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Harness Solar Energy

I live in a southwest facing manufactured home w/ little(no) shade in the front yard. The sun bakes the paint off my front door even in the winter. Does anyone have any low cost, doable ideas for how to harness this solar energy ? I feel like I could heat all 2000 sq. ft. of my home with it if I could.

Our Answer

Amy, there are lots ands lots of ways to harness the sun.  Here are a few articles we've done to get you started:

Be sure you check with your utility company as well as state or local renewable energy office to find out what rebates may be available as well. There are many programs that can help reduce the costs of the installation.

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How-to Insulate Garage Walls Behind Sheetrock

What is the best way to insulate my garage walls that are already sheetrocked? Is is it possible to cut a hole in the top and drop loose material down the cavity? Thanking you in advance. George

Our Answer

In a garage, the walls that are typically drywalled (sheetrocked) are those between the garage and the interior of your house.  The reason is that the drywall plays an important role in creating fire resistance between those spaces.  If those are the walls you are referring to, they may very well already be insulated.  An easy way to check to to pull off an outlet or light switch cover and try and look into the wall cavity around the electrical box.

If the wall does in fact have drywall and is not insulated, then adding blown-in insulation would be the best option.  Typically a hole that is about 1 1/2" is drilled near the top of the wall cavity.  Insulation is blown in and then the hole is sealed and spackled.

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how to drain a toilet

Refinishing Bath Fixtures: Consider Costs Involved for Refinishing Versus Replacement

Is refinishing bath fixtures a viable option for my bathroom remodel? The worn fixtures in my master bath are in need of an update, but I don't quite have the budget to replace everything at once.

Our Answer

Before refinishing bath fixtures, you need to go fixture by fixture and look at the costs involved in replacement versus refinishing. A tub or shower can be expensive to replace and also leads to a cascade of other upgrade costs including wallboard, tiling and trim, and flooring adjustments. In that case, having a pro repair chips and cracks and apply a new finish can be a money-saving solution and stave off the need for a big-ticket purchase.

Sinks can also be refinished, but the cost of refinishing this bath fixture is so close to the price of a new unit that you're better off shopping for a replacement and a nice new faucet to go with it.  

As you consider refinishing bath fixtures, be advised that old, cracked, leaky toilets aren't worth the trouble of repair; instead, invest in one of the new WaterSense-labeled high-efficiency toilets, which can dramatically reduce your water bill during many years of service.

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central air conditioning systems, HVAC

Air Conditioning Options: Choosing the Air Conditioning System That is Right for You

I would like to install air conditioning on the 1st floor of my 2 story home.  I have casement style windows that swing out so I can't install a window unit. I could install central air, but I don't use the 2nd floor of the house.  The windows are 10 yr old Anderson.  Should I replace 1 window with a double hung window so I can fit in an air conditioner or should I opt for central air?

Our Answer

My first choice for energy efficiency, as well as overall comfort in air conditioning options, would be to install a central air conditioning system.  Central air systems can be zoned so they will only cool one floor of the home and not both.  However, you certainly should plan on both and discuss that with your contractor as it may be less costly to install some of the ducting to get ready for cooling the second floor at some point in the future.

Another option might be to install a through-the-wall air conditioning unit.  Many of the larger air conditioning units are available with wall mounted sleeves.  To install, you'd need to cut a hole in the exterior wall and frame it out the same way you'd frame an opening for a window or door.  It is very important to do this correctly, as you will be impacting the structural integrity of the house.  Also, this type of system will very likely cause a heat loss in the winter, as it is very difficult to seal it to prevent cold air leaking in. 

A better air conditioning option, which cost-wise will be in between the cost of a central system and a through-the-wall mounted portable, might be a ductless split system.  I have Fujitsu system like this in my office and it works extremely well as a supplement to my central system, which doesn't fully extend into the office space.  With ductless air conditioning, you have a wall blower that hangs on the inside wall of your home.  This is connected via a refrigerant line to a small compressor which sits outside, just like a central system.  The compressor supplies chilled refrigerant to the blower inside, which circulates the cooled air.

Given the above air conditioning options, my choice would be (1) central; (2) ductless; and (3) through-the-wall. Regardless of what you ultimately decide with the air conditioning options, you should be certain to choose the most energy efficient unit possible.  The Department of Energy' has excellent to help you understand cooling efficiency and options.

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Ceiling Fans for Heating and Cooling

What direction should the blades turn during warm months and cold months? I was always told that the blades push the air down during warm months and pull air up during cold months.

