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Ceiling, basement key in energy conservation insulation techniques

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While many homeowners target windows when making a home more energy efficient, the first places to focus on should be the ceiling and attic, then the basement or crawlspace area — spots that typically lose the most heat, according to a business owner who built a high-efficiency home in Lowville four years ago.

The next step is insulating floor joints, sealing doors and running insulation under flooring to help keep heat in the living space, said Mickey Dietrich, the owner of Green Volt Solutions, a renewable energy and green building company.

Mr. Dietrich’s home uses both a solar design and a closed-loop geothermal system, which works from the concept that the ground temperature is high enough to heat water to temperatures that don’t require much increase to heat a home. The entire system cost less than $20,000 and is saving his household about $3,000 a year, Mr. Dietrich said. With a federal tax credit of 30 percent, he estimates that his investment will likely be paid back in four years.

Mr. Dietrich said he pays $160 per month in the winter for heating and electricity in his energy-efficient house — one-third of what he paid in his old house — and about $70 in the summer months. He added that geothermal systems have the benefit of being nearly maintenance free for 10 years, aside from changing the filter about three times a year for his forced air system.

Geothermal systems can range widely in installation costs, from $18,000 to $30,000, depending on the size of the home and type of system. But they have a monetary payback of four to 12 years and are 400 to 500 percent efficient, said Kevin P. O’Rourke, owner of O’Rourke Groundwater Developing, Adams.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, geothermal systems have an estimated life of 25 years for the inside components and 50-plus years for the ground loop.

As geothermal systems run on electricity, Mr. O’Rourke said in areas that have municipal electricity, such as Massena or Theresa, installing them would be a “no brainer.”

A geothermal system in his Adams home works through a forced-air system for about $90 a month. If a homeowner is getting electricity from solar or wind, geothermal systems can be carbon zero, rather than carbon neutral, adding to their appeal, he said.

Though the systems can be impractical in city locations where it’s harder to run ground loops, or more difficult in houses without existing duct work, Mr. O’Rourke said that, as commercial applications show their savings, residential application may catch on.

A handful of schools and other commercial buildings have installed geothermal systems in the north country, including Indian River Central Schools and Copenhagen Central Schools. Mr. O’Rourke said he does about five residential applications per year.

“If you’re building a new house, hands down geothermal is the best way to go,” he said.

As the winter wears on, there are several common-sense things the average homeowner can do to stay warm and save money. In addition to turning down the heat overnight and during the day, not increasing the heat all at once on a programmable thermostat — but rather in increments — is more efficient and puts less strain on the heating system, Mr. Dietrich said.

For a planned 5:30 p.m. arrival time, he advises, it’s best to set the thermostat to, say, 62 degrees at 3 p.m., 64 at 4 p.m., and 66 at 5 p.m.

Homeowners also can install window inserts (such as Indow Windows), which trap heat without having to install entirely new windows, he said. Indow Windows, a Portland, Ore.-based company, says such inserts can reduce natural gas usage by up to 19 percent, through a tight seal between the compression tube and the window frame.

“If people have ice dams on the roof of their house, the chances are their attic is not insulated very well,” Mr. Dietrich said.

He also cautioned those making insulation improvements to homes, noting that homeowners should have someone test their home for proper air flow to prevent mold and mildew from forming.

“You should also have your home tested for gas leaks if you have natural gas or propane, especially when tightening up the home from air leaks,” Mr. Dietrich said.

And there are the more apparent things, including wearing layers inside and strategic cooking.

“If you are planning on having a meal that you are going to be starting the oven or stove for, then do it on days where it is a little cooler, because it will give you a little extra heat,” he said.

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