Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Take dynamite and a crane

This Sunday, when all the "important" people of the climate change movement will be singin' songs and carryin' signs through the streets of New York trying to convince the UN that it should take meaningful action on the problem of a warming planet, I will be home trying to fix a serious problem in our house that has contributed to atmospheric CO2 since it was completed in 1958.

Recently, I had the occasion to pull off the plaster in a bathroom only to discover that the insulation did not fill the available cavities and even worse, the biggest gaps were at the top where the heat is trying hardest to escape.  Keep in mind that I live in Minnesota where outdoor temperatures reach at least -30°F a couple of times a winter.  The ONLY way to stay warm in a house with such a crappy insulation package is to run the furnace at full output and hope that that is enough.  If natgas weren't so cheap, no one could afford to be that stupid / careless.

My absolute favorite example of shoddy workmanship is in the cavity to the right of the window.  The insulation batt had to narrowed so it lost one side of the attachment mechanism.  So the installer just held it in place with a roofing nail.  Then, because the top row of the exterior sheathing had been skipped, the batt just flopped out into the overhang cavity. (to see the captions, click on picture to see full size)

With all the insulation removed, it becomes clear that the gap in the exterior sheathing continues to run all the way around the house.  This means that in the majority of places where the wall meets the ceiling, the only barrier between the inside and outside is the layer of plaster.

Lot of lessons to be learned from this example:
  • This example is far from rare.  In fact, when Xcel sends the energy bills, it ranks our house against others in the neighborhood and we are usually in the top 25% for energy efficiency.  Look at this mess and wrap your mind around the fact that 3/4 of the housing in the area is WORSE.
  • Problems like ours do NOT have simple solutions.  Correcting our mess requires far more than drilling a few holes and pumping some expanding foam into the cavity.  If this problem is solved from the inside, it requires that all the plaster and interior trim must be removed.  If solved from the exterior, all the siding must be removed / replaced and the whole moisture barrier / infiltration control system must be re-engineered.
  • There are reasons for shoddy insulation.  Installing it can be very unpleasant.  The job is usually given to the lowest guy on the totem pole.  It becomes just another task to finish as quickly as possible.  Worse, architects take 50 times as much time selecting the bathroom tile than designing insulation systems and rarely design sufficient space for them.
My brother, who used to inspect homes for energy consumption in central Florida, once claimed that 80% of all existing housing should be replaced because there is simply no way to fix their problems without spending WAY more than can ever be justified.  And anyone who actually believes that energy consumption for housing can be meaningfully reduced using unskilled labor toting caulk guns is hopelessly delusional.

Now if real estate were priced rationally, the case for repair / replacement would be stronger.  For example, our house cost about $15,000 new in 1958 and 56 years later, wear and tear should have reduced the market price to about $1500.  At that point, a $40,000 insulation upgrade would be doable.

Fortunately, the majority of the costs of a serious insulation upgrade are in the design and skilled installation areas.  The insulation itself is pretty cheap.  So any homeowner willing to spend the effort necessary to upgrade their skill sets can do this.  So economically, it CAN be done.

Now for the sake of the planet, we can only hope that the Instincts of Workmanship are more widespread than at first glance.  And so to our friends who think that carbon emissions can be reduced by marching in the streets, please go home and learn to do something useful.


  1. "Dynamite and a crane" sounds about right...Making homes energy efficient could create a lot of jobs.

    As for the march in New York this Sunday, 9/21, I can't be there...but I can't knock it either...it's a subject that deserves more attention and a lot more honest conversation. I'm wishing them well and hope there's a million who show up (and millions more in support around the world)::

    "We don’t march because there’s any guarantee it will work. If you were a betting person, perhaps you’d say we have only modest hope of beating the financial might of the oil and gas barons and the governments in their thrall. It’s obviously too late to stop global warming entirely, but not too late to slow it down -- and it’s not too late, either, to simply pay witness to what we’re losing, a world of great beauty and complexity and stability that has nurtured humanity for thousands of years.

    There’s a world to march for -- and a future, too. The only real question is why anyone wouldn't march."

    Eddie Bautista is executive director of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance. LaTonya Crisp-Sauray is the recording secretary for the Transport Workers Union Local 100. Bill McKibben is the founder of 350.org and a TomDispatch regular.

    1. The answer is, "It would require me to put a ton of CO2 into the air to drive to New York and back." Personally, I do not think the idea of putting CO2 into the air to protest putting CO2 into the air makes much sense. People like us who are trying to change things cannot risk our credibility.

      And yes, rebuilding or replacing 80% of the housing stock in USA would most certainly fix the joblessness problem—and a whole lot of other problems with the economy.

    2. “Putting CO2 in the air (to get there) to protest putting CO2 in the air” certainly makes no sense. I’m hoping a sizable chunk (if not an outright majority) of the millions of people who live in the greater New York area might show up on Sunday (a day off for some of them) to give much needed publicity to this “most important subject in the history of the world!”

      The UN Summit Conference http://www.un.org/climatechange/summit/ (at UN Headquarters in New York City) starts on Tuesday, September 23rd…where many who march for attention on Sunday would love to be if they could (and some will of coursed) but how many succeed in running that gauntlet, and much “news and publicity” it gets, I wonder? Corporate news media tend to play these things down not up (if only Walter Cronkite were still around to help us through a time like this).

      It’s easy to ignore millions of people who are shy, timid, and unsure of what to say or think…but it’s impossible to ignore a large crowd (depending on how large of course) who speak up in a clear voice with something important to say…with big questions to ask and big demands to make that deserve “official” answers. (I'm wondering if there will be any live coverage of any of the events?)

  2. Excellent posting, Jon. Thanks.

    There is so much work to be done. To think that the marketing of credit default swaps receives more attention and care.

  3. I think 80% is being a bit on the optimistic side. After what I've seen this summer, the number is closer to 95%. Man, is there some trash out there.