Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Energy: Embracing the Real Alternative

Maybe it’s just me, but it seems as though the pace of events has picked up significantly over the last few weeks. As I write these words, Libya is apparently poised on the brink of civil war, several other nations in the Middle East are facing mass uprisings, and the price of oil has soared to levels stratospheric enough that the global economy is gasping for breath – US$112 a barrel for benchmark Brent crude. For those who are keeping track, this is right around ten times what the same barrel would have brought in 1998, when today’s peak oil scene began to shake itself out of its post-Seventies hibernation.

Exactly where things will go from here is anybody’s guess, but the mostly US-backed dictatorships that have kept much of the Arab world locked in a state of sullen passivity while our SUVs burn their oil are clearly nothing like as stable as they once seemed. Soaring food and commodities prices, along with the impact of a global depression that has ended only in the imaginations of the Obama administration’s spin doctors, have shortened the fuse of popular discontent over large parts of the nonindustrial world. Those people in the industrial nations who have convinced themselves that the natural resources that support their lifestyle are conjured into being in corporate boardrooms are beginning to have to come to terms with their actual dependence on corners of the world where the comforts they take for granted are nowhere to be found.

It will be interesting to see what happens if the current round of crises turns into a full-blown energy crisis, as it well might, with oil prices spiking up past $200 or $300 a barrel, say, and the cost of gasoline and diesel fuel following the same upward trajectory until demand destruction puts a ceiling on them. No doubt there will be any number of attempts to blame it all on the oil companies, or the Arabs, or the Obama administration, or perhaps David Ickes’ imaginary space lizards; no doubt there will be at least as many proposals to rush another round of stimulus money the US government doesn’t have from the Fed’s already overworked printing presses and pour it into fusion power, cellulosic ethanol, and an assortment of other high-tech ratholes; no doubt there will be plenty of people insisting that we’d have all the energy we need if we just put the same amount of freshly printed money down some other set of ratholes. What interests me, though, is whether there will be any amount of attention, or even lip service, paid to the real alternative to petroleum.

There is one, you know. People in the contemporary industrial world rarely think about it, because our civilization is so obsessed with delusions of limitlessness that the only alternative to unlimited fossil fuels most of us can imagine is some other energy source that’s as least as abundant, convenient, and concentrated. The fact that no other energy source fits these specifications simply adds pathos to the fantasy, and motivates the sort of breezy optimism that insists that there must be some vast new source of energy waiting to be found because, basically, we want one, and will whine incessantly until we get it. Beyond the daydreams of cellulosic ethanol, algal biodiesel, and all the other attempts to insist that we can replace the value produced free of charge by half a billion years of prehistoric sunlight and geological heat and pressure with our own supposedly limitless cleverness, though, there’s a simple and relatively straightforward alternative waiting to take up the slack as petroleum goes from cheap and abundant to expensive and not nearly abundant enough.

What’s the alternative? Using a lot less energy.

The average American, it bears repeating, uses something like three times as much energy each year as the average European, to support a standard of living that by most of the usual measures isn’t nearly as high. Some of that extravagance is hardwired into the built environment of American society on a scale that individuals can’t readily change, but this is far from true of all; quite a bit is held in place by nothing more than habit and fashion, and can be changed readily, while a good deal more is built into our physical surroundings on a scale that can be changed by individual action.

It’s this latter dimension that I want to continue to address this week. Unless you live in New England, or one of a few other regions where oil-burning furnaces are still a common source of domestic heat, decreasing the amount of energy you use to heat your home won’t directly affect how well you’ll be able to weather a new oil spike. Indirectly, of course, anything that decreases the amount you have to pay out for one kind of energy will free up money for other uses; furthermore, as the price of petroleum continues to rise relative to natural gas, coal, and other energy sources, it’s a safe bet that other fuels will be used to substitute for petroleum in one way or another – there are already plenty of cars and buses that burn compressed natural gas, for example, and electric cars (running, of course, on electricity that’s mostly produced by burning natural gas or coal) are also beginning to hit the market.

Factor these conversions into the likely future price of natural gas and coal- or natural gas-fired electricity, and a petroleum price spike risks setting off a broader energy crisis, just as it did in the 1970s. The cost of home heating is as vulnerable to this knock-on effect as any other kind of energy use, and being able to make a given amount of heat go further becomes a crucial strategy.

With this in mind, it’s time to talk about insulation.

Most American homes leak heat like sieves. Part of that, as discussed last week, is a function of the fact that most American homes leak air like sieves, and as cold air leaks into your house and warm air leaks out of it, a portion of your heat bill goes for warming the great outdoors by some tiny fraction of a degree. Part of it, though, is a function of the fact that the ceilings, walls, and floors of most American homes offer inadequate resistance to the flow of heat. Put your hand flat against the inner surface of one of your home’s exterior walls some cold winter night; if the wall feels colder than the inside air – and in a lot of American homes these days, it will – you’re feeling the result of low resistance to heat flow.

Resistance to heat flow is measured by what, usefully enough, are called R-values. Every material has its own R-value, and the R-value of most construction materials isn’t very high – a half-inch thick sheet of plywood, for example, has an R-value around 0.62, which is actually less than the R-value of the thin layer of air that clings to the inside surface of each wall of your house. A wall of standard frame construction, without insulation, has an R-value averaging around 4.25. Insulate the same wall with a roll of standard glass-fiber insulation, and its R-value goes up to an average around 12.75, which means that heat takes three times as long to flow through it.

Putting insulation inside a wall can be a complicated operation if the wall is already built, though, and I’ve heard very mixed reports on the kinds of insulation that are pumped into an already-built wall through holes drilled for the purpose. Since this blog is focusing on retrofitting and other measures on a budget, you’ll want to consider this only if you’re already planning on ripping out the drywall or replacing the siding – there are rigid board insulation products you can put on the outside of your house, between the old sheathing and the new siding, with good results. You can also borrow a trick from the Middle Ages and use fabric hangings of various kinds to insulate your walls; we’ll discuss those in more detail next week.

If you don’t have major domestic surgery or fabric hangings in mind, though, your best options lie elsewhere. The first is right above your head. Heat rises, of course, and so most houses lose a great deal of heat through the ceiling and roof; walk around the neighborhood on a day after there’s been light snow, an inch or so, and you can often see a dramatic difference between the parts of roofs that have heated space beneath them and the parts that don’t, evidence of the amount of heat rising up into the atmosphere. In most cases, the best place to put your insulation is right above the ceiling of your upper floor (if you have more than one), working from the attic, and you want a lot of it – an R-value of 60 is not excessive in a cold climate. The reason you want to have the insulation just above the ceiling is threefold. First, since heat rises, you want as much as possible of it to stop rising while it’s still in your living space, rather than warming the cobwebs in the attic; second, your attic can then be vented, and if you live in a snowy area this will keep the roof cold and prevent the freeze-thaw cycles that generate ice dams along the eaves and potential repair bills in three or four figures; third, if you live in an area with hot summers, a vented attic and good insulation means that the solar heat that builds up under your roof can be vented out into the outside, while the insulation keeps it from trickling down and making your living space miserable in August.

If you have an unheated air space underneath the first floor, whether it’s a basement or a crawlspace, that’s another good area to insulate. Here your insulation should go right up under the floor, and you normally do this from underneath. Insulation with an R-factor of 19 or so is usually enough to keep the cold from creeping in. In most cases, if you caulk, weatherstrip, and insulate above the ceiling and under the floor, you’ll cut your annual heating bills by up to half, using your own unskilled labor and supplies your local hardware store will be happy to sell you. The one further step to add to the package is insulated window coverings, which we’ll be discussing next week – they provide a huge gain, since your ordinary single-pane window has an R-value around 1, but they’re complex enough to require a post of their own.

There’s a complicating factor with insulation, though, and that’s the effect of water vapor. The amount of water vapor that can be carried by a given amount of air depends on the temperature of the air, and as the temperature drops, the vapor turns back into liquid water and condenses onto any available surface. That’s where the drops on the outside of a bottle of cold beer come from – the air close to the bottle becomes chilled, and the water vapor contained in the air condenses out onto the glass. When it’s cold outside and warm indoors, you get a similar temperature drop in the middle of an insulated wall, and any water vapor that’s present will condense out onto your insulation. Water conducts heat much better than insulation does, so that condensed water causes a sharp decrease in the R-value of your insulation, and it can also lead to problems with mildew and dry rot in extreme cases.

You prevent this with vapor barriers. The standard vapor barrier these days, I’m sorry to say, is plastic sheeting, which is waterproof, moldproof, airtight, and cheap; finding a way to make something comparable from renewable materials would be a very worthwhile project. In the meantime, though, you need a vapor barrier if you’re going to insulate, and that means plastic sheeting, well overlapped and taped with duct tape. A crucial point you need to remember is that the vapor barrier always goes on the side of the insulation that’s going to be warmer – in other words, when you’re insulating the ceiling from the attic side, or the floor from the basement or crawlspace, the barrier goes in first and the insulation afterwards, but if you’ve torn out some drywall and are installing insulation, the insulation goes in first and the vapor barrier goes on over it, right beneath the new drywall.

