Elemental, My Dear Watson

Elemental, My Dear Watson

How to get your home ready for the wet winter while the sun shines.

The sun is out—finally—the birds are tweeting, and the last thing on our minds is winter weatherizing. But let me offer a cautionary tale to save you from headaches, checkbook depletion, and frozen toes. One bleak, wet, cold, and completely hungover New Year’s Day, I awoke on the couch of my North Oakland living room to what sounded like the drip-drip-drip of a leaky faucet. To my tender brain, this resembled water torture. But worse was to come—the drip rapidly became a gusher from the middle of the ceiling, like Nightmare on Elm Street with water instead of blood.

There was cursing, Advil, whining, and bucket-filling.

Root cause? Small-time landlords who failed to weatherize, skimped on maintenance, and earned themselves an expensive disaster. It is safe to assume the roof replacement was pricier than regular maintenance would have been. Such misery for homeowners (tenants, too) can be avoided with a little foresight and, depending on your budget, as little as $75 or as much as—well, how big is your bank account?

And, right now, in this season of balmy weather and poolside parties, is the time to act. Whether you’ll be springing for a professional job or tackling the task yourself, experts say, weatherizing is best done during the dry months of summer and early fall.

Top down

Before you make a move, though, check out your home and make a list of desired (or desperately needed) weatherizing projects—and yes, you should do this even if the house is practically brand-new. “Twenty percent of homes in the Oakland, Berkeley, and Albany hills are riddled with dry rot,” says Karl Kardel, president of Karl Kardel Consultancy, an Oakland contracting firm. “We have done three-year-old houses that have $300,000 of dry rot!” Best to catch any snafus now, before trouble—or a substantial rainstorm—takes its toll. First, take a careful look at the roof. Next, inspect the walls for cracks and determine what type of insulation (if any) has been installed. Then examine doors, windows, and chimneys for cracks and leaks. The goal is to make the exterior as impermeable as possible, given your budget.

And by the way, that budget may go farther than you think—the federal government currently provides an annual tax credit of 30 percent (up to $1,500) for certain expenditures that improve energy efficiency in your home. In addition, PG&E offers consumer rebates on numerous energy-efficient products and appliances.

But back to impermeability— a big concept, as you may suspect, in the weatherizing biz. Kardel suggests that you visualize your home as a shell protecting you from the elements, with a surface that varies from permeable (not good) to impenetrable (ideal). “Weatherizing the house from the outside will cost three times what a regular paint job will run,” Kardel says. But if you do it thoroughly, he claims, the job will last 20 years. “For people who want to weatherize, the way to do it is right from the start.”

Professionals agree that the single most important thing you can do to prepare your home for winter is to seal the roof. “The biggest loss of energy is not through windows and doors, it is through the roof,” says Rick Duchin of RJD Construction in Oakland. Heat naturally rises to the top of a building; once there, it will exit via any means possible: holes, pipes, wiring, cracks, tears, or faulty insulation. Think of a home with an uninsulated roof as one big, leaky chimney.

So how do experts make sure that a home’s top zone is airtight? Caulking and weatherstripping are industry standards, but Duchin, for one, sealed his own home’s roof cavity (that is, the space in between the joists holding the roof up) with Icynene Foam, a water-based sealing and insulating foam product. “This stuff has a complete 100 percent lack of heat loss or gain,” Duchin says. “There is no pass-through. Zero.”

Next up: insulating that roof and ceiling area. If you’re not going with dual-purpose foam sealant and insulation (a treatment that will run you about $3,500 for a 1,000-square-foot roof, Duchin says), your contractor may recommend filling the chill zone with fiberglass, blown fiberglass, paper, or recycled denim. Then there’s the classic air barrier—an intervention that Kardel prefers because it simply stops all thermal and air movement. An air barrier can be as basic as sheetrock carefully nailed down in the attic, with the joints carefully taped over to prevent heat loss—something homeowners can install themselves. For roughly $1,500, such a barrier can reduce energy loss 70 percent more effectively than insulation that might run $4,000 to $5,000.

