Plugging leaks

You can save from 5 to 30 percent off your heating and air-conditioning bill simply by plugging up air leaks, as I describe in the following sections.

ajttNG/ Check for gas leaks as well. Gas system leaks are dangerous and costly. You should be able to smell them. If you do smell a leak, call a qualified service technician from your utility company as soon as possible; gas leaks can be very dangerous.

Pressure test

You may already know where the drafts are. Find out why. Is the air entering through an unsealed door? A window? A vent? Is it coming from a heater vent? A pressure test can help you pinpoint those leaks so you can trace them down and seal them off. Try to perform this test when it's cold outside and warm inside.

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1. Seal off your house and turn off heating and cooling sources.

Completely extinguish any fireplace fires. Close the fireplace damper as much as possible. Turn off your HVAC system. Turn off any furnaces. If you have a gas water heater, turn that off, too. Close all the windows and doors in your house. Make sure to close any skylights or vents.

2. Turn on all the exhaust fans in your house (normally located in kitchens, bathrooms, and laundry rooms).

If you don't have any exhaust fans, aim a portable fan out a single open window and turn it on.

Quickly make sure that your fireplace is okay. If it's leaky (for example, air is coming down the chimney and out into the house), you'll be drawing in some stink. If so, turn the fans off and inspect your fireplace to find out why it's so leaky. If you can, fix it because it's inefficient (when you're not using the fireplace, heat will be escaping up the chimney). If you can't fix it, forge ahead if the smell isn't too bad. If the smell is really bad, may want to call a fireplace specialist. Old houses often have very leaky fireplaces because people simply didn't care about energy efficiency. Maybe it's time to install modern, well-designed gas stove.

3. Search for leaks around the house.

With the fans on, your house is depressurized, so any leaks are readily apparent. Go around the house with a bowl of water, dip your hand in, and move your wet hand around windows, electrical outlets, switches, doors, molding interfaces, attic hatches, basement hatches, and so on. You should be able to feel a leak, especially if it's cold outside.

Another way to do this step is with a stick of incense; when the smoke fluctuates, you've found a leak. Or use a candle; when the flame flickers, you've found a leak.

4. Get a ladder or a chair and check for leaks in overhead lights.

Such leaks are very common, but unfortunately they're a little more difficult to fix if you don't have good attic access.

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5. Turn off the fans and then fix the leaks as appropriate.

Caulking works wonders, but it can look bad. You may want to use the clear kind. Or perhaps you can fix the leaks from the outside, where caulking is more acceptable. Drafts start somewhere and end somewhere, so you're best off fixing both sides of the problem. You may be able to seal off some areas with duct tape.

Buy a caulking gun that has a pressure relief gasket, or else the caulk will keep coming out when you're done squeezing the trigger, making a big mess (and possibly leading to PG-13 language).

You can also buy aerosol cans of expandable insulation that work really well, but beware; this stuff is nasty, and it gets all over everything. I have yet to find anything that can clean it off, but it sure works well. Your best bet is to go in your garage first and practice spraying it on a newspaper you can ball up and throw away.

If you have a leak in an outlet or switch, turn the electricity off in the entire house before you go in there and fix it. Flip the main circuit breaker off. You may have to reset your clocks, but you'll be alive to do it — so don't complain!

6. You may need to climb into the attic to fix overhead light fixtures.

Step only on the joists; if you step on the sheetrock, your foot may go down into the room below, which would be very startling for all concerned. Or you could go down into the room below, which would be even more startling!

7. After you've finished fixing leaks, turn the exhaust fans back on and repeat the wet hand (or incense or candle) routine from Step 2.

Your house will be tighter now, and any remaining leaks will be even more obvious. Repeat the fixing stage.