Here again, if you have the money to spend, you can insulate the living bejesus out of a house and get it to the point that body heat, cooking, and a bit of additional boost on really cold days will take care of your heating needs. The Passive House system mentioned in last week’s post uses this as one of its ingredients, and it’s certainly an option, but it’s going to set you back a chunk of change. Those who don’t have that kind of money to spare – and they will likely be the very large minority over the decades to come – can still keep themselves, their families, and anybody willing to learn from them comfortably warm in winter on much less energy by using the simpler methods discussed here. Further on down the curve of the Long Descent, as current housing stock wears out, other techniques will need to evolve; with any luck, enough knowledge of how insulation works can be passed on through the upcoming crises to make that process easier than it would otherwise be.

It’s probably necessary to reiterate here that insulating your home is not going to save the world. For that matter, insulating all the homes in America won’t save the world, and that probably can’t be managed at this point anyway, if only because most Americans have gotten so tipsy on the fantasy of infinite energy that only a fairly modest fraction of the population is likely to be willing to put in the modest amount of labor and money needed to do the thing. Still, as I’ve suggested tolerably often in these posts, we are long past the point where any sort of grand organized project to stave off the Long Descent could still be carried out with any hope of success, even if the resource surplus still existed and the political will could be mustered. The window has closed, the surpluses are gone, and the political will to accomplish much of anything but handwaving and hunting for scapegoats went AWOL a long time ago; what remains is the hard but potentially rewarding project of adapting to a challenging future, and to that, simple steps such as home insulation have much to offer.


Here again, the best place to start is with the Master Conserver worksheets available online at the Cultural Conservers Foundation website; the papers you want are the ones titled "Home Insulation" and "Reducing Moisture Problems." Beyond that, just about any handbook on home repair and maintenance published in America from the 1960s onwards includes a section on how to install the usual kinds of insulation. Larry Gay’s The Complete Book of Insulating is a good reference for those who want to go the extra step or two.

75 comments: said...

*sigh* We had our mobile releveled last year in the hopes of re-aligning the windows. No such luck, in fact I think many of them leak worse than ever.

My answer, since we live in a relatively clement part of the world in the winter, is to install a wood stove. DH finally said I could get one if I: had a contractor put in the stove pipe and got it properly permitted/inspected. Well, since I don't plan to cut the hole myself using my neighbor's method -- shooting a rifle through the roof and cutting a hole around the rifle hole, a contractor would be the logical option :)

As soon as we find out how much pain we'll be experiencing with the IRS I'll know how much I have to spend on a wood stove. I want one of the ones that has the bake oven on the bottom; I only make Naan in the summer but I bake bread weekly in the winter.

For summer, we're throwbacks. We got an Australian super energy efficient swamp cooler which we turn off faithfully as soon as outside temp equals inside. And I have an outdoor kitchen as well. (well, if you can call a firepit, a campstove, an Easyup, and an iron mesh table an outdoor kitchen)

Kevin said...

An excellent post: you've struck a fine balance between world events and practical matters closer to home, and made crystal clear the connections between them. Events have indeed been accelerating in the Middle East, to such an extent that even the average dullard can hardly help but notice. Yet too many seem to put it all down to the allegedly liberating effects of Twitter, and too few to notice how the spread of "democracy" - or at any rate of revolution - will affect their lot by way of that region's throttle hold on energy.

This makes me wish I could build or buy my own place, but like so many I'm stuck with rented digs that scream for the treatment you're proposing but won't profit a landlord to install (why would he spend a dime for me and mine to save on heat?). So it looks like we're stuck with medieval drapes, which I'll be happy to hang if I can just get someone to weave a nice Bayeux pattern - or a couple of hundred square yards of discarded theatre curtains would do nicely.

Stephen Heyer said...

Very informative post! I find myself totally agreeing with John Greer instead of my usual “sort of mostly” agreeing with him.

If there is any area where I might have put a different slant on things it would perhaps be being less dismissive of new/alternative energy sources. Sure, none are likely to replace oil and allow suburban shopping mall, giant SUV based society to continue, but some show promise of helping out enough to considerably soften the Long Descent, and maybe allow future, much more sensible societies to have pleasant lifestyles.

Of the two John mentioned, cellulosic ethanol has, I think, too many problems competing with food production while algal biodiesel could be useful if it can be gotten working well.

The Chinese, from what I read, seem to have picked a strategy of burning fossil fuels while they can to try to “crash through” to a technologically advanced economy, then switch to molten salt thorium reactors for base load for the next century or so while they develop whatever else comes up.

Given that we know thorium reactors work, there is plenty of thorium (for a few centuries) and we know they can be designed to be mass-produced, safe and produce far less radioactive waste, that is possibly the best option – for them. Funny how competent the old Chinese Communist party seems these days, now if only they could develop a relaxed and humorous attitude towards dissidents, at least the more harmless types…

P.S. There’s been some interesting developments in the “cold fusion” area recently. I use quotes because there is a suspicion what they have is more related to Blacklight Power’s stuff than any kind of fusion. Interesting physics, but I won’t be holding my breath waiting for it to actually do anything useful on an industrial scale.

That’s the problem with a lot of this stuff, shows promise – for next century. Problem is, we need it NOW!

pasttense said...

Propane is very popular for heating in much of rural America. While propane mostly comes from natural gas processing, apart from some seasonal peaks, propane is mostly priced to its relative energy content of crude oil.
So propane users should also make a strong attempt to insulate as there will shortly be a major price increase.

DIYer said...

I suppose you could make an all-natural vapor barrier from kraft paper coated with beeswax. But natural products may be susceptible to insect and fungus damage. For now, polyethylene (made from natural gas) is the most available "best" product, and it may be so for quite some time.

The essential thing to know about vapor barriers is that they should be inside the insulation in a cold climate, and outside the insulation in a hot climate. Somewhere between Canada and Mexico, there has to be a line where you switch sides, but I'm not sure where that is.

Cherokee Organics said...


I wanted to express my sympathy to any readers and their friends and families affected by the earthquake in Christchurch NZ.

For readers who are in Australia, we use the metric system for r rating (rather than the imperial system used in the US). I think to convert it to Aussie r ratings divide by 6 (I think it may actually be about 5.68 though) but it makes little difference to the big picture in knowing this actual number. It's splitting hairs.

r70 is pretty impressive and would make a huge difference to the transfer of heat in and out of a house! Keep insulating it's all worth it.

You're spot on again.



Cherokee Organics said...


Just in case anyone is interested, I've started a series of Internet articles on all things solar power. The knowledge for this is based on my own house which is not connected to the electricity grid. I also wired up the system myself.

It also has a photo of my place which I built myself which can put me into some context for the readers.

It's kind of funny, but I insulate for the exact opposite reasons that you people in the US do (especially the Northern states) and that is to keep the heat out. It is also well sealed externally to keep out burning embers from bushfires which take out a lot of houses in my part of the world.

The house design is based on a late 1800's Australian farm house which were designed and built appropriately for their environment. It's been pretty much downhill in terms of design since then...

The series of articles may also interest aspiring Green Wizards because it'll end by showing people how to obtain components and wire them up so that you have an emergency power supply. I noticed that over the bushfires in 2009 and the floods this year that most people ran out of petrol (gas) and diesel for their generators which finished off pretty much most things that people take for granted. Hopefully people should get enough knowledge at the end of the series to be able to power a small fridge, lights, phones, radio etc...

Please drop a comment in to support this side project. It's a labour of love for me.



Charles Frith said...

No it isn't you. In fact for a Druid you're quite on the conventional side of caution with your words. Which is a good thing.

Compression is compressing.

Elizabeth said...

I saw a programme on TV recently about life in Siberia. The little wooden homes are toasty warm in winter, while it is bitterly cold outside. They have small, wood-burning heaters, 1 per dwelling.
The programme showed a woman preparing her house for winter. She stuffed all the cracks and airvents in the walls - from the outside - with moss and plant materials she had harvested from the forest. The reporter, inside the house, was wearing a tee-shirt and jeans. It was -20C at the time.

Odin's Raven said...

Here's something that suggests you're getting the insulation and vegetable gardening done just in time.

"Second up, the history in North America says that during Bond Events the center of the country dries out. That’s the “bread basket” midwest. I hope the USA can survive in isolation, but it will have little excess food to export under those conditions. Certainly not enough to fund ‘adventures’ around the world. US Influence fades and we likely have border issues with 80 million neighbors wanting some food… "

Les said...

