Each month, we publish a series of articles of interest to homeowners -- money-saving tips, household safety checklists, home improvement advice, real estate insider secrets, etc. Whether you currently are in the market for a new home, or not, we hope that this information is of value to you. Please feel free to pass these articles on to your family and friends.

ISSUE #1191

FEATURE REPORT
Tips on Energy Efficient Windows

Windows bring light, warmth, and beauty into buildings and give a feeling of openness and space to living areas. They can also be major sources of heat loss in the winter and heat gain in the summer. However, when properly selected and installed, windows can help minimize a home's heating, cooling, and lighting costs. This information describes one option-- energy-efficient windows--available for reducing a home's heating and cooling energy requirements.

For the complete story, click here...
Also This Month...
Ten Things You Need to Know Before You Hire an Agent

Picking an agent is one of those critical issues that can cost or save you thousands of dollars. There are very specific questions you should be asking to ensure that you get the best representation for your needs.

More...
Automatic and Programmable Thermostats

The best thermostat for you will depend on your life style and comfort level in varying house temperatures. While automatic and programmable thermostats save energy, a manual unit can be equally effective if you diligently regulate its settings.

More...

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Tips On Energy Efficient Windows

Windows bring light, warmth, and beauty into buildings and give a feeling of openness and space to living areas. They can also be major sources of heat loss in the winter and heat gain in the summer. However, when properly selected and installed, windows can help minimize a home's heating, cooling, and lighting costs. This information describes one option-- energy-efficient windows--available for reducing a home's heating and cooling energy requirements.

Controlling Air Leaks

When air leaks around windows, energy is wasted. Energy is also transferred through the centers, edges, and frames of windows.

Eliminating or reducing these paths of heat flow can greatly improve the energy efficiency of windows and, ultimately, of homes. Several options are available to reduce air leaks around windows; the least expensive options are caulking and weather stripping, followed by replacing window frames.

Caulking and Weather Stripping

Caulks are airtight compounds (usually latex or silicone) that fill cracks and holes. Before applying new caulk, old caulk or paint residue remaining around a window should be removed using a putty knife, stiff brush, or special solvent. After old caulk is removed, new caulk can then be applied to all joints in the window frame and the joint between the frame and the wall. The best time to apply caulk is during dry weather when the outdoor temperature is above 45 degrees Fahrenheit (7.2 degrees Celsius). Low humidity is important during application to prevent cracks from swelling with moisture. Warm temperatures are also necessary so the caulk will set properly and adhere to the surface.

Weather stripping is a narrow piece of metal, vinyl, rubber, felt, or foam that seals the contact area between the fixed and movable sections of a window joint. It should be applied between the sash and the frame, but should not interfere with the operation of the window.

Replacing Window Frames

The type and quality of the window frame usually affect a window's air infiltration and heat loss characteristics. Many window frames are available--all with varying degrees of energy efficiency. Some of the more common window frames are fixed-pane, casement, double and single-hung, horizontal sliding, hopper, and awning.

When properly installed, fixed-pane windows are airtight and inexpensive and can be custom designed for a wide variety of applications. However, because they cannot be opened, fixed-pane windows are unsuitable in places where ventilation is required.

Casement, awning, and hopper windows with compression seals are moderately airtight and provide good ventilation when opened. Casement windows open sideways with hand cranks. Awning windows are similar to casement windows except that their hinges are located at the tops of the windows instead of at the sides. Hopper windows are inverted versions of awning windows with their hinges located at the bottom. Windows with compression seals allow about half as much air leakage as double-hung and horizontal sliding windows with sliding seals.

Double-hung windows have top and bottom sashes (the sliding sections of the window) and can be opened by pulling up the lower sashes or pulling down the upper sash. Although they are among the most popular type of window, double-hung windows can be inefficient because they are often leaky. Single-hung windows are somewhat better because only one sash moves. Horizontal sliding windows are like double-hung windows except that the sashes are located on the left and right edges rather than on the tops and bottoms. Horizontal sliding windows open on the side and are especially suitable for spaces that require a long, narrow view. These windows, however, usually provide minimal ventilation and, like double-hung windows, can be quite leaky.

