Why can’t they make a thermostat that can keep the house at a constant temperature?

Someone asked me this question, and I live this reality every day. Let’s look at what’s involved!

Each room in the house has its own thermal loss and gain. To simplify, this is directly related to the difference between the indoor and outdoor temperatures. This is mostly true but other effects like sun shining, people, electronic devices etc. all affect the equation. But for now, think of each room as a thermally insulated box losing a certain amount of energy over time when it’s cold out (this discussion applies to air conditioning also, just in reverse).

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Do you have to clean solar panels?

Years ago, shortly after putting solar panels on my house, I ran some tests to see if cleaning my panels of pollen made a difference. At the time, I found minimal difference in the output of my entire system so I concluded that I didn’t really have to worry about keeping the panels clean. Plus, most of the on-line info I found supported this, stating that rain naturally washes away most of the debris that settles on the panels.

However, this past year, I upgraded my system with solar optimizers. Due to tree growth, my array was having more problems from shading, causing the entire system performance to degrade. Optimizers allow each panel to operate more independently, reducing the negative effect of shading on one panel. In addition, the optimizers were connected to the internet, allowing me to monitor the output of each individual panel. Most modern systems provide this capability. It’s an extremely powerful troubleshooting tool.

As an energy geek, I wanted to see how my panels were performing after installing the optimizers, since I paid a good chunk of change for the upgrade. Sadly, when I compared my system output to past years, I didn’t really see much, if any improvement! Why would this be?

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Is Geothermal Worth It?

On paper, geothermal, or more accurately, Ground Source Heat Pumps (GSHP), are amazing. They pump out endless heat during the winter and cold during the summer at costs that are often much lower than conventional heat pumps. They don’t pollute (directly). They’re quiet, comfortable and, when properly maintained, should last decades.

But what’s the reality? Are geothermal heat pumps really worth it? Keep reading to learn the answers!

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Why is my house so humid?

I received an excellent question today, in a nutshell it was: “Why is my house so humid that condensation is dripping from the ceiling?”

The questioner reminded me of all the times I’ve heard this question, both on this blog and when I was in the field, helping track down issues in people’s homes. Clearly this is serious issue that needs more attention because it leads to problems with a home’s health, comfort and efficiency – exactly the things I focus on! (I also wrote extensively on this in a previous article: “Cathedral Ceilings – Mold and Moisture”)

Why is a humidity important?

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Tongue and Groove Ceilings – Dripping, Leaking and Condensation

Tongue and groove ceilings – they’re beautiful, but like many beautiful things, they can be problematic.

(Photo shows a thermal scan of a ceiling where cold air is leaking in through the gaps – those are the black streaks down the photo)

Unfortunately, T&G ceilings have become the single most discussed items on Ted’s Energy Tips due to their overwhelming tendency to be associated with water, mold, or moisture problems.

Does your ceiling drip water?

I’ve probably heard this a hundred times – “Help! Water is leaking from my ceiling! We had a cold snap and now it’s a beautiful day and now it’s raining in my house!”
The caller/writer then tells me that the roofer came out to check for leaks and couldn’t find anything. If they took it a step further, someone pulled off some of the ceiling planks, saw the real problem (condensation) and told them that they need to ventilate the ceilings. If they’re unlucky, they spent thousands of dollars, added ventilation, and the water problems became worse!

Why do ceilings drip when there’s no leak?

Boil a pot of water with a lid on it. Wait a minute then lift the lid. What do you see? Lots of water on the underside of the lid. There’s no ‘leak’ but yet the lid is covered with water due to condensation forming on it. This is exactly what’s happening inside your ceiling.
Under the right conditions, when water vapor in the air comes in contact with a surface cooler than the air, the water vapor becomes liquid water. If this happens enough, the water builds up and forms large drop of water. Those get large enough and, PLOP!, it starts raining in your house!

All too often, a T&G ceiling is constructed in a way that virtually guarantees water problems. The roof is installed over the rafters. Fiberglass is shoved between the rafters. T&G boards are nailed to the rafters. Bingo – you get mold, water “leaks”, and thousands of dollars of repairs which probably don’t even fix the problem.

Why don’t normal ceilings drip?

