Should I Buy an Electric Vehicle?

tesla3There’s been a lot of talk and press coverage about electric vehicles the last few years. Tesla, Elon Musk’s electric car company, has generated huge excitement with it’s sexy, high performance cars, but their price has put them out of reach of most consumers. The Tesla Model 3, to be released in mid-late 2017, hopes to change that however, giving you a 200+ mile range electric car for under $40,000.

ChevyBoltTesla isn’t the only game in town. Chevrolet released their sub-$40k Chevy Bolt at the beginning of 2017, and this compact SUV shaped electric vehicle has won accolades from all the automotive press, setting the standard for high range (200+ miles on a charge) vehicles.

These two are just the start of a flood of EV’s hitting the market. Virtually every auto manufacturer has promised a variety of electric vehicles – great news for consumers, but also potentially confusing.

In this article, I hope to arm you with some useful information so you can decide if an electric vehicle is right for you.

Types of Electric Vehicles

There are several types of electric or electrified vehicles that you’ll hear about. Each has their own benefits and disadvantages. Let’s summarize the common types that you’re most likely going to encounter:

Hybrid or “mild-hybrid” Electric Vehicle

The ‘hybrid’, popularly embodied by the Toyota Prius, has both gas and battery power. Electronics switches between the two engines or combines them, to give better fuel efficiency than a gas-only vehicle. Typically, the battery in a hybrid is relatively small, and is charged when braking (called regenerative braking) and the gas engine. These vehicles are not charged with a plug. The mild-hybrid has an even smaller battery, often just used so that the engine can shut off while waiting in traffic or for very short bursts where the gas engine would run inefficiently.

Think of hybrids as just optimized gas vehicles. You don’t really need to know that you’re driving a car with a battery. You fill it with gas and go, making it suitable for virtually any consumer.

Plug-in Hybrid

The plug-in hybrid is a transitional electric-gas hybrid vehicle that has a larger battery than a regular hybrid. As the name implies, it also has a plug, so you can charge it at home.

With the plug-in hybrid, you can typically drive around 20 miles on battery power alone, allowing you to do your around-town errands without using a drop of gas. In addition, since they have a normal gas engine, like the hybrid, you can use them on long trips, just stopping for gas as you always have. In this case, it feels just like a normal hybrid vehicle.

The trick with plug-in hybrids is that you have to do your homework carefully as the electric-only range and power vary greatly. For example, some manufacturers severely limit the power in electric only mode. Acceleration of these heavy vehicles as well as top-speed are compromised.

Pure Electric Vehicle (EV)

The ‘true’ electric vehicle has just one power source – the battery (I’m excluding hydrogen fuel cell vehicles from this discussion because they’re so uncommon).

With an electric vehicle, electric motors drive the wheels. There’s no gas tank. No gas engine. Just batteries and an electric motor.

The Tesla represents the best of this type of car. They have large battery packs and exceedingly powerful motors, capable of out-accelerating every normal car on the road.

However, there have been other electric vehicles that manufacturers have been experimenting with over the years. Currently, most of these vehicles have smaller battery packs, providing ranges of 70-120 miles, which has limited their popular appeal. More on this later…

Pros and Cons

Hybrids and Plug-in Hybrids

As noted in the descriptions above, the hybrid automobiles appear to the drive to be just normal cars with better gas mileage. They’ll go as far on a tank of gas as you’ve always gone – typically 350-450 miles. When they run low on gas, you stop at any gas station, fill up in a few minutes and you’re on your way.

Convenience and familiarity, you might think that hybrids are the “perfect” vehicle. However, in my opinion, they’re more of a compromise. While I applaud their ability to drastically cut fuel consumption while providing long range travel, I think for many drivers, they are a poor compromise.

A hybrid is more complex than either a gas car or a pure EV because you have both gas and electric drive trains. They’re a marvel of technology, seamlessly blending power from two different sources. But with complexity comes increased maintenance. You still have to fill up the fuel tank at the gas station and change the oil and transmission fluid but now you have a heavier vehicle with batteries and an electric motor.

There are excellent hybrids on the market. Toyota has virtually perfected them, offering several models. And for the single-car family that wants to take road trips without worrying about charging batteries, they’re great. But for families with two or more cars, which is virtually every suburban household, a hybrid may not be the best option.