Reducing Heat Loss and Condensation

Manufacturers usually represent the energy efficiency of windows in terms of their u-values (conductance of heat) or their r-values (resistance to heat flow). If a window's r- value is high, it will lose less heat than one with a lower r-value. Conversely, if a window's u-value is low, it will lose less heat than one with a higher u-value. In other words, u-values are the reciprocals of r-values (u-values = 1/r-value). Most window manufacturers use r-values in rating their windows.

The following five factors affect the R-Value of a window:

  • The type of glazing material (e.g., glass, plastic, treated glass)
  • The number of layers of glass
  • The size of the air space between the layers of glass
  • The thermal resistance of conductance of the frame and spacer materials
  • The "tightness" of the installation (i.e., air leaks-- see previous discussion).
Types of Glazing Materials

Traditionally, clear glass has been the primary material available for window panes in homes. However, in recent years, the market for glazing--or cutting and fitting window panes into frames--has changed significantly. Now several types of special glazing are available that can help control heat loss and condensation.

Low emissivity (low-e) glass has a special surface coating to reduce heat transfer back through the window. These coatings reflect from 40% to 70% of the heat that is normally transmitted through clear glass, while allowing the full amount of light to pass through.

Heat absorbing glass contains special tints that allow it to absorb as much as 45% of the incoming solar energy, reducing heat gain. Some of the absorbed heat, however, passes through the window by conduction and re-radiation.

Reflective glass has been coated with a reflective film and is useful in controlling solar heat gain during the summer. It also reduces the passage of light all year long, and, like heat absorbing glass, it reduces solar transmittance. Plastic glazing materials--acrylic, polycarbonate, polyester, polyvinyl fluoride, and polyethylene--are also widely available. Plastics can be stronger, lighter, cheaper and easier to cut than glass. Some plastics also have higher solar transmittance than glass. However, plastics tend to be less durable and more susceptible to the effects of weather than glass.

Storm windows can increase the efficiency of single-pane windows, the least energy-efficient type of glazing. The simplest type of storm window is a plastic film taped to the inside of the window frame. These films are usually available in prepackaged kits. Although plastic films are easily installed and removed, they are easily damaged and may reduce visibility. Rigid or semi-rigid plastic sheets such as plexiglass, acrylic, polycarbonate, or fiber-reinforced polyester can be fastened directly to the window frame or mounted in channels around the frame--usually on the outside of the building. These more durable materials are also available in kits.

Layers Of Glass and Air Spaces

Standard single-pane glass has very little insulating value (approximately r-1). It provides only a thin barrier to the outside and can account for considerable heat loss and gain. Traditionally, the approach to improve a window's energy efficiency has been to increase the number of glass panes in the unit, because multiple layers of glass increase the window's ability to resist heat flow.

Double-pane windows are usually more efficient than single- pane or storm windows. Double or triple-pane windows have insulating air or gas filled spaces between each pane. Each layer of glass and the air spaces resist heat flow. The width of the air spaces between the panes is important, because air spaces that are too wide (more than 5/8 inch or 1.6 centimeters) have lower r-values (i.e., they allow too much heat transfer). Advanced, multipane windows are now manufactured with inert gases (argon or krypton) in the spaces between the panes because these gases transfer less heat than does air. Multipane windows are considerably more expensive than single-pane windows and limit framing options because of their increased weight.

Frame and Spacer Materials

Window frames are available in a variety of materials including aluminum, wood, vinyl, and fiberglass. Frames may be primarily composed of one material, or they may be a combination of different materials such as wood and vinyl. Each frame material has its advantages and disadvantages. Though ideal for customized window design, aluminum frames cause conductive heat loss (i.e., they have low r-values) and condensation. However, thermal breaks made of insulating plastic strips placed between the inside and outside of the frame and sash greatly improve the thermal resistance of aluminum frames.