Dunno how it is in the US, but here in Oz there has been a fashion for some years for halogen downlights (which I was suckered into installing some years ago as a "more efficient" option to standard incandescents).
Now I have nearly 3kw of lighting (where I used to have <2kw) that uses updrafts past the bulbs to cool them, sucking all my nice warm air into the roof space. In summer, they suck all my nice cool air into the roof space and drag the hot stuff into the house under the doors. Wonderful stuff. And idiot architects still install these in all the new houses being built in my area. If ever there was an argument for architecticide or lightingdesignercide, the downlight would have to be it...

Wandering Sage said...

Things are moving very quickly. It may be difficult to accept since the irrelevant distractions of television are still occupying most people's attention, but it is startingto filter through.
Now is the really time to get our house in order.

Think of it as building an Ark to survive the flood of the future we are facing.

Amanda said...

Much more important than insulation is air sealing. If you don't do that before insulating you are really wasting the money on the insulation alone. Also, if you do a good job of air sealing you don't need to worry about the vapor barrier issues unless you are in a particularly cold or extremely hot climate.

humblebumble said...

Concerning habits specific to Americans:

I'm Scottish and was born in the early 80's. Nobody over here used to use christmas lighting outside their house. Then one year an American family from the nearby NATO base moved in up the road and put on an amazing show. You could see their house from miles away. People would literally drive from the other side of the county just to look at this house. Now everybody does it. The entire town's lit up.

It could just be a case of the american family in this case being more confident about their own continued wealth (we were still recovering from a recession and the death of heavy industry). I suspect this kind of thing is the modern equivalent of throwing a big party for all the neighbours to display your wealth and confidence.

I have noticed in recent years that christmas displays have become a lot less gawdy and the amount of lights used are scaling back. I suspect this is in line with a growing awareness of the need to conserve resources. Practically everyone recycles these days. When I left home to go and live with the hippies we were the only house in the area that recycled and that was a bohemian neighbourhood

I do not know how things are in America, would yo say people in the USA are living in a delusional last-days-of-rome (to batter a tired cliche) kind of state? That is the commonly accepted stereotype, but i have no direct evidence one way or the other

Bren said...

I have heard that you can buy a primer paint that will provide a vapor barrier. I also have heard that a few coats of latex paint acts as a vapor barrier. Are either of these options effective? They certainly would be easier to implement than plastic sheeting.

Andy Brown said...

One of the many advantages that I've found from heating our house with wood these last few winters is that it really has forced me to pay attention to heating. Just the physical mass of the 5 cords of wood that it takes right now (when we keep the house in the comfortable 60's most days), the process of stacking it, bringing it in, loading it into the wood stove. It makes me begrudge every whiff of hot air escaping. And it makes me cognizant and grateful to the trees that spend every summer layering on energized carbon for us to swipe.

Edde said...

Good morning, John Michael,

Hope you are enjoying the February Snow(Hunger)Moon, now waning.

I recently completed a Sustainable Floridian course at our County Extension Service (via U of Fl). Good stuff, including much of your Green Wizard focus on what can YOU do on home weatherization & conservation. Other topics included transportation, consumerism & stuff, energy, food, population and community/localism.

Of course, without the cultural wisdom, humor and large array of thoughtful blog followers. THANKS for sharing your exceptional insights and style!

Best regards,

Andy Brown said...

There's the old adage that wood heats you up several times - cutting it, splitting it, hauling it, burning it. Hopefully, in one of these posts you'll address the other energy source - human beings. I find it ironic that the key problem rocking the foundations in the Arab world (and waiting in the wings elsewhere) is the tremendous "unemployment" of the coming surplus generation of young people. A lot of the "efficiencies" in our current systems are about reducing the need for human labor (e.g. agriculture, home heating), by spending vast amounts of fossil fuel energy. Bringing back some labor-intensive ways of doing things would be killing two birds with one stone - however much that might violate our notions of progress.

Glenn in Maine said...

All good points, practical advice, and who can argue against using less energy. I suggest that the next step in this progression is to get used to being cooler in the winter and warmer in the summer, in other words start adjusting expectations. Put on a sweater, slippers and long johns this time of year then turn the thermostat down. Of course your significant others may complain. One simple trick I used was to convert my programmable thermostats to metric, so when my wife grumbled about the cold I could point out we had reached the set point so it was all in her head. That worked until she did the conversion and realized I had it set to the Celsius equal of 58F (which really isn’t that bad). So I burn a little extra wood to keep the peace, and to be fair she’s on board with everything else we’re doing.

Twilight said...

Reading about world events recently gives me the feeling I'm reading the first few pages of an important chapter in some future history book. There isn't any way to know where this will go, and we're hardly going to be “insulated” from the results. Looks like it might be time for a bit of more rapid change.

Oh, and every BTU we get from new energy sources this year will have to be replaced next year, but the BTU we save through more efficient living never needs to be replaced at all.

mnbenz said...

One technical note: Hot air rises, heat radiates.

hapibeli said...

All to the good John.

jb said...

we are in the process of making our house more tight - with professional help because we can afford it at this time - and part of that is a Heat Recovery Ventilator. It is spendy, but my latest thoughts are that it is worth it now - and in future if we can't afford to run it we could open a window. What do you think?

John in NH said...

Wonderful series of posts. A couple of additions, if I may be permitted:
Energy conservation experts will enthusiastically agree with concerns about moisture and vapor; but will quibble "heat rises", arguing that it's warm air that rises; heat radiates in all directions. In a leaky house the movement of warm air up and out, replaced by cold air drawn in at lower levels, is so substantial that it's called the "chimney effect" or "stack effect" - and this means that even before insulating it is critical to find and block all the leaks. An "energy auditor" with a blower door and infra-red camera can document the leaks, and your local fire department (if you're in a small town, and nice) might be willing to bring their IR camera to your house. Without these devices, any fan blowing air into the attic or out some window can be your blower door, and you can walk around with incense or your wet hand to find the drafts. Anyway, air leaking up over the years through wiring chases, chimney chases, ceiling fixtures, etc., will be revealed as a dirty spot on the underside of your attic insulation. Use spray foam, but if a light fixture is likely to be hot (e.g. recessed light) then surround it with a big home-made metal can or box so there's good air space between the fixture and the insulation. I stopped up my chimney chase with rock wool which is dense and non-flammable.
The experts around here in VT and NH don't like fiberglass, as it is often quite a bit less effective than the R-value indicates for a number of reasons; we are mostly using cellulose, blown in. In a Boston area house with asbestos siding (since removed) the insulation company drilled 3" holes in the plaster walls and blew it in from indoors, patching the plaster holes expertly so they don't show under paint, in one 8-hour shift. Another point about attics is that in a frame house the joists (the 2x8's or other that hold up the ceiling) are like a radiator, very low R-value, "bridging" past the insulation and making the ceiling cold in winter and hot in summer despite insulation. When I worked for a large corporation (“I've Been Moved”) years ago I had a great surplus of moving cartons and stored them in the attic, in multiple layers. They were strong enough to crawl around on and store stuff on, and did a great job adding to the insulation. Cold ceilings, walls and windows will make you feel colder than the air temperature would indicate because your body radiates heat toward those surfaces, so in addition to losing heat to the outdoors you have to make your house warmer to feel comfortable.
Finally, some books I like are the "Builder's Guide to ___ Climates" series by Joseph Lstiburek (Building Science Press) and "Insulate and Weatherize" from Taunton Press. Read at least 3 books in their entirety. And I think Greer's theme over the last few months is most important - we are now entering a period during which what we learn about all kinds of practical matters is going to affect our future lives. Build soil and skills, make your community a resource (by being a mutually contributing part), buy tools. Make yourself a scientist, and engineer, a farmer, a fit laborer. Those investments will pay off. Once, in the Navy, our Captain told us that we "didn't have to know the entire operations order [book], but we had to know everything that we needed to know". Great line. If you’re 71 like me, do this work for the future – it creates optimism out of thin air.

Dale said...

Several years ago, I was able to insulate my basement walls for free. A company in town was getting rid of some 1" thick sheets of 4'X8' white foam insulation. I'm not sure of the exact title of this stuff. At any rate, rather than throwing it away, I asked for it. They delivered it to my door. I double layered the walls in my basement giving me 2" of insulation. It has made an incredible difference!

May I also suggest that your readers check out recylers, used building supply companies, Habitat for Humanity's oversupply stores, etc.? By purchasing used, you can save considerable amounts of money without negatively impacting our planet.

Sage Thyme said...

There are some outdated notions about insulating and ventilating attics, crawlspace and basements in this article.

Namely, ventilation is almost never a good idea, and the outermost perimeter (under the roof in attics and along walls in basements) is the best location for insulation. The goal is to create an air-tight ENVELOPE.

Anyone considering energy savings projects on their home should read the research based white papers at this site:

One year ago, I did a crawlspace encapsulation based on their research, and the results have been amazing.

