Plan Ahead to $ave on Next Winter’s Energy Bill

Photo by Lenore Weiss

The term “polar vortex” may still send chills up our spines, as it did for many homeowners that experienced weather-related damage to their home and/or pocketbook from this year’s extreme winter weather conditions. Water damage from ice dams, sheets of ice on walkways below continuously dripping icicles and tremendous heating bills were the results.

Consider these painful lessons as a springboard for positive change. They are actually acute reminders of ways we can prepare our home for next winter now, as well as improve its overall performance and comfort throughout the year.

One of the more serious issues many faced this winter was ice damming which has the potential to cause a great deal of damage to both a home’s roof and its interior. An ice dam is caused when the water from melting snow on the roof refreezes at the edge of the roofline. With cycles of freezing and thawing, additional water can migrate back up underneath the roof shingles or other vulnerable penetration points on the roof and find its way into the home.

This year’s remarkable snowfall, cycling with so many fluctuating deep-temperature freezes, was the “perfect storm” for this condition to take place. According to John Marshall, of Buffalo Grove firm John Marshall Construction (, 2014 was a record year for performing repairs for damage caused by ice dams. “The most frequent repair this winter was to break open the dam to allow the water to drain off, so it isn’t backing up into the house,” explains Marshall. “Each case could have been caused by many reasons including poor ventilation, poor insulation or any number of unique conditions.”

To prevent ice damming from occurring next winter, the time to act is now. Ensuring there is sufficient insulation under the roof is a great first step. The amount and type of insulation will depend on the roof and attic configuration. Generally, the idea is to keep conditioned air (heated or cooled) inside the house, along with the proper ventilation and air flow for each particular situation.

According to Energy Star, the estimated annual energy savings in the Chicago area to upgrade from single pane to Energy Star-rated windows is at least $352 per year.

Providing adequate insulation is only a part of the solution. It is also necessary to prevent the conditioned air from escaping through leaks that can occur at roof and ceiling penetration points, which include vent pipes, exhaust fans, chimneys, attic hatches and light fixtures. Air sealing around openings such as these can prevent as much as 50 percent of a home’s heat loss in winter.

Considering air leakage from a broader perspective, the larger the opening, the larger is the heat loss. That means in an older home, we likely have windows or doors that provide very little insulation and may have settled over the years, leaving gaps around them. New, energy-efficient windows are rated for their performance, including a U-factor score, which measures how well a product prevents heat from escaping a home. The lower the U-factor, the better a product is at keeping heat inside the building.

Adding roof insulation, energy-rated windows and doors and properly sealing a home for air leaks are great ways to prevent the chances of ice damming and heat loss in future winters, while retaining cooled air in future summers. It makes sense to spend less money on utilities to make our home more comfortable over time. The only icing we’ll see is on the proverbial cake.

Lenore Weiss is the principal of Lenore Weiss Studios, a Northbrook-based architecture firm. For more information, call 847-291-8285, email or visit

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