Wood frames have higher r-values, are unaffected by temperature extremes, and are less prone to condensation, but they require considerable maintenance in the form of periodic painting. If wood frames are not properly protected from moisture, they can warp, crack, and stick.

Vinyl window frames, which are made primarily from polyvinyl chloride (pvc), offer many advantages. They are available in a wide range of styles and shapes, have moderate to high r-values, are easily customized, are competitively priced, require low maintenance, and mold easily into almost any shape. But vinyl frames are not strong or rigid, which limits the weight of glass that can be used. In addition, vinyl frames can soften, warp, twist, and bow.

Fiberglass frames are relatively new and are not yet widely available. They have the highest r-values of all frames; thus, they are excellent for insulating and will not warp, shrink, swell, rot, or corrode. Fiberglass frames can be made in a variety of colors and can hold large expanses of glass. Some fiberglass frames are hollow; others are filled with fiberglass insulation.

Spacers are used to separate multiple panes of glass within the windows. Although metal (usually aluminum) spacers are commonly installed to separate glass in multipane windows, they conduct heat. During cold weather, the thermal resistance around the edge of a window is lower than that in the center; thus, heat can escape, and condensation can occur along the edges.

Many types of windows and window films are available that serve different purposes. To alleviate these problems, one manufacturer has developed a mulitipane window using a 1/8-inch-wide (0.32 centimeters- wide) PVC foam separator place along the edges of the frame. Like other multipane windows, these use metal spacers for support, but because the foam separator is secured on top of the spacer between the panes, heat loss and condensation are reduced. Several window manufacturers now sandwich foam separators, nylon spacers, and insulation materials such as polystyrene and rock wool between the glass inside their windows.

Additional Options For Reducing Heat Loss

Movable insulation, such as insulating shades, shutters, and drapes, can be applied on the inside of windows to reduce heat loss in the winter and heat gain in the summer. Shading devices, such as awnings, exterior shutters, or screens, can be used to reduce unwanted heat gain in the summer. In most cases, these window treatments are more cost effective than energy efficient window replacements and should be considered first.

Reducing heat loss or gain in homes often includes either improving existing windows or replacing them. Low cost options available for improvement are caulking, weather stripping, retrofit window films, and window treatments. Replacing windows will involve the purchase of new materials, which should adhere to certain energy efficiency standards. Different combinations of frame style, frame material, and glazing can yield very different results when weighing energy efficiency and cost. For example, a fixed-pane window is the most airtight and the least expensive; a window with a wood frame is likely to have less conductive heat loss than one with an aluminum frame; double-pane, low-e window units are just as efficient as triple-pane untreated window's, but cost and weigh less.

No one window is suitable for every application. Many types of windows and window films are available that serve different purposes. Moreover, you may discover that you need two types of windows for your home because of the directions that your windows face and your local climate. To make wise purchases, first examine your heating and cooling needs and prioritize desired features such as day lighting, solar heating, shading, ventilation, and aesthetic value.

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Ten Things You Need to Know Before You Hire an Agent

"It's critical that you make the right decision about who will handle what is probably the single largest financial investment you will ever make."

Not all real estate agents are the same. If you decide to seek the help of an agent when selling or buying your home, you need some good information before you make any moves.

An agent can cost or save you thousands of dollars

Picking an agent is one of those critical issues that can cost or save you thousands of dollars. There are very specific questions you should be asking to ensure that you get the best representation for your needs. Some agents may prefer that you do not ask these questions, because the knowledge you will gain from their honest answers will give you a very good idea about what outcome you can expect from using this agent. And let face it - in real estate, as in life - not all things are created equal.

Hiring a real estate agent is just like any hiring process - with you on the boss side of the desk. It critical that you make the right decision about who will handle what is probably the single largest financial investment you will ever make.