According to Ira Fabricant, owner of Fabricant Roofing in Richmond, sealing your roof tends to be a do-it-yourself project; professional roofers, he says, generally specialize in fixing water and other leaks. Many local resources and websites, however, offer advice on roof sealing and insulation, including Builder’s Booksource and the Building Education Center, both in Berkeley.

As long as you’re going to the trouble to clamber around on the roof (and for God’s sake, be careful up there), it only makes sense to address all top-level repairs at the same time. In the worst-case scenario, when an all-out roof replacement is necessary, Kardel advises selecting your new roofing material in a light color. Light-colored roofs simply last longer, he says, as they are less prone to damage due to temperature fluctuations or sun exposure.

If you’re lucky enough, relatively speaking, to get away with repairs rather than replacement, congratulations—but don’t put off the project. Badly maintained roofs are a source of suffering for all concerned. Robyn Gauthier, a tenant in Berkeley, says she once came back from a vacation to find her mattress soaked in water from winter downpours that leaked through her walls. The roof was flat, the gutters were blocked, and water had to go somewhere. You can avoid a similar scenario by checking, clearing, and repairing the gutters so that water doesn’t leak into or down walls, which leads not only to cranky residents, but also to dry rot, and evaporating bank accounts.

Additionally, make sure you plug any holes to prevent wildlife from taking up residence. This is also an excellent time to put earthquake clips in place. While piggybacking increases the front-end cost of the project, it’s usually cheaper in the long run than handling tasks one at a time.

Warmer walls

First things first—and second things second. After you’ve addressed your roof issues, you’ll want to think about whether your home’s walls are adequately insulated. Unlike many other arenas in life, this is one where you don’t want to assume the best. “Seventy percent of buildings in California were built before there was an energy-efficiency code,” says David Myers of Build It Green, a Berkeley nonprofit promoting healthy, resource-conserving, energy-efficient building practices. Not surprisingly, Myers is a big fan of insulating and other forms of weatherizing—not only because they make your home more comfortable, but because they’re better for the environment than the crank-up-the-heat alternative. “Weatherizing represents a really good first step for people to get the low-hanging fruit,” he says. “[It’s] a springboard for deeper green retrofits.”

But enough philosophizing . . . you’ve got a job to do (or your contractor does). You (or they) may decide to blow paper or foam insulation into interior walls. You might tear the walls out and install fiberglass. Or you could cut out cracks in the exterior of the house and refill them with caulk or rubber that will move with the house.

If it’s too daunting to insulate all your walls at once, do it bit by bit as you repair and remodel. Keep in mind that wall insulation is always less important than preventing heat loss through the roof and ceiling.

Too hot to handle

Now, how’s your heating system? Many older East Bay homes are still outfitted with old-fashioned basement furnaces that heat through metal floor vents. When you’re not using the furnace, those vents are like big holes sucking up cold, moldy, damp air from the basement or crawlspace, experts say. And when you are using the furnace, those floor vents get hot enough to result in burns or even, occasionally, fires. On top of that, furnaces in poor condition can pump out deadly carbon monoxide.

Compared to courting death and disaster, investing in a new heating system is quite a bargain: prices start in the mid-four-figure range. And upgrading to a state-of-the-art forced-air system is worth your consideration if you are going to be in the house for several years, notes Paul Rude of Summer Street Inspections in Berkeley. “For $6,000 to $8,000 it will be a lot more efficient and safer,” he says.

Another alternative: heated concrete floors, like the ones that Duchin installed while he was insulating the rest of his house. The upgrade wasn’t cheap, he says, but just 35 minutes of heat-on time on a cold winter day keeps him comfortable for about the same cost as cooking a spaghetti dinner on his gas stove.

Sometimes, though, all that’s standing between you and a warmer, more energy-efficient house are a few hapless heating ducts. “Huge amounts of heat are lost by loose ducts” that point in the wrong direction, says Kardel. Although many contractors will be happy to make sure those ducts are snugly aligned, Kardel says it is just as easy to do the job yourself, using special tape designed for heating units. “Make sure [the ducts] go uphill and straight,” he advises. “Then wrap them in insulation.” And voilà—you’re no longer throwing away your hard-earned cash to heat the crawl space or the attic.