Pure Electric Vehicle

The pure electric vehicle is driven by battery power alone. Electric motors drive the wheels, and control electronics sets the speed. No gas. No oil changes. Just electrons, wires and motors. As such, the estimated maintenance cost of the EV is minimal. In fact, it’s so minimal that analysts are predicting that the adoption of EVs will disrupt the automotive repair market. Think of all the motor oil that won’t have to be purchased and disposed of. No more spark plugs or fuel injectors or timing belts. No anti-freeze or radiator. So much of what you consider parts of a car are missing in the electric vehicle.

Electric vehicles also have what is called “instant torque.” Unlike a gas engine, which have a power curve that ramps up to an optimal engine RPM, the electric motor can put out incredible torque at very low speeds. This is why the top-of-the-line Tesla can go 0-60 in 2.3 seconds! Even the new Chevy Bolt, which looks like a humble compact SUV does 0-60 in under 7 seconds! You have to experience it for yourself to appreciate it. You press on the accelerator and the car *goes*. No engine revving. No power lag. Push. Go. Whee!

On the other hand, EVs are relatively new technologies. Mechanics have to be specially trained to work on EVs. The parts aren’t user-serviceable. And, the batteries! Estimates are replacement of batteries will be on the order of $10,000 with a lifespan of 7-10 years. This will change how people think about cars. Who wants to pay a premium for an electric vehicle, then have to pay another $10k later?

And then there’s charging…

VW egolfPerhaps the biggest consideration about electric vehicles is range and charging. People talk of “range anxiety” – that fear that you’re going to run out of battery power, leaving you stranded by the side of the road. You can’t even walk down the street to a filling station, you have to have the vehicle put on a flat-bed truck and taken to a charging station that is probably many miles away! Yikes!

The truth is, an electric vehicle *does* have to be driven differently. You do have to check your range, and plan your trips. If you don’t want to have to think about driving, then an EV is definitely not for you.

With ranges from 75-300 miles, the amount you have to think varies considerably. For example, I have a Volkswagen e-Golf, that has a range of about 100 miles. Most of my daily driving uses about 10-25 miles or range, so I can go a few days without worrying about charging. But if I’m planning a longer trip (and under 100 miles), I have to think ahead, and top off the charge, which can take a few hours with my 220V charger. Typically, I plug in every night, so that I don’t have to worry about the next day’s trips.

But what if I want to take a trip longer than 100 miles? With that range, and the lack of fast charging stations, I use our other car, with a conventional gas engine. Even if there were fast-charging stations everywhere, with only 100 miles between charges, it would still be too impractical. That’s why the new generation of 200+ miles EVs like the Tesla and the Bolt are such game-changers. If I could go 200+ miles on a charge, then I could drive a few hours, stop for a coffee and pit-stop while charging for 30-60 minutes, then be on my way. That takes me from my home in Pennsylvania to my parents in Massachusetts with one charge in the middle. I still wouldn’t want to drive across the country, but for all my normal road trips, it would be fine.

Back to practicality.

Even though my e-Golf has only 100 miles of range, since we’re a two-car family, it’s not a problem. I absolutely *love* driving the Golf for my local trips. No gas stations. No stinky fumes. No oil changes. Just check drive in my garage and insert the charger, and maybe check the tire pressure and I’m good to go.

Oh, and the cost of running it. As you know, I’m an energy geek. I have solar panels on the roof of the house and I monitor every kilo-Watt hour we use. At an electric cost of $0.15/kWh, it’s cost me about $78 to drive 2000 miles, in mostly local traffic conditions where our normal gas car gets about 25mpg. So driving our normal car would use about 80 gallons of gas in that same 2000 miles. Even if you compare a gas VW Golf, that only gets 25mpg in the city, 36 hwy. So my cost to drive of the e-Golf is about half to 2/3 what it would cost in gas for a normal car. And I’m not wasting time at gas stations.

So, is an electric car for you?

There are many considerations in answering this question, but today, if you are a two-car family, an EV is probably in your future. There is a huge movement to increase the range of EVs, with most manufacturers promising cars in 2018-2020 that will go 200+ miles on a charge. Even without that, you can get an e-Golf or Nissan Leaf today with a range of 100+ miles which is more than ample for all your local driving.