A typical ceiling is made of sheetrock or plaster, and all the seams are carefully filled in. That’s then painted, usually with several coats of paint.
While some tiny amount of water vapor can get through the paint and sheetrock, it’s a very small quantity. Small enough that, under normal conditions, natural air flow and moisture transfer removes the moisture that does get into the ceiling cavity above the sheetrock.

However, even these ceilings often have problems when holes are cut in them for recessed lights. This allows that air and moisture to move much more quickly into the ceiling where it can condense and lead to mold growth and wood rot.
The key fact – if air gets into your ceiling, even through small holes, it will carry water vapor with it which is very likely to lead to moisture problems.

Why are T&G ceilings so bad?

Water vapor is tiny. Really, really tiny. So tiny, that even the smallest crack is billions and billions of times larger than the water molecule. Tongue and groove ceilings may look ‘tight’ but to a water molecule, it’s like a wide open door! So that water vapor simply flows right up through those cracks and into the ceiling cavity above.

To Make matters worse, most ceilings are stuffed with fiberglass insulation, which doesn’t stop the water vapor at all. So the vapor keeps wafting up past the insulation until it reaches the underside of your roof. That roof deck is cold in the winter and on clear nights. When the vapor hits it, it condenses into liquid water. This is when the real problems start…

When it’s below freezing, the water freezes into ice. More water vapor enters, contacts the ice, and adds to the ice. Before you know it, the entire underside of the roof and anything else cold enough in the ceiling cavity, is covered with a layer of ice. This could go on for days, weeks or even months until the ice melts and it starts raining in your living room!

Even when it’s not below freezing, in most climates, it gets cold enough and there’s enough water vapor carried by the air for condensation to form inside the ceiling. The wood can absorb some of that moisture and slowly transfer it out. But with a T&G ceiling, the water supply inside the house is nearly infinite, so it keeps building up. Pretty soon, the wood is saturated and larger water droplets form. They’ll drip down, following gravity, until they find a place to leak out. That’s why the drips often form far away from where the condensation is actually occurring, which is often high up the ceiling.

Will ventilation solve the problem?

Builders are taught that roofs have to be ventilated in order to ‘flush out’ the moisture. The problem is, that doesn’t work with T&G ceilings. In fact, it often makes problems worse.

Why? As the air moves through the cavity, it has a tendency to draw more air from the inside of the house into the cavity. Some of that is flushed out with the air moving through the cavity. But when the water vapor carried by the air comes in contact with cold surfaces, it basically sticks. If there’s enough, which there usually is in a house during winter, then you still have the condensation problem.

How do you prevent water vapor from getting in the ceiling?

Take a step back. What ceilings work properly? We started discussing how a typical drywall ceiling usually doesn’t have moisture problems like these (unless you put holes in it). So the easiest solution is to build a normal drywall ceiling over which you install the T&G boards – purely for aesthetic purposes. Drywall is cheap. Replacing your roof is expensive.

What about plastic sheeting?

Drywall is cheap. Replacing your roof is expensive.
Some builders try to ‘cheap out’ by just putting plastic up, usually with thousands of staples, then nailing the T&G boards to the rafters, with thousands more nails.
Do you think a sheet of plastic with thousands of holes in it is going to stop the movement of water vapor, one of the tiniest molecules in nature, from getting into the ceiling? Maybe it will take 5 years to rot out the roof instead of 3. But eventually, you’re going to be spending many thousands of dollars for a new roof, just because the builder decided to take the cheap approach and save a little bit of drywall.

Ok, Ted, how would you build a T&G ceiling?

Lots of foam insulation. Works great!

Glad you asked. Here’s how I did it when we replaced our sunroom.
We used high density spray foam. The foam completely fills the rafter bays, as in the photo above. Any remaining cracks are caulked. Then we installed the T&G ceiling to the rafters, like in the photo below:

Adding the T&G ceiling. No vapor barrier required with closed cell polyurethane.

We’ve had this ceiling for more than 10 years now with zero issues. It’s on the kitchen which gets humid from cooking, but still, no problems.

Would you do it differently if you did it again?

Good question! I might add a thin sheet of foil faced polyiso sheet foam across the rafters before installing the T&G ceiling to add another layer of moisture barrier and to reduce thermal bridging through the wooden rafters. In extremely cold climates, this would be highly recommended as you could still get condensation on the exposed rafters because they transmit the cold much more than the insulation. But in eastern PA where I live, it’s not cold enough to warrant that extra work for the minimal gain given this construction.

