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posted: 4/8/2012 5:20 AM

$ensible home: Wood not a good insulator

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Q: My wood front door needs to be refinished again. When I put my hand on it, it feels cold and I think I can feel a chilly breeze around it. Would a stainable fiberglass door be a good replacement for it?

A. In my opinion, no door compares in beauty to a finely finished natural wood door. Unfortunately, although most people think of wood as a good insulator, it actually is a poor insulator as compared to a steel or fiberglass door filled with insulation.

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If your current wood front door, or a new fiberglass one you are considering, has a lot of glass as many door models do today, the door material becomes less important from an insulation standpoint.

For example, many insulated fiberglass doors have uninsulated wood rails and stiles along the edges. If you also subtract the area of the glass, the insulated area may be only one-half of the total door. Select a new insulated door with minimum glass for efficiency and security. The significant efficiency advantage of a fiberglass door is it does not warp with changes in humidity and requires very little maintenance. My guess is much of the chilly sensation you feel around your existing wood door is from air leakage around the edges. If a wood door is not properly maintained and regularly sealed, even the best doors will warp and leak over time.

Modern fiberglass doors have natural grain rolled into the surface. Once they are stained and finished with urethane, it is difficult to distinguish one from real wood until you touch it. They also weigh less than a solid wood door, making them easier to open and close with your arms full.

I recommend using a staining and finishing kit from the door manufacturer. Most manufacturers offer a wide variety of stains and you know it will be compatible with the door surface material. Also, when it needs to be refinished, the stain in the refinishing kit will match. Even though it is fiberglass, if the door is exposed to the direct sun, it will need occasional refinishing.

There are several insulation options for fiberglass doors. Some use a preformed rigid foam insulation panel which fits inside the fiberglass skins. Others inject expanding foam inside the door after it is assembled. If both methods are done correctly, there is not a significant difference in efficiency so don't be swayed by marketing hype about one or another.

Since you probably will want some glass in your new door, make sure it is triple-pane, which provides two insulating air gaps. The insulated fiberglass door I have on my own house has the beveled decorative pane (plastic) in the middle. This protects it and makes the smooth indoor and outdoor glass surfaces easier to keep clean.

The following companies offer fiberglass entry doors: Peachtree Doors, (888) 888-3814, www.peachtreedoor.com; Pella, (800) 374-4758, www.pella.com; Plastpro, (800) 779-0561, www.plastpro.com; Taylor Door, (800) 248-3600, www.taylordoor.com; and Therma-Tru, (800) 843-7628, www.thermatru.com.

Q. We have a heat pump, but our neighbors have gas heat. Our heat pump cools well, but does not produce much heat. We cover it during winter like our neighbors do their air conditioners. Should we cover it?

A. It is fine to loosely cover the outdoor unit of a central air conditioner over winter to keep out debris, but not a heat pump. The heat pump outdoor unit needs to have air circulation to draw heat from the air. Your heat pump compressor has probably been running like crazy trying to produce heat and your backup resistance has been coming on. It would be wise to schedule a service call to have the heat pump inspected.

• Write to James Dulley at 6906 Royalgreen Drive, Cincinnati, OH 45244 or visit dulley.com.

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