Understanding the Grid

We spent the past month discussing energy efficiency and how to improve it in your Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas-area homes. But where does that energy come from? How does it get to you?
This post takes a brief, informal look at The Grid, America’s aging but improving energy structure.

Part One: Generation

The basic functions of Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas-area homes and businesses are powered by energy sources that are hundreds of miles away from the Metroplex.

It all starts with Generation, or the creation of energy at a generator powered by one of four sources:

  • Hydroelectric dams
  • Power plants
  • Wind turbines (wind farms)
  • Solar panels

Part Two: Transmission

Once energy is created, it must be converted to a very high voltage and transmitted to your Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas neighborhood.

It does this through a complex, fascinating series of substations, step-up transformers, wires, poles, and step-down transformers.

  • The newly generated power travels to transmission substations that uses transformers to convert it to extremely high voltages.
  • Step-up transformers help convert power to high voltages for transmission over long distances — often hundreds of miles.
  • The power travels through wires and across electric poles on its way to our Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas area homes. You may see electric company service technicians working on the wires and poles in and around your neighborhood, especially after an electrical storm or in the dead of summer when temperatures reach well beyond 100 degrees.
  • Sensors are located at key points along the power line journey to monitor where and when power might go out.
  • A step-down transformer lowers voltages for distribution into homes and businesses. You may also see electric company service technicians working on this equipment as well.

Part Three: Distribution

North America is comprised of two major and three minor alternating current (AC) power grids or interconnections.

The Grid network of power plants and transformers are connected by more than 450,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines. Thomas Edison launched the first commercial power grid, The Pearl Street Station, in lower Manhattan in 1882. The New York Times, one of Edison’s earliest electricity customers, reported lighting provided by Pearl Street was “soft, mellow, grateful to the eye.”

The three smaller grids, called Interconnections, move electricity around the country. The Eastern Interconnection operates in states east of the Rock Mountains. The Western Interconnection covers the Pacific Ocean to the Rocky Mountain states. The smallest, the Texas Interconnected System, covers most of Texas.

The Aging Grid

The Grid is an engineering marvel but it is aging. Seventy percent of the transmission lines and power transformers are more than 25 years old, and the average power plant is more than 30 years old. The lines, transformers, and power plants require extensive maintenance, service, and repair to effectively meet the nation’s steadily-increasing energy demands.

Severe weather is the No. 1 cause of power outages in the United States and something homeowners see frequently here in the Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas area, necessitating around-the-clock service and repair by TXU and Reliant, two of the leading energy service companies in Texas.

Power outages in the U.S. cost the economy between $18 and $33 billion every year in lost output, wages, spoiled inventory, delayed production, damage to grid infrastructure, and maintenance, service, and repair.

The number of outages caused by severe weather is expected to rise as climate changes increase the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events like the monsoon, flood-causing rains we’ve been having recently in Arlington, Fort Worth, Dallas, and throughout Texas.

The Grid is Getting Younger

The concern over aging infrastructure, as well as concerns over terrorism on U.S. soil and cyberterrorism, spurred the Recovery Act. The Department of Energy is investing about $4.5 billion in modernization to enhance the reliability of The Grid.

Since 2010, Recovery Act investments have been used to deploy a wide range of advanced devices, including more than 10,000 automated capacitors, more than 7,000 automated feeder switches, and approximately 15.5 million smart meters, which are in use in Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas-area homes.

The goal is to improve Grid reliability — one with fewer and shorter power interruptions — and resiliency. A more resilient Grid is one better prepared to recover from adverse events like severe weather.

Cool New Technology

One of the key solutions for a more reliable and resilient Grid is synchrophaser technology. These mailbox-sized devices monitor the health of the Grid at frequencies not previously possible, reporting data 30 times per second.

The enhanced visibility into Grid conditions helps operators identify, respond, and service deteriorating or abnormal conditions much quicker, reducing power outages and helping with the integration of more renewable sources of energy into The Grid. Nearly 900 of these devices have been deployed.

Microgrids

Microgrids are localized grids that are normally connected to the more traditional electric grid can be disconnected and operated autonomously, another way to improve reliability and resiliency.
Microgrids use advanced smart grid technologies and the integration of distributed energy resources such as backup generators, solar panels, and storage. Because they can operate independently of the grid during outages, microgrids are typically used to provide reliable power during extreme weather events.

End Use

All of this distributes electricity to end users, the homeowners and businesses in Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas, keeping homes cool in the summer, warm in the winter, rooms lit, food cold, and computers charged.

To illustrate how important electricity is to Americans, particularly in the summer, the average American home used more electricity for space cooling than lighting, refrigeration, or heating.

Texas Renewable Energy Efforts: Wind Energy Basics

Everything is big in Texas. Texans take great pride in everything in the Lone Star State being big. Add one more thing to their Big in Texas list: wind.

As any resident in the Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas area will tell you, it’s always windy in North Texas . . . and in West Texas . . . along the coast . . . pretty much all over Texas.

It’s no wonder that Texans are harnessing the wind like no others and turning it into a viable, clean, renewable energy source that will shape the future of energy services in Arlington, Fort Worth, Dallas, Texas, the U.S., and globally for decades to come.

Texas is No. 1 in wind energy capacity, No. 1 in wind-energy related manufacturing and services, No. 1 in wind industry employment and service, and No. 6 in wind energy production, behind leaders China, the U.S., Germany, Spain, and India.

This post takes a closer look at wind energy, how it works, how it gets to your Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas-area homes, and its benefits.

What Is Wind Energy?

Wind power captures the natural wind in our atmosphere and converts it into mechanical energy, then electricity.

Humans began using wind power centuries ago with windmills to ground grain and pump ground water.

Before the introduction of windmills to Texas, inhabitable land was confined to areas where a constant water supply was available. There was no way for vast areas to be settled without a life-giving supply of water. The windmill made it possible to pump water from beneath the ground, and soon whole new areas of the state were opened to settlers.

Windmills moved onto ranches when the use of barbed wire began in the late 1870s and have been as much of Texas lore as oil and gas and cattle ranching. Not surprisingly, Texas became the largest user of windmills in the United States.

Today’s wind turbine is a highly evolved version of a windmill. Modern wind turbines harness wind’s kinetic energy and convert it into electricity. Most wind turbines have three blades and sit atop a steel tubular tower, ranging in size from 80-foot-tall turbines that can power a single home to utility-scale turbines that are more than 260 feet tall and power hundreds of homes.

Types of Wind Power

There are three primary types of wind power:

  • Utility-scale: These wind turbines are larger than 100 kilowatts and are developed to deliver power the power grid for distribution to the end user by electric utility and service companies or power system operators.
  • Distributed or “Small Wind”: These turbines are 100 kilowatts or smaller and distribute power directly to a home, farm, or small business.
  • Offshore Wind: These are wind turbines erected in bodies of water throughout the world, but not prevalent in the United States.

How Wind Energy Works

When wind blows past a turbine, the blades capture the energy and rotate. This rotation triggers an internal shaft to spin, which is connected to a gearbox increasing the speed of rotation. The gearbox is connected to a generator that ultimately produces electricity that is delivered to homes and businesses in Arlington, Fort Worth, Dallas, and throughout Texas.

Most commonly, wind turbines consist of a steel tubular tower of up to 325 feet, which supports both a “hub” of wind turbine blades and the “nacelle” that houses the turbine’s shaft, gearbox, generator, and controls.

