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November 28, 2005

Manifold Sins

They say that confession is good for the soul.  Here's mine: I'm entering into my sixth winter in my current house, but I only got around to insulating my furnace and ductwork over the last few weeks. I hadn't even insulated my furnace manifold -- the place where all the hot air collects before being blown through the ducts to the rest of the house -- which I understand is the most cost-effective place to insulate.

So much for my "green" credentials.  I can't even hold a candle to this guy.

You see, I kept putting off the insulation job, thinking that we'd replace our clunky old gas furnace and oddly-placed ductwork with a new, super-efficient system before even a modest investment in insulation would pay for itself.  That was, quite clearly, nuts:  by now, the money I would have saved on heating bills would have paid for a nice downpayment towards an efficient furnace. 

Surprisingly -- to me at least -- the payback has been immediate, and not just to my peace of mind.  Even if I don't save a penny overall, the house is more comfortable now.  We don't set the thermostat any higher, but our home seems warmer, with less temperature variation between the overly-toasty rooms and the chilly ones.  (And we had a lot of variation for such a modest house.)

Two lessons for me here.  First: when it comes to saving energy, do the cheap and easy stuff now. Don't weigh the options, don't calculate whether it will be in place long enough to justify the cost. Just do it.  I kept putting off a simple, short-term fix, believing that it would be obviated by a more comprehensive solution down the road.  But as a result of my delays, I wound up wasting a lot of money, and spewing a lot of climate-warming emissions into the air for no good reason. 

And second: even people who think of themselves as greenies (like me) are motivated as much by price as by principles.  What convinced me to finally go to the hardware store was, more than anything, the specter of a huge heating bill.  Rising natural gas prices made the payback from insulating my furnace that much quicker; and, being honest with myself, it was the economic reasons, more than the environmental ones, that actually got me moving.  If my own example is any guide, it seems as though self-interest will often trump ethics -- which is something everyone who is working towards a more sustainable future should keep in mind.

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That reminds me, it's time to put the tacky-but-surprisingly-effective plastic sheeting on my last single-pane windows.

Now I'm a little anxious about my manifold. Is that the part right after the furnace? (Head-slap: those don't come with insulation, as water heaters now do? Jeez.)

Posted by: clew | Nov 28, 2005 6:15:02 PM

Even "greens" have to overcome inertia sometimes. And when economic interests happen to merge neatly with environmental interests, that's awesome!!


Posted by: Michelle Parker | Nov 28, 2005 6:34:20 PM

What did you use to insulate? I assume that the manifold and duct work get pretty hot, what sort of concerns about fire are there? Can you get insulation that's environmentally and people friendly? (sustainable materials, production, no nasty anti fire/mold chemicals, etc.)

I guess I hadn't thought about insulating there since lost heat was still going to heat the house. I guess the idea is to heat the rooms you want rather than heating the basement :)

Posted by: anonymous | Nov 28, 2005 11:40:54 PM

A friend recommended fiberglass insulation with a foil backing, and metallic ducting tape (not the same thing as duct tape). My local hardware store didn't have the right stuff, so I went to a Home Depot.

I have no idea, really, if the stuff I bought is particularly environmentally friendly. The store I went to had one choice for thick, foil-backed ductinsulation; so I bought what they had. That said, fiberglass tends to contain some recycled glass, and though its embodied energy content is higher than cellulose, it's lower than some other insulating substances (like EPS).

See here for lots more information on the environmental characteristics of a variety of insulating materials: http://www.buildinggreen.com/auth/article.cfm?fileName=040101a.xml

And as to duct losses not being such a big deal, because the heat just escapes to the house -- that's what one insulating contractor we had in to our house told us, too. But we're never down in our basement, so for the most part the heat that stays down there, before being absorbed by the concrete floor or escaping through the windows or walls, is wasted. We had a Seattle City Light person come out and take a look at our house for energy saving opportunities; insulating the ductwork was her #1 recommendation. And it really has seemed to make a difference in our comfort right away.

Posted by: Clark Williams-Derry | Nov 29, 2005 9:51:47 AM

Clew--I've found that sheeting a little suspect, used it last winter and found on every window it's generally pulled a corner or two loose by spring. This year's experiment, on recommendation from an efficiency auditor (who exhorted us mightily to plug actual airflows like this before worrying about upgrading windows or anything), is the sort of clear, peel-off caulk (one brand name is Windjammer, which is compressed, Dap makes a version that works with caulk gun and seems otherwise identical, forget exact name) that stays on for the season. Except I suppose you can leave it on permanently on the non-moving corners and cracks. We haven't got far enough into the winter to see how it does, but I think it'll hold its pucker better than the plastic, and it's a great deal less visibly obtrusive (I never could get the saran wrap to lie flat anyhow).

Got to see about insulating heating system, hadn't even given thought to it. I suspect it's waiting to be done, despite the vast amounts of asbestos in the basement... gotta love an old house. (I do love it, of course.)

As to the profit motive--nothing quite compares to it, short of outright survival needs. Precisely the thing that makes options with a high initial outlay so forbidding to any but the wealthy, of course. But I do think the urge to be green in some principled way can shift that demand curve a little bit anyhow. And if it's fashionable to claim green motives, and that should pull the occasional blueblood onto the bandwagon who otherwise mightn't have bothered, it's all to the good, right?

Posted by: Robin Tell | Nov 30, 2005 10:09:14 PM