How do Home Foundations Affect Your Energy and Utility Bills?

Home foundations are tricky business. Ask 3 contractors to quote on the same foundation repair job, and you will probably get 3 drastically different prices and approaches. Knowing the basics, and your options will make you a better homeowner - and certainly less susceptible to outlandish proposals by foundations contractors.

Chances are that if your home is older than 30 years, it has either a concrete or masonry building foundation, and will most likely not be insulated - unless you have added it after the fact. Home foundations settle as ground settles over the years, regardless of how well the ground is compacted in the first place. This invariably leads foundation damage, such as cracks along the walls and on floors. If you live near a flood plane or swampland, like much of the borough of Queens, NY in the U.S. (before the DEC declared swamplands as "forever wild"), then you probably have flooding issues. NOT GOOD for finished or walk-out basements that have carpeting or furniture.

Read more about different types of foundations and how to figure out what you have. This will help you with formulating your overall energy plan.

The smell of mold, mildew and rot is not only "not refreshing", it is also the harbinger of potentially very expensive and unhealthy news - hopefully, you have taken the steps to waterproof through drainage along the perimeter, and perhaps, installed a sump pump.

So, what do home foundations have to do energy efficiency??? In one word, (ok, two): almost everything. Your foundation is your plane of contact with the earth - if the earth is hot, your foundation is hot and will emanate that heat upward through your house (remember warm air rises). If the ground is cold, your house gets cold, and sucks the heat right out of your house (sinking cold air). So, other than gaping holes in your walls and attic, your foundation is a big contributor to turning your house into a giant sieve (or energy drain).

And here are 2 key points that can be used to your advantage (or detriment):

  • Because of the mass of your foundation (unless it is a pier foundation), it stores all of that heat or cold for a pretty LONG time - just like a swimming pool heats up and cools off slowly (meaning that it has high thermal mass).
  • The temperature of the earth below 4-6 feet (depending on where you are located) is CONSTANT and generally hovers around 50-55 degrees Fahrenheit (again, depending on where you are). The "imaginary plane" between the deeper surface with moderate temperatures (about 5 feet and below) and the fluctuating shallow depth (0-5 feet) is called the Frost Line.

This kind of volatility in temperature in not good for anything - or anyone (biologically, I gauge it by my need for chocolate and potato chips!). For foundations, and windows, doors, asphalt roads, and everything else that is rigidly solid, this means seasonal heaving, which eventually results in cracking foundations, potholes and cracks in roads, and windows and doors that get stuck - you get the drift.

This is the reason that foundations start below the frost line; even slab-on-grade foundations have footings that extend 1-3 feet past the slab to temper the temperature of the slab - most don't go down nearly far enough. One other thing - even most modern foundations don't go as deep as they should because of the cost factor. Every additional foot of excavation adds thousands to the cost.

Luckily, there is a lot you can do toward home foundation repair and improvements; unfortunately some of it can be VERY expensive, but you can do a lot of the prep work yourself before bringing in professionals. That should save you on labor costs, which along with equipment rental, is usually the bulk of the expense of repairing home foundations. For example, if you are going to repair cracks, you and some friends can spend a couple of days emptying the space, removing the flooring, and cleaning the walls. The cost of doing this (hopefully, pizza and beer and about $50 for taking the debris to the dump) is a lot less than hiring a crew.

You may decide that "now that you have a clean slate", you want to try your hand at "pointing" or sealing the foundation cracks, waterproofing the floors or walls, or attaching foam insulation boards onto the interior walls yourself. For a very average-skilled do-it-yourselfer (or herselfer), none of this work is difficult. AND, if you have a home center like Home Depot or Lowes, you might be able to take advantage of their weekend workshops on a lot of different home improvement projects. Say what you will, I pretty much draw the line at jack-hammering (even my husband bolts the other way).

One note about home foundations- unless you are putting on an addition, or will raise your house to re-build your foundation through heavy, expensive excavation, your best bet is to make improvements on the interior walls and floors. BUT, if you are considering an addition or replacing your foundation,look into insulated concrete forms (ICF), and Frost-Protected-Shallow Foundations (FPSFs) for great energy efficient foundations that go in fast, and cheap, and last a long time.

Here are more pages that go into more detail, and deal with existing home foundations. If you have a new foundation, you will still benefit from much of this information.

Foundation types This section is a primer on the different types of foundations, and guides you to determine your type, whether it is poured concrete, masonry or stone, whether it is insulated, whether it is conditioned intentionally or not, etc.

House Mold (and mildew!) Here it is for us non-biologists: easy-to-understand information about mold in your house, its effects on your home and health, and a sane, safe approach to dealing with it.

Examples of Energy Foundation Foundations - I show pictures and talk about problem basements and how they were resolved.

Concrete Foundation Repair - Presented for the purpose of energy efficiency (this is not a foundation repair website), I tackle the most common fix-it-yourself issues encountered with concrete foundations, for both poured and masonry block, e.g., dry and leaky cracks.

Basement Insulation - Simple, doable concepts in insulating the walls of your basement. This may be labor-intensive, but the results in temperature control are OUTSTANDING.

Concrete Foundation Waterproofing - presented from the standpoint of energy efficiency, waterproofing is like moisturizer for your skin: no one sees it, but you know you're protected from the elements AND you are preventing wrinkles!

Visual Evaluation of Your home foundations - A simple guide that summarizes how to evaluate the condition of home foundations. This guide shows the issues to watch for when dealing with exterior repairs or improvements that are energy-related.

Our readers' foundation questions, and stories - PLEASE keep them coming!

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