A turbine is equipped with wind assessment equipment and will automatically rotate into the face of the wind and angle or “pitch” its blades to optimize energy capture. Certainly much more advanced than the old Dutch and German-made windmills first used in Texas.

How Wind Energy Gets to You

How does wind energy generated in West Texas end up in your Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas-area home to power your heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC), hot water heater, lights, and other needs?

Wind turbines often stand together in a windy area that has been through a robust development process. This interconnected group of turbines is called a wind project or wind farm, which function like a wind power plant. Five of the top 10 of the nation’s largest wind energy generation projects reside in Texas, which boasts the most wind-related manufacturing, employment, and service of any state in the U.S.

These turbines are connected so the electricity can travel from the wind farm to the power grid. Once wind energy is on the main power grid, electric utilities and service companies or power operators will deliver the electricity where it is needed.

Smaller transmission lines called distribution lines collect the electricity generated at the wind project site and transport it to larger “network” transmission lines where electricity can travel across long distances to where it is needed (near large population centers). Smaller “distribution lines” deliver the electricity directly to your home in the Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas area.

How Wind Projects are Developed

The current estimate of wind energy potential is 10 times the amount of electricity consumption for the entire country. This strong wind resource varies by region and topography.

Wind energy projects are developed by companies that seek the areas with the strongest wind resource but also review other critical factors like access to land, access to the transmission lines, ability to sell the electricity, public engagement, and other development factors.

Once a site is identified, a developer will conduct wind resource assessment, siting and permitting, and transmission studies over a period of several years.

The majority of wind projects are located on private land, where the developer leases the land from the original landowner providing lease payments.

After early stages of development, a developer will seek out a contract with a purchaser of electricity, raise capital from the finance markets, order wind turbines, and hire a specialized construction and service company to build the project. Once built and delivering electricity to the power grid, a project owner or operator will service and maintain it for the 20 to 30 years of its life.

Wind energy worldwide

Wind power has increased exponentially since the dawn of the 21st century. The adoption of wind energy globally has changed dramatically since the 1980’s, when California was home to 90 percent of the world’s installed wind energy capacity.

In fact, the amount of operating wind energy capacity has increased more than 16 times between 2000 and 2012 to over 282,000 MW of operating wind capacity.

In 2012, the United States represented nearly 22 percent of the world’s installed wind energy capacity, second only to China, and followed by Germany, Spain, and India.

Wind Energy in the United States

The U.S. is blessed with strong wind resources across the entire country. The current estimate of wind energy potential is 10 times the amount of electricity consumption for the entire country.

This strong wind resource varies, of course, by region and topography across the U.S. By the end of 2013, the U.S. had more than 46,000 operating wind turbines across 39 states and Puerto Rico, representing 61,110 megawatts (MW) – enough to power more than 15.5 million homes (roughly the number of homes in six states).

The United States gets 4.1 percent of its electricity from wind overall, but certain states like Iowa and South Dakota get more than 25 percent of electricity from wind.

Benefits of Wind energy

Wind energy is a clean, renewable form of energy that uses virtually no water and pumps billions of dollars into the U.S. economy every year.

In 2012 alone, wind energy companies invested $25 billion into new wind energy projects in the U.S.

Furthermore, wind energy is a drought-resistant cash crop in many parts of the country, providing economic investment to rural communities through lease payments to landowners.

Wind energy helps avoid a variety of environmental impacts due to its low impact, emitting zero greenhouse gas emissions or conventional pollutants and consuming virtually no water.

Wind energy is also a source of jobs in the manufacturing sector. The wind industry employs 50,500 people across construction, development, engineering, operations, and service industries with tens of thousands employed across 550 U.S. manufacturing facilities.

Texas Renewable Energy Efforts

The whole-house systems approach to energy efficiency is a more immediate and realistic strategy for Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas homeowners than renewable energy. However . . .

Renewable energy continues to make great strides in Texas, improving each year, and will become a more viable option for Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas-area homeowners in the coming years.

This post takes a look at renewable energy in Texas, providing homeowners with a basic understanding of what’s going on in the nation’s top energy producing and consuming state.

Energy in Texas

As any Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas-area resident knows, Texas has been an international leader in the oil and gas service industry for more than a century. Oil and gas are deeply ingrained in Texas culture and folklore.

What many may not realize, Texas has built upon its energy experience and trained workforce to take the lead in renewable energy production and service. As a result, Texas leads all states in wind generation capacity and biodiesel/biomass production.

Texas’ renewable energy potential is among the largest in the nation, along with California, with abundant wind, solar, and biomass resources found across the state’s large, geographically diverse landscape.

Texas Renewable Energy Rankings

  • No. 1 in wind energy capacity
  • No. 1 in wind energy-related manufacturing and services
  • No. 1 in wind industry employment and service
  • No. 2 in total renewable energy employment and service
  • No. 1 in biodiesel production
  • No. 1 in solar potential
  • No. 6 in solar energy industry employment and service
  • No. 4 in clean energy-related patents.

Texas Instruments (Dallas), freescale semiconductors (Austin), Green Mountain Energy (Austin), White Energy (Plano), and Reliant (Houston) are five Texas-based companies with significant renewable energy operations and commitments in the state.

Not bad for a state once known for just oil and gas.

Renewable Energy in Texas

Truth be told, renewable energy still has a relatively small impact on energy consumption in Texas (as well in the United States), but its share is growing rapidly. Renewable sources accounted for 4.1 percent of all energy consumed in the state in 2011, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), and that percentage is rapidly growing.

Wind generation is 12 times larger in 2011 than 2002. Wind’s share of the Texas Interconnection Region’s electric power generation was 19.7 percent at the end of 2013. Wind now comprises more than three-quarters of Texas’ renewable energy usage.

Solar development lags behind wind energy in Texas but has the potential to experience a similar meteoric rise over the next 10 years due to continued technology improvements, the development of new solar products and services for the residential market, lower cost of entry, and evolving business practices.

Texas’ statewide solar generation increased 265 percent from 2011 to 2012 alone. The state currently ranks No. 6 nationally in installed solar photovoltaic PVC (solar panel) capacity.

Wind Energy

According to the Wind Energy Foundation, wind is currently the fastest growing source of electricity production and service globally. China ranks first, followed by the U.S., Germany, Spain, and India with Texas — the state — coming in sixth.

Wind generation is popular because it’s cheaper than solar, requires no water or other scarce resources, and emits no greenhouse gases. Since windmills must be spaced out to maximize efficiency, much of the underlying land can still be used for its original purpose — agriculture and livestock production.

Because of wind energy’s cost and efficiency, wind installations to provide power to consumers outpaces solar generation by 10 times.

Texas, of course, has abundant natural wind resources, especially on the Great Plains and along the Gulf Coast. Five of the top ten of the nation’s largest wind energy generation projects reside in Texas.

What has slowed advancement of wind energy in Texas has been what’s known as “transmission” — turning wind energy into electricity and moving it from the source (mostly in the lesser-populated areas of West Texas and the Gulf Cost) to consumers (who live in more-populated areas like Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, and Austin).

Solar Energy

In the U.S. solar energy lags behind wind in terms of installed capacity and service, yet solar industry growth is accelerating as technology improves, equipment prices fall, and consumer business models evolve.

