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Understanding Home Energy Comfort Problems

September 21, 2013 | Posted by Mitt Jones
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Improving comfort usually tops the list of priorities as homeowners consider energy efficiency upgrades. Before you decide exactly which improvements to take on, it pays to get a better understanding of what’s causing the comfort problems in your home.

Comfort.jpgWhen talking about comfort in this context, we’re really talking about our bodies’ exposure to heat loss or heat gain, and that’s an important thing to remember. Comfort isn’t a matter of how much energy it takes to heat your house or how efficient your HVAC equipment is. It has much more to do with how your body experiences conditions inside your house.  

Air Temperature

Most of us have a good handle on the importance of ambient temperature—the temperature of the air around us. If the air around us is too cold, we feel cold, and our bodies lose more heat than we’d like through conduction. The greater the temperature difference between our bodies and the air around us, the more heat we lose to the air around us.

Cold air temperature is often the easiest problem to solve, though the solution may cost more than you’d like in energy bills or familial goodwill: Turn up the thermostat.

Many of the houses we see suffer from uneven heating and cooling. Keeping one area comfortable leaves other areas inadequately heated or cooled. Weatherization improvements such as air sealing, duct sealing, and improving insulation can usually often solve this problem, though improvements to the heating and cooling system are sometimes also needed.

Drafts

Drafts are a second common cause of comfort problems, though it’s important to define what we mean by a draft. In this context, a draft is simply movement of air. Assuming the air temperature is cooler than the temperature of our bodies, which is a good assumption in winter, any movement of air causes us to feel a bit of a chill and increases heat loss through convection.

The key thing to remember about drafts is that they don’t necessarily indicate lots of air leaking in and out of your house. Cold surfaces in your house such as uninsulated ceilings, uninsulated walls, and single-pane windows cause drafts even if they don’t leak air: Air next to these cold surfaces continually cools and sinks, creating air currents.

Radiant Heat Loss

The least-understood cause of home energy comfort problems is radiant heat loss and gain. Radiant heat loss explains why you'll probably feel and chill when sitting in front of a single-pane window on a cold winter day, even if the air around you is a balmy 70 degrees F.

Most of us have a better handle on the idea of getting warm with radiant heat. Consider the heaters above the outdoor seating in many restaurants: You can feel like you’re baking under one of these even if the temperature of air around you is 40 degrees. And of course the Earth gets plenty of heat from the Sun across millions of miles of very cold outerspace. 

The effect when sitting in front of a cold window is much the same but in reverse: Our bodies radiate heat to the window surface but receive little heat in return, which makes us feel cold. (Have you ever wondered why parking under a carport often keeps your windows from frosting up even on cold nights? If your car is out in the open especially on a clear night, the radiant heat loss to outer space makes your car colder than the air around it.)

Windows aren’t the only cold surface in most houses. Uninsulated exterior walls are often cold in winter, as are uninsulated floors over well-vented crawlspaces. Even interior walls can be an issue in houses with large chases open to the attic.

Putting It All Together

You may have noticed that we covered the three primary mechanisms of heat transfer you probably heard about in high school—conduction, convection, and radiation. Each has a lot to do with explaining how our bodies lose or gain heat in our homes and with the causes of home energy comfort problems.

A key thing to remember when you are considering your energy upgrades is that no one improvement will solve all comfort problems and that no one set of solutions is right for every home. Starting with a home energy assessment by a home performance contractor should help you get a handle on the improvements that will most help you meet your goals.

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