Category: Major Systems

Bob Vila Radio: Losing Heat to Drafts

Having a hard time keeping your home warm this winter? Simply plugging window and door drafts can make a considerable difference.

In these energy-conscious times, many people are adding insulation, installing solar panels, or taking a number of expensive steps to keep their homes warmer in winter. But in many homes, especially older ones, one of the biggest culprits is the simple draft—plugging the holes in a drafty house can go a long way toward saving energy in your home.

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Listen to BOB VILA ON LOSING HEAT TO DRAFTS or read the text below:

Drafty Houses


Prime spots for air leakage are around doors and windows, anywhere walls and ceilings meet, and around the rim joist at the foundation. They may seem small, but in some homes all those little drafts together can add up to the equivalent of leaving a window wide open.

Caulking and weather stripping are easy do-it-yourself projects that can cut down a lot on air leakage—you can find drafty spots on a cold day by running your hand around window and door framing, baseboard molding, and electrical outlets and switches on exterior walls. Anywhere you feel cold air coming in is a target for sealing. You can caulk around door and window frames and molding and add weather stripping to the edge of the door or window itself. Home centers sell packages of foam inserts that can be slipped behind switch plates to cut down on drafts around electrical boxes. You may be surprised how these little efforts add up!

Bob Vila Radio is a newly launched daily radio spot carried on more than 75 stations around the country (and growing). You can get your daily dose here, by listening to—or reading—Bob’s 60-second home improvement radio tip of the day.

Bob Vila Radio: Retrofitting Fireplaces

Much of the heat produced by a traditional fireplaces ultimately goes up the chimney, taking your energy dollars along with it. For a warmer and more wallet-friendly fireplace, consider one of these modifications.

Did you know that only about ten percent of the heat from a fire in the fireplace makes it into the room? That’s right, about ninety percent of a fire’s heat goes right up the chimney. Not only is the heat going to waste, but that draft of hot air is also pulling heat from the room along with it. Your home heating system then has to work harder to maintain the desired temperature. That’s a lot of energy, and money, going up in smoke.

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Listen to BOB VILA ON RETROFITTING FIREPLACES or read the text below:

Retrofitting Fireplaces


The good news is there are several ways to retrofit a working fireplace into an energy producer, not an energy waster. A quick fix is to add glass fireplace doors—they’re easy to install yourself and they’re a simple way to reduce heat loss, but the result is still only about twenty percent heat efficiency. And who needs eighty percent of their heat going up the chimney?

A better option is to retrofit your fireplace with a stove insert that burns either wood or pellets, or with a gas fireplace. Any of those options can turn your fireplace into a bona fide heat source. Wood and pellet stoves have the charm of an actual roaring fire, but you’ll still have the work of feeding them fuel and cleaning up the ash. A gas insert burns cleanly, leaves no ash, and produces lots of efficient heat for your home.

Bob Vila Radio is a newly launched daily radio spot carried on more than 75 stations around the country (and growing). You can get your daily dose here, by listening to—or reading—Bob’s 60-second home improvement radio tip of the day.

Breathe Deep: 5 Ways to Improve Your Home’s Air Quality for Better Health

Because you can't see it, you might not give a lot of thought to the air you breathe at home. But clean air is an important component of a healthy, nurturing environment, so follow these five tips to get your indoor air quality as good as it can be.

Improving Air Quality


Deep breathing has been shown to reduce stress, lower blood pressure, and even improve digestion. But if the air you’re breathing in isn’t as clean as it should be, taking those breaths might actually be causing more harm than good.

You can improve the air quality in your home most simply by cleaning with natural, odor-free products; having people remove their shoes before entering to avoid dragging in dust and dirt; and opening windows when the weather permits to keep fresh air circulating throughout the home.

Beyond those simple steps, here are five other ways to clean up the air in your home and make sure it’s fresh, invigorating, and free of harmful allergens.

Radiant heating is installed beneath the floors (and sometimes behind the walls) of your home and consists of panels that contain either warming electric or water-carrying pipes. Because this kind of system doesn’t rely on ducts to deliver warm air to the home, it dramatically reduces the number of airborne particles that can cause allergies, discomfort, and sometimes even colds and flu. For homeowners with asthma or other respiratory conditions, the benefits can be even greater. Unlike forced hot air systems that can dry the air and blow around allergens, and baseboard and radiator systems that can harbor dust in hard-to-clean areas, radiant heating, such as the high-efficiency systems offered by Warmboard, is as clean as you keep your floors.

Warmboard radiant heat



The humidity in homes should be kept in the 30 to 50 percent range. Maintaining this target humidity level is especially important in the winter if you have a forced hot air system, which tends to dry the air dramatically, and in the summer if you live in a humid climate. Depending on where you live, you might need a humidifier to replace moisture in the air or a dehumidifier to dry things up. Dry air is a contributing factor to common colds, while air that is too moist can become a breeding ground for bacteria, so getting this component of your indoor air quality right can be critical for your family’s health. One simple way to determine if the air in your home is too dry is to notice whether or not you get frequent electric shocks in the cold weather. If you do, it’s too dry. Air that’s too moist, on the other hand, can be detected by a damp or mildewy smell in the home.


