Stop Leaking Cash – Easy Ways to Crush Your Energy Bills

When we purchased our home, it was tough to keep it heated. It’s a slightly bigger house than our last, but our oil consumption was nearly double. After having an energy audit performed, we discovered it had more holes than Swiss cheese. Luckily, sealing a home from air leaks is easy to do, doesn’t require special tools, and can be done very cheaply. After a lot of sealing, we can now heat the entire 1700 square foot house with a small wood stove during the harshest New England winter days, and many days we don’t need to run any heating or cooling.I had a suspicion our house wasn’t insulated well when the previous owner told us that the original heat pump they installed was too small for the house. They thought a larger unit was required, which they got. While I was glad they had “remedied” the issue, I wasn’t convinced that the house needed such a big unit.

One of the first things I did when we moved in was to add insulation in the attic. The easiest and cleanest way to add insulation is to lay down some rolls of unfaced fiberglass insulation right over top of the existing insulation. This did help a lot, but it doesn’t matter what R value you put in if you have a drafty house.

The insulation didn’t make enough of an improvement, so we decided to get an energy audit on the home – something we should have done first. Energy audits are subsidized in most states, and in Connecticut you can get them through your electric company for about $124 – you might even qualify for a free audit if you are low-income. It’s an incredible deal – two technicians spent an entire day sealing air leaks, testing our heating system, and installing energy efficient light bulbs and low flow shower heads.

When they completed the audit, the technician was excited to inform me, “This is the biggest improvement we’ve ever seen!” Using a blower door, they tested our home’s air leakage before and after their efforts – they had managed to log a 20% reduction. The difference we noticed afterward was phenomenal. I spent the next few years adding to their improvements, and now it takes less energy to heat our 40 year-old home than I thought possible.

DIY Energy Audit – How to seal a house from drafts

While it’s nice to have a blower door, you don’t need one to identify air leaks in your home. Basically any spot where your drywall stops or has a hole in it, there can be a leak. Some common spots include around windows, doors, electrical outlets, baseboard trim, and any place plumbing goes through the wall or floor. Once you identify the leaks, simply seal them with either caulk or for larger gaps, spray foam.

Below are some of the most common air leaks that can easily be fixed by anyone.

Seal electrical outlets with foam gaskets

Anyplace you have an electrical outlet or a light switch, there is a hole in the drywall through which air escapes. The easiest fix is to get some foam outlet gaskets. All you have to do is remove the plastic outlet cover, slip the gasket over the outlet and reinstall the cover. I had one wall that was particularly bad, and with the gaskets installed I could still feel a draft coming through the unused outlet plug holes. I purchased some child proof outlet covers, and together with the gaskets, it made a significant improvement.

Seal plumbing under sinks with insulating spray foam

The biggest surprise for me was how much air was leaking from under our bathroom sink. Our hallway bathroom isn’t even against an exterior wall, but I had noticed that the mirrors never fogged up when using the shower. With the blower door running, I could feel the drafts around the pipes under our sink like a wind – cold air was coming up from the basement and hot air was escaping to the attic. Some spray foam around the pipes to seal the holes fixed the problem. A huge improvement can be made just by sealing the gaps around pipes under kitchen and bathrooms sinks.

Seal around window and door trim

When a window or door is installed, there is a gap between the window/door frame and the drywall. In most homes, this gap only has some fiberglass insulation stuffed into it – not anything that can stop airflow. The trim that covers this gap should be caulked on all sides to prevent air leaks. Not only will this seal off drafts, but eliminating the gaps will also will make the trim look much nicer.

Make sure doors seal by adding insulating tape and sweeps

In addition to exterior doors, any door that leads to an unheated part of the house should seal when closed. Often, doors to a garage, attic, or basement have no seal, but you can get insulating tape to place around the frame of the door so that it seals like an exterior door when closed. Also make sure all upright doors have a sweep to seal the gap between the door and the floor, they are easy to add and relatively cheap.

If you have a door to a utility room containing a furnace or boiler, do not seal it off. These appliances need to draw air for proper combustion, and to prevent backdrafts.

Seal baseboard trim with caulk

I was surprised to learn that a lot of air is also lost through baseboard trim. There is a big gap between the drywall and the floor which is covered by baseboard trim. This trim should be caulked on all sides to block airflow. Many of our rooms were carpeted, and when the carpet was removed, large gaps were left between the trim and the hardwood floor. These gaps had to be covered by a piece of quarter round trim before being caulked. As with window and door trim, caulking not only reduces drafts, but also improves aesthetics.

Quarter-round trim and caulk where the carpet left a gap.

Can you seal a house too tight?

It is possible to seal a home too tight, and many new green homes are sealed so well that they require mechanical ventilation to ensure good air quality. But with older homes, it’s nearly impossible to reach the level where you would need that. When our home was first audited, they measured 3250 CFM of airflow. The energy auditors recommended considering mechanical ventilation when airflow was less than the home’s square footage – so about 1700 CFM for our home. After the audit, we were down to 2600 CFM, much lower but still far shy of the 1700 CFM a tightly sealed green home might have. Either way, I highly recommend a professional energy audit in addition to DIY efforts.

The cost of heating our home used to be a big concern when considering early retirement in New England. We used to pay thousands of dollars a year for heating oil. Energy efficient heating systems like a geothermal heat pump are incredibly expensive, and the most effective way to save on heating and cooling bills is by using less energy. Sealing a home is the cheapest and most effective way to reduce energy needs. With our house well sealed, we can now heat our home mostly with firewood I gathered for free, and even when we don’t run the wood stove, our house now sips on oil rather than guzzling it.

