Going “green” is a good strategy for homeowners to save energy and money at the same time. When you look around any home, you’ll see that doors and windows have a big potential to be energy drains—letting in cold air in winter and hot air in the summer. While even Energy Star windows and doors can let in air, older doors and windows are especially vulnerable. Check for obvious leaks by shining a bright light around the edges while someone is inside to see. Then use putty caulk or rope caulk to seal cracks, both on the inside and the outside.
Next, install weather stripping which comes in easy-to-install styles from sticky-backed foam to bronze. If air sneaks in under your doors (or windows), think old-fashioned draft stoppers also called “snakes.” They can be purchased inexpensively or you can create your own from fabric remnants or old socks filled with sand or even use a rolled-up towel. With a window, you can just leave the snake on the sill, but for coming-and-going convenience through a door, it’s easy to secure a vinyl “door sweep” to the bottom of the door.
Especially for single-pane windows, plastic film insulation is an inexpensive, although not highly durable, option. It comes in kits, can be applied with tape and in some cases a hair dryer is used to shrink it into place. The film can be removed easily at the end of the season and can sometimes be reused. Once the film is installed, you can’t open the window, however, so be sure it is sealed and the lock (which often serves to make the window seal more snug) is secure. You won’t be able to reach window blinds either, so you must decide whether you want blinds open, closed, or partly closed.
A more expensive, but practical energy-saving tactic is a vestibule—a small room with an outside door on one side and a well-insulated interior door on another. (Many commercial establishments have them.) A vestibule serves as an air lock, preventing icy (or sweltering) air from pouring in when people are coming and going. It also helps to keep out pollen and dust out.
If you lack a vestibule, but have a large foyer, creating an indoor vestibule could be as easy as framing in a wall for that second door. An exterior vestibule can also be built on an existing porch or veranda. It’s also a great option for a high-traffic door where kids are always coming and going. With a bench for boot removal, hooks for coats and jackets and some shelves for storage, it also becomes a mudroom. All a simple vestibule needs is a floor, basic wall framing, a roof, a window or two, and a door. Since it’s unheated, non-insulated windows and doors work fine.
A “door” that many people forget about, is attic access through the ceiling. If it’s simply a removable panel, glue two slabs of 2” rigid foam board insulation to the back and add weather stripping around the lip of the opening.
Attic access with pull-down stairs, however, is more complicated because of the folding steps themselves which rest atop the access panel when it’s closed. These hatches are not always well insulated, but there are several strategies. Attic stair “tents” are available in a variety of styles for purchase. A less expensive option for a reasonably handy homeowner employs rigid foam insulation and duct tape to build a light-weight, well insulated and easily removable “box” to provide protection from cold. The vent for whole-house fan can also be a big heat loser in winter and should be covered with insulation.
Remember, the sun is your ally in winter, so open your blinds to sunshine whenever possible. When the sun isn’t shining, close your blinds or drapes to keep the warm air inside. If you don’t have drapes, you could temporarily tack up a heavy beach towel in particularly cold weather.
In summer, the sun is not your friend so block direct rays with those same blinds and drapes. If your budget allows, purchase insulated “honeycomb” blinds, which work year round. You might be able to supply one room at a time with insulating blinds until your house is completely furnished.
For a longer-term strategy, plant deciduous trees near the house to block the sun in the summer, but let it shine in during cold weather. Framing windows with trellises supporting deciduous vines for shade in summer and sun in winter is practical and attractive at the same time.
There are useful how-to videos about caulk, weather stripping, insulating window film, attic access insulation, door sweeps, and even building a vestibule on the Internet.
So remember, some energy-saving tactics are inexpensive and immediate while others take time and money. Thinking green can become a rewarding way of life, both philosophically and economically.
Marilyn Pribus lives near Charlottesville in Albemarle. In winter, she welcomes the morning sun streaming through a window into her home office. In summer, that same window is completely shaded by a maple tree.