Suffering from Government Overreach

The temperature dropped to negative 16 Fahrenheit last night, and in a draft old house like mine, even our new high efficiency furnace couldn’t keep up. We even had a small space heater going, and the house still was below 70.* Those 100 watt incandescent bulbs the government took at the force of a gun sure would have helped!

* My house is drafty, so while it may seem odd, the colder it gets outside, the warmer we need it to be inside to overcome the chilling effects of the drafts. E.g., when it’s in the 40s outside, it’s perfectly comfortable at 71 inside, but when it’s in the teens I need to push it up to 73 or 74 inside. As I re-side and insulate and replace some ancient windows, I hope that draft effect diminishes. But I dream of a house with radiant heat flooring, because that makes a huge difference in comfort levels, and am considering retrofitting radiant heat in my house, which is surely a better solution than stocking up on 100 watt incandescents (or using halogens) for warmth.

About J@m3z Aitch

J@m3z Aitch is a two-bit college professor who'd rather be canoeing.
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14 Responses to Suffering from Government Overreach

  1. Troublesome Frog says:

    I live in one of the most hospitable climates in the world, so I don’t really have a leg to stand on here, but I spent a lot of time tinkering with energy efficiency in my house. I suspect it’s the fact that I’m an engineering type and so is my wife, so I have no moderating influence on me to say, “Hey, that’s kind of crazy. Cut it out.” I actually seriously considered the question about the usefulness of lightbulb waste heat. For my area, it didn’t make a lot of sense for a few reasons:

    1) A lot of the heat ends up going into the attic (2nd floor pot lights) or heating the spaces between walls. HVAC people will tell you that heat lost between walls is no big deal because it eventually reaches equilibrium, but I don’t think that’s quite as useful when lights cycle on and off and what you’re shooting for is temperature, not just heat. Knowing that those joules will keep my joists at an infinitesimally higher equilibrium is not as satisfying as having all of that heat pumped into my livingroom.

    2) A joule of electrical waste heat becomes joule of house heat. Good. Only part of a joule of gas furnace heat becomes house heat. Bad. But how much does a joule of chemical energy in gas form compared to a joule of electric energy?

    3) Seasonal symmetry: Some places have mild/cool summers and cold winters. We have warm to hot summers and mild winters, so running the AC in the summer to counter a bunch of halogens is probably not a net win, given that I live in a place where owning a nice coat is optional.

    My biggest wins so far have been sealing our 43 year old duct work so it doesn’t leak like crazy and insulating the exposed sheet metal ducts. At least, I did that for the duct work that isn’t wrapped in asbestos paper.

    Another phenomenon I’m dealing with is that our first floor has no insulation under it and we have no carpet. Makes for a cold floor in the winter, but it stays nice and cool in the summer. Makes for a weirdly unbalanced HVAC system–first floor is comfortably cool and second floor with its super hot attic “hat” is still toasty. I think a whole-house fan will be our next investment this spring. Trying to figure out how to connect it to my Internet-enabled thermostat and alarm system so it knows that it can run when outside temperatures reach X and when a downstairs window or door is open.

  2. J@m3z Aitch says:

    A joule of electrical waste heat becomes joule of house heat… Only part of a joule of gas furnace heat becomes house heat.

    I don’t understand.

    As to seasonal asymmetry, absolutely. Michigan summers are generally much too warm to want the generated by incandescents or halogens. I could switch all out my light bulbs twice yearly, but then I’d need to calculate the caloric cost of doing so, and the energy needed to produce the food to provide that caloric energy. ;)

    As to insulating ducts, absolutely. That was the first thing I did in this house, too. Our first winter I noticed that our basement was exceptionally warm, much warmer than the first floor, and realized that all the metal ducting was radiating heat so that I was paying to overheat a storage space, when I wanted that heat for the living spaces. Unfortunately I have a couple (including the one to my bedroom, which is in a crawlspace that has air leaking through the foundation) that will require tearing up the floor to get to (fortunately I plan to gut the bedroom wholly and redo it floor to ceiling (which has no insulation, and nothing above it).