The most common solar technology is photovoltaics (PV), which are glass-covered semiconductor cells that convert sunlight into an electric current. Their modularity makes PV a popular choice for small-scale energy generation near the point of use like residential or commercial rooftops.

A few PV installations can be seen around the Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas area, although in the U.S. market PV modules have been installed on less than 300,000 homes (of which 90 percent are residential).

Just like its resources for wind, Texas is well positioned to compete in the solar energy services market. The state is ranked No. 1 nationally in solar potential, according to the Texas State Energy Conservation Office. Once again, West Texas takes the lead with some of the country’s highest levels of solar radiation, making it idea for utility-scale solar power plants.

Resources

A few resources of note.

  • North Texas Renewable Energy Group, the North Texas chapter of the Texas Solar Energy Society.
  • Green Mountain Energy Solar and Green Mountain Energy (available to consumers in Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas area)
  • North Texas Renewable Energy and NTREG on Facebook
  • Green Dallas
  • Wind Energy Transmission Texas

Whole-house Energy Efficiency: Deeper Look at Indoor Air Quality & Ventilation

Indoor air is often more than 10 times more polluted than outdoor air, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. To close out the whole-house systems approach to energy efficiency series of posts, we take a look at good, better, best strategies to improve the air quality in Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas-area homes.

You, the homeowner, might say, “My indoor air is just fine.” But, like air itself, pollutants are invisible and may be behind, or at least a contributor, to asthma and other respiratory conditions and diseases a family member may be suffering.

Indoor pollutants are on the rise, says the EPA, especially as homes become more “air tight” and energy efficient and are not top of mind for homeowners, unaware that:

  • VOCs (volatile organic compounds) include off-gassing building materials, paints, and finishes
  • Other toxic chemicals are emitted from cleaning products, pesticides, and household supplies that people think are safe but are actually quite noxious
  • Carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide gases can be released from gas-fueled combustion appliances and can accumulate
  • Particulates from wood-burning fireplaces, even cars running near the house, can contribute to indoor air pollution. It’s not just tobacco smoke anymore that sinks up the house.

Three IAQ Strategies

There are three general strategies for improving indoor air quality, including:

  • Source control: Eliminating sources of pollution or reducing their emissions is the most effective and should be the first step taken. Many source control options are easy and inexpensive for Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas-area homeowners.
  • Improved ventilation: This will improve indoor air quality by increasing the amount of outdoor air coming into your home, diluting indoor pollutants and pushing stale air out of the home.
  • Air cleaning: This strategy uses mechanical air cleaners to filter pollutants out of your indoor air. They can be used to supplement source control and ventilation but are not recommended as a sole solution.

Good, Better, Best Practices for Improving IAQ

Good

In no particular order,these are easy and inexpensive source-control measures that will eliminate pollution or reduce emissions from cleaning products, gas applications, building materials, and furniture.

  • Clean with the least toxic product. The powerful chemicals in many conventional cleaning products found at home improvement and hardware stores in the Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas area can have a toxic effect on human skin and lungs.
  • Popular these days are making nontoxic cleaners from common household ingredients like vinegar and baking soda.
  • Look for GreenSeal, Greenguard, and Scientific Certification Systems (SCS) certified residential cleaning products. These are nontoxic or less-toxic products that comply with green standards. These are often found at specialty hardware stores, like Ace, in the Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas area.
  • Avoid having your clothes conventionally dry-cleaned. Dry cleaners use LOTS of chemicals, including PERC (perchroethylene), a potential carcinogen that evaporates into the air and has a strong, sweet odor. It’s also used in paint strippers, spot removers, and other solvent-based household products.
  • Increasingly popular is a PERC-free “wet cleaning” service offered by some dry cleaners in the Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas areas.
  • Properly dispose of unused paint, solvents, pesticides, and other household chemicals promptly in tightly closed containers. Many community governments throughout the Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas area have annual or bi-annual hazardous waste disposal days, when homeowners take these products to service centers for disposal.
  • A natural ventilation strategy relies on the buoyancy of hot air (the stack effect) and wind (cross ventilation) to increase the amount of outdoor air coming into your home. Natural ventilation can reduce total energy consumed by 10 to 30 percent compared with a home using a forced-air cooling system.
  • Natural ventilation is best incorporated into a home’s overall design, but there are simple ways to apply natural ventilation in existing homes. Open both the top and bottom sashes of double-hung windows, open windows on opposite sides of the same room for cross-ventilation.
  • Use the exhaust fan over the stove to remove gases like carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide.
  • Use fans in bathrooms to remove water vapor; important because poor moisture management allows mold to grow.
  • Make sure your gas range has a hood fan that exhausts to the outside — some exhaust systems are ductless and exhaust is pulled from the stove back into the home.
  • If your home’s walls, doors, and windows are tightly sealed and energy efficient, you may need to open a window slightly when running an exhaust fan or when you’re using a fireplace, to avoid creating negative pressure. Without another way for outside air to replace the air leaving through the exhaust fan or chimney, air may be drawn through the exhaust pipes for your furnace or hot water heater.
  • Fix any leaks and clean up household spills as quickly as possible. Standing water and moist materials provide a habitat for mold and microbial growth (and can attract pests).
  • Replace the air filter in your furnace and air conditioner at the start of the heating or cooling season. Filters actually become more effective in capturing and removing particulate air contaminants as they get dirtier and build up a “dust cake.” This increased effectiveness comes with a cost as the pressure drop increases and less air gets through.
  • Room-size air cleaners can be effective tools for removing pollutants in one or more rooms.
  • If you are concerned about pollution in a particular room and it’s not possible to remove the pollution source, consider buying a room-size air cleaner. Consult with a customer service rep at a local home improvement center for options.
  • Don’t allow smoking inside your home or around your home (near your windows or doors).

Better

These are modestly priced and may require some advance planning.

  • Remodel in temperate months, when you can open outside doors and windows to naturally ventilate construction areas without reducing energy efficiency.
  • During the winter and summer months, when heating and cooling systems are in heavy use, opening doors and windows will reduce your home’s energy efficiency. So if you’re doing any remodeling or home improvements that involve noxious fumes, it’s best to do the work when the weather is mild and you can have doors and windows open.
  • Use low-emitting, low-maintenance building materials to achieve improved indoor air quality year round.
  • Selecting low-VOC (low in volatile organic compounds), low-emitting, low-maintenance products can help you reduce the amount of pollution released into your home’s indoor air, thereby avoiding the need to take more drastic steps to clean dirty air.
  • Reduce the use of carpeting, and keep carpeting clean and dry. Carpeting absorb water and trap particulates and other contaminants. Where possible, select a non-absorptive type of flooring. Never use carpeting in the kitchen, bathroom, laundry room, basement or other areas of the house that are regularly exposed to moisture.
  • Add a fresh air intake to your forced-air heating/cooling system’s ducting. A fresh air intake will allow fresh replacement air to enter the house when you’re using exhaust fans or the fireplace. If you already have a ducted air system, you can add a dedicated outdoor air opening by extending the return-air ductwork to the outside. To ensure fresh air delivery, use a system with automated circulation (e.g., a fan-cycler). You may also want to install a filter in this outdoor air source to capture air contaminants such as pollen and prevent them from entering your house. Consult with your heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) service contractor for options.
  • Install a whole house fan system. A “whole house” fan system brings stale indoor air upwards and out the top of the house through the attic vents. This type of fan system also provides a good, energy-efficient alternative to air conditioning on moderately warm days. With the hot and humid climate in Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas, also consider using a dehumidifier.
  • If you have an attached garage, tightly seal the wall between the garage and your conditioned space and install an exhaust fan system that either runs continuously or uses an automatic timer linked to an occupancy sensor, garage door opener, or carbon monoxide detector.