As it turns out, national code standards are finally changing to reflect the scientific basis of Advanced Energy's and others' findings.

PS - John, I value your writings each week, and this is my first ever google posting. Cheers.

Richard Larson said...

Very nice. You are publicizing a strange message; having the ability to understand and convey the idea as to why one should become less energy intensive while doing similar with the how to in using less energy.

There are two types of insulation I have experimented with that deserves attention - for those who have enough resources. Search engine keywords are "aircrete" as an in-wall insulation, and "sheep wool attic insulation" as such. I have had them installed in my house and highly recommend these products.

Be forewarned should you need financial assistance in making a decision to install these products. The big corporations are not getting their supposed due in the implementation of these products, and programs like Focus on Energy here in Wisconsin won't send the normal Cash Reward like they would if corporate america were getting their tithe.

jnaegele said...

Although it's hard to get excited about insulation, I'm glad you've chosen to focus on it first. I'll pass on my personal experience with insulating two old buildings this past year for anyone interested.
The first building is a bunkhouse which had no insulation. I removed the old wood siding and added fiberglass into the walls then put up the styrofoam wall board and new siding. I then took down the dry wall on the inside and put in radiant barrier foil/bubble/foil insulation and then put in new drywall. Heating this building went from $200-$250 per month previously to $75-$100 per month this winter.
The second building is my old farmhouse. Because of the cost/effort of getting fiberglass insulation and wall board up, I went with the blow-in insulation for the walls and also the attic. I heat the house with a wood stove. Previous winters I've used 7-8 cords of wood per winter. So far this year I used 3.5 cords. I'll probably end up using around 4.5 cords by May.
Based on my experience this past year, I'd strongly recommend to anyone to add vaporbarrier/fiberglass/wallboard combination if you can, but even if all you can do is the blow-in stuff, go for it-it'll still help.

don bates said...

Everyone should read carefully Amanda's comment, which is spot on, and cannot be over-emphasized..

Bren- I've used many gallons of vapor barrier primer, and as nearly as I can tell, it works fine.

About fiberglass insulation: the fiberglass insulation people have a dirty little secret they don't talk about. If fiberglass is not installed in near-perfect conditions, its performance will be far less than advertised. Perfect conditions means a cavity which is sealed from any exterior air flow. This can be achieved in the lab, and in a very well constructed new house, but for those of us with old houses, the performance of fiberglass batts or roll is very poor. Dense blown-in cellulose will work better in old construction. Even better is foam (either board or sprayed,) which thoroughly seals. Do some careful research on this before spending money on something that works poorly. You only get one chance to do it right.
(Right now I'm sitting in a room of a 105yo house, insulated with 4" of foam board. It's 5 below outside, and the room is comfortably heated with the heat from my body and the computer.)

blue sun said...

"...your attic can then be vented, and if you live in a snowy area this will keep the roof cold and prevent the freeze-thaw cycles that generate ice dams along the eaves and potential repair bills in three or four figures..."

Aha! You've answered a question that's rattled around in my head since the recent snows we've had here in the northeast.

Although still an apartment-dweller, I noticed a few weeks ago several houses with gutters clogged by giant icicles so that water and ice were dripping down the side of the house. I visited a family member's house where there was water dripping and a big icy puddle blocking the front door. It was so bad that visitors were forced to enter through the garage.

A few days later I overheard two men talking about the same problem, and one of them said the solution was to buy these wires that you run through the gutters, and when you flip on the electricity they heat up to melt the ice.

After I got through groaning and rolling my eyes at my fellow Americans and their brilliant solution, I wondered, "what would a Green Wizard do?"

Thanks for the answer!

Oh Lord, that brings a terrible thought to my head. Perhaps to earn some extra money I could sell green wristbands with WWAGWD on them. Made in China out of petroleum products and flown across the ocean, of course. Any takers?

John Michael Greer said...

Tinfoil, whether or not your trailer is level, you can make your windows leak a lot less by caulking and weatherstripping them.

Kevin, medieval drapes are great; you can also do some surreptitious caulking and weatherstripping to cut down on infiltration.

Stephen, well, we'll see about thorium. I have my own suspicions about what's going on in the "cold fusion" front -- not a source of power, no, but they may just have stumbled across the key to a very old secret.

Pasttense, that's an excellent point, and one I should have remembered!

DIYer, halfway in between you need good sealing on both sides -- one for winter and one for summer!

Chris, thanks for the link! It's good to see people working on adapting this sort of thing to their own local conditions -- that's really the name of the game.

Charles, having seen the end of the world predicted dozens of times, I tend to be a little cautious.

Elizabeth, we used to get the same effect from an efficient wood stove with lots of thermal mass in the refurbished log cabin on the hippie farm where I learned a lot of this stuff.

Raven, hmm. That's an interesting argument; we'll see if it turns out to be correct. Either way, though, now's the time.

Les, sorry to hear you got suckered by those! I hope you're planning on replacing the lot of them as soon as possible -- not a difficult project, and you can save a lot very quickly.

Sage, no kidding. I try to be as low-key as possible in these posts, but time is really getting short.

Amanda, did you read last week's post?

Bumble, "a delusional last-days-of-Rome kind of state" may be the single best description of the current American zeitgeist I've heard in a long time. Dig up every cliche you can think of about empires on the edge of collapse, you'll find an example here.

Bren, I've had mixed reports about paint, but it's worth a try. Since no vapor barrier is perfect, plastic sheeting behind the drywall and a couple of coats of latex on top is probably a good choice.

John Michael Greer said...

Andy, anything that makes it harder to ignore how much energy you're using is a very good thing!

Edde, that's excellent news. Could you post a link here to the Sustainable Floridian program? That's exactly the kind of project I'd like to see green wizards exploring.

Andy (again), I'll be talking about that down the road a bit.

Glenn, I'll be talking about that in the near future also!

Twilight, well put.

Mnbenz, true enough.

Hapibeli, thank you!

JB, find out what its power usage is and see if you can run it off a dedicated photovoltaic system. That won't be good indefinitely, but it's a kluge that could keep you comfortable for decades into the future.

John, I discussed sealing up air leaks to avoid infiltration last week. As for the rest, all good points, though I'd point out that most books on insulation discuss ways to insulate over the top of the joists to prevent the problem you mention -- same thing under the floor, of course.

Dale, excellent! Yes, if you can get insulation board (or any other useful thing) free or cheap used, that's the thing to do.

Sage, an airtight envelope around the outside of your house means that you fight constant problems with water vapor, and an airtight envelope at any point means that you're facing severe problems with indoor air quality. You can remediate both of those, in most cases, but it costs energy and requires technology that may not be around indefinitely -- and if you don't manage it, your house quickly becomes unlivable due to sick building syndrome or mold. (I got to see several very expensive houses in the Seattle area torn down to the ground because of toxic mold -- they were too well sealed, and vapor problems turned the inside of the walls into mold colonies.) It's always easy to dismiss a technology that's been proven to work in favor of some hot new idea that's "more advanced," but waiting until all the data's in tends to be safer.

John Michael Greer said...

Richard, good. The strangeness of the message is deliberate, and necessary. Thanks for the tips!

Jnaegele, thank you for the experiences! Those are great examples.

Don, that's interesting. I haven't encountered that problem with fiberglass in retrofitted ceiling and floor insulation, so it may be specifically a problem with walls. Of course I like to use very high R-values, so that may also be a factor!

Blue Sun, bingo. In the really snowy parts of the country, it's become a common trick to put on a double roof, with air flow from the eaves to the ridge between the two; that keeps the snow nice and cold, and prevents ice dams entirely.

As for WWAGWD, hah! Make 'em out of organically sourced natural fiber with the letters woven in, and you're good to go.

Bill Pulliam said...

Sage -- previous owners of our house closed in the crawlspace without providing ventilation. As a result the sills and floor joists rotted and were attacked by termites. Repairing the damage caused by this EXTREMELY bad decision has required great amounts of time and effort. Had it continued much longer, the house would have been damaged beyond repair and there would have been little option but to tear it down. I keep my crawlspace as ventilated as is practical except during deep freezing weather when the plumbing needs protection.

Advanced Energy, in spite of their .org address, is a business and has a goal of selling things. People with a direct financial interest (and designs on your wallet) are rarely the most reliable sources for information about what actually works and what does not. This applies to green businesses as well as any others.

Mark said...

Here in MA, we've been advised by are resident "deep energy retrofit" people, not to put a vapor barrier in the attic. As the humidity works its way through your ceiling it will condense on the first cold surface it hits and then start raining down on either ceiling material or insulation creating stains or worse, mold. Instead ventilate your attic well so that moisture doesn't hang around. Consider a solar powered attic vent to improve the air flow (and help cool the attic in summer).I have (and my company installs) fans by
Mark (TheEnergyMiser)

eatclosetohome said...