26 thoughts on “Stop Leaking Cash – Easy Ways to Crush Your Energy Bills

  1. Oooh, I didn’t consider the foam gaskets for the outlets! It’s a shame since we just installed those damn things. I might need to give Mr. Picky Pincher a honey-do. 😉

    Are these measures good for insulating against heat as well? Luckily our winters are pretty mild here in Texas but the summers will kill you on the energy bills.

    We’re already evaluating our home for summer. We plan on insulating the attic in spring and installing solar screens over our single-paned windows (double-paned is ideal, but not in the budget I’m afraid).

    • These fixes will certainly help you with the summer heat. It’s all about preventing heat transfer, whether it’s in or out of the home. During the summer we rarely have to run our AC because our house keeps its cool 😉

      A good sealing will give you better results than some double pane windows, and for much less cash 🙂

  2. Man you just added to the honey do list…. In all seriousness great post with a great list of improvements. We had blow in insulation added to the attic when we redid the roof. In addition to lowering our heating bills it stopped an ice dam that sometimes formed on the roof, leading to less issues with roofing and snow.

    Our biggest problem is our addition which is elevated over a slab. The fiberglass insulation under the slab is clearly sub optimal. I’ve been contemplating seeing if they can do foam insulation on the underside.

    • Yeah, keeping the heat from going to the wrong places does a lot to prevent issues like the dreaded ice dams.

      Our addition was also a big problem for us, it was very leaky and poorly insulated. We managed to stop most of the leaking which made a huge improvement. Fiberglass insulation works fine so long as you can stop the airflow, but foam will insulate and make it airtight.

      Good luck with your to do list 😉

  3. Great stuff, Mr. CK!

    I like the technician’s optimism: “This is the biggest improvement we’ve ever seen!” Code for: “Your house gets lots of fresh air…” 🙂

    Gonna have to give those foam outlet things a try. I’ve noticed cold/hot air around outlets, but I had no idea there was a simple fix for that. (Childproof outlet covers, as you mention, also work pretty well. A nice secondary benefit there!)

    Useful stuff, and glad y’all are staying warm!

    • I didn’t keep the best records, but we went from using around 600 gallons of oil the first year down to 450 gallons after all of our initial improvements. The energy auditors had estimated a 10% reduction in our energy usage from their efforts alone. With added insulation and my additional sealing I estimate we reduced by close to 25% overall in the first few years. A great reduction, but our house was also pretty bad to start with.

      A couple years ago we added the wood stove, but also changed our hot water over to be heated with oil. Our oil consumption last year was only ~250 gallons. It’s been an ongoing optimization sealing more new leaks as I find them each year.

  4. Great tips! I have a background in energy management for commercial buildings. It seems that everyone wants to jump right into the ‘sexy’ things like solar panels and other cool technology, but I always stressed, that you have to reduce the overall consumption of a building first, before getting the fancy technology. Sealing up leaks is one of the fastest, cheapest and low impact means to achieve this. After all, “if it isn’t boring, it isn’t green.” 🙂

    • That’s awesome, reducing energy needs for a job must be quite rewarding!

      Sealing leaks yields excellent returns for very little capital, but of course walking around with caulk and spray foam isn’t as “sexy” as getting some fancy solar panels installed 🙂

      Great comment!

  5. It’s great you were able to get the house sealed up (and for a pretty sweet price, considering!). Great tips for lowering the energy bill!

    Last winter, we DIYed additional insulation in the attic and it’s made a significant difference in our energy costs. I admit, it was messy and didn’t make for a fun Friday night but it only took a couple of hours and didn’t cost much.

  6. This is really awesome. My wife and I really need to do an energy audit. While our bills aren’t that bad I’m sure there are room for improvements where we could recoup the costs of the audit. Thanks for the informative post and I know who I’m calling tomorrow 🙂

    • Our audit was subsidized and we recouped the cost just through all the energy efficient light bulbs and low flow shower heads they installed. Certainly a no-brainer if you can get a subsidized deal 🙂

  7. Thanks for the wise advise. When I switched from incandesent bulbs to cfl’s I noticed a drop in my electric bill. Now I’m switching to led’s. It will save me from getting on the stepladder and changing bulbs especially in high overhead lighting. One of the biggest air leaks was the 1960’s style kitchen exhaust fans which I removed and filled with foam. Small changes big savings.
    Thanks again!

  8. You inspired me to call up UI and schedule an energy audit for ourselves. Although I’m afraid I’m going to spent $124 for them to tell me that our addition was built on a concrete slab, and it will cost a gazillion dollars to fix.

    • Ha, my work is done! Don’t worry they’re there to help, not chastise. We had some serious leaks in our house, and I think they were just really excited (much more than I was to learn how bad our house was) to see such a huge improvement form their efforts 🙂

  9. Thanks for sharing your tips! We have an older home (over 60 years old). Although we haven’t had an energy audit, I’m fairly certain it wouldn’t turn out too well. We’ve replaced the original windows which helped, and I added insulation strips around doors to seal them off better.

    I had no idea that baseboards could be a leaky source of outside air. I’ll definitely have to go through these tips again and apply them to my home.

    • Maybe they should change the term from “energy audit” to “energy improvement exercise.” In which case, your house (like ours) would do great!

      Sounds like you’re off to a good start with the windows and door. I was also surprised about the baseboards, but if you think about it, all trim is just there to cover a gap and should be caulked on all sides. We had one wall where I could feel the breeze coming from the baseboard trim on a windy day. Some caulk fixed it up quick 🙂

  10. Great tips. Even though we don’t get to do these for now because we live in a rental, I’m always trying to find ways to stop leaks from the rental property to save the tenants money. I never thought of the foam gaskets!

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