Best

Even if you take all of the steps above, your home could still contain sources of indoor air pollution. The following are some additional technologies and strategies that may be more complex and costly to implement, but they can provide substantial improvements.

  • Install an energy recovery ventilator (ERV) to provide a continuous supply of fresh air while minimizing loss of heat and water vapor. This ventilation system (also referred to as an air-to-air heat exchanger) is connected to the existing forced-air heating/cooling system and uses fans to exchange stale indoor air with fresh outdoor air. Note that these systems cost several thousand dollars and will require the assistance of your HVAC service contractor.
  • Use a heat pump water heater to increase energy efficiency and improve indoor air quality. Heat pumps achieve energy efficiency by moving heat around as opposed to liberating it — the heat for the next batch of water to be heated is reclaimed from the warm, humid air being exhausted. Heat pump water heaters use 30 to 50 percent of the electricity consumed by conventional electric water heaters. Note that a heat pump water heater may not be available at your home’s location; ask your HVAC service contractor if such a system is an option.

Whole House Ventilation

While pursing a whole-house systems approach to energy efficiency, Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas-area homeowners will not want to overlook the easily overlooked ventilation system.

Ventilation may be altered when sealing and purging air leaks inside one’s home. Proper, adequate ventilation remains critical for the health and comfort of the home’s occupants and guests.

This post concludes a short series on ventilation, focusing on whole-house ventilation.

Sealed Too Tight

With the emphasis placed on energy conservation and saving money on monthly utility bills these days, it’s possible that air sealing and improving your Arlington, Fort Worth, or Dallas-area home’s “building envelope” goes too far.

Your home becomes too tight. The energy envelope keeps in the cool air inside in the summer (keeping the hot and humid air out) — a good thing. The envelope also keeps the warm air inside in the winter (keeping cold air and winds out) — another good thing.

But it also reduces air leakage to the point that indoor air pollution and contaminants with known health effects such as formaldehyde, volatile organic compounds, and radon are sealed into the house.

Another of ventilation’s important jobs is to help control moisture, which can lead to mold growth and structural damage. The idea is to vent the moisture outside the house while keeping outside moisture from entering and reducing the efficiency of your home’s heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) equipment.

Ventilation Math

The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) has determined that a home’s living area should be ventilated at a CFM rate determined by adding 3 percent of the conditioned space floor area to 7.5 times the number of bedrooms plus one as published by ASHRAE in 2013.

The formula, if you’re keeping score at home, looks something like this: Vent CFM = 0.03A + 7.5 (number of bedrooms plus one). Yeah, right. Got it.

If you have concerns regarding your home’s ventilation performance, call your Arlington, Fort Worth, or Dallas-area HVAC service contractor for an inspection. As you have ventilation related concerns, make sure the service tech(s) has/have experience working with ventilation issues. If not, you may want to look elsewhere.

In some cases you may need information or help with combustion equipment in the house, which may be out of the wheelhouse of experience for your HVAC contractor. The most knowledgeable people for combustion issues are gas utility service techs, heating specialists, and home inspection professionals, which are easily found throughout the Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas area.

If you need to know how the combustion equipment in your home affects other equipment and the house itself, talk to weatherization contractors, home inspection service professionals, or EPA-listed radon mitigation contractors, also found throughout the Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas area.

Ventilation Strategies

There are three basic ventilation strategies — natural, spot, and whole-house that are appropriate for Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas-area homes.

Natural Ventilation

Natural ventilation is the uncontrolled air movement in and out of the cracks and small holes in a home. In the past, this air leakage usually diluted air pollutants enough to maintain adequate indoor air quality.

Today, we are sealing those cracks and holes to make our homes more energy-efficient. After a home is properly air sealed, ventilation is necessary to maintain a healthy and comfortable indoor environment.

Opening windows and doors provides natural ventilation, which may work for North Texas homeowners in the spring or fall, but even then humidity can negatively impact air conditioning.

Natural ventilation is unpredictable and uncontrollable — you can’t rely on it to ventilate a house uniformly.

Natural ventilation depends on a home’s air tightness, outdoor temperatures, wind, and other factors. During a mild weather, some homes may lack sufficient natural ventilation for pollutant removal.

During windy or extreme weather, a home that hasn’t been air sealed properly will be drafty, uncomfortable, and expensive to heat and cool.

Spot Ventilation

Spot ventilation can improve the effectiveness of natural and whole-house ventilation by removing indoor air pollution and/or moisture at its source — most notably in the kitchen and bathrooms.

A bit more math: ASHRAE recommends intermittent or continuous ventilation rates for bathrooms of 50 or 20 cubic feet per minute and kitchens of 100 or 25 cubic feet per minute, respectively.

Spot ventilation fans in Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas-area homes meet ASHRAE specs. If the fans are weak or aging, they can easily be replaced. Check first with a customer service rep at a local home improvement center regarding options and availability.

Whole-house Ventilation

The decision to use whole-house ventilation is typically motivated by concerns that natural ventilation won’t provide adequate air quality, even with source control by spot ventilation.

Whole-house ventilation systems provide controlled, uniform ventilation throughout a house. These systems use one or more fans and duct systems to exhaust stale air and/or supply fresh air to the house.

There are four types of whole-house systems:

  • Exhaust ventilation systems work by depressurizing the building and are relatively simple and inexpensive to install.
  • Supply ventilation systems work by pressurizing the building, and are also relatively simple and inexpensive to install.
  • Balanced ventilation systems, if properly designed and installed, neither pressurize nor depressurize a house. Rather, they introduce and exhaust approximately equal quantities of fresh outside air and polluted inside air.
  • Energy recovery ventilation systems provide controlled ventilation while minimizing energy loss. They reduce the costs of heating ventilated air in the winter by transferring heat from the warm inside air being exhausted to the fresh (but cold) supply air. In the summer, the inside air cools the warmer supply air to reduce ventilation cooling costs.

Homeowners may require the assistance of an Arlington, Fort Worth, or Dallas area service contractor regarding the purchase and installation of a balanced or energy recovery ventilation system.

Ventilation for Cooling

Lastly, ventilation for cooling is the least expensive and most energy-efficient way to cool buildings. Ventilation works best when combined with techniques to avoid heat buildup in your home. In some climates — not North Texas — natural ventilation is sufficient to keep the house comfortable, although it usually needs to be supplemented with spot ventilation, ceiling fans, window fans, and—in larger homes—whole-house fans.

Ventilation is not an effective cooling strategy in the hot, humid climate of Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas, where temperature swings between day and night are small.

In these climates, however, natural ventilation of your attic will help to reduce your use of air conditioning. Attic fans may also help keep cooling costs down.

Whole House Energy Efficiency: Ventilation Part 2

Here’s a quick ventilation pop quiz. Just answer yes or no.