8. Repeat the whole process until you're satisfied.

Door seals

Check the seals around your exterior doors. Applying foam weather stripping is easy; it comes in self-stick tapes of various sizes. Measure how much you need, pull off a chunk of the existing seal (if there is some), and take it to the hardware store as an example of the specific type of material you need. There are a lot of different forms and thicknesses; don't go to the hardware store expecting to guess right. If there is no seal, measure the surface widths that you will applying the material to, and get the hardware store clerk to help you identify the right material. The bottom line is that some weatherproofing, even if it's not optimum, is much better than none. Your worst problem may be appearance. Use a sharp box knife to cut off any excess material.

The DOE's Consumer Guide (www.eere.energy.gov/consumer/ you_home/insulation_airsealing/index.cfm/mytopic=112 80) may be helpful for deciding which types of insulation work best in your climate and physical conditions.

Check along the bottoms of the doors as well. Sealing thresholds takes a little more effort, but your hardware store likely has plenty of insulating solutions that you should be able to implement yourself with no more than a screwdriver. Check out the store's stock and how the different items are used. For example, vinyl door sweeps are very effective for the bottom of a doorway, while foam insulation works well around the periphery.

Window seals

Stationary windows should be well caulked. Get the good stuff, the kind that lasts for 50 years. (You don't need it to last for 50 years, but it'll work better for 10 years if it's rated for 50.) Sliding windows take more ingenuity, but your hardware store clerk can help you.

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Heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning inspection

Most ducts are for sending heated or cooled air into the house; one large one is the return. They all need to be tightly sealed. Leaks in the ductwork are worse than air leaks in your house because the ducts are pressurized, which magnifies the amount of air escaping through cracks and openings. So make sure that you access your HVAC system and visually inspect the duct system snaking around your house. If the ducts aren't well insulated, you can get kits at hardware stores. If the ducts are insulated, fix any rips or tears.

When working with dusty ducts, wear a dust mask; get them at your hardware store. (By now, you should know where that is.)

You can find many problems with just a quick glance. It's amazing how many people are heating their basements without even knowing it. I've been in a lot of houses where the insulation is just shredded off the ducts. I've also been in a lot of houses where junctions have broken, leaving a big opening. Rats and mice like to chew through, and they leave little openings that are hard to find (unless you're a small rodent).

Here are some things to remember when you inspect and fix your ductwork:

1 You can turn the HVAC on so that the ducts are pressurized and find leaks with a wet hand. (See the earlier "Pressure test" section for info on how this works.)

1 Duct tape works wonders, but it doesn't stick to dusty surfaces very well. If you have a dust problem, wrap the duct tape around and around and just cover up the dust. It's easier than trying to clean it off.

1 Close the ducts leading to rooms where you don't need the HVAC system to operate. Ask how to do this at the hardware store; it should have the materials you need.

Outdoors now

Go outside and visually inspect for leaks. Use your imagination. And remember: When in doubt, squirt caulk! What's the worst that can happen? Here are some places to pay special attention to:

1 Look at faucets, pipes, electrical wiring, and electric outlets. Cracks often form around the junctions where the pipes fit through foundations and siding; fix these with caulk. Even if you're only sealing off your basement, which you're not heating or cooling, you'll be better off inside the upper part of the house .

1 Check all interfaces between two different building materials. Bricks to foundation; interior corners with molding strips; where siding and foundations meet; roofs to siding; and so on. Plug all holes and voids with caulk — the good stuff.

If icicles are clustering around a particular location at your house, you have a leak somewhere above that's melting snow. The water drips down and then refreezes into icicles. These leaks are usually pretty good sized.

1 Look for cracks in mortar, foundations, siding, and so on. Seal these with appropriate materials.

1 Check for cracks and voids around exterior doors and windows.

These gaps may not result in air leaks inside the house, but while you're in your grungy clothes and the proper mood, you may as well seal water leaks to prevent damage that could cost money and turn into air leaks.

1 Check storm windows for seal integrity. The interior window may be well sealed, but the storm window will work better if it's also sealed.

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