1. What makes you different? Why should I list my home with you?

It’s a much tougher real estate market than it was a decade ago. What unique marketing plans and programs does this agent have in place to make sure that your home stands out favorably versus other competing homes? What things does this agent offer you that others don’t to help you sell your home in the least amount of time with the least amount of hassle and for the most amount of money?


2. What is your company’s track record and reputation in the market place?

It may seem like everywhere you look, real estate agents are boasting about being #1 for this or that, or quoting you the number of homes they’ve sold. If you’re like many homeowners, you have probably become immune to much of this information. After all, you ask, "Why should I care about how many homes one agent sold over another. The only thing I care about is whether they can sell my home quickly for the most amount of money."

Well, because you want your home sold fast and for top dollar, you should be asking the agents you interview how many homes they have sold. I’m sure you will agree that success in real estate is selling homes. If one agent is selling a lot of homes where another is selling only a handful, ask yourself why this might be? What things are these two agents doing differently?

You may be surprised to know that many agents sell fewer than 10 homes a year. This volume makes it difficult for them to do full impact marketing on your home, because they can’t raise the money it takes to afford the advertising and special programs to give your home a high profile. Also, at this low level, they probably can’t afford to hire an assistant, which means that they’re running around trying to do all the components of the job themselves, which means service may suffer.


3. What are your marketing plans for my home?

How much money does this agent spend in advertising the homes s/he lists versus the other agents you are interviewing? In what media (newspaper, magazine, TV etc.) does this agent advertise? What does s/he know about the effectiveness of one medium over the other?


4. What has your company sold in my area?

Agents should bring you a complete listing of both their own, and other comparable sales in your area.


5. Does your Broker control your advertising or do you?

If your agent is not in control of their own advertising, then your home will be competing for advertising space not only with this agent’s other listings, but also with the listings of every other agent in the brokerage.


6. On average, when your listings sell, how close is the selling price to the asking price?

This information is available from the Real Estate Board. Is this agent’s performance higher or lower than the board average? Their performance on this measurement will help you predict how high a price you will get for the sale of your home.


7. On average, how long does it take for your listings to sell?

This information is also available from the Real Estate Board. Does this agent tend to sell faster or slower than the board average? Their performance on this measurement will help you predict how long your home will be on the market before it sells.


8. How many Buyers are you currently working with?

Obviously, the more buyers your agent is working with, the better your chances are of selling your home quickly. It will also impact price because an agent with many buyers can set up an auction-like atmosphere where many buyers bid on your home at the same time. Ask them to describe the system they have for attracting buyers.


9. Do you have a reference list of clients I could contact?

Ask to see this list, and then proceed to spot check some of the names.


10. What happens if I’m not happy with the job you are doing to get my home sold?

Can I cancel my listing contract? Be wary of agents that lock you into a lengthy listing contract which they can get out of (by ceasing to effectively market your home) but you can’t. There are usually penalties and broker protection periods which safeguard the agent’s interests, but not yours. How confident is your agent in the service s/he will provide you? Will s/he allow you to cancel your contract without penalty if you’re not satisfied with the service provided?

Evaluate each agents responses to these 10 questions carefully and objectively. Who will do the best job for you? These questions will help you decide.

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Automatic and Programmable Thermostats

In our modern, high tech society, we don't think much about some of the electronic gadgets in our homes. Take, for example, the ever present thermostat--a staple of North American households for decades. It usually takes the shape of an unassuming box on the wall, but that modest device controls the comfort of your family on the coldest day in January and the hottest day in July.

What Is a Thermostat?

It is a temperature sensitive switch that controls a space conditioning unit or system, such as a furnace, air conditioner, or both. When the indoor temperature drops below or rises above the thermostat setting, the switch moves to the "on" position, and your furnace or air conditioner runs to warm or cool the house air to the setting you selected for your family's comfort. A thermostat, in its simplest form, must be manually adjusted to change the indoor air temperature.

