Most of us ignore the spaces under our homes. What is under there anyway? For some houses there can be some important stuff such as the heating system or, for every one I’ve been in, the stuff that holds the house up and it’s usually wood, aka “Mold Food”. Yeah it’s kind of important.
Henry Ford once said “quality means doing it right when no one is looking”. And for some space in our home this is often a neglected concept. More likely heard would be “no one is going to see this after I’m done.” Too often when called in to someone’s home we see things that just weren’t done right the first time. Duct work is left pinched, restricting flow. Sometimes it’s left unsealed and un-insulated. Floor insulation is hastily installed leaving it to droop or fall out. Un-addressed moisture coming in from the walls or rising up from the ground below attacks metal and wood. As Mike has mentioned in a previous post, sometimes we know its damp down there because we smell it. Heating and cooling systems are left to suffer and struggle sent to an early and shallow grave we affectionately call the crawlspace. In one Berkley, California that started with many of this issue, GreenHomes America partner, ABC Cooling, recently worked its magic.
The heating system in the crawlspace had a long horizontal run which struggling to draft well, ended up rotting away. The big concern here is that when the venting fails, the flue gasses are left ready to be drawn into the home; exactly where we don’t want them. This is a typical problem in the Bay area or for that matter anywhere with this kind of configuration. The big fix here was a super efficient sealed combustion unit. These units are quite affordable, and the savings from the greater efficiency help to pay for them over time.
The broader opportunity was a chance to fix the duct work and solve some other underlying weaknesses with the house, from duct work to hot water, to insulation and air-sealing. It doesn’t make much sense to put a new engine in a car with flat tires, a worn-out starter, and a leaky gas tank. But fix those problems, and you can have a real gem. Moisture was not a huge issue for this space, but the floor insulation was falling down in some places and in general (as in most homes) we could see there was a need for some air sealing. With the furnace in the crawl much of the duct work is essentially was left out side. This is not wrong, it’s just not ideal, and in this scenario it was the only practical place to put it. (In many homes, we see a similar situation with the equipment up in the attic rather than down in the crawlspace–it’s essentially the same problem just a different location!)
Certainly indoor air quality can be an issue with an unsealed crawlspace. Soil gasses, contaminated outside air (vented crawlspace in congested traffic area), moisture issues, animal feces, or even animals can raise IAQ concerns. Dead rats in your furnace return? Generally considered a problem!
Chris and Kristen, the owners of this charming Berkeley home, have over the years created a wonderful space to raise a family in. Years ago, insulation was added to the home, but still things weren’t quite right. Part of their discomfort was a poor distribution system for heat. The new heating and hot water system improvements in the home now not only make it more comfortable but also safer.
At this point, their home may indeed need new windows. This is not something we often recommend first in many houses since there usually are greater opportunities in other areas that are much less expense. Their windows are 20 years old and starting to fail, but now the whole house has been treated as cost effectively as possible and windows may make sense next. Treating the crawlspace really brings it together, adding not only energy savings but just as important, comfort. As Chris and Kristen noted, “We are thrilled with the results already. It’s certainly a relief having the dangerous furnace issue fixed. And we’ve already noticed the floors are more comfortable, and the house quieter. The guys from ABC Cooling did a great job.”
Start with a home assessment, find out what you really need, and do the job right. It’s as simple as that. Well, OK, some of you might have to get rid of the rat, first.
“Before” photo credits (including that rat in the ductwork!), to David Hales, Building Systems and Energy Specialist, WSU Extension Energy Program.