The added benefits of minimal maintenance and smooth electric drive train are great perks that make your car more like a TV, where you just turn it on and drive. After getting my e-Golf, I said to myself “why did I wait so long!”

That said, I changed my thinking about cars. Every other car I had, I bought outright and drove for at least ten years before reselling it. With an electric vehicle, I would only consider leasing it. The technology is new for most manufacturers and there’s the question of the battery life. Plus, the market is changing so fast that there will certainly be amazing new options every few years. So if I would only consider a lease for a new car. OTOH, if you are interested in getting your feet wet, you can buy used EVs for a tiny fraction of their new cost. Nissan Leafs and e-Golfs with plenty of miles left on their batteries can be had for under $10k.

But, an EV may not be for you…yet.

If you do a lot of driving, and don’t want to spend the money on a Tesla, and the Chevy Bolt isn’t your cup of tea, then you’ll probably want to stick with a conventional vehicle. If you’re a contractor and need a truck or have a house full of kids and need a minivan, then you don’t really have any electric options yet. If you don’t want to think about plugging in, then an EV isn’t for you.

It’s an exciting time to be a car buyer. So many new options are becoming available. And every day, it seems like our assumptions are getting overturned. So next time you think about getting a car, look at the options and decide what’s really best for you. The answer may be a surprise. There may be an EV in your future!

EV Efficiency Addendum

One thing I’ve noticed is how confusing the terminology is for electric vehicles. With gas vehicles, it’s really simple in the United States – we just say “it gets xxx miles per gallon.” Easy, right? Higher numbers means more efficiency. In Europe, they say “it uses yyy litres per 100 kilometers” which is the opposite – higher numbers means more consumption. But whatever, it’s a matter of convention.

With electric vehicles, there doesn’t seems to be much consensus on how you rate efficiency. Personally, I think that in the United States, we should stick with a rating that is comparable to MPG, that is, miles per kilowatt-hour. The higher, the better. That’s why, on my spreadsheet, I use that rating.

As you look around the web, you’re going to see a variety of other measurements. On the U.S. EPA’s website, they use MPGe AND kWh per 100 miles, apparently in an attempt to be similar to the European standard.

What exactly is MPGe? I mean, it doesn’t represent anything intuitive for most people. Someone got the brilliant idea that people know what a gallon of gas is, and they know that a car might get 25 mpg, so why not convert gas energy into kilowatt hours then divide that by how far the car could go on a gallon of this gas-equivalent! Brilliant! No, not brilliant, utterly confusing for all but engineers and geeks who can mentally convert the energy contained in gallon of gas into kWh! Anyway, that’s what it is, and we’re stuck with it. But your electric car doesn’t run on gas, it runs on electricity, which is measured in kWh. It boggles the mind.

Since you’re probably stuck with this confusing MPGe standard, all you really need to know is that an efficient EV gets somewhere between 120-140 MPGe, meaning it uses somewhere in the range of 25-30 kWh per hundred miles driven. That’s why the new Chevy Bolt can go somewhat over 200 miles with it’s 60 kWh battery pack. If you see a car with lower than 100 MPGe, well, that’s the equivalent of an SUV in gas mileage. And the Mercedes B250 with its dismal 84 MPGe or the even worse BYD e6 with 72 MPGe? Those would require about a 100 kWh battery pack for any decent range.

Another point of comparison – most homes in the United States use 30-60 kWh per day to operate. That’s for your TV, range, water heater, lights, computers. Everything. So filling up your car with 30 kWh every day is going to increase your electric bill by 50-100%. Sounds bad, doesn’t it?

Fret not. It’s still much less expensive to operate than a gas car. Typically around 1/2 as costly depending on your gas and electric costs. Even that inefficient Mercedes costs less to run than the gas equivalent. The Mercedes costs you about $6 per hundred miles to drive (at $0.15/kWh electric rate). The gas equivalent would use about 4 gallons of gas, costing about $10 where I live. And the relatively efficient e-Golf I drive costs about $4.20.

