Over the years, nonprofit Conservation Consultants, Inc. (CCI) has observed common areas of opportunity for improving energy efficiency, comfort and healthfulness of your home – all of which have Do-It-Yourself (DIY) potential. When considering energy efficient upgrades in your home, there is a lot of guidance on the internet on how to do these projects yourself. Not all of the available information adheres to building science principles and best practices, so here are some hand-picked resources from CCI to help guide you through your DIY pursuits.
On this page, we cover attic, basement, duct sealing, storm windows, various smaller gaps and cracks, electrical outlets, baseboards, fireplaces, and hot water heating conservation. Be sure to observe safety measures in your work!
Pick a project and drop us a note that you’ve completed it – we love to tell stories of how people improve their homes. Check out our Showcase website to see what others are doing throughout the Pittsburgh region, then come back and tackle another one!
The best way to truly know the hierarchy of essential projects and the full potential of efficiency improvements for your home is to have a Sound Home Plan Energy Audit.
AIR SEALING and INSULATING your attic is an effective way to reduce your home's heating and cooling costs. Pro-Tip for easiest payback: Tackle you ATTIC ACCESS POINT - a typically overlooked THERMAL HOLE in your home.
- Air leaks represent your major source of wasted energy and discomfort. Sealing them should be your #1 DIY priority. In most homes, the most significant air leaks lurk in the attic and basement. In cold weather, warm air rises in your house, just like in a chimney. This air, which you have paid to heat, is just wasted as it rises up into your attic and sucks cold air in all around your home—around windows, doors, and through holes into the basement, contributing to your discomfort. By sealing the gaps and holes in the attic you break the pathways on which air travels through your home. Locating these leaks can be difficult because they are often hidden under your insulation but start by looking here:
- Around any recessed light fixture or electrical juncture box protruding into the attic floor from below
- Around any plumbing, vents and pipes, and electrical wire penetrations
- Around the “top plate” (the perimeter of the attic, where the wall meets the attic floor). After clearing away existing insulation and wiping the surface with damp cloth, use spray foam or caulk to close off areas of juncture.
- Behind and especially below the knee-walls
- At the access point to the attic
- Near the chimney (fire safety requires special treatment of these gaps using metal flashing)
- How to fix it:
- The Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star program provides excellent and detailed DIY resources on attic air sealing and insulation, including safety precautions and proper techniques to do it right!
- We also recommend this short instructional video from Efficiency Vermont on how to insulate your attic
- To treat electrical fixtures in the attic, use fire-rated light covers, like this. Place them over the light and seal them to the attic floor with caulk or spray foam; this treatment seals the leaks around lights, but also additionally assures fire safety when the insulation is added near the lights.
- Our picks for treatment of attic hatch
- The attic hatch might cover only 1% of your attic floor space, but it you leave it uninsulated, heat will flow through it 38% faster than elsewhere and decrease the R value of your entire attic insulation by 27%. How much heat really leaks out of the attic hatch of an insulated ceiling?
- Our pick for pull-down-stairs
- For knee-wall-doors, one can buy knee-wall doors that have built-in insulation and weather stripping. If the door doesn't have these, weather strip it to provide a tight seal, and make sure the latch pulls tightly against the frame. Attach 2” of polyiso rigid foam insulation to the attic side of the door.
OUTDOOR AIR enters through the BASEMENT: cold in winter; warm and moist in summer, contributing to DISCOMFORT and EXCESS MOISTURE. If your basement is wet or musty, you must address the moisture problem BEFORE fixing AIR LEAKS.
- Try these strategies to reduce water issues:
- Divert water 10’ away from the house foundation with downspout extensions and re-grade the slope to pitch away from your house. This includes overflow water from the rain barrel which needs an automatic downspout diverter
- Clean and check your gutters and downspouts 2-4 times a year
- Install oversized 4’’ gutters if water overflows the gutter in heavy rain
- Create drainage ditches filled with gravel in areas where water tends to run towards the house, but at least 10’ away from the foundation. This is akin to an exterior French drain, but it is a smaller project. Hiring for interior or exterior French drain may be necessary in some cases.