Re: basement air infiltration

My basement is between 50-60 all year long. As we get accustomed to cooler temps in the house, 55 is going to feel mighty fine. It might even be warmer than the house above-grade. So as I look at my to-do list, insulating the basement ceiling/underside is not so much of a priority. Or - please correct me if I'm missing something.

John Michael Greer said...

Bill, that's good to know -- though it must have been the opposite of good to have to deal with. Everything I know about insulation and vapor barriers says "ventilate the attic and crawlspace," for precisely that sort of reason.

Mark, we'll be installing something of the sort in the near future, so thanks for the recommendation.

Eat, if you've got a good stable basement temperature year round, you don't need to insulate between the basement and the main living space, any more than you would need to insulate between the floors of a two-story house. Not everyone has that good fortune, though!

jvolzka000 said...

Hey JMG,
Great post as usual.

On the hottest day of the year, in August, 1948, my mother, rip,, went uspstairs in this old shack and had Me. In April of 1912,
gramma went into the bedroom to my left and had my Dad, rip. Now, I'm here broke and alone. Sometimes there is just more to a house than airtight, if nothing more than a very lucid example of catabolic collapse.

That said, when I did my energy audit I spent more time laughing about it than it took me to do it.

energy comes in through the windows or is carried.
energy leaves everywhere.

I'm not a troll, but I am a highly dedicated scrounger. I must be forced kicking and screaming to purchase anything other than maybe a tiny krugerand. Therein lies the challenge.

So, I have a question:

I'm a redundant forester, and back in '88 I planted almost the whole 40 ac. to trees and then went to college. Now, there's wood squirting out everywhere. My Amish neighbor moved out last year and left me with at least a thousand sq. ft. of greenhouse plastic. Since it is warmer now, I don't really need the latent heat of destructive distillation from making charcoal in the cookstove (my only heat). Could I plastic up the interior outside walls and then mortar (with my special mortar of cement, sand, wood ash and clay) maybe a six inch cordwood wall directly against the plastic? The assessor looks the other way when he goes past and I'll keep it that way-thank you very much.

JHK and company seem to think that the new paradigm will require new ways of thinking because the old ones have failed. I'm giving it the best shot I can.

One more thing-pine resin or a mixture of latex paint and clay don't work too bad as caulk, but you have to scrape and replace it yearly. Cob (mud and straw) works great for big holes and all have great EROEI.


Rich_P said...

Mr. Greer,

Excellent blog -- I eagerly await next week's entry on Medieval insulation techniques.

I'm especially interested in Ye Olde green wizardry tricks, mainly because they're time-tested and comparatively inexpensive. (Besides, my landlord probably wouldn't want a home improvement klutz like me installing new insulation in the walls.)

This post reminds me of why America must reconsider what counts as "progress." Building millions of homes in the Southwest that are only habitable due to energy-intensive central cooling systems is hardly progressive; we carelessly ignored time-tested home design techniques that account for local climate, the trajectory of the sun, etc.

One of my relatives lives in a trailer in the middle of a field, no shade tress in site. I'm going to speak with her about how she plans on surviving blistering Calif. summers when it's no longer financially feasible to run the A/C all day. Those are the issues people out West should be grappling with now, while there's still time to prepare.

pfh said...

Well... Some of us think that what "cornered the food market" making it prone to speculative price increases over the past several years is natural resource constraint. One thing that might happen with the new Arab democracies, then, is their hungry people getting a lot more money to spend on their own food!!

That'll do two things, accelerate their population growth and add to the pressure on natural food resources raising the cost and inviting more speculative price wars. That would just shift the burden from the Arab poor to some other low productivity population to be squeezed out... as nature's way of relieving the demand.

I think the food crisis is showing us the pattern and dynamic for ALL resources as their prices switch from being based on costs of production (with a surplus supply) to being based on the price of survival (with a deficit of supply).

The Heirloom Troubadour said...

This is Bobby by the way, I am not sure if you saw my post from last week or not, but I started a Blogger account and it defaults to this screen name now whenever I log in.

I just wanted to reiterate how thrilled I am that we are getting to the heating portion of the Green Wizards curriculum. I fully admit to being in my element with a garden hoe in one hand, and a chicken in the other, but I am a green horn to the nth degree when it comes to major home improvements. I love how the projects you are describing can be undertaken by anyone, and you certainly don’t need a general contractor’s license to obtain results. As things come crashing down around us, this is the one area where I knew I needed to invest more time and energy, but the projects I have seen described up until now are more complex and thus I just didn’t know where to start. Now that I have a point of embarkation however, the ball is definitely rolling and gaining momentum.

Last weekend I went out and purchased a contractor’s pack of indoor/outdoor caulk and a complete set of gasket covers for all of my outlets and went to town. I was amazed at how cold to the touch most of the electrical outlets were, but with the addition of the gasket covers, I am happy to report that all are now at room temperature. I sealed up every crack and crevice that I could find around the house, and after this week’s post, I will be spending this weekend in the basement seeing what I can seal up down there as well.

I am also happy to report that the large bow window at the front of our house that was causing me so much grief was caulked as well, and as of Tuesday night the condensation that had been forming on it previously disappeared! This evening I girded my loins, lit a stick of incense, and went in to see if the smoke would beacon forth towards the panes as it did before I applied the caulk, but much to my delight the smoke rose to the ceiling! It seems as though the leak is sealed!

I think our attic is fairly well insulated and ventilated, but the walls are a much different story. I don’t have the funds to tear down and rebuild them with insulation at this point, so I will be eagerly awaiting next week’s discussion of tapestry coverings.

I also love that, like all of the gardening and various food projects that my wife and I have undertaken, these projects are simple enough for us to easily teach others who wish to learn. We are currently in the process of planning Earth Day activities at the school where I teach for the community-at-large, and aside from the lessons on gardening that I usually give from our school vegetable garden that we have discussed previously on another forum; I think I might add a discussion on simple home energy efficiency improvements of the type we are discussing here. As you know, I work with special needs students, many of whom live in families that are at or below the poverty line, and I think that spreading this information to them would be of great value. They are always willing to listen and learn, and I don’t know how many small vegetable plots exist in Baltimore City at this moment that are indirectly linked to the work you have done on this blog.

The energy improvements are just another piece of the puzzle, and I hope to disseminate this wisdom as well. While the old saying, “When the going get’s tough, the tough get going,” certainly applies in light of our current predicament, I also think that at the end of the day, it is important to thank those willing to fasten their belts, grip their hats, and press onward. So, thank you! Now...where’s that caulk gun?

John Michael Greer said...

Dalev, I have no idea if that would work or not. In your place I'd use the greenhouse plastic for a vapor barrier and try to scrounge something a bit closer to standard insulation, but that's me.

Rich, a thousand years from now, if you hang out in the farming villages of the Rio Grande valley, you'll hear stories of the lost cities of the ancients up in the desert lands north and west -- whole cities abandoned long ago to the sand and the wind. They'll be there, and if the nuclear waste repository ever gets built in Nevada, there'll be a suitably romantic (and lethal) curse to go with the stories, too.

Phil, no argument there, but of course speculation is also feeding the frenzy big time.

Bobby, excellent! The caulk gun is to the green wizard what the light saber is to the Jedi knight -- not so clumsy or random as throwing lots of concentrated energy at a heating problem, an elegant tool of a more environmentally sensible age. And, yes, incense is a good way to sense great (or small) disturbances in the Force!

Greg Reynolds @ Riverbend said...

You have touched on a key point, confronting limits. I hope that we will have the mental toughness to accept that we live on a finite planet and not fall apart when hard limits are noticed by the portion of the US polulation that lets the TV do their thinking.


revkev said...

JMG et al

My first post though I've been lurking for several months. Thanks to all of you for your insights and info.
Here's something that may help: Blown fiberglass insulation is now available. According to mfg it has better loft and R value and doesn't compact over time like cellulose. Whether this is actually true remains to be seen. It also take s bigger blower to install.

Kevin Crooks

Bill Pulliam said...

All you folks promoting air-tight houses oughta try it in a humid climate without central air conditioning or some other means of humidity removal. It will be a moldy swamp. And all that moisture removal takes electricity. Humid climates have a tradition of open, airy houses all over the world. Do you think all those many generations of empiricists from many different cultures all happened to arrive at the same wrong answer?

Priorities, which are about the order in which JMG is presenting them -- air infiltration is the cheapest and easiest. Storm windows and doors are next easiest and next cheapest, but they have to be done right or they help little (aluminum frame prefabs are ugly junk and not very effective). Ceiling and crawlspace/basement insulation come next, and wall insulation is the most difficult and most expensive.

Another way to inlukate walls from the inside is cabinets and bookcases. Set them a bit away from the wall leaving a clsoed air space (you can even put in rigid board insulation if you like) and they cut down heat flow through the wall quite a bit. Even better if they have doors that close. Just beware of humidity if you are in a damp climate, especially for books.