Thinking EV? Here’s some more references

20 EVs with 200-plus mile range due by 2020

Comparison of specs of ‘practical’ electric cars – compact utility vehicles / hatchbacks¬†– this is a spreadsheet I worked up while looking for my own EV. The Chevy Bolt is my reference vehicle and remains so. It’s available today. Has 238 mile range. Loads of storage space and has received rave reviews from all quarters. So why am I driving an e-Golf? Because a friend was passing on her lease at a price I couldn’t resist ūüôā

electrek – the electric vehicle blog – blog dedicated to EVs started by a geek who has been passionate about EVs since before they were hip.

Green Car Congress – a blog dedicated to various types of energy efficient transportation.

plugincars – a listing of available EVs allowing easy comparison. A great resource for quickly scanning the types of EVs that are on the market.

Google Electric Cars – Google’s search page for electric cars. What you (might be able to) buy today, Google style.

EPA Fuel Economy Comparisons – The United States EPA official website for comparing the relative efficiency of electric vehicles

Definition of MPGe – Wikipedia page with a lengthy discussion of this confusing term.


Do I need to clean my solar panels?

Intuitively, clean solar panels are more efficient than dirty ones. But how much of a difference does it really make?

Like you, for years I have read that you *must* clean your panels because dirty panels waste so much sunlight. Since you’ve paid lots of money for your panels, you want every Watt that they can produce. But how much of a difference does it make?

This spring, after the flowers and trees sprayed their pollen everywhere, my panels were really dirty, totally covered with yellow pollen. I figured, this must be costing me big in solar production. So, being an energy geek, I decided to measure the output before and after cleaning (on consecutive days with clear skies at the same time).

In short, I discovered that, even this dirty, there was very little measurable difference. With my big array, when dirty, I got 8.4 kWh at the noon hour. After cleaning, around 8.5 kWh.  However, the effect was so small that I think this measurement is within the margin for error since even a little change in conditions would make a greater difference.

Given the time and potential danger of climbing on the roof, hosing down the panels and cleaning them properly, this tiny difference hardly seems worth the effort. Certainly, it isn’t worth the several hundred dollars that a professional cleaners would charge, especially considering that the panels will just get dirty again after another week!

There are conditions when you should clean your panels. If you have a flat or very low slope roof in a dry climate, the dust can form a very thick layer that isn’t washed away by infrequent rains. Over time, the dirt will cake on, making it harder and harder to clean. Periodic maintenance makes sense in this case.

Bonus information – what really makes a difference in solar production!

As part of this experiment, I discovered that my solar panels were producing far less energy than expected. In the past, I had measured over 9.5 kWh for the noon hour. At other times, they produced less than 8.3 kWh. This is a *huge* variation! But why?

After some research, I learned that solar production decreases when the panels get hot. So I went back through years of solar production records from my system, picked days that had full, uninterrupted production (no clouds) and graphed it. Here’s the results:

solar production graph

First, I must explain why there are two lines. The bottom level, ranging from a max of 8.4 kWh to 7.4 kWh are the data from before my solar system was expanded. The top line is from after additional panels were installed.

Next, I admit that these are crude measurements because they are based upon the daily average temperature at my location. Ideally, I would put a temperature sensor on a panel, so I could measure output vs. panel temperature. However, the effect is nonetheless very strong and paints a clear picture – solar energy production drops very significantly as the days get hotter.

If you are paying attention, you will think – “when the days are colder, isn’t that winter, when the sun is much lower?” The answer is “YES!” My data were chosen between mid-March and mid-August of several years. You would think the June numbers, when the sun is highest in the sky would produce the most energy. Not so! Temperature clearly makes a much bigger difference than this amount of solar angle change. In fact, the best noontime production was in mid April, where the temperature is low and the sun is bright.

Please note that this is the peak hour production. The total day’s production, for ¬†my fixed mount system, is when the days are longest, even though the temperatures are higher. But I think it is useful for others to understand how much of a difference heating makes to solar production. So if you see your system underproducing during a hot summer day, that doesn’t mean it is malfunctioning. This can save you the pain and frustration of a service call.

The important thing that this implies is that a ground mounted system, with open backs and plenty of air flow as well as the naturally cooler temperatures of the moist ground below it, may be better for production than roof mounted, with very little natural air flow and a hot roof. Someone needs to study this, given how large a difference temperature makes to production.

