Common Home Problems and Solutions

Is your home cold, drafty, or uncomfortable? Do you have high energy bills? Ice dams? Peeling paint? Excessive dust? Addressing these types of home problems can make your home more comfortable, and at the same time improve its energy efficiency – saving you money on utility bills and helping to protect the environment too.

High Energy Bills

High utility bills in summer and winter can often be traced to air leaks in your home’s envelope, inefficient windows or inefficient or incorrectly installed heating and cooling equipment, or poorly sealed and insulated ducts.

Diagnosis:

One reason for high energy bills is an increase in the price of electricity or heating fuel. However, it is common to trace high energy bills to an in-efficient component (windows, heating and cooling equipment, ducts insulation) of your home or a failure of one of these components to perform as intended. It is not always easy to pin-point the problem, but fixing it can make your home more energy-efficient and comfortable.

Prescription Checklist:

To improve the energy efficiency of your home start with an evaluation of your homes energy use.

  • For best results hire a contractor who is an energy specialist to do an in-home evaluation. A good specialist will use diagnostic equipment to evaluate the performance of your home and generate a customized list of improvements.
  • Improvements may include sealing air leaks, adding insulation (Home Sealing) or sealing duct air leaks. Some of these you can do yourself, but you may prefer to hire a contractor.
  • Turn down the temperature on your water heater to 120 degrees F.
  • Replace the light bulbs in your highest usage lights with ENERGY STAR CFL bulbs.
  • When replacing lighting or appliances look for ENERGY STAR qualified light fixtures and appliances
  • Install a programmable thermostat, and use it to save energy while you are away at work.
  • Contact your utility and ask if they offer any programs to help lower energy bills.

Mold, Mildew or Musty Odors

Water leaks or high humidity can lead to mold and mildew. This can cause wood rot, structural damage, peeling paint, and a variety of health problems. Often, high humidity in homes with central air conditioners can be traced to improperly sized or installed air conditioners.

Diagnosis:

A water leak or high humidity can lead to mold, mildew, or other biological growth. Depending on the severity, conditions can lead to rot, structural damage, premature paint failure, and a variety of health problems. Water can seep into your house from the outside through a leak in your roof, foundation, or small gaps around windows or doors. Water can also come from inside your house from a leaking water pipe, toilet, shower or bathtub. High indoor humidity caused by normal activities of everyday living such as showering, cooking, and drying clothes, can also be a source of mold, mildew or musty odors. Indoor humidity levels between 30% and 50% are ideal.

Prescription Checklist:

Where does the problem occur? Attic? Basement? Below a bathroom? Ceiling? Where the problem occurs can lead to what is causing the problem. If the problem is localized (a spot on the ceiling, wall or corner) it is possibly caused by a water leak. If the problem is in a large area like a whole wall, room or basement then it might be caused by high humidity.

Stop water leaks immediately to minimize the potential mold growth.

  • If a leak is the source of your problem, have it fixed first.
  • If the leak is in your roof hire a roofing contractor to repair the leak.
  • If the leak is from a water pipe, toilet, bathtub or shower, hire a plumber to repair the leak.
  • If the leak has caused substantial water damage or mold you will want to hire a contractor who specializes in mold remediation and water damage repairs.
  • After repairing the water leak, dry out the area completely.

Reducing indoor humidity

  • Do you have a crawlspace under your house? A dirt floor in a crawlspace should be covered with plastic (vapor barrier) to prevent moisture from the soil increasing humidity levels in your home. If there is standing water or the soil is wet, dry it out with fans before covering the floor.
  • Use ventilation fans in kitchens and baths to control moisture. Check to make sure ventilation fans venting directly outside. In some cases the vent fan may have been installed to vent into the attic or become disconnected or blocked.
  • Your clothes dryer should be vented directly to the outside. Inspect the vent duct. Make sure it is attached securely to the dryer. Check that it is clear of obstructions (e.g. lint). Check for holes that leak air. If vent duct is damaged replace it with a metal duct. The vent duct should be cleaned at least once a year.
  • Keep air conditioning drip pans clean and the drain lines unobstructed and flowing properly.
  • Ask a heating and cooling contractor to check your heating and cooling system to make sure it is sized and operating properly to remove humidity. If you system is too big or the airflow incorrect your air conditioner will not remove humidity like it should. Also, ask the contractor to check your duct system for air leaks, and proper size and air flow to each room.
  • Sealing air leaks (Home Sealing) and sealing duct air leaks can help to prevent high humidity levels in your home.

Damp Basement

A damp basement is commonly caused by moisture migrating through the foundation. As this moisture evaporates, it increases indoor humidity and can promote the growth of mold – resulting in an uncomfortable house.