Heat flow through a surface is proportional to its area times the temperature differential divided by the R value; Q = A*(T1-T2)/R. So if your uninsulated walls have an R of about 4, and your uninsulated windows have an R of about 1 (both typical values), but the windows cover 20% of the wall surface, then the heat loss through walls versus windows is about the same.

Also to note -- for older houses, it has been found that tearing out old windows and replacing them with new fancy quintuple pane super ultra low E contraptions (I exaggerate...) not only destroys your house's architectural integrity, it also is neither cost- effective nor energetically effective. It does make a lot of money for the window manufacturers, hence the heavy marketing. You can achieve nearly as much improvement for a fraction of the cost with tightly-fitted custom made wood-frame storm windows. Any garage carpenter who has a router and isn't afraid to use it can tackle this project easily. One thing they don't like to tell you about multiple pane windows is that those narrow gas spaces between the panes do not insulate as well as a wider space would. Up until about 4 inches, the insulating value of an enclosed space increases with its thickness (after that it is wide enough that the convective currents pretty much negate the advantage of additional space). So a single storm window fitted outside an existing single-pane window, with a couple of inches of sealed air space, plus a thorough pass with the caulking gun, will give you better results than a new double pane window.

Ruby said...

Hey ArchDruid, i'm glad to hear you finally mentioning cold fusion/LENR, low-energy nuclear reactions.

I became convinced in 2004 that the effect was real, but didn't get onboard with advocating this energy source until last year.

This science is at the "end of the beginning". Scientists still don't know what's up with the mechanism, but the effects are now undeniable.

Cold fusion/LENR is the ONLY chance human beings have at a technological future.

Nuclear power from water, with NO CO2 emission like hydrocarbons, and NO radioactive waste to deal with, portable, safe, locally created. In fact, the "transmutations" effect reveal possibilities for cleaning up current piles of radioactive waste. More importantly for the world, if you have access to water, you have access to fuel.

Doesn't it make sense on a planet whose surface is covered in water?

It's been 22 years since this effect was announced, and two decades wasted on ignoring it. Independent groups, with private financing has been the only effort, when what is needed is a huge, consolidated effort, and the patent office refuses to accept anything with the words cold fusion in it.

Public investment means public ownership, and the public should be demanding investment in this technology.

At some point, this technology is going to bust out on the scene and disrupt the current dysfunctional energy operation.

If you know McLuhan, you know that every new technology is accompanied by an environment of services and disservices which eventually supplants the previous technologies environment. All this oil/hydrocarbon disaster will rust away, and a new culture built upon its ruins.

I can only hope that we still have some eco-system left...

The other problem? McLuhan also teaches that every technology engenders a war, and this one isn't going to geographically limited.

I started advocating this cold fusion technology through Check it out!

Glad to have a Druid onboard!

Ruby said...

Oops, sorry Arch, I guess that wasn't you with the cold fusion.. thanks to Steven Heyer for bringing that up...

Still, I hope y'all take a look at this technology, and support the efforts for a clean energy future!

Always enjoy reading your articles on Energy Bulletin....

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Les,

Yeah, halogen downlights are a real bummer.

As a globe they transfer more energy to heat than light. Some are rated at around 25 watts, but most are around 50 watts. The heat has been responsible for quite a few house fires where the hot globes or hot downlight housings come into contact with insulation in the ceiling cavity. Plus you are right, they provide a big hole between the roof space and the ceiling plaster.

Still people love them.

If you've got a bit of spare cash, you can swap them for fluro downlights. They use 11 watts and don't convert nearly as much energy into heat. As you'd expect, they may not fit your halogen electrical fittings. I think the brand is megaman and I have used them - they're widely available. The difference is the light is slightly in the bluer spectrum and they take a little while to warm up (about half a minute or so). Well worth it when you check out your bill though.

Halogen downlights are a disaster because people used to use only a single incandescent globe to light a room, but they tend to put in multiple downlights and end up using more power than previously!



Holly said...

Great discussion. One idea that we incorporated into our house design and can possibly be used for apartments or retrofit is to put storage on the outside walls. While closets are commonly put between rooms for sound insulation, we lined outside,and especially north, walls with closets. Windows can be turned into cosy windowseats. Bookcases with solid backs (that lovely bubble wrap on the back of it?) can help, too, especially in a temporary apartment situation.
Adding a lean-to storage room on the outside will save money (over a stand alone bldg)and add some wind and temp moderation, if you need the space anyway.
Air lock entries or mudrooms that double as cool storage would help.
I can't remember if you have ever talked about windbreaks and planned shade- trees or climbing vines. The edibles ones do double duty.
Thanks for all the great posts!

Gauk said...

More intensive thank caulking but less intensive than redoing all of one's insulation: Replacement windows. When trying to arrest heat flow it helps to start with the biggest sinks - those R-value 1 windows. An upgrade to 2 or 3 makes a big difference. Typical payback time is 2-10 years assuming constant energy prices(ha!).

@Les: I got LED downlights from Home Depot $40 each - output is 725 lumens for 15 watts of power. They put out much less heat than halogen so maybe you could put your insulation back if you use these(they come with heat sink fins as part of the assembly).

John Michael Greer said...

Greg, that's exactly why I'm trying to help those people who are willing to grapple with the reality of limits get themselves equipped with a bunch of useful skills. While everyone else is freaking out, green wizards can become an example of sanity, and those who are willing to learn will learn.

Revkev, well, yes, that's the problem with brand new products. Still, it might be worth a look.

Bill, in my experience new windows can be a good choice or a bad one depending on the house in question. If your existing windows are ill-fitting and leak like anything, as some old (or recently replaced) ones do, a new set of inexpensive double-pane windows well installed and caulked can improve things dramatically -- though anything fancier is a waste of money, granted. If your existing windows are good, then of course you're quite right -- storm windows are as good an option.

Ruby, no, it wasn't me. Now take a deep breath and spend some time thinking about why it is that you're proselytizing so enthusiastically, and so uncritically, for a completely unproven technology with unknown drawbacks and downsides. (There will be some of those latter, you know; there are with every technology.) The frankly religious enthusiasm with which so many people end up praising vaporware of one kind or another as our only hope of salvation is not helping us deal with the crisis of our time...

Cherokee, I've never been able to see the value in them. We kept our incandescent bulbs until compact fluorescents got cheap, and will replace those with LED lights when those become inexpensive enough.

Holly, that's an excellent point. As for the use of plants as exterior insulation, that'll be in an upcoming post.

Gauk, see Bill Pulliam's comment earlier and my response to it. New windows can be cost-effective or not depending on circumstances, and -- as I'll be discussing next week -- there are ways to slash heat loss through windows that go way past R-2.

tom rainboro said...

... I couldn't understand why you people weren't concerned about humidity in the house until I read Bill Pulliam's comment about air conditioning. I would imagine that less than one per cent of UK homes have that.
Here's a little story about ventilation... I live in a terraced house and share a chimney with a neighbour. The neighbour came into some money and installed uPVC double-glazed windows and doors throughout. Soon after he complained that flue gases from my house were 'leaking' into his. He is 'disabled' and spends all day reading by a solid fuel stove on the other side of his house. I pointed out that since he had sealed his house up the only way that air could be drawn in for his stove was DOWN our shared chimney. (This emulates a primitive way of venting underground mines - dig 2 shafts and light a fire at the bottom of one. Don't try this at home.)

Bill Pulliam said...

JMG -- Oh, of course, every situation is unique and there is no one solution for all. One of my additional concerns, and one that gets short shrift in most of the greenie world (including, I'm afraid to say, in these pages), is architectural preservation and the associated issues of aesthetics, design, and integrity. Many retrofits are done with little or no care towards the original aesthetic or functional concept of the house. Much new "greenie" construction ranges from just boring to downright hideous. Every old house is a snapshot of a moment in time and the mind of an individual architect from an earlier era, even the simplest period vernacular house. Unlike modern slapdash crap, these houses were created with a unifying underlying concept for their look, feel, and function. When one is demolished or defaced it is the same as if that were done to a book (every copy of it, as old houses are one-offs), a sculpture, or a painting. Replacing windows is one of the most frequent assaults on old houses, and is more often than not unnecessary to achieve the desired results.

There's another more material issue with much "upgrade" and "renovation." What happens when these new materials wear out, which they inevitably will? When your modular windows outlive their factory-designed lifespan sometime later in the century, will you be able to repair them? Not bloody likely; almost nothing now is made to be repairable. Will you (or your descendants) be able to buy new ones? Fat chance. Same with things like vinyl/aluminum siding, etc. Wood and glass will be around for a very very long time, and they are extremely repairable and replaceable when they break and wear out. Anyone with basic tools and knowledge can work with them.

