Winterizing Your Home: Stop The Drafts

With cold weather on the way, it's a good idea to start thinking about weatherproofing your home. There are all kinds of questions to address when considering winterization: What area of your home is the culprit in heat loss? Do your windows need to be replaced, or should you put your money into insulating the attic? Which materials are the best? You need to assess the ability of your home to guard against drafts, dampness and other conditions that lead to a chilly household, and smart decisions will need to be made regarding methods and materials. Whether the improvements you make are minor or extensive, they will surely cut utility bills and help create a warmer, more comfortable living space.

The best thing you can do to make your home more comfortable is to stop drafts; not just around windows and doors, but all around your house, at what weatherization contractors refer to as the thermal boundary. In concept, this is an insulated, air-resistant barrier between heated living space and unheated, nonliving space. In reality, it is walls, doors, windows, insulation, vapor barriers, the foundation and the uppermost ceiling of your home. Basically, all the structures and materials that keep warm air in and cold air out.

The tighter the construction of your home, the more continuous the thermal boundary, but it is typical of both old and new homes to have holes along the boundary line, often amounting to several square feet in area. These breaks, gaps and cavities let drafts enter your home through walls, under floors and by way of the cutouts for various pipes. This cold outside air then needs to be heated in order to maintain a comfortable indoor temperature. Sealing gaps along the boundary line helps put an end to the cycling of cold drafts, allowing existing insulation to be more effective and lowering utility usage.

Look for gaps in the thermal boundary in these common trouble spots:

  • Sill plate/rim joist joint (accessible from the basement or crawlspace)
  • Behind and below baseboards
  • Behind switchplates and electrical outlets
  • Around plumbing and ventilation cutouts (garden hose, clothes-dryer exhaust vent, etc.) as well as utility cutouts (cable TV, gas lines)
  • Around the interior and exterior casings of doors and windows

Take these steps to seal the gaps, and create a tighter barrier against cold drafts:

  • Narrow gaps (1/4 inch or less) are easily sealed with caulk (for exterior use, choose an acrylic type with added silicone), while wider gaps require a combination of caulk and foam backer rope.
  • Irregularly shaped gaps and holes are better sealed with an expanding polyurethane foam (Great Stuff is one brand to look for). Expanding foam is also a good alternative to caulk and foam backer rope in areas where it is physically difficult to work.
  • Add foam receptacle sealers to all electrical outlets located on exterior walls.
  • Maintain window and door weather stripping by replacing worn-out door sweeps and adjusting thresholds to keep out drafts. (Look for compressible neoprene weather stripping products because they hold up better than foam and cost only a few cents more.)
  • Maintain storm windows and doors for an additional layer of insulation that will pay off in utility savings and comfort. If you don't have them, consider purchasing some or use plastic-sheeting kits (the shrink-fit type works well and you can see through them once installed) until your budget allows for the purchase.

Taking the right steps will go a long way towards lowering your heating bills.

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