  • Is your Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas-area home free of lingering odors? Notice the emphasis: lingering.
  • Are your windows free of condensation? That moisture that settles in between the glass panes?
  • Is your dryer vented outside? Or do you get some of that humid air back inside?
  • Is each fuel-burning device — most notably the furnace and hot water heater — vented separately?
  • Are the exhaust ducts in unheated spaces insulated?
  • Is the exhaust fan over the kitchen stove vented outdoors or back inside?
  • Are there exhaust fans in each bathroom?
  • Has your Arlington, Fort Worth, or Dallas-area home been tested for radon?
  • Are outdoor air inlets locate away from pollution sources?
  • Is each exhaust fan working and vented to the outdoors, not into the attic, soffit, or crawlspace?
  • Is the exhaust air condensation free?

If you answered “no” to any of the questions, you should consider making some changes to your home’s ventilation system.

In continuing our posts on ventilation, we take a look at fixing your home’s ventilation — if changes are in order — and what to consider if you need the assistance of an Arlington, Fort Worth, or Dallas-area heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) service contractor.

Fixing Home Ventilation

While opening a window may seem like an easy, low-cost way to provide fresh air, you will need a fan to make sure this air goes where it is needed.

Good ventilation throughout your Arlington, Fort Worth, or Dallas-area home can be achieved at a reasonable cost. Depending on your home’s design, location, and the type of solution you select a ventilation system may cost in the range of $500 to $1,500, including installation from a service contractor or professional.

The added cost to operate a typical ventilation system will be approximately $100 to $200 per year, depending on your location, the system used, and how your home was built.

With new construction, operating costs can be minimized by building a well-insulated, tightly sealed home with a well-designed ventilation system.

These same features in existing homes can reduce operating costs because many homes leak air more than they need to. Some ventilation systems include energy-recovery features. While more expensive to install, in time they can pay for themselves in energy savings.

Checking Existing Fans

A good place to start with home ventilation is checking the function of existing fans.

The Baby Powder Test

From six inches away, squeeze a cloud of baby powder from its container toward the intake grille of an operating exhaust fan. If the fan is working properly, the powder should be drawn into the grille. If it goes to the center of the grille and is blown back into the room, then the fan is blocked; if the powder simply hangs in the air, the fan is not working.

The Cardboard Test

Find a cardboard box with an opening big enough to fit over the exhaust fan grille. If the fan is mounted in the wall, cut a hole slightly smaller than a credit card in the bottom of the box, or, if the fan is mounted on the ceiling, in the side of the box.

Using any kind of tape, attach a credit card inside the box over the hole. Make sure the card can swing back and forth in the box. Turn the fan on and put the box over the exhaust grille. If the fan is working, the credit card will swing into the box. The greater the air flow, the more the credit card will swing open. If it swings open 1 1⁄2 inches or more, the fan is moving at least 25 cubic feet of air per minute, which is a reasonable amount for a bathroom. If the card swings open less than 1 1⁄2 inches, you should consider repairing or replacing the exhaust fan. Use a pencil instead of a ruler to measure how far the card swings open, because a ruler will block the air flow.

Selecting a Contractor

Whether designing a new home or improving the ventilation in your existing home, you will probably need the services of an experienced HVAC contractor in the Arlington, Fort Worth, or Dallas area.

Start with the HVAC contractor you already use to service and repair your existing HVAC equipment. As you have ventilation related concerns, ask if the service tech(s) has/have experience working with ventilation issues. If not, you may want to look elsewhere for service support.

In some cases you may need information or help with combustion equipment that’s in the house, which may be out of the wheelhouse of experience for your HVAC contractor. The most knowledgeable people here are gas utility service techs, heating specialists, and home inspection professionals, which are easily found throughout the Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas area.

IF you need to know how the combustion equipment in your home affects other equipment and the house itself, talk to weatherization contractors, home inspection professionals, or EPA-listed radon mitigation contractors, also found throughout the Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas area.

When hiring a building contractor, be sure to get a complete cost estimate for the time and world involved, not just a “ballpark” figure. You should also inquire about guarantees about the quality of work and materials and assurances that can transfer the guarantees or warranties to a new owner should you sell the home. Every service contractor should show proof of liability insurance.

Talking to Contractors

When you talk to service contractors and technicians, it’s important to determine how well they understand ventilation basics and systems. Here are some questions to ask:

  • What kind of ventilation training do you have?
  • What courses have you taken?
  • Who provided the training (and are they reputable)?
  • Who are your references?
  • Do you have any photographs, either printed or on a website, to show of ventilation systems you’ve installed?
  • What tests will you perform to determine problems with the current equipment and the building itself?
  • What will the new system involve, especially concerning installation and any issues encountered?
  • How long will it take you to install the system?
  • Exactly how will the system work to alleviate any ventilation issues you are having?
  • How will my heating/cooling bills be affected?
  • How much service or maintenance will this system require?

Next Up

A look at good, better, best ventilation strategies for whole-house energy efficiency.

Whole House Energy Efficiency: Ventilation 101

Except for the fan and vent over the stove, few homeowners ever think about the ventilation in their homes. Proper ventilation, however, is becoming an important deliberation when considering heating and cooling improvements, utility bills, and energy efficiency.

Why?

The Environmental Protection Agency notes that people spend about 90 percent of their time inside and indoor air pollution is becoming a bigger health risk than pollution in the air outside, even in big cities and industrial areas.

Ventilation is about your health. Good ventilation protects you, your family, and visitors to your home in the Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas area from unpleasant odors, irritating pollutants, and potentially dangerous gases like carbon monoxide and radon. Well-planned ventilation also prevents growth of mold and mildew.

Ventilation is about your home. Good ventilation protects your Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas-area home from damage by eliminating moisture from the air, which rots window sills and attic eaves, peels paint, and encourages insect infestation, which invites service and repair calls to your home from contractors other than heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC).

Damp insulation in the ceiling and walls also means heat loss, higher fuel bills, and destructive mold growth, meaning more service and repair calls from a variety of contractors and service provider. Excess moisture damages carpet, wallpaper, electronics, and furniture.

This post introduces a brief series on the importance of proper ventilation in your Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas-area home. Here we take a basic look at ventilation.

What is Ventilation?

Ventilation (examples of residential ventilation) supplies fresh air to your home and dilutes or removes stale air. You can do this in several ways — opening windows, turning on the fan over the kitchen stove or in a bathroom to remove odors and moisture.

Other fans include chimneys (removing combustion gases) and clothes dryer fans (removing warm, moist air and chemicals from laundry soaps).

For the most part, the ventilation in your home should require little or no service — a reason by people rarely ever think of their home’s ventilation efficiency.

However, if you notice any of the following you may have a ventilation problem, requiring your attention or the expertise of an HVAC service contractor in the Arlington, Fort Worth, or Dallas area. These include:

  • sour smell of garbage from a trash can (it’s more than taking the stinky trash out, your home may not be properly venting and removing annoying odors)
  • musty smell coming from bedroom walls
  • mold or mildew in closets
  • mold or mildew on ceilings or exterior walls
  • condensation on the inside of windows
  • your eyes may be irritated when you’re home.

We’ll take a look at ventilation issues in the next post. But first we’ll cover the basics of ventilation.

Ventilation Basics

There are two basic approaches to ventilating your Arlington, Fort Worth, or Dallas-area home:

  • Spot ventilation for localized pollution sources
  • General ventilation to dilute pollutants from sources that exist in many locations or move from place to place. This is provided in two ways: exhaust-only and supply-and-exhaust.

No matter if exhaust-only or supply-and-exhaust is used, spot ventilation is also needed in places like bathrooms and kitchens where strong odors originate.