I've said it before: I don't want to live in a future that is ugly, no matter how energy efficient it might be.

Hal said...

I don't know if you're going to talk about lighting later, but since someone brought up CFs, I thought I'd chime in.

Does anyone know if they are, in general, more sensitive to voltage fluctuations than incandescents? I'm at the end of a long energy line here, and the house is pretty substandard, so it wouldn't surprise me if the quality of the power I receive were iffy. Anyway, I seem to blow a lot of CFs, at least as often as incandescents. I have decided, in fact, to not buy anymore. Just looking at one tells you that there is a lot more embodied energy in a CF, and if you have to replace them as often as before, there goes the energy savings.

It just struck me after having yet another go out, that this is just another example of trying to solve problems of complexity by adding more complexity. We know how well that works.

Then there's the mercury content of the bulb. We're supposed to treat them as toxic wastes when they go out, but in my backwards part of the world, there isn't any household toxic disposal. Anyway, I doubt if a very large fraction of CFs are disposed of properly anywhere. Supposedly, the amount of Hg in one of these is less than you get from burning coal to generate the extra electricity used by the incandescent over the "average" life of the CF, but that sort of falls apart if the CF doesn't last as long as it's supposed to.

I suppose now the problem will be finding incandescents.

sv koho said...

John: good post on insulation. You omitted the best insulation that is far superior to all others:spray closed cell polyurethane. It is ideal in new construction especially in cold climates like where I live. It is the only one that should be used IMO. It is its own vapor barrier. The colder the climate, the more important the barrier and as a builder I can tell you doing a perfect vapor barrier is very time consuming and difficult to execute reliably. Spray foam can be combined with batt insulation in moderate climates. It is sprayed on the inside of the walls to several inches and then batts are added. You mentioned adding insulated foam board outside the building shell under the siding. That is a relatively easy thing to do. In fact in passivhouses it is commonly done. Some of the readers may not know of heat lost through the house wood studs. A 2x6 wall amay have a theoretical R of 19 with batt insulation. In fact it is more like R12. Placing foam outside the studs mitigates that bridging loss. Foam board can be placed on the inside walls as well, a bit more work with outlets, window door openings. A second stud wall can be placed inside or outside as well. Fine Homebuilding magazine has been doing a good job with these energy retrofits for the past few years. I push spray foam to everyone. Above ground wall use is usually polyiso use giving about R7 costing about 65 cents a board foot, extruded polystyrene (blueboard) is usually below ground and runs 55 cents. Spray polyurethane is 60-80 cents and is the gold standard. It is highly structural as well and adds amazing rigidity and strength to ceilings and walls and is used in some aircraft wings for that reason. Yet one final problem with batt insulation is that it loses R value the colder it is. At -30 it has lost 30- 50%. This little factoid was in Fine Homebuilding some time ago. Nuff said.

divelly said...

I respectfully suggest that you consider the purpose of windows.
If you look at very old houses in Europe,most have almost no windows.
I lived in a mass marketed Cedar home
by L******,and it was unliveable-320 sq. ft.of glazing on the south side with no ventilation!
The idea that windows must serve a dual purpose-let in light and air- is bad.We built a restaurant with inoperable 4x8 glazing on the south with vents on the top of the south side and on the bottom of the north of the structure.We required no AC and very reduced heating compared to other local buildings.Open them in hot weather and close them in winter and enjoy the greenhouse.
We also lived in an old Florida house on stilts with wide over hangings all around pitched to shade out high summer sun and let in low winter sun.It had a pyramid roof vented at the cap.In the summer the air flow was enough to carry off paper napkins.No AC,no heat=minimal utility bill.

Rhisiart Gwilym said...

Elizabeth's description of the 'little Siberian house' is exactly the sort of traditional house that you find all over the very winter-cold places. (My suggestion previously was the traditional small houses of the northernmost parts of Korea)

The traditional, pick-it-up-free-within-a-mile-of-home draughtstop and insulating materials are widespread folk-knowledge (Green Wizardry?) too.

This is what I mean by a snug. Either your entire home, if you can make the psychological switch away from insane McMansion living to small-cabin life. Or failing that, as an interim measure, a single small space within your larger home.

As E. notes, add in the single VERY modest stove (preferably a dual-purpose cook/heat rocket), and yes indeed it can by shirt sleeves inside when the air outside is well below zero. And all on a bucketful or two of modest sticks for the whole day, and maybe another for the night.

Incidentally, I noticed last time that I was there that Canolfan Y Dechnoleg Amgen (the Centre for Alternative Technology for you poor devils who only speak Saesneg), Machynlleth, Cymru-Ganolbarth, Britain, has been doing some interesting work with felting and insect-proofing sheeps' wool as an all-purpose insulation bat or wrap. (Wouldn't you know it, yng Nghymru!) Might be worth a look. The place has quietly become a sort of first modern university of Green Wizardry here in Britain. Very beautiful and encouraging for a visit too, when you're hereabouts.

idiotgrrl said...

I've noticed the discussions about vapor barriers and things, and noticed the wide variety of opinions. Then it came to me: "What makes perfect sense in Maine is out of the question in New Mexico."

And I called a local contractor and am slowly working on following his recommendations. So it anyone here is confused - ask someone in your own area, because these things are amazingly climate-specific.

And house-specific, as in "There is no way you'll ever have to worry about locking THIS house up tight enough to worry about the air quality." (True quote).

MacroTech said...

Speaking of using less energy.
The Spanish Government passed a law reducing the speed limits by 10km. They expect to reduce the need for oil in 10 to 15%.
Reducing energy is not that hard, if people and governments are really interested in doing it.

Ruben said...

Here is an interesting article on design for effective wall systems...lower cost and easier to build than the high-tech systems.

greatblue said...

For organizing protests Facebook has become the tool of choice, but I think YouTube has more to do with why people are rebelling now. Once you see how people with more resources live, you start questioning why you can't live that way yourself.

A pitcher plant holds water. Perhaps a living vapor barrier would be a promising direction to pursue.

An interesting idea in Robert Sawyer's Neanderthal Parallax trilogy was the way the Neanderthals trained trees as they were growing to become houses. Will there be a new leap in biological engineering to produce things we use every day?

In the meantime, there are some uses for which plastic is the best solution with no close contenders (such as when you don't want something to biodegrade). Reserving a scarce resource for use in such a situation might have a future, at least in the intermediate term before petroleum completely runs out.

Duct tape, super adhesives, and acrylic caulk will become scarce eventually. We will definitely miss them.

If anyone knows of a good source of discarded theatre curtains, please post! We have an old theatre here that could definitely use them.

@Les: I saw a solution to recessed lighting that was easy and might be worth investigating. Look for "instant pendant lights."

One thing that makes insulation confusing to the novice is that what works well in Florida (hot and humid) does not work well in Minnesota (cold and dry much of the year) and vice versa. Novice wizards have to be careful that the information they gather is suitable to their local areas.

Low-tech Magazine just had an article on using clothing as the first defense against cold. I've read that desert peoples wear white wool as a defense against the (dry) heat.

One of the main reasons people keep houses heated in cold climates is to prevent water pipes from freezing. If there was an easy solution to that problem (I don't consider draining the system an easy solution for the average unhandyperson like me), we could probably save a lot of energy and avoid a lot of water damage.

In Ojibwe birchbark canoes they use a mixture of spruce gum and fat to seal the seams. Can I assume this will be our caulk in future years when acrylic is a thing of the past? Shipbuilding lore from previous ages may have application to houses in the future.

I have found that gasket covers don't prevent cold air from getting through the slots in the outlets where you plug things in. I'm guessing some of those baby safety plugs might work though.

I have two problems with CFLs. One is they contain mercury and need to be disposed of as hazardous waste. You have to make a special effort to recycle them here and many people I know won't bother. When CFLs first came out, I threw them away too, because the notice that I should do otherwise was in such tiny print. So all the mercury ends up in the landfill, ground water, etc. Incinerating it would be even worse, I suppose. The second problem I have is that CFLs have a ballast. All the controversy over cell phones has made me wonder whether using a ballast in close proximity to one's head (for task lighting) is a good idea.

Re aesthetics of old houses, I've seen a building in a historic area that had its storm windows installed on the inside to preserve the historic character of the exterior. I don't know whether they were effective or not.

EBrown said...

I second your sentiments on beauty. With time and effort even shoestring budgets can create things that are pleasing to the human eye, but I'll leave the debate about what constitutes beauty to another time...

We inherited an abandoned cottage on the farm I bought just over a year ago. Over the last few days we've torn it apart in order to salvage the huge planks that encased the house before they rotted away. We dated the house to 1859 or 1860 by the still legible newspaper embedded in the wall paper.

