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Do-It-Yourself Energy Upgrades

Vermiculite insulation may contain asbestos and should not be disturbed. Photo by David Keefe.

David Keefe

Vermonters are a handy bunch. Many of us build, repair, or renovate things on our own. If you are considering an energy-efficiency upgrade, you might be thinking about doing it yourself. This article is the first in a series about how to improve your home’s efficiency with your own hands. We’ll start with some general considerations here and follow with future articles on doors, windows, basements and attics.

Over the last 35 years, I’ve crawled through hundreds of attics, installed a bunch of insulation, and sealed up a lot of air leaks. Here are some things I’ve learned.

Most people are not sure which things to do to make their home efficient. You won’t save money by doing things yourself if you do ineffective things, so it helps to have a qualified energy-efficiency professional evaluate your home and help you develop a game plan.

An energy audit by a home performance contractor is a good way to start. The auditor can identify opportunities for improvement that you might not think of and can help work out an overall strategy that works for you and your home. He or she will conduct important safety checks to make sure there are no existing problems like moisture or carbon monoxide that should be addressed. If you are going to fix some things yourself, you can ask the auditor about the correct materials or methods for those items.

There are hazards you might encounter. There might be vermiculite insulation in your home. This loose granular metallic-looking material may contain asbestos and should not be disturbed. You might also find asbestos-containing materials on old ductwork or heating pipes. There may be knob-and-tube wiring or other electrical issues. If you live in an old house, you shouldn’t disturb the paint without following lead-safe practices. (Paint produced prior to 1978 in the U.S. may contain lead.)

There is a state-wide residential energy code in Vermont, and it applies to existing homes. You should be aware of this when doing your own work, and you should verify that any contractors you hire are following those rules. You can get more information about the code at: https://publicservice.vermont.gov/energy_efficiency/rbes.

Air sealing might well provide your best bang for the buck. By “air sealing” we don’t primarily mean weather stripping windows and doors (although that can certainly be part of it). We mostly mean finding rough holes – often not visible from the living space – and plugging them up. Much of the most important air sealing happens in basements and attics and focuses on places where framing comes together or where pipes, wires or other mechanical systems go through holes.

If you have a wet basement, you should start there. As we tighten up our homes, moisture problems in the basement become bigger issues. Anything you can do to dry out your basement is worth considering, whether it’s gutters, drainage, ground cover or sump pump. A dry basement is important for the performance, durability and healthfulness of your home.

Strange as it seems, maybe the best DIY approach involves a contractor. Energy upgrades often involve moving stuff out of the way. In your attic or basement or both, there may well be personal items, often unused for years or decades, that need to be moved or removed. This is a perfect time to do that rather than pay a contractor to do it. It saves you money and you end up with a less cluttered space. There may also be air sealing or carpentry details you can do, and a contractor can provide advice on how to do it properly.

Doing it yourself can save you money, but it makes sense to do your homework first, so your efforts get the maximum benefit. You can find more information at https://www.efficiencyvermont.com/tips-tools

In the next article, we’ll talk about doors.

David Keefe is a fifth-generation Vermonter who has worked for over 35 years as a contractor, consultant and teacher to improve the performance of existing homes.

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