Spot Ventilation

Spot ventilation uses exhaust fans to collect and remove pollutants before they spread throughout your Arlington, Fort Worth, or Dallas-area home. The exhaust fan is generally turned on only when the source is producing pollutants.

Bathrooms, kitchens, and laundry rooms all contain obvious sources of moisture and odors. Spot ventilation may also be appropriate for home offices, hobby rooms, or service areas/workshops.

General Ventilation

General ventilation fans run all the time to control pollutants from sources that can’t be spot-ventilated. People and pets constantly release flakes of skin, bacteria, viruses, moisture, body odors, and digestive gases. Some sources, including carpets, furniture, and drapes release fabric fibers and gases such as formaldehyde. These are too large or spread out to be spot-ventilated.

General ventilation mixes fresh outdoor air with stale indoor air to dilute the concentration of pollutants. Fresh air is provided by fans blowing outdoor air into the house, which forces air out through cracks and openings (pressurizing), or by exhausting air from the house, which then draws fresh air inside (depressurizing).

Exhaust-only

With exhaust-only ventilation, exhaust fans pull stale air out of your home while drawing fresh air in through cracks, windows, or fresh air intakes. If you use this strategy, your home will be depressurized. Exhaust-only ventilation is a good choice for homes that do not have existing ductwork to distribute heated or cooled air. However, if there is radon in the soil around the house, this method can increase indoor radon levels.

Supply-and-exhaust

With supply-and-exhaust ventilation, exhaust fans pull stale air out of the house while intake fans blow in fresh air. This system is more complex than exhaust-only, but may ensure the best flow of fresh air into your home. Outdoor air is drawn in by fans and delivered to rooms through heating and cooling ducts. Supply-and-exhaust ventilation is a good choice for homes with heating or cooling ducts because it’s an inexpensive way of providing fresh air. Some homes may benefit from energy-recovery ventilation, which warms (or cools) incoming air with outgoing exhaust air.

Backdrafting

Furnaces, hot water heaters, and fireplaces need air to burn fuel and exhaust combustion gases up the chimney. A house under enough negative pressure can pull air down the chimney, drawing combustion gases such as carbon monoxide into the house. This is called “backdrafting” and is a very serious condition that can quickly cause severe injury or even death. Before installing a ventilation system, you should have your home checked to make sure there is adequate make-up air for the fuel-burning equipment. After the system has been installed, or after any major structural changes have been made, it is very important to recheck for both backdrafting and radon.

Next Up

Fixing your Arlington, Fort Worth, or Dallas-area home’s ventilation problems and selecting service contractors, if needed.

Whole-house energy efficiency: Installing Insulation

Like sealing air leaks to make your Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas-area home more whole-house energy efficient, adding insulation to your attic is something Do-It-Yourself homeowners can do.

This post is not a step-by-step How-To guide for installing batt (blanket/roll) or “blown-in” insulation. For that level of detail search the internet on how to install fiberglass insulation and how to install blown-in insulation. And don’t forget YouTube, which has loads of helpful instructional video.

Rather, this post provides pointers and tips and gotchas for working with two of the most common insulation materials found in Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas homes and readily available at home improvement centers like Lowe’s and Home Depot.

Preparation

As with any home project, the more prepared you are, the better prepared your work area and materials are, the smoother everything will run. That’s what the service techs recommend.

This post assumes you’ve already eyeballed the attic’s existing insulation, measured the length and width of the area to determine square footage, and you know the R-value (the rating for the thermal resistance of insulation) and amount of material needed for the project.

If you are unsure of the amount of insulation to use, you can always call your heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) contractor in Arlington, Fort Worth, or Dallas and ask for a service tech’s input, which he should provide if you’ve been giving the company business. If he refuses, find another contractor.

Another option is to discuss your needs with a service rep at Lowe’s or Home Depot. Bring a picture or three of the attic on a cell phone, if you have one, to help facilitate the discussion.

Insulation Pointers

  • If you use your attic for storage, which is popular among homeowners in Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas, consider not doing it. The flooring is probably plywood and chances are there is no or not enough insulation underneath. It’s not a big deal if it’s a small spot but larger areas could waste energy. You may need to pull up the plywood, if nailed in place, add material, and then replace.
  • Protect fixtures. It’s important to keep the insulation away from recessed lighting fixtures. Use 10-inch tall flashing or mesh to surround the fixture with 3 inches of surrounding space. Flashing, which can be bought at any Arlington, Fort Worth, or Dallas home improvement or hardware store, can also be used around heating fixtures, chimney flues, and anything else that generates heat.
  • Install soffit-vent chutes, which prevent soffit vents from being covered by insulation to maintain good air circulation in the attic. Use a stapler to install the chutes.
  • Inspection. If you haven’t already done this, take a closer look at the existing insulation and joists. Look for water stains or damp moldy spots. These can indicate small leaks that you have not discovered yet. If you can find, fix. If there is evidence of leakage, you may want to contact a roofing expert or have the service tech from your contractor check it out. Leaks are no fun.

Prepare Materials, Safety Equipment, and Tools

  • Duh. A no-brainer, but do-it-yourselfers often forget to do the little things and end up creating additional work like running up and down the attic steps/ladder to get a flashlight, extra blades for the utility knife, or an additional dust mask. Service pros do this, too, just not as often.
  • Bring a flashlight with a strong beam and a bright, battery-powered safety light. Halogen-bulb work lights are electric, run extremely hot to the touch, and could present a fire hazard if accidentally knocked over.
  • Safety glasses.
  • Dust or protective mask. These can be cheap, two-strap throw-aways or moderately-priced, reusable respirators (great for sanding, refinishing furniture, painting projects). You DO NOT want to spend a couple of hours breathing insulation dust deep into your lungs. It can make you sick.
  • Hard hat or some sort of protection for your head to protect from sharp, protruding roofing nails.
  • Retractable utility knife and/or sheet metal scissors.
  • Straightedge for cutting.
  • Work gloves.
  • Optional: loose-fitting coveralls, particularly if installing fiberglass. (Insulation seems harmless enough until the fiberglass digs into your sweaty arm and you start scratching because the material is itchy. There’s a reason why service techs don’t wear shorts in the summer.)
  • Plywood board(s). It’s not easy moving around a dark attic, making sure you step on joists and not put your foot through (or fall through) ceiling drywall. Find (or purchase) a board(s) with at least a three-inch overhang to insure your stability while standing, squatting, kneeling, sitting, twisting.

Tips and Gotchas

  • Don’t forget to bring water, especially if you are working in the Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas summer heat. Work early in the day. Drink. Hydrate.
  • Bring your mobile phone, if you have one. This is as much for convenience — “Honey, can you bring me the flashlight?” — as it is for safety or an emergency.

Installation

  • Work from the perimeter of the attic towards the door so you won’t trample over the insulation just installed.
  • Cover the tops of the ceiling joists to make sure the insulation is thick enough to reach your target R-value and prevent thermal bridging (the heat loss that occurs through the wood framing).

Working with Batts

  • Use “unfaced” batts (with no paper or foil material on one side — you can buy this way at one of the Arlington, Fort Worth, or Dallas home improvement centers) when laying the material for the first time and to keep moisture from being trapped between old and new layers.
  • Place a new layer of batts perpendicular to the old layer to cover any gaps in the lower layer. Batts should butt snugly together but not too tight or they may compress, hindering performance.
  • Do not lay heavier batts, such as cotton, over lighter ones like fiberglass. The lower layer will compress and become less effective in time.
  • Cut batts to fit around obstructions. Don’t stuff or cram material around fixtures, ducts, piping. It will compress and reduce insulating properties.
  • Eliminate gaps between batts and joists, obstructions, and abutting batts. Narrow gaps allow air to escape. Cut a thin strip of insulation to size to plug the gap.