The building is an interesting confluence of materials. The skeleton is four moderate size hand hewn timbeframe bents. The rest of the main materials were imported from somewhere, even if down the road at the local sawmill. This frame was then sheathed vertically in 1.5 inch thick pine planks ranging in width from 10 to 18 inches (that's what we wanted to save before the rot got too deep). On the outside clapboard siding, on the inside lathe and plaster and wallpaper. That's it. No air gap, no insulation. I live in zone 4. I can only guess how cold that house must have been first thing in the morning after a windy January night.

I think about how brutally cold it must have been in there during the winter, but the rooms were small and probably warmed up fine once the stove was going, which it must have been all the time. During the night the chill would penetrate, but with a warm bed, so what? But I'm youngish and my metabolism still keeps me cooking on chilly nights. It might be a different case for someone older.

tom rainboro said...

Helo Rhisiart
I live in Devon, where there are plenty of sheep. I started to look at wool as insulation but I only have limited private supplies. Doing anything on a household scale is difficult because wool is 'a Category 3 animal by-product'. It may only be transported to premises 'that have been approved ... by the Animal Health Agency'. 'The wool must be wrapped and the sacks must be visibly clean and intact..' . 'During transportation... animal by-products must be accompabied by commercial documentation.' Quotes are from 'Guidance on temporary storage of wrapped wool in England, Scotland and Wales'. The details are influenced by European Commission Regulations on Animal By-Products. In other words my sheep farmer neighbour and I would be breaking the law if I used some of his wool. Crazy world!

John Michael Greer said...

Tom, that's a great story!

Bill, another option if you've got the cash is wood-framed double-pane windows. There are some manufacturers who make them, and some local craftspeople as well in some areas. My guess is that thirty years from now, those will be standard.

Hal, oh, granted, CFs are far from perfect. I don't happen to know if they're more vulnerable to voltage fluctuations, or if the ones you're getting are just too cheaply made -- always a possibility these days.

Koho, I haven't worked with it myself, and have heard some very dubious reviews of the effects of all the spray-on stuff on indoor air quality due to outgassing. One of the basic rules I use in choosing things to discuss here is that if I haven't done it and don't know it's safe, I don't suggest it.

Divelly, we'll be getting to that.

Ehisiart, the Centre for Alternative Technology is high on the list of places I want to visit next time I'm on your side of the pond!

Grrl, an excellent point.

Macrotech, I'll be talking about that in a bit, too.

Ruben, good. The thing that interests me is how much attention everybody seems to put into walls, which aren't anything like as important as ceiling insulation. I wish the architect had proposed some good ways to insulate an attic!

Greatblue, I've seen designs in ham radio circles for various bits of electronic gear that can be made entirely from parts salvaged from CF ballasts! So there may be a bit of a bright side there...

EBrown, accounts of life in the colder parts of the US in the 19th century routinely mention having to break the ice that's formed on top of the bedroom water pitcher when you get up first thing in the morning. To some extent, these days we're all just spoiled.

Tom, hyperregulation is one of the standard features of a civilization that's circling the drain. The folks in Brussels seem to be working overtime on that.

jb said...

Bill- I'm interested in your comment on the air gap size. We have double pane aluminum from 1985-very drafty. There isn't room for storm windows on the outside (windows are flush with siding). We are considering inside storm windows, but the air gap between storm window and existing window would be 4 inches. Does your comment mean that this air gap is too big?
I am also interested in opinions on whether aluminum windows are worth keeping. If we replaced them we would probably go with fiberglass.

Glenn said...

Re: Windows,

Bill, my brother built his own Craftsman style house. He bought commercial double glazed inserts and milled his own sashes with table saw and router. No more work than custom sashes for single glazing. And looks just as appropriate on the house. It's only carpentry, it can be learned.


Twilight said...

Bill, you are not the only one concerned about aesthetics, design and materials that cannot be maintained and won't last. I cannot thrive in an ugly space, and have no interest in materials I cannot work with myself. We spent 11 years restoring an 1825 farm house, only to be driven out be unchecked development in 2002. Now we live in an odd old house in the hills – once it was a poor man's hardscrabble farm, but it is reasonably protected from development. Turns out that won't be the issue after all though.

That interest in old houses and ways of doing things helped me to understand that all our efforts and all materials are temporary, and just how rapid was the pace of change throughout the last few hundred years. That's all the more ironic since we all seem to look back over that period as if it was a time when things were constant and unchanging. How many hours have I spent laboring over some project redoing something done by workers long dead, and wondering how some future craftsman would regard my work? Often I wonder who they were, what were their concerns, and how they got on in their lives, and now often I wonder about who will come next.

I am less focused on maximizing efficiency, and more on things that work, hold up reasonably well, and can be used, repaired and maintained by future generations without access to fossil fuel energy. So if I spend a great deal of time and effort on a project I cannot see it wasted on cheap materials, nor would I feel good leaving a mess for future inhabitants through shoddy work or lousy parts. I think that the older system of apprenticeship led to tradesmen with more skill, and a continuity of practices and techniques. This really began to fall apart around mid 20th century when mass production and new materials came on the scene, and the older craftsmen began to die out. I hope that learning and preserving the knowledge of how to work with more basic materials people are likely to be valuable to future generations, even my paltry level of skill.

Martin said...

Good afternoon, perfect post. One Czech scientist said, that we have now only one important task-create a polite and poor society, but the world will be more aggresive and I´m afraid, that this will be very problematic in many countries and in others impossible. But I think, it´s importatn to follow this "strategy". Only know how :).
P.S.: Greetings from EU

Cherokee Organics said...


Your comment to Hal about quality, "or if the ones you're getting are just too cheaply made -- always a possibility these days." got me thinking.

I've been doing building projects for about 16 years now and I've noticed that in the past two years or so, the quality of complex supplies has fallen dramatically. The price for these same materials has also likewise fallen (perhaps a factor of the high value of the Australian dollar?). I often have to have things replaced from new nowadays.

However, basic, locally produced supplies have gone up in price by almost a factor of three in the past five years. I suspect we are exporting our labour costs...

I wonder what Robert Pirsig would make of this?



Thijs Goverde said...

When it comes to moisture reduction, I find myself really in love with this gadget. For those who are loth to follow a link: it's a sort of hollow brick that creates
A) a cold bridge in your wall and
B) an air flow within the brick itself.
The cold bridge draws moisture out of your wall and the air flow neatly removes it.
Technologically, it is not much more complex than a brick (not that I could make a brick to save my life, mind you).
It is easily built into a new wall, and a skilled worker can outfit an existing house with it in a couple of hours.
And it works wonderfully. We had them installed to deal with some salt deposits. Then, half a year later, the SO and I looked at one another and said: 'Whatever happened to all the silverfish?' (these critters infected our house something fierce. They love a moist environment.)
Really - a low tech, relatively simple, cheap thingy that may not resolve all moisture problems, but will certainly help a lot. How good can it get?

Downshifting Life said...

Interesting post. When we built our house, we used a double stud wall, which consisted of 2 2x4 walls separated by a 3.5" gap, allowing for 3 layers of mineral wool insulation. We heat with a tankless hot water heater running an infloor radiant heat and a single woodstove, currently using about 1 cord of wood and about 1500L of propane a year (which also includes hot water and cooking). We oriented the house to the south to take advantage of passive solar gain and put up overhangs to block the sun during the summer and only have a couple of windows on the north side of the house. We also built into the side of a hill, so the north part of the house only has one story exposed to the elements. You can see a photoblog of the construction at

Just one comment on sealing the vapor barrier. In Canada we have a product called Tuck Tape, which is specifically for sealing vapor barrier. It has a very high adhesion and will not dry out and loose adhesion like duct tape would.

Bill Pulliam said...

jb -- the 4 inch air gap between the windows works great for insulation. The point was that once the gap gets that wide, it won't get any more effective if it gets even wider. So 1" works better than 1/8", and 4" works better than 1", but 8" is no additional improvement. It has to do with boundary layers, friction, and fluid dynamics.

I've used inside storm windows also, they work well. The only advantage of the outside mounting is that you have the tightly-sealed, non-leaky window on the side that is exposed to the wind. With the old leaky window on the outside, the wind will push cold air into the space between the windows. Your inside storm window should keep this cold air out of the house, so it will still be a substantial improvement.

artinnature said...

This concept of inside storm windows is very intriguing. It seems that it would make the task of putting them up and taking them down much easier, at least if there weren't a lot of drapes or blinds in the way. And it would allow opening a window for ventilation during the winter, say if there was an unseasonably warm winter day, without struggling with an exterior storm that is intended to stay in place all winter.

This blog is amazing...a flood of new ideas.

BTW, first post...great work JMG!

bccarver said...

"Physics for future presidents" by Muller
This book adds some credence to your points about energy and the only solution being conservation.

Jeff Z said...

chop wood, carry water.

The Japanese may be the best prepared for a return to simpler living. Volunatary simplicity may be a dry run for the involuntary sort.

jeff z.