Our Answer

Most people don't know that you can use a ceiling fan in both the winter and summer months.  During the winter, set your ceiling fan to turn clockwise to move rising warm air, down into your room. When the weather heats up, set the fan to turn counter-clockwise for a cooling breeze.  

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I was listening to your show today and heard you where talking about a blog that someone about repurposing stuff from the garbage pit. By the time I got home I couldn't remember who it was. This kind of thing is right up my ally.

Great Show

Mike Batchelder

Our Answer

It's actually called "Upcycling" and is the process of taking unwanted items, like old furniture, for example, and then turing it into something useful. By surveying both your own items and those found on the street or at 2nd hand stores, there are endless ways to restore this into something beautiful and useful.

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Humidistat Fan or Dehumidifier for Damp Crawlspace?

I live in Nashville, where it's quite humid.  I moved into my first house last August and we have a stand-up crawlspace.  Around the exterior of the crawlspace, the builder put in four vents.  About a month after moving in, we started to see what looked like mildew and/or mold growing on the walls of the crawlspace.  I had a "mold guy"  come in and he recommended a dehumidifier.  I had a friend of mine who knows quite a bit about DIY stuff come to my house and he recommended getting a humidistat fan instead.  Before I rush out and buy one and put one in, what do I need to know about using humidistat fans?  Are there certain factors that make them uneffective that I need to be aware of?

Our Answer

Either approach - a dehumidifier or a humidistat fan - is a good approach. 
If you go with a humidistat, first make sure you have a vapor barrier across your entire crawlspace floor.  You also need to ensure that the vents on the opposite sides of the crawlspace open, so that once the fan kicks on, it pulls air from the crawlspace outward. 
If you opt for a dehumidifier, I personally just installed one from the Santa Fe Compact line and am very happy with it.  The version I selected is designed specifically for crawlspaces.  It's small - only 12 x 12 x 22 inches, yet hangs from the floor joists and takes out an impressive 70 pints of water each day.

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Do I Need to Pull Up My Attic Floor to Insulate?

I want to add insulation beneath my attic floor, but I'd have to pull the attic floor up to do it.  How will this effect my second floor ceiling? I am worried that the ceiling beneath it is protected by the attic floor.

Our Answer

Certainly your attic floor protects people from stepping through the ceiling beneath it, since that ceiling is not designed to hold weight much heavier than the weight of insulation.  But you probably don't need to remove your attic floor to insulate the space.  You could simply lay insulation above the attic floor - unfaced fiberglass batts, specifically, laid over the floor in the areas you wish to insulate.  If you use your attic for storage, consider consolidating those stored items and keeping them in one area of the floor that you leave exposed.  

Now, if you presently have no insulation whatsoever between the attic floor and the second floor ceiling, take that floor up and insulate it - and restrict the workzone to responsible adults who know where they can and can't place weight.  But if you simply need more insulation in your attic, the easiest bet is to put it over the attic floor.

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Adding Hydronic Radiant Under Subfloor Heat to a Manufactured Home

What type and how would I install Hyponic heat under the subfloor of my mobilehome (which is in no way mobile anymore).  I live in Texas so the winters are pretty mild.  My central heat went out and it is extremely expensive to run since I only have electric heat.  I am planning on replacing my fireplace with either a wood burning stove or insert.  Then I am interested in doing the entire underbelly of the home with the Hyponic heat even if that means installing a seperate water heater for it.

What I need to know is if this is possible, what it would cost for a 54x28' home, and if a 50 yr old "beginning DIYer" could undertake this with the help of a teenager?


Our Answer

This is a BIG project and a tall order!  First off, if you want to use hydronic heat, you'll need a boiler (not just a water heater) and that would be costly.  Also, you'd need a fuel source to heat that water which is other than electric.  Assuming you do not have natural gas in your area, that would leave propane or oil.

Then if you had a boiler, you'd need to run PEX piping under that floor from the crawl space up, another big project.

I get that this is costly now but it could be even more costly because of the upfront cost of the infrastructure it would take to make hydronic heat possible.  

Many times I am asked questions about alternative heating when a listener has not fully addressed the basic and least expensive way to improve efficiency.  So, how is your insulation looking?  You really should have 10 inches or so in that floor and the skirting around the base of the home needs to be complete with no gaps.  I'd reach out to to your local electric utility company and find out if they offer energy audits.  There may be many other ways to cut costs which will be less expensive than walking away from what you have now. 