Batten the hatches

Although many of us automatically associate window upgrades with weatherizing, such improvements are not as crucial as dealing with roofs, walls, and heating systems. But if you like to dot your i’s and cross your t’s, why not? Double-glazed windows are expensive but the improved energy efficiency is worth the price, says Duchin, who has installed dozens of the windows—including in the kitchen of one family that now practically lives in that room. After the redo, the kitchen was apparently so comfortable that no one ever wanted to leave.

Another option is to salvage original wooden windows and doors with the help of companies like Oakland’s Wooden Window, which can restore or replace decades-old frames. If higher-end upgrades are beyond your means, though, you’re still in the game: Simply make sure the space around the window is sealed. A contractor can either tear out the wall surrounding the window or just remove the trim, then fill the space with foam and replace or reinstall the trim or wall.

“New windows may sound nice,” Kardel opines, “but generally bad workmanship allows more energy loss around the window than it saves.”

Do it yourself

Finally, you can do any number of tasks yourself with just $75 worth of materials, especially if you’re handy (or are, perhaps, owed a favor by someone who is). Ace Hardware on University Avenue in Berkeley sells window weather-stripping—flexible insulating strips with adhesive on one side—ranging from 17-foot rolls for $2.99 (this variety stays effective for about a year) to $8.49 premium tape viable in minus-40-degree weather. You can also purchase six-window kits of heat-sealed film for about $14.

Places like Ace and Home Depot also offer inexpensive doorjamb kits; according to Kardel, you’ll get the best seal with accordion-style stripping that the door folds onto.

Other inexpensive weatherizing techniques include insulating outside grilles and the base and tops of built-in cabinets and cupboards (these have often been built with direct access to the outside to prevent mold). If you want to continue using that pretty fireplace, install glass doors, and try a good internal damper—but don’t, Rude says, install it at the top of the chimney: “That doesn’t work worth a damn.” If you can live without a homey hearth, then stop up the fireplace with duct tape, sheet rock, or even heavy cardboard.

Heavy drapes are impressively effective at reducing heat loss. They also work internally to isolate warm areas. Decades ago, when older houses were built, “people congregated in the kitchen or living room,” says Rude. “They only needed one room heated.” At night, they burrowed under duvets in a cold bedroom. And guess what? The best way to keep heating costs down is still to avoid touching that dial. “There is also that nice sweater you have been craving,” Rude quips.

You can also get under the house among the spider webs and install insulation under the floorboards to prevent cold air being drawn up from the ground: That works out to about 90 cents to $1.50 per square foot. At the same time, you can swath those water pipes in insulation.

Up in the attic, install standard insulation—paper side down—or foil-like insulation that blocks 96 percent of radiant heat. ACE sells 25-foot-long rolls of Owens Corning insulation and rolls of Reflectix foil for about $28. (Naturally, you’ll wear protective clothing during the process.)

Expect the unexpected

But even when a homeowner tries to do everything right, weatherizing-related surprises still arise. Such was certainly the case for Rebecca Moyle and her husband, Tyler Lange, who recently purchased what Lange calls “an ailing Berkeley mansion built in 1915.”

“It was dingy, dirty, and smelled weird,” Lange says, “but we got it for a good price.” The couple soon discovered the reason for the weird smell (and perhaps the good price as well): carcasses. Lots of carcasses, it turned out. The house was “rather more permeable than it should have been,” Lange explains. In fact, it was riddled with holes: full-size dog (or Berkeley raccoon-size) holes in the basement, squirrel- and rat-size holes in the roof. “I was home one day and heard one of the linebacker-size construction guys shriek,” Lange recalls. “Apparently the cabinet bottoms were full of dead rats and what may or may not have been a cat or a raccoon—there was no skull but some large ribs!”