General Thermostat Operation

You can easily save energy in the winter by setting the thermostat to 68°F (20°C) when you're at home and awake, and lowering it when you're asleep or away. This strategy is effective and inexpensive if you are willing to adjust the thermostat by hand and wake up in a chilly house. In the summer, you can follow the same strategy with central air conditioning, too, by keeping your house warmer than normal when you are away, and lowering the thermostat setting to 78°F (26°C) only when you are at home and need cooling.

A common misconception associated with thermostats is that a furnace works harder than normal to warm the space back to a comfortable temperature after the thermostat has been set back, resulting in little or no savings. This misconception has been dispelled by years of research and numerous studies. The fuel required to reheat a building to a comfortable temperature is roughly equal to the fuel saved as the building drops to the lower temperature. You save fuel between the time that the temperature stabilizes at the lower level and the next time heat is needed. So, the longer your house remains at the lower temperature, the more energy you save.

Another misconception is that the higher you raise a thermostat, the more heat the furnace will put out, or that the house will warm up faster if the thermostat is raised higher. Furnaces put out the same amount of heat no matter how high the thermostat is set--the variable is how long it must stay on to reach the set temperature.

In the winter, significant savings can be obtained by manually or automatically reducing your thermostat's temperature setting for as little as four hours per day. These savings can be attributed to a building's heat loss in the winter, which depends greatly on the difference between the inside and outside temperatures. For example, if you set the temperature back on your thermostat for an entire night, your energy savings will be substantial. By turning your thermostat back 10° to 15° for 8 hours, you can save about 5% to 15% a year on your heating bill--a savings of as much as 1% for each degree if the setback period is eight hours long. The percentage of savings from setback is greater for buildings in milder climates than for those in more severe climates. In the summer, you can achieve similar savings by keeping the indoor temperature a bit higher when you're away than you do when you're at home.

But there is a certain amount of inconvenience that results from manually controlling the temperature on your thermostat. This includes waking up in a cooler than normal house in the winter and possibly forgetting to adjust the thermostat (during any season) when you leave the house or go to bed.

Thermostats with Automatic Temperature Adjustment

To maximize your energy savings without sacrificing comfort, you can install an automatic setback or programmable thermostat. They adjust the temperature setting for you. While you might forget to turn down the heat before you leave for work in the morning, a programmable thermostat won't! By maintaining the highest or lowest required temperatures for four or five hours a day instead of 24 hours, a programmable thermostat can pay for itself in energy saved within four years.

Programmable thermostats have features with which you may be unfamiliar. The newest generation of residential thermostat technologies is based on microprocessors and thermostat sensors. Most of these programmable thermostats perform one or more of the following energy control functions:

  • They store and repeat multiple daily settings, which you can manually override without affecting the rest of the daily or weekly program.
  • They store six or more temperature settings a day.
  • They adjust heating or air conditioning turn on times as the outside temperature changes.
A Note for Heat Pump Owners

When a heat pump is in its heating mode, setting back a conventional heat pump thermostat can cause the unit to operate inefficiently, thereby cancelling out any savings achieved by lowering the temperature setting. Maintaining a moderate setting is the most cost effective practice. Recently, however, some companies have begun selling specially designed setback thermostats for heat pumps, which make setting back the thermostat cost effective. In its cooling mode, the heat pump operates like an air conditioner; therefore, manually turning up the thermostat will save you money.

Types of Automatic and Programmable Thermostats

There are five basic types of automatic and programmable thermostats:

  • electromechanical
  • digital
  • hybrid
  • occupancy
  • light sensing

Most range in price from $30 to $100, except for occupancy and light sensing thermostats, which cost around $200.

Electromechanical (EM) thermostats, usually the easiest devices to operate, typically have manual controls such as movable tabs to set a rotary timer and sliding levers for night and day temperature settings. These thermostats work with most conventional heating and cooling systems, except heat pumps. EM controls have limited flexibility and can store only the same settings for each day, although at least one manufacturer has a model with separate settings for each day of the week. EM thermostats are best suited for people with regular schedules.