- Run a dehumidifier at 55% setting in spring/summer/fall and connect the overflow hose to a floor drain
- Resources for basement efficiency improvement projects:
- Watch this video on sealing air leaks in the rim joist area (an area along the top of the basement wall where cement or block comes in contact with the wood frame)
- See how important it is to weatherize any exterior door to the basement here
- Affix storm windows around any basement window and seal all electrical and plumbing penetrations in the basement using expanding spray foam
- Check out this EPA guide on how to air seal and insulate basements
Ducts are meant to deliver conditioned air to places where we want it. If they are LEAKY, efficiency and comfort suffer. Sealing your ducts to PREVENT LEAKS is even more important if the ducts are located in an UNCONDITIONED AREA such as an attic, garage, or vented crawl space. In those areas, ducts also need to be insulated after air sealing.
- In the basement or garage, with exposed metal ducts, use mastic air duct sealant, like in this video
- Don’t forget to check and improve registers area, as explained here
Adding "storms" to windows can be as effective as window replacement but can be accomplished as DIY for a FRACTION OF THE COST. Single pane windows with a good fitting storm are equivalent to double pane windows. Double pane windows also greatly benefit from storm windows, especially if they have metal frames.
- Check out this low-E storm window webinar from the Department of Energy
- Additional guides on how to select and install storm windows
Reducing the amount of air leaks in and out of your home is a cost-effective way to cut heating and cooling costs, improve durability, increase comfort, and create a healthier indoor environment.
- Seek out plumbing penetrations throughout the home, and seal around them with spray foam. Don’t forget to look in cabinets and utility closets
- Look for obvious cracks and seams, and also dirty spots—these may indicate an air leak
- Outdoor water faucets
- Locate any penetrations to your exterior walls, and air seal around them with waterproof silicone
- Exterior door frames
The small air gaps around outlets and switches on exterior walls and ceilings leak MORE AIR than you might imagine.
- Foam gaskets are a cheap and easy remedy. But there are few more steps to it than just installing the gasket itself.
- After shutting off electricity, remove the outlet and switch covers, and first seal the gap between the electrical box and drywall with low-expansion spray foam, and only then install foam gaskets, put the covers back and finish off with the child safety plugs to cut all possible pathways for air leakage.
- Check out this detailed illustrated guide for one more step, “sealing the wire intrusions” if you feel ambitious in your DIY pursuits!
COLD AIR from the basement travels up the walls and enters our living spaces in the gaps where drywalls meets the floor.
- Caulk the top of the baseboard where it meets the wall. We recommend paintable painter’s caulk for this task
- With linoleum or ceramic tile floors – one can caulk where the baseboard meets the flooring
- With carpet, floating laminate floors, etc… one will need to seal the leaks from underneath the baseboard
Fireplaces can be BIG OPEN HOLES to the outside, and we don't even realize it.
- Make sure your damper works properly, if not get it repaired or replaced
- During the summer months, we also recommend purchasing and utilizing Chimney Balloon; this provides insulating value in addition to closing off the chimney
- When fireplace is not in use at all, seal it with one or two layers of rigid foam cut to the size of the opening of the chimney, and spray foam around it
Water heating is often the SECOND HIGHEST energy use in our homes; reduce it by taking these few steps
- Set the thermostat on your water heater to 120°F to get comfortable hot water for most uses.
- Insulate hot and cold water pipes, as explained here
- Purchase hot water tank blanket and insulate your electric hot-water storage tank but be careful not to cover the thermostat. Follow the manufacturer’s recommendations.
- Insulate your natural gas or oil hot-water storage tank but be careful not to cover the water heater’s top, bottom, thermostat, or burner compartment.
- More details on both cases can be found here
*Observe safety and precautions and call on professionals when in doubt. Common types of risks to be aware of include electrical (knob & tube, loose wires, need to disconnect power when working around electrical receptacles), hazardous materials (lead paint, asbestos tiles or vermiculite insulation in the attic), fire safety and falling/general safety. Wear protective gear like face masks, long sleeves & gloves, and glasses/goggles when dealing with fibrous insulation that could enter your lungs or cause irritation on skin. Practice lead safe renovations at every step of the process.
The best way to truly know the hierarchy of essential projects and the full extent of the work that needs to be done is to have a full home energy audit.
Check out some examples of Sound Home Plan upgrades here.