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All or Nothing

Michael Ritter | Posted in General Questions on

I’ve spent more time reading posts on here than I care to admit.  The solutions, creativity, and community are incredible and thoughtful.  So much so that I’m not sure this question should be posed, but sometimes circumstances demand compromise.  My question is this – when it comes to trying to improve a building’s efficiency, is something always better than nothing? 

I’ll give an example.  I want to re-plumb my house and regardless of the thousands of pros or cons to using a Pex manifold distribution system, it is the most logical setup for my situation based on work sequencing and to allow me to get ahead of a contractor.  Right now it takes our shower 1:45 to get hot in the master, so even if a homerun takes more time than a recirc option or isn’t the gold standard, this improvement is worth it, right? 

Similar thoughts with air sealing and insulating my basement.  Some of the spaces are too prohibitive to move plumbing or gas lines, etc, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t address the areas we can, right?  If I can’t fully air seal one penetration b/c I can’t reach it due to obstructions, then the entire endeavor isn’t compromised.  Or is it?  This is the basis of my question.

I’m not looking for specific feedback on plumbing setups or what could be done better.  My question is more theoretical in that we often can’t do everything at once or even over time – particularly in an existing setup, so should we always do something if we can?

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  1. Expert Member
    Malcolm Taylor | | #1


    There is nothing unique to building, it's like all the other parts of out life. If your kitchen is dirty and needs a good cleaning, but you don't have the time to wash the walls, it's still worth filling the dishwasher and wiping the counters.

    The only situations I can think of where that wouldn't be prudent are when an improvement could cause moisture problems. So no point adding insulation without air-sealing, or doing other similar things where the first step relies on other ones for its usefulness.

  2. Expert Member
    Michael Maines | | #2

    Michael, many of us can't afford to tackle a deep energy retrofit or other large project, and it's absolutely worthwhile to perform incremental improvements. I recommend starting with developing a master plan of what you'd like to accomplish so you don't end up doing something that needs to be redone later.

  3. Expert Member
    Peter Engle | | #3

    There are some places where half-measures can cause harm. Malcolm had one above. Another would be insulating the floor of a building above a crawl space. If there's plumbing in there, that's a problem. There are many such examples. Unfortunately, improving building performance isn't quite as easy as we thought in the days of "caulk the seams and stuff insulation in everything."

    But many houses have low-hanging fruit that can significantly improve performance at low cost. Most weatherization programs focus on the attic floor for this reason. Sealing the air leaks in an attic floor and adding a foot or more of insulation is relatively cheap and has almost immediate ROI. You just need to be a bit careful on which ones you choose.

    Using your basement example, and one from my own house: If you seal 90% of the air leaks in the basement, this doesn't mean that you've reduced the air leakage in your house by 90%. Perhaps not even a few %, if the holes that are left are big enough. From my own house a number of years ago, I started air sealing the basement and crawl spaces that were easy. The leakage then moved to the places I had not yet sealed. One of these was close to a supply pipe to my downstairs bath which then froze and split. This pipe had been there for decades with no problem until the air leakage was increased through that gap by the other work. Lesson learned.

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