Going green when it comes to home air quality usually refers to switching to natural, scent-free products—and, of course, this is a fine idea. What we’re referring to here, however, is going green by filling your home with greenery. Plants can be a great way to not only freshen the air, but also warm and personalize your home. Studies by NASA have shown that certain houseplants are good at eliminating harmful substances in the air. Aloe vera, for example, is effective at clearing formaldehyde, which can be found in some plywoods, carpeting, and furniture as well as in certain cleaning products, while the bamboo palm is good at eliminating benzene, which is used in the manufacturing of plastics.


High-efficiency particulate absorption, or HEPA, filters are well known as effective ways to clear harmful particles out of the air. You can benefit from the power of these fine-mesh filters in several ways. If you have a forced-air furnace system, contact your local HVAC contractor to see about installing a whole-house HEPA system that will help clean the air that comes out of your heating vents. Do likewise for central air conditioning systems. You should also look for a vacuum that has a HEPA filter, because it prevents the dust sucked up by the vacuum from escaping back into the air through the exhaust. Finally, an air filter placed in the rooms you use the most, like the bedroom or living room, can keep the air fresh and allergen-free.


Drapes, carpeting, and excessive pillows and fabrics can all harbor dust mites and other allergy-causing particles, so take a good look around your home and consider a redecorating plan that will eliminate these items. Choose tile or hardwood floors over rugs, blinds over drapes, and consider leather or wood rather than fabric-upholstered furniture. Also consider eliminating nonwashable items like decorative pillows, plush toys, and bedspreads and comforters that can’t be washed. Feather bed pillows are often a source of irritation for those suffering from allergies, so such pillows might have to go as well. The less cluttered and fabric-intensive your home is, the better chance you’ll have at keeping it clean, fresh, and dust-free.


This post has been brought to you by Warmboard. Its facts and opinions are those of

Baseboard Heating 101

Requiring no ductwork, baseboard heating can be an easy-to-install and affordable solution for many homeowners. Is it right for you? Find out more here.

Baseboard Heat - Cover


Baseboard heat can be an effective and affordable solution, either for the whole house or as a supplement in rooms underserved by the main heating system.

Baseboard heat offers several advantages over the average forced-air system. For one thing, baseboards operate almost silently, in contrast to the noisy blowers of forced-air heating. Another advantage of baseboard heat is that it requires no ductwork. That means two things: One, it’s relatively easy to install, particularly in older homes, where adding ducts can be so problematic. Two, whereas forced-air heating ducts should be serviced regularly, there’s little ongoing maintenance to do with baseboard heat. Last but not least is a matter of preference: Many homeowners like how baseboard heat comes out evenly, not in intermittent blasts.

Technically speaking, electricity plays a role in all baseboard heating systems, but there are some that run exclusively on electricity. You can put these in every room of the house if you want, but it’s far more customary for an electric baseboard to provide supplemental heat for individual rooms on an as-needed basis. One common usage is for baseboard heat to run in a bedroom overnight, while the whole-house heating system can be put on a budget-friendly low setting.

Did you ever wonder why baseboard units typically appear beneath windows? In a word, the answer is: science. Baseboard heat works through convection. As cold air falls from the window, it enters the baseboard unit through a vent. Within the baseboard, the air is warmed by a series of metal fins that have been heated through electricity. The warm air then rises from the baseboard, and the pattern repeats itself, creating a circular flow known as a convection current.

Plug-in portable baseboard heaters exist, but the best baseboards are hardwired into the circuity of a home (with 120-volt or 240-volt supplies, either of which calls for the installation services of an electrician). Some electric baseboard heating units feature an integrated thermostat; others are set by an in-wall controller.

Though inexpensive to purchase, electric baseboards are somewhat infamously inefficient, meaning they can be costly to run for any prolonged period of time. It’s for this reason more than any other that homeowners typically choose not to rely on electric baseboard heating units as full-time solutions for the whole house.

Baseboard Heat - Hydronic


In a hydronic baseboard unit, the mechanics are similar but slightly different. Electricity still generates the system’s heat, but it does so indirectly. First, the electrical current warms up an enclosed fluid, either oil or water, and then that fluid radiates heat into the room where the unit has been installed.

Hydronic baseboard heating systems operate more efficiently than do electric units, because once the fluid has been warmed, it takes longer to cool down (the metal fins in an electrical baseboard, by comparison, cool down very quickly). That’s why if you come across a home in which baseboard heat is the one and only system of delivering heat, chances are high that it’s a cheaper-to-run hydronic system.

What are the cons? In a whole-house hydronic system reliant on water circulated from the water heater, the lines can be disturbed by an intrusion of air. Fortunately, there’s an easy fix: bleeding the pipes. Another drawback is that compared with electric baseboards, hydronic units take longer to heat up. For many homeowners, however, the efficiency of hydronic baseboards amply makes up for their slow start.

