Winserts for winter warmth

IMG_4148You can reduce a window’s heat loss by 50 percent, without blocking the light, for an investment of only $15.

At a recent Hitchcock Center for the Environment workshop (in photo above), I built a winsert. First I fastened together pre-cut wooden frames sized to fit one of our home’s windows and covered the frame with two layers of clear plastic. Next, I stapled on pull tabs and affixed compressible foam weatherstripping around the rim.  When I got home, I popped my winsert into the bathroom window and felt the cold drafts disappear!

I am always looking for low-cost ways to increase the energy efficiency of our home. The workshop instructor, Bick Corsa, is a longtime and award-winning builder* in the field of green construction.  Bick has been my go-to guide to improving our house’s energy efficiency. Over the years he has installed solar thermal air panels, energy-efficient windows, winserts, insulation, and most recently, a Sun Tube to bring natural light into a dark corner of our house.

Along with his colleague Janice Kurkoski of North Quabbin Energy, Bick led us through the process of measuring our windows prior to the workshop, and then through the steps as we assembled our winserts.  He said that because of the double layer of plastic in the winsert, which creates a “dead air” space, and the airtight seal created by the compressed foam weatherstripping, winserts can dramatically reduce the heat loss of a typical window.

Bick says that if you get the materials like the plastic sheeting and foam tape in bulk, you can build the average size window (2.5 by 5 feet) for about $15. “Winserts are highly effective in terms of holding heat in.  They are as good or better than replacement windows and way cheaper,” according to Bick.

IMG_4143Rebecca, from Northampton, was attending her second winsert workshop.  At the first one she made winserts for her main living space. Those worked so well that this time she made one for a window in her basement.

I have tried to reduce energy loss through the windows of our old house by replacing some with new double-paned windows (not cheap!), by caulking windows inside and out, by using temporary window insulation kits,  by buying or making insulated window shades, and by constructing insulated panels to pop into windows.  What I like about the winserts is that they are easily reusable for many years, and they don’t block out the natural light, which is so precious in the dark of winter.

With the push to phase out the burning of fossil fuels due to their carbon pollution, we need not only a rapid deployment of clean energy infrastructure, but also a speedy increase in energy efficiency in all sectors of life in the developed world.  So even as I advocate a society-wide switch to carbon pricing, investment in clean energy infrastructure and mobilization of technical innovation, I will continue to seek ways for my household to live in a more conserving and thus sustainable way.

Now, which window would be a good place for my next winsert?

* Bick Corsa has built extremely energy-efficient houses in Amherst, Williamsburg and Turners Falls.  The house in Turners Falls, which he built for Tina Clarke, won first place for the lowest energy house in the Zero Energy Challenge sponsored by the utility companies.  That same house also won the NESEA $10,000 prize for its documented year of zero net energy use.

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Cold weather, solar heat

It was a comfortable 66 degrees in our house at 3 p.m. Friday, even though it was 12 outside. I had put the last piece of wood in the stove at 8 a.m., and the oil furnace had not gone on.

IMG_20140621_062628516But the sun was shining brightly, as it does on many cold days, and it was warming our house. In mid-February the sun is a lot stronger than in December, so this is a time of peak solar benefit.

Unlike solar hot water, which we have, or solar electricity, which we don’t have, direct-gain passive solar heat is cheap and simple to install. It doesn’t involve any pipes, wires or complex systems. When we renovated our house in 1998, we installed south-facing windows in the living room. That was a standard improvement that provided a view as well as some heat.

Picture_0603Our builder and friend, Bick Corsa, left, suggested we install a thermal air panel, which I had never heard of before. This is a 3-by-5-foot horizontal wooden box containing a piece of tempered glass over a piece of black-painted metal roofing (shown above in summer). The sun shines through the glass onto the metal, heating the air, which rises and comes into our living room through a vent at the top. There are inlet vents bringing cooler inside air back into the box from down near the floor, setting up a circular flow as heat rises.  Bick put a panel on our second floor as well (shown between the windows above). You can put your hand over the vents and feel the warm air.

Bringing the sun into our heating mix saves us a lot of money. We burn two cords of wood per winter, half of which I cut myself and half of which I buy unseasoned and then age for a year or two. We consume about 130 gallons of heating oil a year, with the furnace going on mainly while we’re sleeping. We have electric heat for our tenants upstairs as a backup, but they seldom need it.

In her book “This Changes Everything,” Naomi Klein writes of visiting a Cheyenne reservation where teams of people were installing “solar boxes” on the sides of buildings. Renewable energy “demands that we adapt ourselves to the rhythms of natural systems, as opposed to bending those systems to our will with brute-force engineering,” she writes. “We need to unlearn the myth that we are masters of nature and embrace the fact that we are in relationship with the rest of the natural world.”

I’m always aware in winter of whether the sun is shining, because that determines whether I’ll keep the wood stove going all day. On cloudy days like Saturday, I’ll keep the shades over the windows all day and keep the stove pumping out the heat.

Bick Corsa, who lives in Northampton, has come a long way from the rudimentary solar panels he installed for us 17 years ago. In 2010 he won a $10,000 state prize for a solar house he designed and built in Turners Falls. It has 1,152 square feet, sold for $180,000, and generates up to two times as much energy as it uses.

Un-handy man

IMG_20150108_084545122Many men who choose the simple life are handy with tools and know how to build and fix things around the house. Scott Nearing, the man whose book “Living the Good Life” gave this blog half of its name, even built his own stone house.

But that’s not me. I grew up in a city and had a father who didn’t know how to fix things because his father…you get the idea. I can hold my own in the kitchen and the garden, and enjoy vacuuming and feeding the woodstove. But I’m just not in my element among hammers, nails, drills, power saws, electrical circuits and two-by-fours.

Of course, I did the only smart thing an un-handy man who likes saving money while living in an old house can do. I married a handy woman. Isn’t it wonderful how we are less restricted by gender stereotypes than we were 40 years ago?

Betsy was the daughter of a handy man and took wood shop in junior high school. As an adult she enjoyed working with her father  around our house on projects like installing insulation, putting up fences and building a shed. Fifteen years ago, Betsy designed and helped build an addition to our house under the tutelage of some carpenter friends of ours.

She knows how to construct shelves, repair a leaky roof, paint walls, patch holes and find the electrical panel and flip the circuit breaker if needed.  She looks things up in home repair books and on the Internet and is not intimidated by minor house repair needs.

While we’ve been working on this blog post, Betsy noticed a trail of water coming from our refrigerator. She checked in the basement to make sure nothing electrical was amiss, then diagnosed the problem within minutes. It was a glass jar at the back of the fridge that was too close to a cooling panel and froze and shattered, spilling its contents. It would have taken me days to figure that out.

Betsy knows that because I didn’t grow up handy, I am not skilled or confident in this area. She wonders if my brain has simply not developed the pathways for mechanical problem solving and spatial awareness. She believes a lot of her ability is learned and that I have more potential than I realize. She points to an incident 20 years ago when I fixed the door to a clothes dryer that wouldn’t close. (I think I kicked it.)

Occasionally, I will help Betsy with household projects that require four hands. But in these instances I defer to her judgment and consider myself just a helper. Maybe having different areas of ability helps us avoid marital conflict.