    When I was a kid, the front room of our house was always cold in winter; the heat coming from the register just barely warm, and the opening to it was about 5 feet wide, so we usually just closed the pocket door and left it closed off all winter. Then one summer when I was probably about 13 or so, my dad had my brother and my go into the crawl space through which that particular duct ran, and wrap the duct in insulation. Worked like a charm; suddenly the air coming out of the register in that room was actually very warm, and the room comfortable to use.

    I have a number of renovation projects I want to do, including gutting the bathroom and replacing the sagging joists in our dining room, but more and more I’m thinking I should just finish re-siding so I can add insulation and house wrap and just commit to the up-front expense of replacing all the old single-pane windows. There’s only so much you can do to improve the energy efficiency of a 19th century stick-built house, but that is where the real bang-for-the-buck comes from, I think.

  3. ppnl says:

    One small 2500 watt electric space heater will provide the heat of 25 100 watt lights. I’m guessing you don’t have that many lights. The heat from the lights is also spread out. In a drafty house you want a space heater to concentrate the heat to warm a space. And burning out light-bulbs seems to be a wasteful way to heat your house even if you had enough to make a difference.

    You are better off both financially and environmentally with the electric space heater. Or even several.

  4. Troublesome Frog says:

    I don’t understand.

    I should clarify: If your furnace is outside of your conditioned space (garage, basement, etc.), you lose some heat into that space. If it’s in your conditioned space, even most of the “waste” heat ends up heating your conditioned space. Light bulbs are “efficient” in that sense because they also pump their waste heat into your conditioned space, so you get just about 1 joule of heat for every 1 joule of energy. Both have coefficient of performance of about 1.

    But as ppnl points out, there are obviously better solutions. A good heat pump should give you a coefficient of performance above 1. That is, you use a joule of energy and you end up increasing the thermal energy in your conditioned space by over 1 joule. A big win, given that a resistive heater or burning gas will never, ever exceed a COP of 1.

    I need to insulate the duct work that runs through my attic for the summer. Running my AC air through a bare metal pipe in a 140 degree attic is probably not a very good idea. I’m considering either that or turning my attic into a conditioned space, which is apparently what the latest engineering designs are doing. Insulate the roof, remove the floor insulation, and seal it up. A lot of practical considerations there, though.

    As I said earlier, the whole house fan is another good possibility. It’s cheap and easy to install, and everybody I know in the area who has done it swears by them. Wait until sunset cools the outside air and then suck the house air into the attic and the outside air into the house, all in one swift operation. Should help to keep the air fresher too.

  5. lancifer666 says:


    “A joule of electrical waste heat becomes joule of house heat… Only part of a joule of gas furnace heat becomes house heat.”

    I don’t understand.

    Some of the heat released when natural gas is burned goes up the flue (exhaust) pipe out to the atmosphere, so you can never get the full energy of the burning gas, although many modern furnaces capture 90% or more.

    The “waste” heat from light bulbs goes directly into your living space, although I agree with the others that point out that there are certainly more efficient ways to heat your house.

    My 120 year old house used to suffer the same frigid fate as you home during these below zero spells. As you know, since you helped me install some of it, it now has new (engineered composite) siding, house wrap, double insulated windows, caulking, insulation (etc.), that I have installed over the last 20 years. This has allowed my circa 1982 natural gas furnace to maintain 70F even with the -42F windchill conditions of the last few days while only running about 15-20 minutes per hour.

    I plan on installing a 90% efficiency unit next spring that will make my house even more comfortable and fuel efficient.

    So hang in there, your efforts will eventually provide you witha more comfortable and energy efficient home as well as a really cool and historical dwelling. I personally have made compromises in energy efficiency to maintain historical accuracy. But with proper planning you can have both.

    Of course my wood stove is my ace in the hole to provide a toasty warm environment and save me from $250/month gas bills. And it eliminates the moving drafty air caused by the forced air furnace.

    You don’t need a chimney to have a free standing wood stove, just an area to install it and a Class A 2100 degree exhaust chimney pipe.

    Mine has repaid it’s $1500 purchase price many times over as well as making our house MUCH more comfortable through the winter months. And it’s cool to have a fire to sit in front of and play with. I now have two such places since I also have a fireplace in the parlor in addition to the wood stove in the dinning room.