Diagnosis:

The source of your problem could be a water leak or high humidity. Both can lead to mold, mildew, or other biological growth. Depending on the severity, conditions can lead to rot, structural damage, premature paint failure, and a variety of health problems. Water can seep into your house from the outside through a leak in the foundation, or small gaps around windows or doors. Water can also come from inside your house from a leaking water pipe, toilet, shower or bathtub. High indoor humidity caused by normal activities of everyday living, such as showering, cooking, and drying clothes, can also be a source of your problem. A damp basement is commonly caused by moisture migrating through a concrete foundation. There may not be a sign of any leak or standing water, but the moisture evaporates, increasing indoor humidity. Another common cause is condensation on the cold concrete walls and floors during humid months.

Prescription Checklist:

  • Where does the problem occur? Below a bathroom? Ceiling? Corners? Where the problem occurs can lead to what is causing the problem. If the problem is localized (a spot on the ceiling, wall or corner it is possibly caused by a water leak. If the problem is in a large area, like a whole wall or room, then it might be caused by humidity.
  • If you plan to remodel your basement, it is important to control moisture problems at the before doing anything else. Corrective actions can be relatively easily but sometimes, depending on the severity of the problem, they can be difficult and expensive.

Stop water leaks (see above)

Reducing indoor humidity (see above)

Cold Floors in Winter

Some types of floor coverings (such as wood, stone, tile, or concrete) will naturally feel cold on bare feet. However, insufficient insulation or air infiltration can also cause cold floors.

Diagnosis:

Although some types of floor coverings (e.g., wood, stone, tile, or concrete) will naturally feel cold on bare feet, insufficient insulation or air infiltration could be the cause for cold floors.

Common locations:

  • Basement floor
  • Floor over a garage
  • Floor over a crawlspace

Prescription Checklist:

  • Air Sealing and insulation (Home Sealing) can help stop drafts and improve the comfort of your home. You can do some things yourself, but for the best solution you need to hire a contractor.
  • Contact a heating and cooling contractor to check if your heating and cooling system is providing enough air to each room. Your contractor should check: is a damper closed; has a duct become disconnected from a register; is the duct sized correctly, is the duct leaky?

Drafty Rooms

Cold air coming into or going out of your house, especially through leaks hidden in the attic and basement, can cause rooms to feel drafty and uncomfortable.

Diagnosis:

Cold air leaking into your house around windows, doors, electrical outlets, light fixtures, and gaps in corners, can cause rooms to feel drafty and uncomfortable. As cold air is coming in through leaks, warm air is escaping through other leaks. The biggest leaks for escaping air are often found in the attic, and recessed lights are a common location.

Prescription Checklist:

  • Air sealing (Home Sealing) can help stop drafts and improve the comfort of your home. The most important leaks are often in the attic. You can do some things yourself, but for the best solution you need to hire a contractor.
  • Ask your heating and cooling contractor to check ducts for air leaks and balanced airflow.
  • If you have a fireplace, close the damper when not in use.

Dust

Increased dust could be a sign that it is time to change your air filter or that your ductwork is not well sealed.

Diagnosis:

Dust comes from several sources and is difficult to eliminate completely. Increased dust could be a sign that it is time to change a dirty furnace or air conditioner filter or vacuum cleaner bag. Activities that produce dust (such as sanding) can also be a source an increase. Dust can also be introduced into your home through air leaks in ducts, or air infiltration through leaky doors and windows.

Prescription Checklist:

  • Change or clean your furnace and air conditioner filters once a month or according to the filter manufacturer’s instructions. Temporarily seal the filter in place with metal-back duct tape. Write the date on the tape with a marker so your know when it was last changed.
  • Your clothes dryer should be vented directly to the outside. Inspect the vent duct. Make sure it is attached securely to the dryer. Check that it is clear of obstructions (e.g. lint). Check for holes that leak air. If vent duct is damaged replace it with a metal duct. The vent duct should be cleaned at least once a year.
  • Consider leaving your shoes at the door so you don’t track outside debris-often the largest source of dust -into your house.
  • Sealing air leaks (Home Sealing) can help to reduce air infiltration that could be a source of dust.
  • Sealing duct air leaks, especially the return duct, can help prevent dust from being circulated throughout your house.

Moisture on Windows

Inefficient windows or high indoor moisture levels from air leaks can result in condensation, frost, or pools of water on windows and sills.

Diagnosis:

It is difficult to completely eliminate moisture on existing windows. Inefficient windows (e.g., single pane with aluminum frames) or high moisture with inadequate ventilation can result in condensation, frost, or pools of water on windows and sills. Moisture in the air condenses when it touches a cold surface. (The same effect causes a glass of ice tea to “sweat” on a hot humid day.) Continued excess moisture can lead to mold, mildew, and deterioration of your windows and sills.