Working with Loose Fill

This assumes that you have decided to install the loose fill yourself. You can do this manually, by spreading the material by hand, or you can rent an insulation blower at an Arlington, Fort Worth, or Dallas home improvement center. Call to ask if your favorite store rents the power equipment; some do not.

In either scenario:

  • Make sure the fill’s depth is uniform across the attic. Screw depth guides to joists throughout the attic to make it easier to eyeball the level as you blow in or manually distribute the material.
  • Hold the blower hose parallel to the floor and floor joists. Blow in the fill between and over the joists rather than across them. This helps the material to settle properly and achieve the right density.
  • To get the target R-value from the product you chose, use all the bags your calculations show you need. If you’ve reached your target depth and have a few bags left over, add the material at an even depth until all the bags are used.
  • Use temporary flashing around the attic door hatch to keep material from blowing out.
  • If you are installing by hand and not using a blower, create a barrier where the joists meet the rafters to keep the loose fill from leaking out under the eaves.

In most cases, you can complete the entire insulation project from inspection, to buying materials, to preparation, to installation and cleanup in a couple of days or over a weekend.

Whole-house energy efficiency: Understanding Insulation

Another important aspect to the whole-house systems approach to energy efficiency is improving the insulation in your Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas-area home.

In fact, improving your home’s insulation and sealing air leaks are the fastest and most cost-effective ways to reduce energy waste and make the most of your energy dollars.

You’ll want to seal air leaks before you insulate because insulating materials will not block leaks.

A properly insulated attic, contends the U.S. Department of Energy, reduces heating and cooling bills by 10 to 50 percent, depending on a number of variables like age and efficiency of the heating and cooling equipment and the quality of the home’s “energy envelope.”

In this post we take a look at insulation basics and, in the next installment, we take a look at installation.

Why Insulate?

If you are building a new home and have the option of choosing insulation and an energy conservation strategy like the whole-house approach, fantastic. Take advantage of it as best you can.

But a majority of us live in older homes with, most likely, not enough insulation in the first place or it’s “aged” and not as “productive” as it was when first installed.

The thought of spending money on insulation is about as appealing as having our feet covered in fire ants at a July BBQ.

But, wait.

Adding insulation to the attic isn’t as difficult or as cost prohibitive as you might think and the bang-for-the-buck return can be impressive, depending on your HVAC system and your home’s “energy environment.”

For the most part, installing insulation is midway on the easy-to-difficult Do-It-Yourself spectrum. If you’re handy around the house and, in one possible scenario, don’t mind using power equipment, you can do this.

If you prefer not to mess with it, call your Arlington, Fort Worth, or Dallas HVAC service contractor, an insulation company, or the local home improvement center like Lowe’s or Home Depot, which will send a service rep to your home for an inspection and materials-and-labor quote.

Basic Home Physics

Proper insulation (air sealing) keeps the attic cold in the winter by blocking warm and moist air from below — remember, the heat you are paying for rises.

In the summer, natural air flow in a well-ventilated attic moves hot air — really, really hot air in Texas summers — out of the attic and the insulation resists heat transfer into the house. The more heat flow resistance the lower your heating and cooling costs.

Even the most common insulation materials slow conductive heat flow and, to a lesser extent, convective heat flow. To maintain comfort, the heat lost in the winter must be replaced by the heating system and the heat gained in the summer must be removed by the cooling system. Proper insulation will decrease this heat flow by providing an effective resistance to the flow of heat.

How Much Insulation is Needed?

A vexing question, to be sure. But let’s keep it simple.

Inspection First

  • Climb the ladder/stairs into the attic, bring a flashlight with a strong beam, and a tape measure.
  • Take a few minutes to look across the span of the attic, from one corner to the next, all the way around.
  • If the insulation is level with or below the floor joists you need to add more.
  • If you cannot see the floor joists because the insulation is well above them, congratulations you probably have enough and adding more is not cost effective.
  • If you want a more precise reading, poke the tape measure through the insulation until it hits the drywall underneath. Take note of the depth.

What’s Up There

  • Energy.gov publishes a map (view PDF) of recommended insulation levels in the United States. Arlington, Fort Worth, Dallas, and surrounding areas are in Zone 2, close to Zone 3. In both zones, it is recommended to add insulation with R-values of 25 to 38 to attics with 3 to 4 inches of existing material.
  • Insulation is measured in terms of thermal resistance, or R-value. The higher the R-value, the greater the insulation effectiveness. R-value depends on the type of insulation, what it is made from, thickness, and density. R-value is clearly indicated, so choosing the right one is not difficult.
  • Expect to add 7 to 10 inches of insulation to significantly improve your home’s thermal protection, although less might be appropriate depending, again, on variables. Search Google for “insulation calculators” to find calculator choices (from Lowe’s, Home Depot, Owens Corning, others) to determine how much insulation is needed.
  • The final investment depends on the square footage of your attic and the cost of the insulation you’ve chosen, either by roll (or batt) or service like “blown in” insulation.
  • Don’t forget to check for rebates and credits for Arlington, Fort Worth, Dallas and, in general, Texas

Insulation Types

There are many types of insulation, including:

  • Loose Fill
  • Granular Fill
  • Batt (or blanket)
  • Spray Foam
  • Rigid Foam

The good thing is you do not need to match the existing insulation in your attic. If these choices (and the materials below) confuse you, call your HVAC service company, an insulation specialist, or go to one of the home improvement centers in Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas and talk insulation with a customer service rep.

Insulation Materials

There are many types of insulating materials; these are the most common for Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas. If you want to learn more, Energy.gov has several exhaustive (technical) documents available to read, and there is always building insulation materials on Wikipedia. In general:

Fiberglass

Fiberglass (or glass wool) is made of extremely fine glass fibers which are heated and fused together. It is one of the most ubiquitous insulation materials and is available in new home construction or retrofits. It comes in rolls (also known as blankets), loose fill, rigid boards, and duct insulation products.

Fiberglass is lighter in weight than cellulose (see below) but settles more than some other materials so you need a thicker layer for better protection. It’s an easy material for DIYers to work with, although take basic safety precautions. It can be itchy and irritate the lungs and skin.

Cellulose

Cellulose insulation is made of fibers from post consumer paper, primarily newsprint, and has a high recycled material content (82 to 85 percent). It’s treated for insect and fire resistance. The paper is first reduced to small pieces then fibered to create a product that packs tightly into building cavities and restricts air flow.

Cellulose materials are used in both new and existing homes as loose-fill installations and can be done by DIYers or as a service provided by HVAC and insulation companies in the Arlington, Fort Worth, Dallas areas. Advantages are thermal performance, long-term cost savings, sound insulation, mold and pest control, fire retardation, and vapor barrier. Disadvantages are dust, installation (can be hard for DIYers), slumping, weight, and mold.

Mineral Wool

Mineral wool is made of fibers from rock or recycled slag from blast furnaces. It offers natural fire resistance but costs more than other materials. It does not require additional chemicals to make it insect or fire resistant and is commonly available in batts and rolls and loose-fill.

