White makes right: Snow shows that the right side is better insulated than the left.

White makes right: Snow shows that the right side is better insulated than the left.

With a fresh blanket of snow on the roofs, and the furnaces churning in the basements, it’s a fine time to play “read the roof.” This amusing/depressing game can reveal a number of secrets that your house might otherwise keep to itself.

Like, where is there insulation, and where is there not?

On the right side of this first example, you can see a clear line where the insulation ends, over the “knee wall” portion of the third floor. (See cross section below.) Escaping heat is melting the snow faster on the lower part than the upper. On the left side of that big dormer, there are a couple of rafter bays where escaping heat has melted the snow completely, suggesting no insulation; and between them, a pretty well insulated bay. Chimneys are almost always good at conducting heat from the inside to the outside, melting snow in a circle around their base.


Action shot: Thermal bridging under way.

Action shot: Thermal bridging under way.

Here’s a classic case of “thermal bridging.” On the left side of this roof, the wooden rafters that support the roof are allowing heat to escape faster than the insulated bays in between them. The migrating heat melts the snow over the rafters a bit faster, creating those parallel lines. It’s like an X-ray of the roof framing.

Extra credit: The overshot eave of the bungalow gets no heat from the interior, so see how the snow there is slightly deeper there?


Compare and contrast: An efficiency freak does not live in my neighbor's house. She may not have amazing insulation, but she has a life.

Compare and contrast: An efficiency freak does not live in my neighbor’s house. She may not have story-book insulation, but she has a life.

Can you spot the hot spots?

Can you spot the hot spots? (That line down the middle is ice on my windshield. Sorry.)

OK, that’s my house. I’m an energy efficiency geek. The home of my neighbor is more normal. In old houses, those rafter bays are only about 4 inches deep, which really limits the amount of insulation you can cram in there. Both these houses would have been built with no insulation, or perhaps a product from the “Yankee Ingenuity” line. (Newspaper isn’t uncommon; I have also seen sawdust and old clothing.) Updating of insulation tends to happen piecemeal, willy-nilly, as the years  and energy crises and remodeling projects go by. The result is usually not “blanket of snow,” but “crazy quilt of snow.”


This last one is frankly open to interpretation. It’s an odd pattern. We can see again that the cap of the house — the flat part of the third floor ceiling–is better insulated than the sloping part over the eave. On that lower part, those narrow white stripes suggest that the rafters under the roof are actually the most insulating element of the “roof assembly,” and the rafter bays between them are letting heat out faster. And both the chimney  and the sewer vent stack are acting as thermal bridges.

The puzzling part is that row of hot dots. Something about the insulation pattern directs rising heat to these distinct spots in the roofing structure. Those hot spots may not be very big, but once the black roof is uncovered, it heats quickly in the sun and enlarges the dot.

For reference purposes, a cross section of a basic roof. And the ice dams that occur when insulation is of the crazy-quilt variety.

Cross section. That swirly stuff is insulation, but only in new or really well renovated houses.

Cross section. That swirly stuff is insulation, but only in new or really well renovated houses.

Oops! I forgot to replace all my old windows before winter!

unnamedThis picture is worth a thousand words. Just do this, and you won’t have to read the rest of the post. But by all means if you prefer reading about stuff you should do, rather than actually doing it, read on. We’ve all been there.

I, for example, read up on replacement windows every November-December when the first blast of Arctic air barrels into my 1918 bungalow. “Next summer,” I vow.

Then, each “next summer” I do not replace my windows, for a number of reasons. Not least, the  bungalow is a tropical vernacular, and tends toward enormous windows on the first floor. Your average vinyl replacement unit would soon warp under the weight of all that glass.

But another reason is that replacing windows just doesn’t save much energy. Even brand-new, double-glazed windows are relatively worthless when viewed as insulation. Two layers of window dressing (roller shade + curtain; Venetian blind + Roman shade) give you the same insulation value as a double glazed window. But only


only if air is not leaking around the edges of the old window unit.

Aaaaaand even if air is leaking around the shrunken frames, rattling them like frosty bones and causing your candle flames to dance merrily, you still don’t have to replace them. Just do this:

1: Tear off strips of cling-wrap.

2: With a fillet knife, putty knife, whatever, work that cling wrap into the crack between the window sash and the window frame.

3: You’re done. Go read something enjoyable.*

No hair dryer. No gray, gummy ropes of… gummystuff. The cling wrap disappears into the chasm, not to be seen again until spring.

*Extra credit for stuffing cling wrap into the pully mechanism at the top of the window.





