Two years into the Portland home energy score policy, it’s not hard to get advice on what to do to improve your score. Portland homeowners are adding insulation, sealing up gaps and cracks, even adding solar panels or upgrading windows to see a bump in the numbers.
Could it be we’re losing sight of the bigger picture? There are issues with older Portland homes that the Home Energy Score policy does not address — and, in fact, by filling walls and stopping the movement of air through a home, could be making things worse. Read on for our Top 5 issues that could come up when you perform efficiency upgrades, and what to do about them.
1. Moisture: Too much of a good thing?
Portland’s climate is damp. In fact, our average relative humidity is similar to Orlando and New Orleans! Not only that, but many household activities — showering, cooking, growing indoor plants — generate additional moisture that can get trapped in the home.
The good news is that most older Portland homes are good at breathing. Unfortunately, when they release moisture, they also release heat, and most of the recommended Home Energy Score improvements involve stopping heat from leaving the home. When you add attic insulation or seal gaps and cracks in walls, you’re blocking moisture’s path out of the house.
How worried should you be about moisture? It may feel nice on the skin, but moisture in your Portland home can cause all kinds of problems, from dust mites to water stains. The biggest concern for your home is mold. It can grow just about anywhere and cause thousands of dollars in damage — either for you or for the next owner of the home. Do the right thing and make sure you’re not causing moisture buildup in your Portland home when you seal it for energy efficiency. Install vents and be sure you’re not blocking existing vents when you add attic insulation. Talk to a contractor about installing moisture barriers when you add insulation to places that are moisture-prone, like the basement.
2. Asbestos: Leave it alone or call the pros
Home experts say that any building constructed before the 1990s in Portland has some chance of containing asbestos, a naturally occurring mineral with disastrous health effects for those who come in contact with it. Because it’s a good insulating material, builders used asbestos in ceilings, insulation, tiles and as insulation around pipes and ducts — before the risks were fully understood. Even today, the standard advice is to leave asbestos alone if it’s in your home, because it’s only dangerous if the particles become airborne.
However, performing home energy score upgrades often require the homeowner to tear into walls or ceilings, or remove duct insulation. Be aware that some of these materials could contain asbestos. Things to look out for are paper linings around ductwork, popcorn ceilings, and grey-colored insulation with a fibrous structure.
If you suspect the material you’re working with contains asbestos, consult an abatement company. It’s best not to try to remove the material yourself. According to the EPA, there is no safe exposure level to asbestos.
3. Lead: What’s in your paint?
Fun fact: About 75% of homes built before 1978 contain some lead-based paint. Lead is also used to coat pipes in older homes and buildings, as the Portland Public School district learned the hard way in recent years when contaminated drinking water was found in its buildings.
Just like with asbestos, the EPA’s recommendation is to leave sites of lead-based material alone. In the home-remodeling context, this means being cautious in any project that involves scraping or drilling into painted walls that haven’t bene tested for lead. For example, when replacing windows or adding wall insulation, paint is very likely to be disturbed. Fortunately, at-home test kits are available to see if there is lead in your paint. If you do find it, consult a lead-removal expert.
4. Radon: Invisible invader
Radon is an odorless gas that permeates the soil beneath many Portland homes. Smart homeowners have the air tested every year or two and take steps to divert it if the radon levels are higher than the recommended safety limit. Exposure to radon can lead to lung cancer and other disastrous effects.
Why would improving the energy efficiency of your home lead to a radon problem? Because radon comes from the ground, any changes between your home and the earth beneath can cause changes in radon levels. For example, adding basement insulation — a great step toward improving your home energy score — can trap more radon in the home. If you do make changes to the basement, be sure to conduct a new radon test when you’re finished.
5. DIY Hazards: Work smart
It can be tricky to find a licensed handyman in Portland, so many homeowners are going it alone to improve their home energy score. Nothing wrong with that, but avoid turning a weekend project into a weekend ER-visit by following some safety protocols.
- Beware of mold, especially in the basement. Inhaling spores is a health hazard.
- Wear long sleeves, goggles and a dust mask to avoid contact with insulation fibers and fine dust particles.
- Use a headlamp so that you can see what you’re doing without juggling a flashlight along with your tools.
- Wear a hard hat or at least a baseball cap when working in the attic or basement — nails can protrude from the ceiling, and there are guaranteed to be a few spiders.
- Stay hydrated. A poorly ventilated attic can be hot even in the winter.
- Don’t chop or cut into existing insulation. It can conceal wiring and other hidden hazards
- Look out for wasps’ nests, especially in the basement
- Know where you’re stepping. In the attic, step only on ceiling joists or beams. Test pull-down stairs before you put your weight on them.
Curious what your home energy score would be without the improvements? Schedule online with our professional assessor today. Your home energy score assessment will give you a better idea which projects to tackle first — and where to leave well enough alone.