Digital thermostats are identified by their LED or LCD digital readout and data entry pads or buttons. They offer the widest range of features and flexibility, and digital thermostats can be used with most heating and cooling systems. They provide precise temperature control, and they permit custom scheduling. Programming some models can be fairly complicated; make sure you are comfortable with the functions and operation of the thermostat you choose. Remember-- you won't save energy if you don't set the controls or you set them incorrectly. Hybrid systems combine the technology of digital controls with manual slides and knobs to simplify use and maintain flexibility. Hybrid models are available for most systems, including heat pumps.

Occupancy thermostats maintain the setback temperature until someone presses a button to call for heating or cooling. They do not rely on the time of day. The ensuing preset "comfort period" lasts from 30 minutes to 12 hours, depending on how you've set the thermostat. Then, the temperature returns to the setback level. These units offer the ultimate in simplicity, but lack flexibility. Occupancy thermostats are best suited for spaces that remain unoccupied for long periods of time.

Light sensing heat thermostats rely on the lighting level preset by the owner to activate heating systems. When lighting is reduced, a photocell inside the thermostat senses unoccupied conditions and allows space temperatures to fall 10° below the occupied temperature setting. When lighting levels increase to normal, temperatures automatically adjust to comfort conditions. These units do not require batteries or programming and reset themselves after power failures. Light sensing thermostats are designed primarily for stores and offices where occupancy determines lighting requirements, and therefore heating requirements.

Choosing a Programmable Thermostat

Because programmable thermostats are a relatively new technology, you should learn as much as you can before selecting a unit. When shopping for a thermostat, bring information with you about your current unit, including the brand and model number. Also, ask these questions before buying a thermostat:

  1. Does the unit's clock draw its power from the heating system's low voltage electrical control circuit instead of a battery? If so, is the clock disrupted when the furnace cycles on and off? Battery operated backup thermostats are preferred by many homeowners. Is the thermostat compatible with the electrical wiring found in your current unit?
  2. Are you able to install it yourself, or should you hire an electrician or a heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) contractor?
  3. How precise is the thermostat?
  4. Are the programming instructions easy to understand and remember? Some thermostats have the instructions printed on the cover or inside the housing box. Otherwise, will you have to consult the instruction booklet every time you want to change the setback times?

Most automatic and programmable thermostats completely replace existing units. These are preferred by many homeowners. However, some devices can be placed over existing thermostats and are mechanically controlled to permit automatic setbacks. These units are usually powered by batteries, which eliminates the need for electrical wiring. They tend to be easy to program, and because they run on batteries, the clocks do not lose time during power outages.

Before you buy a programmable thermostat, chart your weekly habits including wake up and departure times, return home times, and bedtimes, and the temperatures that are comfortable during those times. This will help you decide what type of thermostat will best serve your needs.

Other Considerations

The location of your thermostat can affect its performance and efficiency. Read the manufacturer's installation instructions to prevent "ghost readings" or unnecessary furnace or air conditioner cycling. Place thermostats away from direct sunlight, drafts, doorways, skylights, and windows. Also make sure your thermostat is conveniently located for programming.

Some modern heating and cooling systems require special controls. Heat pumps are the most common and usually require special setback thermostats. These thermostats typically use special algorithms to minimize the use of backup electric resistance heat systems. Electric resistance systems, such as electric baseboard heating, also require thermostats capable of directly controlling 120 volt or 240 volt line voltage circuits. Only a few companies manufacture line voltage setback thermostats.

A Simpler Way to Control Your Environment

The best thermostat for you will depend on your life style and comfort level in varying house temperatures. While automatic and programmable thermostats save energy, a manual unit can be equally effective if you diligently regulate its setting--and if you don't mind a chilly house on winter mornings. If you decide to choose an automatic thermostat, you can set it to raise the temperature before you wake up and spare you some discomfort. It will also perform consistently and dependably to keep your house at comfortable temperatures during the summer heat, as well.