Did  all the paint marketers drink from the same pitcher of grape Kool-aid at the annual Paint Party? Or is there really an aura, a shade, a tint, to a coming year that is detectable by paint prognosticators? One way or another, the various paint companies seem to be in agreement that 2017 shall be the year of the purple walls. Proceed with caution.


Pittsburg Paint’s prediction: “Violet Verbena.” Perhaps that’s supposed to be “Violent Verbena”? I don’t find it soothing. I wouldn’t choose this for the walls of a prison cafeteria, for instance. 


Olympic’s pinkish pick. Is it just me, or… ick? However, this color can make a important contribution to a landscape painting when it accounts for .0002% of a sunset scene. 


Benjamin Moore is more. It’s a lot. It’s going to take 14 coats of the 2018 “color of the year” to put that purple in the past.


Shhhherwin Williams is betting on “Poised Taupe,” which may actually be typo. This is taupe that’s been poisoned by some purple pigment. I don’t hate it. I’m just a little tired of gray. And this shade doubles down on gray’s sad side. 


Behr couldn’t commit so they have 20 colors for 2017. The “Comfortable” palette is inspired by old pajamas, while the “Composed” is a purple-themed take on a wintry compost pile. “Confident” contains only six colors, as confident decorators decide really quickly what color they like. 




Aaaaand now that I have mocked the color of the year, I’m looking around my house. Here’s Ben Moore’s purple on the drape that shuts off the unused upstairs…


…and this is the wall of the global headquarters of Geek Realty. Huh. Just huh.


800px-NIEdot311That facebook post about opossums eating 1 billion ticks an hour: Is it true?

The study that spawned this silliness is much more interesting. Researchers were asking which tick-bitten lawn critters are best at reducing your risk of getting Lyme disease. The answer: The more the merrier.

When larval “Lyme ticks” emerge in the spring, they scramble up a fern and then bite onto whatever small creature ambles past. Lately, they often suck up the Lyme bacterium with their blood meal. After a few days they drop off; grow a click; and then snag a new passer-by–passing along the Lyme bacterium when they bore into the skin.

But those initial hosts vary in their ability to discover and destroy tiny ticks on their skin. Opossums are compulsive groomers, and they locate and eradicate almost every larval tick that attacks them. So if you put 100 larval ticks on a variety of animals, and count how many ticks successfully eat and advance to the status of a human health threat, it looks like this:

Who's Chewing Who?

Who’s Chewing Who?

Half the ticks who take a shot at a white-footed mouse live to suck another day. Only about 3% of those who bite a possum can say the same.

So, two things:

One: No, possums don’t eat a billion ticks a minute. That was a silly extrapolation from a controlled experiment. But possums do kill and swallow a huge percentage of the ticks silly enough to bite them.

Two: Anyway, the point of this study is that biodiversity is (once again) the answer to all your household concerns. Each of those “hosts” are killing some of the ticks that attack them in your neighborhood. More = Merrier.

Three: To get more possums to hang out at your place, the secret is again biodiversity. They eat snails*, slugs*, mice, insects, dead squirrels, etc. They’re shy and nocturnal, so give them “hedgerows” of shrubbery to hide under, and keep outdoor lights off. I don’t water my crispy Freedom Lawn this time of year, but I do water my native creepy-crawlies: My naturally mulched native plant beds hold moisture that will see an insect through drying times.

Four: Yes, possums are essentially immune to rabies; and are extra cool in myriad other ways; and they don’t dig up lawns, wreck gardens, or give birth in your basement. You’re thinking of your dog.


OMG, just do the math, anyway: That poor possum would have to eat 24 ticks  an hour, around the clock. Every 2.5 seconds, day and night: Another tick. So, yeah: Just no.


*AKA “possum oysters”




Anthropologists and their hate crimes against cave people wear me out. “No other hominid species could possibly have been one-tenth as sophisticated and emotional and toolly as us, the amazing Homo sapiens.” That  is the working assumption of the average archeologist.

Homo erectus ate raw food,” they allege, “because they were too dumb to manage fire.” Oops. Erectus seems to have been barbecuing in Africa more than a million years before sapiens was a twinkle in the eye of Homo habilis.

“Paddling a boat 25 miles in a strong current is too intellectually demanding for anyone but us,” scholars assert, “therefor erectus must have spread through the Pacific islands by accident, like ants bobbing around on driftwood. Poor things.” Oops. Not only erectus, but also a second species of “hobbit people“, seem to have been exceptionally lucky floating ants, given that they first colonized the “remote” Indonesian island of Flores 700,000 years ago. (We sapiens are about 200,000 years old.)

Neanderthals knew nothing of home decorating,” the anthropologists sniff. “They just threw their bear skins down at the mouth of a cave and called it good.”

