the cost of one gallon of fuel oil
$1200 the cost of the attic insulation
$1500 the cost of the new patio door
$60 the cost of all that window plastic
$200 the estimated cost of the additional electricity used by the space heater
So when everything was said and done we spent $3540 less on fuel oil and used 934 gallons less than the previous owner. All of the improvements paid for themselves in just one winter and we still had $580 left over in savings. That’s one heck of a return on investment!
What are you doing to prepare your house for winter?