Getting a better home energy score in Portland means making your home as efficient as possible. There are many projects you might take on to meet this goal — but which ones really work? Here are our top five Portland homeowner strategies for boosting your home energy score.
1. Seal: Weatherize windows and doors.
Those little drafts are a big problem when it comes to heating and cooling your home efficiently. Although Portland is not an extremely hot or cold place, even a temperature difference of a few degrees between in the inside and outside will create a draft. Because air likes to move from warmer areas to cooler areas, it will find a way out — or in, if your objective is to cool the home.
There are fancy ways of detecting air leaks, like a blower test, but start with the obvious ones first. In most homes, this will be around the doors and windows. You can do a spot-check for air leaks by holding a candle or a smoke stick up to a closed window or door on a windy day and looking at how the smoke or flame moves.
As we covered in a recent blog post, new, high-efficiency windows are not always the most cost-effective solution for leaky windows. Reglazing window panes and insulating gaps around the exterior frame will boost your window efficiency and reduce landfill waste. However, the Home Energy Score scoring system that Portland home energy assessors use does “reward” homeowners for installing new windows by increasing their home energy score slightly (as part of the comprehensive assessment).
For doors, install or replace weatherstripping to reduce drafts, taking care to use the correct size to fit the gap around your door. Adding a door sweep to the bottom of the door will also improve weatherization.
2. Seal: Air leaks, including ducts.
Windows and doors are the common culprits, but other areas of the home can also create openings to the outside where you don’t want them. If your home as “can” lights, they could be sending all your heat up into your attic if they are not insulated. Knee walls, attic hatches, dryer vents, and other potential openings into uninsulated space can also reduce your home’s efficiency.
In checking for air leaks, don’t forget to do an exterior inspection as well. Gaps in the siding, such as at exterior corners, above the foundation and around chimneys, can contribute to a leaky, drafty home.
If in doubt and you really want to seal your building envelope before ordering your Home Energy Score assessment, get a blower test done. This professional service depressurizes your home by using a powerful fan in the door. Air leaks can then be easily detected.
Sealing HVAC ducts is another matter. Most opportunities to seal ducts will be where ducts are exposed, such as in the attic or basement. If you determine that your home’s energy efficiency could benefit from sealing HVAC ducts, check out our DIY guide.
3. Insulate: Attic
This is a big one for Portland homeowners as many homes here were built with uninsulated attics. There’s no getting around it: Insulating an uninsulated attic is the best and surest (but not the cheapest) way to improve your home energy score.
To help with the cost, Energy Trust of Oregon offers a cash incentive of up to $0.25/square foot of insulation installed (Portland homes only). Some attics will be simple to insulate and can be completed by the handy homeowner, others have complicating issues that might require a contractor’s help. These include chimneys, exhaust fans, recessed lights and other heat sources, which can pose a fire hazard if insulation is installed too close. Also keep in mind that attics that are regularly in use — even if just for storage — will need a barrier over the insulation itself. (Portland building codes require it.)
Check out our complete Portland DIY guide to insulating your attic here on the Home Energy Score blog.
4. Insultate: Add or upgrade wall insulation
It may be surprising to some to learn that many older Portland homes lack insulation in the walls. If they do have insulation, it might be very low — think R-7. Upgrading wall insulation is not an easy project but it could be worth it to boost that Home Energy Score.
To check for wall insulation, turn off the electricity and remove an electrical outlet to see inside the wall. Or, make a small hole in an unobtrusive spot like behind a baseboard.
If your home lacks wall insulation, or you suspect the existing insulation is doing an inadequate job of preventing radiative heat loss, there are two ways to get your house properly insulated. One is to remove the drywall (or whatever the wall covering is) and install traditional insulation like rigid foam board or fiberglass bats in the stud cavities. This can be a very labor-intensive process; however, no special equipment is needed so it can be a DIY project.
The other method is to hire a pro to spray foam insulation into each of the wall cavities. The coverage is not quite as good as with traditional insulation, but the results are much faster. The foam expands to fill the cavity with minimal mess. The process leaves behind holes which will need to be patched and repainted.
5. Rethink: The basement
Unfinished basements with exposed HVAC ducts are a big potential source of heat loss. It might be tempting to simply insulate those ducts, but a finished basement can also prevent conductive heat loss from the entire ground floor of the house. It’s basically like taking away an exterior-facing wall.
If finishing the entire basement is beyond the scope of your home improvement goals, at least consider insulating the basement ceiling. Batt insulation is easy to tuck into floor joists; keep it in place with wire or special insulation supports. Keep in mind that keeping warm air out of the basement will mean anything that relies on the basement being warm — like water pipes — will also require insulation.
If there are HVAC ducts and water lines in the basement, insulating the entire thing might be a route to go — just keep in mind that most building codes require that wall insulation be covered. In addition, any basement insulation project (beyond insulating the ducts or ceiling) should begin with an honest assessment of the moisture levels there. Consult with a contractor if you suspect moisture may be a problem in your basement, because a minor problem now will turn into a big one down the road once you add walls and insulation.