  6. ppnl says:

    The 100% COP of electric heat does not include the 50% energy loss at the power plant. Yet in many cases electric may be cheaper and if you get electricity from Nuclear and hydro-electrical like I do it may even be environmentally sound. It’s more complex than COP.

    Moderate use of wood fire can also be great. Last winter a lot of my heat was from a giant tree of heaven that fell in my front yard. And fireplaces are just cool.

    I also have a heat pump. But their efficiency and capacity drops with low temps. It may not be a good choice for a drafty house.

  7. Matty says:

    What if your heating is run off a boiler in the kitchen as mine is? That avoids the issue of heating a space you don’t live in.

  8. ppnl says:


    Exhaust still has to be vented to the outside. Even if you heat with an in door open flame you will need to draw in cold outside air or you will run out of oxygen. You will die before the flame.

  9. lancifer666 says:

    Could be an electric boiler I guess? Like an electric water heater.

  10. J@m3z Aitch says:

    You will die before the flame.

    But if it’s any consolation, the candle will burn out long before the legend ever does.

  11. lancifer666 says:

    …I’m thinking I should just finish re-siding so I can add insulation and house wrap and just commit to the up-front expense of replacing all the old single-pane windows. There’s only so much you can do to improve the energy efficiency of a 19th century stick-built house, but that is where the real bang-for-the-buck comes from, I think.

    You got it! Except one thing I would add is once you do those things have your home tested for air infiltration. People often overlook gaps that let the warm air out and the cold air in while obsessing over the loss of radiant heat. A small air leak can exchange a great deal of energy with the outside.

    Imagine all of those little gaps equaling an open widow and you get the idea.

    Caulking and plugging these gaps with expanding foam is the real “low hanging fruit” of energy efficiency.

    The biggest difference maker in making my old house more comfortable and energy efficient was when I put in new plywood sub floors, and hardwood floors and sealed them from the crawl space. I carefully caulked each seam in the sub floor plywood with 100% silicone caulk and then laid a sheet of “underlayment” plastic over them before I laid the hardwood flooring.

    Before that cold air drafts would come up through the single layer floor boards. I had actually resorted to filling the most obvious ones with brown caulk!

  12. Matty says:

    Fair point, I didn’t mean to imply there wouldn’t be heat loss. Just wondering if having the heat source in the living space reduces this relative to having it in a garage or cellar,my instinct is that it would.

    It’s a natural gas boiler by the way.

  13. D. C. Sessions says:

    Over the summer $HERSELF:
    1) Sealed the LR and DR subfloors before laying new oak flooring
    2) Had the (ceiling) ducts straightened out and sealed
    3) Had insulation blown into the ceiling crawl space
    4) Replaced the 20yo pilot-light furnace in the ceiling crawl space (?!?!?!) with a new pilotless one in a hallway corner

    All this in a 130-year-old adobe (that’s mud brick to you) single-level house in NM, where the temperatures are currently getting into the teens at night. And, no, I’m not likely to drop the $25K to have the outside foamed and (re-)stuccoed just because the bricks are something like R6. Nor am I likely to have the single-pane windows replaced, given that it would involve strange and unnatural acts to the walls.
    Still … the December gas bill dropped to a third of last year’s, for a total cost of less than $10K that also got us air conditioning for the summer.

  14. J@m3z Aitch says:

    where the temperatures are currently getting into the teens at night.

    Here, too. Negative teens, that is.

    Caulking and plugging these gaps with expanding foam is the real “low hanging fruit” of energy efficiency.

    Good point. I’ve done some of that while I’m residing, but I could probably be more diligent about it.

    On the plus side, the frigid spot on my kitchen floor is no longer so frigid, since I resided and better insulated that exterior wall. It’s still a bit cold, though, but that’s because it’s in a corner area, and I haven’t yet fixed up the other wall (which is planned for the coming summer). But while it’s still kind of cold, it’s nice to not have a spot on the kitchen floor that literally makes a bare foot ache, even when the outside temp is below zero.

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