Natural Fiber Insulation Materials

This is kinda cool. There are insulations made out of cotton — one product uses recycled blue jeans! — sheep’s wool, hemp, and even straw (modernized, of course, from the days 150 years ago when homes were built on the Great Plains). Cotton insulation is non-toxic, so you can install it without using respiratory or skin exposure protection. It also acts as a sound transmission buffer. Cotton, however, is 15 to 20 percent more expensive than fiberglass or cellulose and can be difficult to cut, requires a vapor retarder, and may be hard to dry if a leak occurs.

Next Up

A quick look at installing insulation.

The Next Step for Whole-house energy efficiency: DIY air sealing

Sealing air leaks and improving insulation in your Arlington, Fort Worth, or Dallas-area home are the fastest and most cost-effective ways to reduce waste and make the most of your utility dollars as you take a whole-house approach to energy efficiency.

Be sure to seal air leaks before you insulate because insulating materials won’t block leaks.

In this post we look at materials to seal air leaks, where to start, and what to do.

Quick Air-Sealing Refresher

Cold air infiltrates the base of the home, then rises through the house (creating drafts) and exits through the attic. It’s the chimney effect.

In order to minimize this effect, heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) service techs and energy specialists recommend you seal the attic first (and basement, but that’s not applicable in much of North Texas).

Needed Materials

Caulk, spray foam, and weatherstripping are the basic materials you need. These are inexpensive and readily available at any Arlington, Fort Worth, or Dallas-area home improvement center or hardware store.

How efficiently you seal air leaks depends on the size and location of the leaks and choosing the right material for the job.

Plug larger holes with pieces of drywall or cardboard. You can also stuff holes with plastic bags filled with scraps of fiberglass insulation. For most openings, caulking, sealants, and weatherstripping are the best solutions.

Caulk

Caulk is a semi-solid, toothpaste-like substance you apply into gaps no wider than 3/8 of an inch where different building materials meet. For the job at hand, you’ll want to use tubes and a caulking gun. Caulk is also available in card or rope form and put into place with your fingers.

For the Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas climate, choose a caulk that seals well in both the cold and heat. If you are unsure of the right caulk for a specific application, make note of the location to discuss with a customer service or sales rep at a Lowe’s, Home Depot, or favorite local hardware store.

You’ll need different caulk for different surfaces, inside and outside. Some caulk is weatherproof, some not. Some can be painted, some cannot. Some expands, some do not. Generally, high-end caulk seals better, lasts longer, and isn’t much more expensive than the cheap stuff.

Air sealing is one area where you don’t want to scrimp on materials because a poorly sealed crack is still a crack.

Weatherstripping Options for Doors

Foam sealants are commonly used for large gaps up to one inch. Once applied, the foam expands to fill and seal the space and, like caulk, hardens when it dries.

The two most common types are urethane and latex foam. These are readily available at Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas-area hardware and building supply stores. If you are unsure of the differences between them (mostly due to drying time and cleaning requirements) ask someone in customer service to help.

Weatherstripping eliminates gaps between movable parts when they are closed (around the perimeters of exterior doors and operable windows. It can be made of metal, foam, rubber, vinyl, or felt and is often sold by the foot or in pre-packaged kits.

If possible match the product that originally came with the door or windows. The finished result will look its best and be the most effective. Some materials are nailed or tacked into place, others are applied with self-adhesive tape. Well-installed weatherstripping will be slightly compressed when the doors and windows are closed.

As with caulk and foam sealants, if you have questions regarding weatherstripping and installation ask a customer service rep in building supplies.

Where To Start

Start at the Top

Attention to the attic will save the most on your energy bills. Every opening in the ceiling is a potential “chimney” for conditioned air to escape. Check around electrical wires, light fixtures, recessed can lights, chimneys, stove flues, ductwork, plumbing vent pipes, and along the tops of walls.

Attic Culprits

If you have a finished attic you may have knee-walls (side walls under eaves). In many cases the insulation and air barriers behind the walls and under the floor are inadequate to minimize air flow.

There are three steps to effectively sealing attics with knee-walls:

  • Seal air leaks between the heated and unheated space. This includes rigid foam insulation blocks between the joists and sealing them with spray foam or caulk.
  • Adding more insulation above the flat ceiling
  • Adding more insulation batts behind the knee-walls (the vapor barrier is toward the heated side of the wall)

Attic Access

If you have an attic door, attach fire-coded rigid insulation to the back, then weatherstrip around the sides and top and add a door sweep.

If you have an attic access panel, insulate the back with a minimum R-20 rigid insulation, then add weather stripping around the perimeter. Make sure the latches provide a tight fit.

If you have pull-down stairs, create an insulated overhead cover that will fit above the stairs and can be hinged or slid to the side when you go into the attic. Install weatherstripping around the perimeter of the door.

Recessed Lights

Recessed lights can be a source of significant air leaks. The most energy efficient (and also the most expensive) option is to replace them with ceiling mounted lights or airtight fixtures.

If you want to continue using your old fixtures and minimize air leakage, experts recommend installing a box built from wallboard and sealed with caulk around each fixture to stop the air leakage. If you go this route, be sure each box is constructed to prevent insulation from contacting the fixture and creating a potential fire hazard (3″ minimum clearance is recommended).

Check with a customer service rep at an Arlington, Fort Worth, or Dallas-area home improvement center to see if the store carries a cover for recessed lights.

Soffits, Bulkheads and Dropped Ceilings

Cover any large open holes into the attic space with plywood that is caulked into place to minimize air infiltration, then lay insulation over the plywood.

Chimneys

If you have a metal chimney, check the condition of the metal collar where it meets the roof and repair if necessary.

If you have a brick chimney, check for gaps between the chimney and the wood framing around it. Fill any gaps with a minimum of 26-gauge metal/galvanized metal or other fire rated material flashing, then sealed with fire rated caulk or sealant.

Plumbing Vent Stacks

Seal any gaps around the pipe with an expanding foam sealant.

Utility

Before you put your caulk and foam away, seal around any utility penetrations that pass to the outside (including dryer vents or other ductwork, dog fence and other wiring, and electrical, phone, gas, cable or water utility related pipes).

Seal and Insulate Ductwork

If you have a forced air heating system, it pays to seek out leaks in both the supply and return ducts in attics and crawl spaces. Make sure all the pieces are properly connected. With the furnace fan operating, run your hand over the duct seams/joints to feel for air leaks. Holes in supply ducts will blow air out of the system, and gaps in return ducts will suck air into the system.

Plug any leaks you find with foil duct tape (not gray Duct Tape), or better yet, use water-based mastic coupled with glass fiber mesh tape. Once the leaks are fixed, insulate ducts located in unheated areas with foil-faced glass fiber duct insulation. Just wrap the insulation around the duct and secure it into place.

Check with a customer service rep at an Arlington, Fort Worth, or Dallas-area home improvement center for foil duct tape, water-based mastic, and glass fiber mesh tape.

Hire a Professional To:

  • Replace, augment or install insulation in hard to reach places (such as behind knee-walls or above attic ceiling). A pro will be able to tell you about alternatives and the cost of each.
  • Repair and seal the chimney exterior.
  • Insulate behind soffits, bulkheads and dropped ceilings.
  • Install boxes over recessed lighting fixtures.
  • Install rigid foam under attic floor boards and seal it in with foam or caulk.