Monday, January 16, 2012

On Hometown Winters and Draft Detection

For the record, I am not a native New Yorker. By technical definition, my hometown is Washington DC, where I spent most of my days as an infant before my family moved to Albany, which is, for all intents and purposes, the place I consider home. As NYC seemingly finally settles into the more unbearable stretch of winter (it was in the mid-to-high 40s a week or two ago), my Albany upbringing has kicked into high gear and I find myself warm enough with a good winter coat and beanie. This comes from some 15 winters of serious blizzards, frequent below-zero days and bundles of slush-drenched boots, caps, mittens and socks. It’s still cold here in NYC but in all my years, I’ve never had to brace for winter the way one hunkers down for the initial months of a new year upstate.

Not to play the back-in-my-day card, but back in my day, the in-house rule was if the heat wasn’t good enough for you, find thicker sweaters or socks on. To be honest, this is still the rule of the house (and my home) these days, but at the very least I’ve become aware of how to locate drafts and unsealed gaps in my home, and fix them when need be. The major effort is to get your windows and exterior doors weatherproofed and properly sealed, making sure that the bigger part of your thermal envelope is sealed. Finding other gaps, however, can be a useful way to make sure your energy bill is kept on a leash.

When it comes to windows, any fault will likely end in professional work on the seal or frame, so lets keep to smaller things. If you can stand it, bundle up and turn off your furnace on an extremely windy day. You should be able to hear or feel areas where the wind can get into your thermal envelope. Look especially at areas where two materials (brick and siding, for instance) are meeting, as those seals will need some serious insulation. Shut all your doors and windows and see if you hear any serious rattling, as this will note an opening allowing unregulated airflow. There’s also the smoke test, which essentially consists of you lighting something that emits smoke (incense sticks work best for me) and hold it close to suspected leak spots. Watch the smoke: If it drifts up, you’re good, but if it seems to be sucked somewhere, it usually denotes a gap.

If the smoke test doesn’t suit you, the flashlight test, in which you point a flashlight at a suspected leak spot and have someone go outside and see if any light passes through, essentially does the same thing. These are household tips, most of which are endorsed by the Department of Energy, but the bigger solutions (vent inspections, full weatherproofing etc.) tend to require professional contractors who can check those places where you can’t necessarily and tell you exactly what needs to be done. Still, no one’s saying that a hefty hooded sweatshirt and a pair of heavy-duty wool socks won’t solve your problems for the time being, if not tide you over until April rears its head.