Insulating Attics and Cathedral Ceilings

In the first article of this series, I discussed a lot of the theory behind attic insulation that you should know before taking on your insulation project. If you haven’t read it, please, click the link and do your best to understand the basics before proceeding.

Condensation – killing houses slowly but surely

Snowy energy audit

This house definitely has problems

This winter, most of the questions I’ve received have been about moisture buildup in attics or cathedral ceilings. And all have the same answer – humid air from the house is rising up through all the little cracks and holes in your ceiling. Once it gets into the attic space (or the space¬†between the roof and the ceiling of a cathedral ceiling), the air cools rapidly and the water held in the air condenses on to a near-by cold surface – usually the underside of the roof or the roofing nails.

Once this happens, the water drips ¬†into your insulation or soaks into the roof sheathing. If this happens once and dries out, it’s no big problem. But during the course of the winter, this happens again and again, and before you know it, it’s raining inside the house as water leaks through holes in the ceiling.

There’s a saying – “there’s no such thing as a small water problem.” But often people will try to put a band-aid on them. Unfortunately, every day a water problem is neglected, is another day closer to serious structural problems and tens of thousands of dollars of repairs. So it is in your best interest to deal with water problems as seriously as if your house was on fire. Deal with it today, or you’ll be really sorry tomorrow.

What a moisture problem looks like

Let’s look at the underside of a roof that has experience this repeated wetting from condensation:

Insulation against roof deck leads to roof failure

Fiberglass insulation against roof deck in an attic leads to roof failure

moldy roof rec lights

Moldy roof deck above a cathedral ceiling

The first thing knowledgeable people ask is: “will adding more ventilation eliminate the problem?”

We’ve all been told that you have to have air flowing through the channels, from the eaves (soffit vents) up to the peak (ridge vent) in order to flush out the moisture. But this is only part of the story and it doesn’t guarantee anything. In some cases, it makes the problems worse.

The purpose of insulation in winter is to slow the heat loss from the house and out the roof. Take a look at the photo at the top of this article. Half the roof has snow, the other half does not. The half where the snow has melted is a clear sign of heat loss from the house. The heat warms the roof sheathing and melts the snow.

Recall what you know about condensation – condensation occurs when moisture in the air comes in contact with a cold surface. The roof is above the insulation, so it’s supposed to be cold. If it were warm (like the right half of the photo of snow), then condensation would be less likely. The situation is a Catch-22 – good insulation equals cold roof. Cold roof plus humid air equals condensation. Ugh!

Given these conflicting issues, what do you do?

Preventing moisture problems in attics and cathedral ceilings


U.S. EPA Air infiltration poster

The answer is simple – reduce the amount of humid air that can come in contact with the cold roof.

In the winter, almost all the moisture comes from inside the house. It rises up, along with the warm air, finds every tiny crack in the ceiling, and gets up into the attic or inside the cavity under a cathedral ceiling.

Step 1: reduce moisture in the house

The first thing you want to do is reduce the amount of water getting into the air from inside the house.

Ventilate when showering

humidistatThe most common source of large amounts of moisture is the shower. When you shower, you create a “worst case” scenario – hot water saturates the air. That “super saturated” air will immediately dump the humidity onto any cooler surface it touches.

When you shower, you must run the bath fan during and after your shower until the all the excess moisture in the bathroom is flushed out. Usually, this means allowing the bath fan to run for approximately 30 minutes after you shower.

If you have a door on the bathroom, keep it closed until all the moisture is flushed out. Never shower with the bathroom door open because the moisture will flow out into other areas of the house that are not designed to eliminate the moisture.

Bath fan tips:
  • Ensure the fan actually works. Put a piece of paper under the fan. It should suck strongly to the fan’s intake. If it does not, then the fan may be improperly vented.
  • Check the fan installation. Pull down the grill under the fan and look for gaps between the ceiling and the fan. Use canned foam to seal these gaps.
  • Make sure the fan vents through the roof. Venting the fan into the attic is common and exceedly stupid as it virtually guarantees a rotten roof. The duct from the fan should be as short as possible and go straight up through the roof. Your fan is worthless if the duct runs 50 feet across the the attic then lays on the soffit.
  • Install a humidistat that automatically runs¬†the fan based on humidity levels. There are even bath fans with humidistats built in now but I prefer separate switches with humidistats like the one linked to above or this one. Why? Because you are less likely to forget to turn it on. The humidistat is wired in parallel with the normal switch so either one can activate the fan.

