Q. We're considering the purchase of a pellet stove for the basement of our 20-year-old Vermont home. We've read a few archived articles from your column that raised questions regarding whether to and how to insulate poured concrete walls. Our basement is totally dry, and we don't want to do anything that would compromise it.
The composition of the soil used to backfill around the basement is sand. We're planning to install studs on 16-inch centers and insulate the walls per your recommendation, but we need to know whether any other steps are needed to maintain the present excellent condition of our basement.
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We think installing the stove is within our capabilities, but any pointers you can provide would be greatly appreciated. From what we've learned so far, we'll be able to exhaust the stove through an outside wall using insulated pipe.
A. With a sand backfill, you are reasonably safe, but I would urge you to make sure that the grade slopes away from the foundation and is preferably topped with a foot or so of less permeable soil and a healthy growth of grass to help move water away. I have seen block foundations cracked by sand backfill when rain soaked it and a hard frost hit that night, causing the saturated soil to freeze and push in the wall.
You may want to consider first applying 1-inch-thick XPS (extruded polystyrene) rigid insulation against the concrete walls with dabs of compatible adhesive (StyroBond or polyurethane caulking). Then install your stud walls against the XPS, using a pressure-treated plate. You can use 24-inch-on-center spacing to save on lumber and staple fiberglass insulation between the studs. The advantage of using studs is that they make it easy to run electrical wires and install switch and receptacle boxes.
When installing the stove, be sure it is a safe distance from all combustible materials. Do not consider a drywall finish sufficient; install a reflective metal shield as recommended behind and on the sides of the stove if the distance from the walls is not as specified by the fire code.
It would be wise to ask your fire department to advise you on all safety concerns and to make sure the chimney installation is safe. Your fire department may do home visits to make sure the stove is correctly installed.
Q. I own a duplex in the city of Pittsburgh. I live in one unit and rent the other. In the last three years, I replaced both the bathroom commodes, which were more than 30 years old, with water-saver commodes. I also replaced the two bath and two kitchen faucets and both tub faucets with newer, more efficient models. I bought a new front-loading washer, which is supposed to use 65 percent less water.
My water usage and the amount of the bill remain unchanged, according to the water department. How is this possible? I would have thought that with the commodes and the washer alone, my bill should have dropped by 25 percent or so.
A. Have you called your utility to see if there is a mistake in the reading of the meter or a mechanical failure? How is its billing done?
Do you have new tenants who may use more water, or has your own consumption increased for some reason? Are you doing more laundry loads with the new washer?
I don't have any other explanation for the lack of savings. Sorry. If anyone else has suggestions, please let me know.
Q. Can you give any advice on ICF (insulating concrete forms) homes? We are seriously thinking of building an ICF home in Minnesota this year. Being from Illinois, where there are not homes like this, it is hard to find someone around here to talk to about their experience.
We are concerned about the do's and don'ts when building ICF. The homes we have toured are seemingly comfortable, but we are concerned we are not seeing the whole picture.
A. Insulating concrete forms are getting more popular because of their strength and resistance to earthquakes and fire. Building a basement with ICFs is less expensive than standard poured concrete or block. They save on labor because they require fewer steps in the construction process. But building ICF walls above grade is often more expensive than standard construction unless the exterior walls include large openings, which, with ICFs, do not need headers.
ICFs are much tighter against air infiltration. However, the downside is that ICF walls do not provide as high an R-factor. The most you can get are forms with 2-inch walls for an R-17. With conventional construction, you can have as high an R-factor as you wish.
The end results depend somewhat on the skill of the builder. If he or she is thoroughly versed in energy-efficient construction methods and very careful in the erection, standard construction methods have some advantages. In addition to the higher insulation value, it is easier to make changes and to install electrical and plumbing systems. Once concrete is poured, changes can be difficult and expensive.
Dear readers: I am going to talk about a subject that has been important to me since I started this column in February 1974. I hope you will indulge me.
The energy crisis of the early 1970s hit us all hard. I became convinced that our salvation would be in energy efficiency at all levels: our residential buildings first; our commercial, industrial, educational and institutional buildings next; and then our transportation system. But who would make that happen?
Two visionaries from Vermont, Beth Sachs and Blair Hamilton, saw the need and did something about it. They had already pioneered whole-house air-to-air heat exchangers, having realized the need for these devices to keep the air inside houses healthy -- a serious concern once homes were tightened up. They also developed and brought to market low-E glass, which is in most windows today.