The story does end happily, says Moyle. “Six months later, we’ve redone the heating system, cleared out all the old attic insulation, remodeled the kitchen and one bathroom. The place looks amazing, and we’ve reduced the heating costs by more than 80 percent—just by switching to a modern boiler and insulating the pipes properly.”

Rain or Shine
This is a partial list of East Bay resources and is not meant to be exhaustive.

Note: To go to the websites below, you can copy and paste them in your browser, or, in the digital edition, you can click on them directly.

Air Seal, Martinez, (925) 723-0101; airseal.us.
Albert Nahman Plumbing & Heating, 3333 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Berkeley, (510) 843-6904; albertnahmanplumbing.com.
Atlas Heating and Air Conditioning Co., 1451 32nd St., Oakland, (510) 893-1343; atlasheating.com.
Caldwell-Roland Roofing, 1707 Poplar St., Oakland, (510) 452-0577; caldwellroland.com.
Collins Roofing, 1077 Harvard Road, Piedmont, (510) 655-2223; collinsroofinginc@yahoo.com.
Dan Lynch Co., Kensington, (510) 524-4044; lynchanddaughter.com.
Fabricant Roofing, 869 Ocean Ave., Richmond, (510) 232-9028.
Fidelity Roof Co., 1075 40th St., Oakland, (510) 547-6330; fidelityroof.com.
The Glass Man, 636 Eagle Ave., Alameda, (510) 523-5046; glassm@earthlink.net.
Harry Clark Plumbing and Heating, 3026 Broadway, Oakland, (510) 444-1776; hcplumbing.com.
Karl Kardel Co. (contracting) and Karl Kardel Consultancy (building analyses), 4926 East 12th St., Oakland, (510) 261-4149; kardelcompany.com.
RJD Construction, 6577 Valley View Road, Oakland, (510) 339-6627; healthyhomeconstruction.com.
Smith Weatherstrip Co., 141 Florence Ave., Oakland, (510) 547-6224.
Summer Street Inspections, 1357 Addison St., Berkeley, (510) 644-3725; summerinspect.com.
Eugene Wiens (carpenter and handyman), 1615 Blake St., Berkeley, (510) 845-3516; genewiens@gmail.com.
Winning Windows, 6114 La Salle Ave., #224, Oakland, (510) 338-1234; winningwindows.com.
Wooden Window, 849 29th St., Oakland, (510) 893-1157; woodenwindow.com.

Ace Hardware, 2145 University Ave., Berkeley, (510) 845-0410; 1221 Grand Ave., Piedmont, (510) 652-1936; and many other East Bay locations; acehardware.com.
Advanced Home Energy; advancedhomeenergy.com.
Angie’s List; angieslist.com.
Bay Area Consumers’ Checkbook, (800) 213-7283; checkbook.org.
Berkeley Building Inspectors: Planning & Development Department, 2120 Milvia St., Berkeley, (510) 981-7400, (510) 981-5443; ci.berkeley.ca.us/planning.
Better Business Bureau, BBB of the Golden Gate & Northern California, 1000 Broadway, Ste. 625, Oakland, (510) 844-2000; goldengate.bbb.org.
Build It Green, 1434 University Ave., Berkeley, (510) 845-0472; builditgreen.org.
Builders Booksource, 1817 Fourth St., Berkeley, (510) 845-6874; buildersbooksource.com.
Building Education Center, 812 Page St., Berkeley, (510) 525-7610; bldgeductr.org.
Diamond Certified (referral and promotional service), (800) 738-1138; diamondcertified.org.
Home Depot, 3838 Hollis Ave., Emeryville, (510) 601-9400; 11939 San Pablo Ave., El Cerrito, (510) 235-0800; and other East Bay locations; homedepot.com.
PG&E (rebates); pge.com/rebates.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (tax credits); energystar.gov.
ValueStar (customer-rated businesses), (800) 298-8100; valuestar.com.

Tim Kingston is a reporter and East Bay resident who is still astounded at how poorly many Bay Area homes are built.

Faces of the East Bay