The Story of a House that Never Stayed Warm: A Well-Insulated Resolution

Here is the energy usage graph from our most recent electricity bill. The months are displayed with the most recent first, reading from left to right along the x axis. We finished the upgrades in October, so you can see that the months before our upgrades were higher overall.

by Elizabeth Spencer (Originally posted on Energy.gov.)

During our first winter in this house, my husband and I realized we had a problem: the house was horribly, unbearably cold all the time. It didn't matter how high we kept the thermostat. The temperature in the house stayed low, and our heating bills went up.

I wrote all about our exodus last year. If you want to read the full story, check out this post about how cold our house was and this one about what we hired the contractors to do to fix it. If you’ve been following my story, here's the digest version!

THE PROBLEM

Our house was cold.

The heater was always on, but it didn't do a lot of good—the house struggled to warm up to temperature and rapidly cooled down. The study was especially bad, and could sometimes be as much as 7 degrees colder than the rest of the house. Meanwhile, our attic was so warm that we had ice dams, which ultimately caused enough damage to flood a room.

The problem was simple: Our attic was uninsulated (which is typical), but we didn't really have an air barrier between the top floor and the attic. Our furnace is in the attic, so there's a lot of ductwork there, too. This means that all our hot air was drifting up into the attic and venting outside. And while our ducts were insulated, the fact that they were in a totally uninsulated space meant that they couldn't pump much hot air into our house.

THE SOLUTION

After an energy audit, a several quotes, and a lot of planning, we called in some contractors and did a lot of work to fix our insulation problem.

My post from last year covers the nitty-gritty details. But basically, we air-sealed the attic and the crawl spaces, essentially turning them into conditioned spaces. We added radiant barriers along the outside-facing walls of our attic and crawl space that were packed with dense-pack insulation. Now the whole house is sealed up tightly.

THE RESULTS

But, okay. Let's be honest. You want to know if it worked, right?

Let's compare three months: December to February.

  2014–2015 PROPANE 2014–2015 ELECTRICITY 2015–2016 PROPANE 2015–2016 ELECTRICITY
February $723.71 $111.87 $471.31 $56.54
January $760.45 $136.13 $405.09 $50.62
December $497.97 $0* $0** $59.69
Total $1,982.13  $248.00  $876.40  $166.85 
  2014–2015 Total $2,230.13 2015–2016 Total $1,043.25

*Note: We moved into the house this month, so we didn't have an electrical bill.
** Propane isn't billed per month—they just drop by when the tank is low and fill it up. That means that on particularly good months, (like this one!) we don't pay anything at all.

You can see the energy usage graph from our most recent electricity bill on this page. The months are displayed with the most recent first, reading from left to right along the x axis. We finished the upgrades in October, so you can see that the months before our upgrades were higher overall.

These numbers are AMAZING, so I want to point out two caveats:

  • December is not a good month to compare. December 2014 is not an example of our normal energy use. If I could, I'd compare January to March for both years. Because I wrote this post in March, so I don't have those numbers for 2016 yet.
  • I live in New England. We got 110" of snow in the winter of 2014-2015. Alternatively, 2015-2016 was one of the mildest, warmest winters in recent history.

Basically, if we compared typical months and typical years, we would see much less dramatic numbers.

Now that the caveats are out of the way, let's just get down to it. Oh my gosh, that's a 53% decrease in energy costs!

We are, on average, saving between 35%–45% per month on propane and using half as much electricity. And what about the comfort? Oh, the comfort! This year, we kept the entire house at 68 degrees. The entire house. All the time. Sometimes I even bumped that up to 70, because I can. And the house stayed at the temperature we set the thermostat to. That's how heating is supposed to work, right? But it's magic. We're keeping the house warmer and paying half as much.

When you compare this to last year, it's ridiculous. We had to use propane fireplaces and electric heaters to supplement our heating last year. It was so expensive to do this that we only kept one room in the house warm.

Now I can go anywhere I want in the house because the whole house is comfortable. Sure, the study is still a little chilly. The crawlspaces are insulated now, but the room is still over the under-insulated garage, which we decided not to upgrade. But instead of being 7+ degrees colder than the rest of the house, it's only 2-3 degrees cooler. I can live with that.

Ultimately, this upgrade will pay for itself within 10 years. It added to the resale value of our home. Most importantly, it made my whole house a comfortable, livable place that I can enjoy year-round.

And it's hard to put a price tag on that.

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