Oops. The recent discovery of structures laid out 300 meters deep in a French cave suggest neanderthalensis not only managed fire for cooking, but also managed fire for exploring 300 meters into the pitch black gut of the earth, and also hung out there in well-appointed rooms. The construction method: stalagmites harvested from the cave floor, whacked into uniform lengths, and stacked to form barriers. The novelty of this homemaking style was sufficiently unique to demand a new word: Speleofacts, from the Latin “cavemaking supplies.”

The bias that makes such discoveries surprising bothers me. Anybody who presumes only Homo sapiens appreciates a comfortable and attractive territory is crying out for an introduction to another species of talented home-makers. Allow me: The photos below are of huts made of sticks, landscaped with color-sorted stones, petals, bottle caps, etc. Scroll down to meet the artist.

wikimedia commons pd

wikimedia commons pd




Satin bowerbird. Wikimedia commons pd


Hot water, olde school. Wikimedia pd

Hot water, olde school. (Bad dog, timeless) Wikimedia pd

The inherent waste in household water heating (and, yes, the carbon footprint of flushing an upstairs toilet) are the kind of things that cause me grave concern on a daily basis. Going to the Building Energy conference in Boston helped. Kinda.

The hot water thing: We tend to heat a tank full of it, then spend more carbon-based energy keeping it hot even when nobody needs it. Each time we open a hot water faucet somewhere in the house, we draw that hot water from the tank and into cold pipes. Heat is lost. The farther the water travels through the pipes, the more heat it loses. And after you’ve received your hot water and you shut off the faucet, then all the hot water still in the pipeline slowly sheds its carbon-costly heat and returns to room temperature. *

(You rightly imagine that the hot water pipes in my basement are insulated with foam tubes. I got the tubes at Home Depot on clearance for 1 cent apiece, which spared me a ton of math on the financial arm of the equation.)

The old solution to this soul-killing waste was the “on demand water heater.” Fired by gas or electricity, it replaced the big tank in the basement, and heated water instantly** when you opened the faucet. But the heated water still had to navigate the same old heat-shedding pipes.

So at the trade show I was intrigued by a display of POUETs: Point Of Use Electric Tankless. point-of-use-water-heater

Stiebel POUET

Stiebel POUET images

These are sized for each faucet, or “point of use.” There’s a tiny one for the powder room sink; a medium one for the kitchen; and a big one for the shower. The size is driven by physics–the faster you ask for water, the faster the element inside the box has to warm it.***


I love this, particularly for remodels or additions on a house. Yes, you’re using electricity to heat water, but you’re wasting approximately none of that energy. For a deeper analysis of the carbonaceous tangents, read this geek’s story of converting his household (and his grumpy family) to POUETs.

My quick recon finds no plug-in versions of POUETs, probably due to the meddling of “life and safety” regulators who will go to any lengths to prevent water and electricity from hanging out together.

Got any experience with these? Is my enthusiasm warranted? Can I stop worrying about this?


*If you recapture that heat to keep your house warm, good on you. But even in the winter, space-heating via pipes buried in walls and basements is a pretty weak method.

**”Instant” is a relative term, according to anyone who ever lived with an on-demand water heater. So is “on demand.”

***Yes, the carbon footprint of these many boxes of electric heating elements is starting to spread a little. It bothers me, too. I suspect “clustered plumbing” is the answer: designing homes where the bathroom backs up to the kitchen backs up to the laundry machine.



Image: UMN Extension

Looks like time to re-post this classic, after all: Last year, half the houses in the neighborhood developed ice dams. Part of the reason? This neighborhood has tons of bungalows.

The bungalow is native to sunny India, where the deep overhang of the eave acts like an awning.

Maine and India have little in common beyond the bungalow. Here, that overhang gets very cold, because it’s not heated by warm air rushing upward through the ceiling and into the attic.

That fleeing warm air does heat the roof over the attic, however, and melts the snow thereon. Water runs down the roof as god intended. But then it hits the unheated overhang and promptly freezes. Over time, a ridge of ice forms atop the eave. Now running water backs up behind a growing ridge of ice, seeps between the shingles, and enters parts of your house previously reserved for dryness.

The slanted ceiling of a bungalow’s second floor makes matters worse: You can’t add much insulation there to slow the flow of heat.

The outdoor angles compound the problem, as intersecting roof lines direct a lot of water toward the valleys.

What to do? Don’t do this: In a fit of freezing pique I once took a pickax to my ice dams. It tore that ice right up! And the roof under it, too!

Prevention, as usual, is the sensible thing. Maintain a clear path for water to take off the roof. Rake snow off the eaves before the cycle sets in.

And if you must build a bungalow in Maine, insulate the heck out of it.