Ensure the dryer vents outside

Far too often, dryer vents take long paths to get outside. This leads to inefficient or even dangerous operation. If your dryer takes forever to dry clothes, chances are good that it’s not venting effectively.

Don’t even think about getting a dryer “heat reclamation” device. These pump gallons of humid hot air into your home, greatly increasing your odds of mold and roof rot.

Turn off humidifiers

If you have moisture problems and you use a humidifier, stop using the humidifier. Humidifiers can dump gallons of water into the air every day. Central humidifiers are especially bad because they use the homes leaky ductwork to spread the moisture.

If you absolutely must use a humidifier, use it only in the room where you sleep and turn it off when you’re not using it.

Keep in mind that the primary reason you need a humidifier is because your house is leaking in cold, dry air. The need for a humidifier is a clear sign that your house is inefficient and you could save a lot of money and be much more comfortable by tightening your home. I know – when I moved into my home, our lips and skin cracked, our noses bled and we were really uncomfortable. We had to use humidifier round the clock to be comfortable. After replacing our old windows and air sealing the house, we haven’t had to use the humidifiers once.

Ventilate when cooking

If you cook on the stove a lot, make sure you use an outdoor venting range hood. This is especially important if you have a gas stove or oven because these generate carbon monoxide and water vapor.

Conservatively water plants

Much of that water you use to water plants ends up inside the house.

Avoid “ventless” gas fireplaces

These should be outlawed. Ventless gas fireplaces generate tons of water vapor and, if not running cleanly, carbon monoxide, which can kill you. No matter what Bob Villa might say, these units should¬†never be installed or used. It’s physics. A byproduct of combustion is water and carbon dioxide. And if the combustion isn’t *perfect*, you also get carbon monoxide.

Look for hidden water sources

Basements and crawlspaces

If you have a crawl space or damp basement, this could lead to huge amounts of moisture entering your home. Many articles have been written on this topic. For now, be aware of this and check your basement and deal with any moisture problems under the house. If you don’t there’s a good chance you’ll end up with attic/roof moisture problems.

Indoor ponds and fountains

Self explanatory.

Any other place water is used in the house

Step 2: Air seal the ceiling between the living space and the insulated attic/cathedral ceiling


I’ll save myself 1000 words – refer to this excellent diagram and ensure that your home has an airtight seal between the living space and the attic or the inside of your cathedral ceiling.

Avoid traditional recessed light fixtures!

moldy roof rec lightsIf you’re considering (or already have) recessed light fixtures, use air tight LED fixtures. The manufacturers completely lie when they label traditional fixtures as ICAT (insulation contact, air tight). I dare you – turn one of these fixtures upside down and fill them with water. Water will rush through all the holes in the fixture. Now picture your ceiling during the winter – air flows right through the fixture, carrying moisture up into your attic or ceiling. You are virtually guaranteed roof rot if you have a ceiling filled with recessed lights.

Don’t believe me? remember this photo from earlier? This builder swore up and down that he did everything right and the roof was still rotting. Why? Because he installed about 20 of these fixtures in the ceiling. You can’t argue with physics.

Fortunately, you can cut your energy usage in quarter, never have to change a bulb again, and eliminate the moisture infiltration problem by using flush-mount LED lights like these. You can also retrofit existing recessed light fixtures using these types of lights.

One word of advice – use a thin bead of caulk around the lip of the fixture to seal it to your ceiling. This is the only way to ensure an air-tight seal. Yes, it will be a pain in the butt to remove later, but these things are rated to last 36,000 hours. That’s 4-years of continuous use so 10-20 years in real use. LEDs often last much longer.

Seal all duct registers and especially bath fans

I have¬†never seen a bath fan that’s properly air sealed, and they’re in the most critical location in the house. The installer will cut a hole about 1″ larger than the fan then cover up this big gap with the fan’s grill. Out of sight, out of mind.

All that humid air from your showers will go right up through these gaps and into your attic. This is the place you should start with your air sealing because it’s so easy and so effective.