Prescription Checklist:

To reduce humidity levels in your home:

  • Use ventilation fans in kitchens and baths to control moisture.
  • Your clothes dryer should be vented directly to the outside. Inspect the vent duct. Make sure it is attached securely to the dryer. Check that it is clear of obstructions (e.g. lint). Check for holes that leak air. If vent duct is damaged replace it with a metal duct. The vent duct should be cleaned at least once a year.
  • If you have single pane windows, especially with metal frames, install storm windows or consider replacing your existing windows with ENERGY STAR labeled windows.
  • If you can’t afford to add storm windows or replace your windows now purchase and install a shrink film or polyethylene sheet, window insulation kit from a home center or hardware store.
  • If you have a humidifier, check it regularly for proper operation. It could be adding too much moisture to your indoor air.

Ice Dams

Warm air inside your home leaks into the attic and will warm the underside of the roof causing snow and ice to melt and refreeze as it runs off your roof – forming icicles and ice dams.

Diagnosis:

Ice dams usually occur after a heavy snowfall and several days of freezing temperatures. Warm air inside your home leaks into the attic and will warm the underside of the roof causing snow and ice on the roof to melt. The melted water will drain along the roof, under the snow, until it reaches the cold overhang. The overhang tends to be at the same temperature as the outdoors and the melted water will refreeze and form an ice dam and icicles. The ice dam can cause damage to the roof, which will result in water leaks to the inside. Frequently the result will be a water spot on the ceiling under the roof damage.

Prescription Checklist:

  • Don’t get on your roof to solve this problem, it could be dangerous.
  • Avoid standing on the ground and “chipping away” at the ice. Not only could this cause damage to your roof, but you can be seriously injured by falling ice, debris, or tools.
  • Contacting a roofing contractor to fix your roof leak will not prevent future ice dams.
  • Seal air leaks (Home Sealing) and sealing duct air leaks in your attic to stop warm air leakage (the source of the problem).
  • After sealing leaks, add additional insulation in your attic.
  • Provide adequate attic ventilation so that the underside of the roof and outside air are at the same temperature. Check to make sure attic insulation is not blocking roof ventilation.
  • Clean leaves and other debris from gutters before the first snow. This will help prevent ice build-up in gutters.
  • Hire a contractor who is an energy specialist or specializes in air sealing to do an in-home evaluation. A good specialist will use diagnostic equipment to evaluate the performance of your home and generate a customized list of improvements.

Peeling Paint

Peeling or cracking paint on your home’s exterior may be a sign of a humidity problem or improper paint application.

Diagnosis:

Peeling or cracking paint, on your home’s exterior, may be a sign of a humidity problem or improper application. Peeling exterior paint is caused by moisture being absorbed through the back of wood siding and passing through to the exterior surface under the paint. The paint loses adhesion and peels off. The exterior should be vented to allow any moisture behind the siding to escape.

Prescription Checklist:

  • Control moisture problems.
  • Air sealing (Home Sealing) can keep moist air from leaking through your walls. To adequately prevent moist air from moving into wall cavities, you may need to hire a contractor who is a building science specialist.
  • Apply primer to surfaces before painting and follow the paint manufacturer’s application instructions.

Hot or Cold Rooms

Significant differences in temperature from one room to another could be caused by several factors, including inadequate insulation, air leakage, poor duct performance, and improperly installed heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) system.

Diagnosis:

Temperature differences of up to three degrees from room to room are not uncommon, but often one or several rooms are uncomfortably warm or cold. This condition could be caused by several factors within your home including inadequate insulation, air leakage, poor duct system design, duct leakage, unwanted heating by the sun in warmer months, or a failure in part of your heating and cooling system.

Common problem rooms include:

  • Attic
  • Room over a garage
  • Basement
  • Additions

Prescription Checklist:

For best results hire a contractor who is an energy specialist to do an in-home evaluation. A good specialist will use diagnostic equipment to evaluate the performance of your home and generate a customized list of improvements.

  • Ask your contractor to check if your heating and cooling system is operating correctly.
  • Ask your contractor to check your ducts for air leakage and proper distribution of air.
  • Seal air leaks and add insulation (Home Sealing).
  • If the sun is making rooms to hot, consider shades or solar screening.
  • After trying these items, consider ENERGY STAR labeled ceiling fans to make room air circulation more uniform. You will need to hire an electrician to install it.

Dry Indoor Air in Winter

Air leaks in your home allow warm humid air to escape and draw in drier colder air.

Diagnosis:

Air leaks in your home allow warm humid air to escape and draw in drier colder air. Dry indoor air can contribute to dry throat and skin and static shocks. Proper humidity levels keep furniture and your home from drying out and reduce the energy use of your heating system because you will feel warmer at a lower thermostat setting.

Prescription Checklist:

  • Ask a heating and cooling contractor to check your heating and cooling system to make sure it is operating properly. Also, ask the contractor to check your duct system for air leaks, and proper size and air flow to each room.
  • Seal air leaks (Home Sealing) to prevent infiltration of cold, dry air for outside. If you have a tight home you may not need a humidifier.