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Wood buring inserts and prefab fireplace: OK to install?

What type and how do I install a wood burning stove insert in my 1999 PalmHarbor home.  My pre-fab fireplace is worthless for heating my home.

Any help or suggestions would be appreciated

Our Answer

In my experience you absolutely cannot install a wood burning fireplace into a pre fab home.  A pre fabricated home fireplace would more than likely be a zero clearance fireplace, which are desgined to be self sustaning, wood-burning units carefully engineered to burn safely.  You simply cannot merge a wood burning unit to pre-fab unit the same way you can with a masonry fireplace.

What you CAN do is replace the fireplace with a more efficient one that is ALSO zero clearance, and that includes a distribution system to bring heat back to the unit. 

Any fireplace needs to supply its own combustion air, so you won't use up heated air from inside your house to draft the fireplace.

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How Much Insulation?

We live in an older 1949 home. There is no insulation under the floors, limited original insulation in the attic. My "crawl space" is bigger/taller than most and often feels relatively warm. I'm wondering if I wanted to start adding insulation (we are on a very limited budget) would it be better to add insulation in the attic, or to start putting insulation under the house?

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Newer Geothermal HVAC System Leaking Refrigerant

Our 3 year-old geothermal 1-ton attic system occasionally shuts off.  Each time it does, we're given a different reason for the shutdown. The most recent shutdown was caused, we were told, by low refrigerant levels - they said we needed 2 pounds added. Incidentally, we noticed our most recent maintenance agreement was changed from the prior two agreements to omit, you guessed it, 2 pounds of refrigerant added if needed. So we had to pay for the refrigerant.

Now I'm wondering what comes next. If we need refrigerant there must be a leak, right?  Or does it somehow evaporate in the system over time? Our geothermal system is still under warranty. I want to approach the business that installed the system but thought I could use more information beforehand. Any thoughts on this? Is it common? Is this toxic?

Our Answer

Indeed, this is very suspicious. 
One of the common fears and very real pitfalls with geothermal systems is they require impeccable installation, and are prone to leaking.  Once that leak springs, it can be very expensive to repair because accessing those coils can be near-impossible. 
I also think the warranties offered on these systems are somewhat misleading.  Let's say a system is warrantied for fifteen years.  Often, that warranty will cover the cost of the coils, but not the cost of labor and installation. 
You have enough history to document what's happened.  Put that info into a detailed, direct letter.  Then take that letter to both the manufacturer and installer and ask them to address it.  You want to address it to both of them, jointly, because both of them are potentially liable.  Your system should not be leaking refrigerant at these levels.

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Keep Heating and Air Conditioning Vents Open or Closed?

Last year I purchased a 50-year-old home. Central air and heating were installed about 12 to 15 years ago, which included five vents in the basement. I had an energy conservation expert from the local electric company do a survey of the home. He suggested that I seal off all five vents in the basement since there was no living space down there. A little later my HVAC expert came to examine the system. He said I needed to keep those vents open as the system was designed to move air through those vents. Otherwise, I was building up too much pressure, causing extra strain on my HVAC system. What's the best way to go? How can I be the most energy-efficient and save money in the long run?

Our Answer

Generally speaking, shutting off registers should not add any kind of strain to the system. One thing to be aware of with respect to basement ducting: Make sure any return registers are left open because that pulls air back to the heating system to be reheated and re-cooled. That would include any damp air in the basement, which keeps the basement drier. One caution with regard to basement returns: An HVAC expert should make sure they're not located too close to the furnace, as that can cause the room to depressurize and combustion gases to be drawn into the house.

With all that said, I don't expect you to get a significant savings on AC by shutting off the basement registers because the thermostat that controls whether the system is on or off is most likely upstairs, away from that room.

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How to Insulate Attic with Spray Foam Insulation

While getting estimates for spray foaming my attic, the sales person stated that research has determined that you do not need more than 4 inches of spray foam insulation. He stated the heat loss/transfer was negligible after 4 inches. He stated that z4 inches would stop 95% of the heat transfer. He stated to go from 4 inches to 5 inches was not worth the money. I live in Delaware where the code requires R38 in the ceiling. If 4 inches is approximately R26, how can I only use 4 inches of spray foam insulation? Is the contractor correct?

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Insulation with Paper Backing

Is it ok to use the roll type insulation with the paper backing in the attic. If so, does the paper go up or down?