After that, if you have heating/air conditioning vents in the ceiling between the living space and attic, remove¬†the grills (called “registers” in industry lingo for some reason). These are installed the same way as bath fans. Big holes. Sloppy installation. You can use spray foam or caulk to seal the gaps. Or, use this incredible tape, called “foil mastic.” Clean off the sheet metal of the duct “boot” (that’s the metal thing the duct is attached to that screws to your ceiling). And use this tape to seal all around the perimeter where the boot attaches to the ceiling. Be careful to measure it so that it doesn’t show outside the register¬†before sticking it to the ceiling because once it sticks, it’s on there for good!

Cover the attic hatch

AtticAccess375x327.jpegAttic hatches are responsible for a huge amount of energy loss and the associated moisture damage in attics. Make sure yours is air-tight (which is almost none except for these Rainbow attic stairs). These are the best I’ve ever seen and worth the money.

For the other 99% of you who already have attic stairs, install the ESS Energy attic stair hatch. This thing is awesome. Or, you can build your own out of foam-board. But seriously, the ESS Energy system is so much better than the other solutions out there that’s it’s worth it.

Get a blower door test before and after air sealing

The best way to go about air sealing is to have an energy auditor come and do an infrared inspection with blower door test before and after the project. You do it before the air sealing to locate the air leaks so you can prioritize the work. You do it after to ensure the work was done right!

When I did these inspections on a daily basis, I found that the combination of blower door test and infrared thermography was the only reliable way of finding the problems. Some folks will say they can find all the problems without the right tools, but, frankly, they’re misguided. I don’t care if you’ve been doing this for 50 years, your eyes are not going to find hidden problems.

Let me give you an example. Suppose you go to the doctor. You’re not feeling well. Strange pains in your abdomen. If the doctor prodded you a couple times, told you “it’s nothing, you’ve got gas” then said “I don’t need to use a newfangled MRI machine” – would you trust your life to them?

For a few hundred bucks, are you going to trust someone’s eyes or a proven tool?

Ready? Insulate your attic!

After you’ve reduced humidity problems in your home, then air-sealed the ceiling between the living space and the attic/cathedral ceiling, then you can insulate.

How should you insulate? ¬†Honestly, if you’ve done your prep work properly, you can use cellulose, spray foam, fiberglass, recycled denim or horse hair and your home will be relatively well insulated and energy efficient.

Obviously there are differences, but it should be clear that the prep work for insulation is key. Even the best insulation product can have issues if you don’t air seal and reduce humidity.

Some guidelines for insulation in colder climates

I have to start by saying this is all for winter insulation. Hot, humid climates have their own rules which are often reversed from cold climates.

Moisture barriers go towards the warm, inside of the house

In winter, the moisture barrier should be the first thing beyond the ceiling material. You absolutely don’t want to trap moisture on the cold side of the insulation.

Refer to your local building code for the use of moisture barriers. Many jurisdictions are changing their approach to moisture barriers.

Install insulation

Like I said, the specific insulation product usually doesn’t matter if everything to this point has been done right. The main differences between products are price, R-value per inch of thickness and convenience of use. These can be significant differences and you have to determine what works best for your own home.

Some¬†things they should tell you about insulation but often don’t
  • Blown in products are messy. Cellulose or fiberglass blown in to an attic basically renders the attic useless for other purposes. If you think you’ll never go into the attic, then great, blow in a couple feet of cellulose and be done with it. But if you have heating/cooling equipment up there or you want to use the storage space, you will hate the decision. Trust me. I want to kill my insulation installer for blowing cellulose in my attic after I told them I didn’t want it.
  • If you’re doing it yourself, consider recycled denim like UltraTouch. This insulation doesn’t leave you itchy. It’s dense and fits into the cavities securely. I did my parent’s attic with it and it was wonderful to work with. The downside is that it’s pricey and hard to cut. But it’s really good stuff. Well worth looking into for a DIY project.
  • Mold on roof deck from humid air rising up from the house.

    Rotten roof deck caused by moisture trapped by insulation

    If you’re installing insulation directly under the roof, like in a cathedral ceiling or attic ceiling, make sure to leave about a 2″ gap between the insulation and the roof sheathing. If you don’t, there’s a good chance your roof will end up like this.