I already installed my ceiling, can I seal the wood or the seams?

In a word – no. That might slow the process slightly, but eventually you’re going to regret the decision when your roof rots out and your ceiling is filled with mold. Shortcuts don’t work with T&G ceilings. You have to do them right, or you’ll pay the price eventually.

Can I install recessed lights in a T&G ceiling?

If you’ve read much on this, or any other energy efficiency and building science website, you’ll know that recessed lights are nightmares. Yes, they look clean and some are even rated ‘air tight’, but those ratings are BS. They are filled with holes which let ample moisture through. That moisture will go into your ceiling and cause the same issues.

The compromise I’ll make is if you do a full foam job like I did and then install low-profile LED lights that don’t require reducing the insulation. Since the T&G ceiling isn’t an air barrier anyway, cutting holes in it to mount these lights doesn’t matter. The low profile LED lights look just like normal recessed lights but they don’t protrude into the ceiling cavity. Here’s an example of a ‘canless’ recessed light at Home Depot.

An apology…

I’m not sure what happened, but I haven’t been getting notified of questions on Ted’s Tips for months now. I just thought everybody was happy or nobody was reading!

I think I answered the backlog of questions, but if I missed your question, please submit again, and I’ll get back to you ASAP!

What are the biggest electricity consumers in a typical home?

As a baseline, consider that typical homes in the United States consume on average 30–60 kilo-Watt-hours (kWh) of electricity per day (=900–1800 kWh per month) at a cost of $0.10-$0.20 per kWh. Those running on electric heat often double these numbers.

  • In homes with electric heat, the heater can dominate all other electric consumers. Heat pumps, while considerably more efficient (1/3 – 1/2 the consumption) than straight electric resistance heat (like an electric baseboard heater) still consume substantial amounts of electricity. Consider that a typical heat pump system uses 3kW – 6kW while running, daily consumption in cold days can easily be 30–60kWh or more. This is why home insulation and air-tightness is such an important way of conserving energy. Same is true if the home is heated with oil, gas or propane – home heating and cooling costs dominate all others, so a tight, well insulated home pays dividends year after year.
  • Electric water heater – consumption varies drastically depending on a family size and hot-water usage. But an average is about 400 kWh per month. A modern heat-pump water heater can cut this in half.
  • Refrigerator/freezer – older units were much less efficient than a modern, EnergyStar unit. A typical range is 40–80 kWh/month.
  • Lighting – with the advent of energy efficient LED lights, this has shifted considerably. A home that has the equivalent of ten, 100W bulbs running 12 hours/day uses 12kWh per day or 360kWh/month. If all those bulbs were replaced by 14W LED bulbs that put out the same amount of light, that would be reduced to 1.7kWh/day or 50kWh/month. Lighting is an area where every home can dramatically reduce consumption by replacing conventional bulbs with LED in high use locations like the kitchen and living rooms.
  • Air conditioner – central air conditioners and their blowers consume from 3–7 kilo-Watt-hours (kWh) per hour of operation.
  • Home electronics – computers, DVRs, TV, stereos all add to a home’s use and together add up to 200W-1000W/hour, every hour. Typical consumption is 4–10kWh/day or 120–300kWh/month.
  • Cooking – electric ranges and ovens consume 2kW–4kW while running and might be operated for an hour or two per day on average.

Other items that add considerably to electric bills but are less common:

  • Pool pumps – most are drastically oversized and run 12 hours a day. A typical pump uses 2500W, so that’s 30kWh/day or 900 kWh/month! Replacing that with a two-speed or variable speed pump can cut this by 75% – well worth the investment.
  • Spas/Hot tubs – outdoor hot tubs use about 6–15kWh/day, depending on usage, design and temperature, call it 10kWh on average. That’s 300kWh/month. Since many people don’t use their tubs during the winter, it pays to shut it down for the winter, saving about $50/month.
  • Ponds – ponds have become very popular in the suburbs but most people don’t realize how much they cost to run. Those waterfalls require larger pumps, consuming 500W–1000W while a basic pond filter pump might use 100W-250W. Consider an average of 500W for 24 hours is 12kWh per day or 360kWh/month.

It’s extremely educational to install a whole-house energy monitor or use an inexpensive plug-in energy monitor to see how much energy each of your devices consume. But watch out, once you do, you may turn into a true energy geek, like me 🙂