Their vision was to provide accurate information and access to funding for people and organizations wanting to reduce energy consumption and the human footprint on this suffering planet. Sachs and Hamilton created the nonprofit Vermont Energy Investment Corp. (VEIC) in 1986. The following year, they began to offer services geared to reducing the economic and environmental costs of energy consumption.
VEIC now has a staff of 300 and offices in three states, and it has consulted on numerous projects in North America and overseas. It is internationally recognized for its work with federal, state, county and municipal governments, helping them develop and achieve energy conservation, energy efficiency and renewable energy goals and initiatives.
In 1999, interested parties in Vermont's public and private sectors determined that the best way to offer energy efficiency services, previously offered by the utilities, would be through an independent organization that was void of any conflicting interests. The Vermont Public Service Board requested proposals for the creation and administration of a statewide energy efficiency utility. This was a first in the state and the nation. VEIC won the initial three-year contract to administer the new utility, named Efficiency Vermont (efficiencyvermont.com).
By the end of the contract, Efficiency Vermont, working with businesses and households throughout the state, had achieved extraordinary annual energy savings -- 52 percent lower than what the power companies would have paid to purchase this energy on the wholesale supply market. The savings achieved by Efficiency Vermont are such that it now represents the "second-largest power plant" in the state.
This success has piqued the interest of other states and brought widespread recognition of this pioneering approach. Efficiency Vermont has received numerous awards from the U.S. Department of Energy, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Vermont governor's office, the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy and the Harvard University Kennedy School of Government.
As so well stated by Scott Johnstone, executive director of VEIC: "This investment in energy efficiency creates real jobs, jobs that can't be outsourced. As a recent report from the American Council for an Energy- Efficient Economy noted, investment in energy efficiency creates jobs at greater rates than does investment in the economy as a whole, with average annual wages $4,900 higher than the national median. VEIC itself was recently recognized as the fourth fastest-growing company in Vermont over the past 10 years. That is a trajectory that our company is committed to maintaining, because nothing less than the future of the planet is at stake."
The focus of Efficiency Vermont is mainly on increasing the efficiency of buildings, by such means as collaborating with the state's low-income weatherization program -- which the federal government has stopped funding -- and improving commercial and institutional buildings. However, VEIC also is working on renewable energy programs -- solar, wind, wood -- and transportation.
For the last 12 years, Efficiency Vermont has conducted conferences (every one of which I have attended) for contractors, engineers, architects, building officials and other interested parties. These conferences are heavily attended, and the presenters are experts in their field from many disciplines. The information shared on the newest techniques and technologies helps all practitioners improve the energy efficiency of existing and new buildings.
So as the mission of VEIC and Efficiency Vermont continues to spread across the nation, we can look forward to reducing the stresses on our planet while enjoying greater comfort in our homes and workplaces, and provide well-paying jobs for our own workers.
This brings me back to my own mission: to convince all of you to do your part. So many of our homes can be made more energy efficient, sometimes at not much more cost than other planned improvements. For example, if you plan on replacing failing siding or covering it with new aluminum, steel or cement board siding, this is your chance -- and perhaps your last -- to install at least 1-inch-thick XPS (extruded polystyrene) or polyiso under it. Covering the outside of buildings with rigid insulation reduces the heat loss through all framing members, which represent a large percentage of the square footage of a building's exterior walls, and increases comfort and soundproofing. The resultant savings are considerable over time.
Rigid insulation also can be added to inside walls, although it is not as effective because it is limited by some building elements (perpendicular partitions, etc.). Attic insulation offers great benefits when done carefully. Window replacement can offer huge savings, as inefficient windows are a big source of energy waste.
Increasing the energy efficiency of a building can also reduce the size of the heating appliance needed if it is replaced because of age or because new furnaces and boilers are so much more efficient. Capital expenses for these upgrades are usually recovered in a few years and make homes more salable.
We must keep in mind that every one of us doing a little can make a huge difference in the long run. Let's remember that "small creeks eventually end up as great rivers."
Thank you for letting me digress.
• Henri de Marne was a remodeling contractor in Washington, D.C., for many years, and is now a consultant. Write to him in care of the Daily Herald, P.O. Box 280, Arlington Heights, IL 60006, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2012, United Feature Syndicate Inc.