  • If you install insulation directly under the roof, you have to air seal underneath of it, like with an airtight sealing. In the attic, you can install rigid foam board to the rafters and essentially create a cathedral ceiling in there.
  • There are different types of spray foam. Open cell, which is like what couch cushions are made of, and closed cell, which is rock-hard. They have different characteristics that you need to research in order to make a good decision about their use.
  • You do¬†not want to install insulation on the attic floor and under the roof. This is a case of “more is worse.” The insulation on the attic floor will make the attic cold, and the insulation above can trap the moisture in the attic, leading to moisture problems if the attic space isn’t ventilated. But if you ventilate the attic, then the insulation under the roof is doing nothing. Don’t do it! Choose one location – either the floor or the ceiling and insulate it properly.
  • If you insulate and air seal the attic floor, then ventilate the main attic space according to code. No matter how good your air sealing, moisture will enter the attic from the living space. If this is trapped in the cold attic, you can rot your roof. So the attic has to be ventilated. Personally, I’ve seen gable vents work fine in homes but it’s all the rage to use soffit and ridge vents. Whatever. Just ventilate the space well to flush out moisture.
  • If you insulate under the roof, be sure to air seal under the insulation just as well as you would the ceiling of your home. The attic becomes part of the living space when you insulate under the roof. Treat it as such. Fail to do so? See photo above.

Ok, that’s enough. My fingers are tired from typing all morning. If you’ve read half of this and gotten this far, you should have most of the information you need to create a comfortable, efficient home that will last for decades.


How Should You Insulate Your Attic?

One of the hottest topics in energy efficiency and building science is “how should you insulate your attic?” Why? Simply put, the attic has more impact on your¬†efficiency and comfort than any other single part¬†of your home!

Let’s summarize¬†why the attic is so important:

  1. The attic is the hottest part of the house in the summer and is cold in the winter
  2. Hot air rises up to the attic / cold falls drops into the living space
  3. Moisture rises and accumulates in the attic
  4. Central heating/AC systems and ductwork are often in the attic

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Home-Brew Solar

If you, like me, enjoy building things, or perhaps just want to understand them better, you’ll love

This amazing site contains a wealth of information for those interested in practical applications of solar energy.

The author, Gary Reysa, lives in a challenging solar environment – Bozeman Montana. Anyone who can make solar work there has to be doing something right!

He’s got the site organized so that you can walk through the process, from getting started, to complete project descriptions and lists of references.

If you’re looking for a specific type of solar project, start at this link of solar projects. He’s got them neatly organized into categories, from energy conservation, to solar thermal and solar electric. There are also sections on solar cooking and bio-fuel. Each section is broken down into sub-sections, where you can find projects like pool heating and greenhouses.


Cautions in Reading and Interpreting Mold Reports

If you’ve bought or sold a house in the 21st century, chances are good that you’ve had to read a mold report. Mold has become the latest bogey-man, leading to¬†considerable (often unnecessary) concern and expense. But it’s become a fact of life that we all have to deal with, so I’m going to do my best to describe the reports¬†so you can interpret them properly.

Before starting, be aware that this post does not contain a detailed discussion of mold varieties, allergies, cleanup, or other such details. There are numerous sites that contain that sort of information.

One caution – due to all the FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt)¬†there¬†is a huge industry built around “mold remediation.” You will find countless websites of¬†mold companies whose sole purpose is to sell you expensive mold remediation services. Their angle is often to prey on consumers’ fears. As such, you are advised to rely on independent sites for more accurate information on mold. Many states maintain mold awareness sites and have documents available that provide detailed information on how to clean and deal with mold.

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Mold – Signs, types, clean-up and health effects

I was recently sent this excellent set of references on mold. The very mention of mold sends shivers up people’s spines and makes them start sniffling, worrying about adverse effects. These references help to answer your questions and learn how to deal with your mold problems.

Mold: Signs, Types of Mold, Clean-up, Effects on Health, Toxins, Mold Prevention and more

In addition you can find more info on the topic below:

Mold and Moisture in Homes – Minnesota Department of Health

Mold: Standards, Hazard Recognition, Detection Methods, Control and Clean-up – U.S. Department of Labor

Molds and Your Home: What You Need to Know – New York State Department of Labor

Special thanks to the author of the first reference, Patricia Lawson, Research Coordinator with the National Contractors Association of America, for providing these important documents and links.