When the house gets chilly these days I think a lot about our heat sources. I want to make more heat.
But what makes it possible for us to live without turning on the oil furnace is something I don’t think about everyday: insulation.
Insulation is what is keeping the heat from escaping into the neighbourhood.
Insulation is the reason we haven’t filled the oil tank in 19 months. We used to fill it every 4 months when we first moved in.
In fact, before 2008, the furnace would turn on every twenty minutes because the house was so minimally insulated and sealed. We were comfortable enough because the thermostat was set and the furnace did its job. We went through a lot of oil, however, and now, thanks to BCIT, I know how much carbon we were putting into the atmosphere, (about the same amount an average car does in a year!)
The first step of reducing our energy costs and dependency is to conserve it. For most of us busy people, however, it is a case of ‘out of sight out of mind’.
With my in-laws, Julie and Dave’s help, we did as much as we could on our own in 2008. Julie was very happy that her daughter’s young family was buying the house she grew up in. Both she and Dave did a lot to make owning this beautiful old home possible for us. I don’t know how people of my generation afford houses without help from their parents.
One thing we couldn’t do on our own was insulate the exterior walls. The siding was in pretty good shape (although it needed some paint) and the interior of the house was nice, too. Even if we had wanted to, it was also clear ripping open the walls to insulate was a huge and expensive job so Dave hired a company to spray foam insulation into the walls.
Dave hired Greer Spray Foam Ltd. to do the job and supervised the work for us.
It is about what you would imagine. They drill holes in the walls and spray foam into them.
The foam fills the cavity between the studs of the wall and, when the operator feels the cavity is filled to a certain extent, he or she stops spraying and lets the cavity fill up with the expanding foam. It takes some skill because too little foam will leave gaps and too much can warp the walls or even break through weak spots.
In our walls they used open-celled half-pound foam which doesn’t expand as much as other stuff. Even so, there were a few spots where the foam broke through the interior walls or leaked through gaps. After it cures, you can clean it up pretty easily.
Dave discovered something interesting about the master bedroom closet that day. When the foam guy drilled into the wall of the closet, he pulled out the drill and noticed there was some cloth on the drill. He thought it must be some kind of pre-existing insulation. Dave went inside to see if he could explain it. One look and he shouted, “Don’t spray! Don’t spray!”
The wall of the closet is single-layered. There is no gap to spray foam into, only a closet full of clothes. The cloth that stuck to the drill was from one of Leanne’s sweaters. If they had sprayed in there it would have filled our closet with foam and embedded all those clothes in it.
Now we know why that closet, which inexplicably hangs out over thin air, is so darn cold all the time.
The other challenge to this process was the fire-breaks in the walls. Between the exterior studs up and down the walls are short, horizontal pieces that break the vertical spaces into smaller spaces. These are to prevent air from flowing freely up the inside of the walls. I imagine that was good for insulation as well as in the case of a fire. Unfortunately, it was impossible to predict where each cavity began or ended, so Dave and the spray-guy had to insert wires into the holes to see if they could detect a cross-piece. When the foam was sprayed, extra care had to be taken not to over-fill a smaller-than-expected cavity.
The result was a better-insulated, more solid house. The trains weren’t as loud and the house didn’t shake quite as much and the furnace did not come on so often.
Spray foam has its detractors. One downside to spraying foam into the walls of older homes is that the fact it is designed to cling to the wood means that if you ever demolish or renovate that wall, the wood cannot easily be re-used. It is covered in foam. We will cross this bridge when we finally renovate the back of the house. Another problem is the off-gassing which occurs for a while after installation and then there is the chemicals involved in the manufacture–it is mostly an oil or petroleum product. In our case there wasn’t much of a choice. I hope that the spray foam products improve like everything else in the future.
The challenge of insulating existing walls of this vintage really hit home when Monte Paulsen, our energy advisor, took some infra-red photos of the walls. There are gaps where the foam did not reach. I’m going to try and get those from him so I can share them with you.
The house looked like it had a case of the chicken pox until the following summer when our trusty neighbour, Brad, painted the house. I think it made for a spooky Hallowe’en effect, don’t you?