The bottom line is if you only need to heat your house for a fraction of the calendar year, or if on occasion you want to make one or two rooms more comfortable, electric or hydronic baseboard heat may be the solution you’ve been seeking.

Electricians: 5 Reasons Why Home Depot Deserves Another Look

The Home Depot not only provides homeowners a cheap and efficient way to get the supplies they need, they work with professional contractors as well to help them save money, get the goods they need and save valuable time.

Electrical Supply - The Home Depot

Photo: Shutterstock

Ever since the first two stores opened in Atlanta, Georgia in 1979, The Home Depot has been a storehouse for the supplies do-it-yourselfers need to undertake home improvement projects—from changing a light bulb to constructing an addition.

But The Home Depot has also helped revolutionize the way in which professional contractors—especially electricians—conduct their business. If you’re a licensed electrician who gets supplies from somewhere other than The Home Depot, here are five reasons why you might want to reconsider:


With over 2,200 locations across the United States, chances are good that there’s going to be a Home Depot fairly close to most any job site. This means if you run into a surprise on the job or run out of a supply you thought you had on the truck, help is a short drive away. Another convenient aspect of shopping for electrical supplies at Home Depot is the store’s hours. According to Dan Taylor, a licensed electrician in Asheville, North Carolina: “Home Depot is open at times when the other electrical supply places are closed. They stay open until nine at night, whereas most electrical supply places close at five. They are also open on Saturday and Sunday when other stores are closed.”


According to Taylor, “Large retailers like Home Depot have the ability to buy in bulk. They can purchase wire like Romex by the tractor loads and pass the savings on to the customer.” Not only are Home Depot’s normal prices on electrical supplies typically cheaper than other stores, but they also offer two additional ways to save. Many items in the electrical department have bulk pricing options which are clearly marked on the store shelves and on the company’s website. So for often-used items like junctions boxes and switches, buying in bulk can save significant cash. Also, the company offers electrical contractors special volume pricing on orders exceeding $2500. The savings gleaned from shopping at Home Depot can be passed onto customers to make your business highly competitive, or applied to your own bottom line to boost your profitability.


With the average Home Depot store spreading across 104,000 square feet of space, there’s plenty of room to keep a lot in stock. Electricians can find everything from lighting fixtures and smoke detectors to armored cable, outdoor electrical wire and conduit. And if something’s not in stock, by working with Home Depot’s Pro Desk, electricians can special order anything they need and even have it delivered straight to a job site, saving valuable time.

Pro App

One of the biggest advantages for electrical contractors shopping at Home Depot is their unique Pro App. “With the mobile app on my phone, I can look and see if an electrical item is in stock and where it’s located in the store,” says Taylor. “It also gives me the option to go pick up the item and know that I’m going to get the right part.” In addition to helping streamline the supply process, the Pro App also allows for online receipts, which can be easily forwarded to customers, and it provides easy access to Home Depot’s Pro Desk which specializes in helping contractors run their business in the most efficient way possible.


Commercial Credit

Home Depot offers electrical contractors two handy credit options. The Commercial Credit Account requires payment in full each month, but allows you to issue cards to your employees, track expenditures online and set up PO numbers. The Commercial Revolving Charge Account allows you to carry a balance and make low payments each month (or you can pay in full), plus it provides itemized billing by job name. Both accounts have no annual fee, so they provide extra flexibility in running your business at no extra cost.

For more, check out The Home Depot Pro advantage.

This is a sponsored conversation written by me on behalf of The Home Depot. The opinions and text are all mine.


Bob Vila Radio: Radiant Walls

Many have become familiar with radiant floor heating. Fewer know that radiant walls and ceilings not only exist, but offer many functional and money-saving advantages.

You’re probably familiar with the comfort and effectiveness of radiant flooring, but did you know that radiant heat can also be installed in walls and ceilings?

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Listen to BOB VILA ON RADIANT WALLS or read the text below:

Radiant Walls


Like the floor-based variety, radiant walls and ceilings provide heat through panels behind the drywall or other interior finish material. In walls and ceilings, these panels are usually heated by electricity. The heat emitted by the panels in turn heats the wall and ceiling surfaces, not the surrounding air, resulting in enhanced comfort at lower air temperatures. This allows radiant systems to achieve the same level of comfort at lower thermostat settings. This fact, combined with radiant heating’s quick response time and room-based controls, can translate into cost and energy savings.

Ceiling or wall radiant heating systems can usually be retrofitted with less disruption and at a lower cost than floor systems, which require ripping up and replacing an existing—and possibly expensive—floor. And depending on the panels used, radiant wall heating may need to occupy only the bottom four or so feet of wall, so installation is less intrusive. Whichever radiant route you choose, remember it will be effective only with proper insulation.

Bob Vila Radio is a newly launched daily radio spot carried on more than 75 stations around the country (and growing). You can get your daily dose here, by listening to—or reading—Bob’s 60-second home improvement radio tip of the day.

Planning Guide: Insulation

Although it remains out of sight in our homes, insulation is our greatest ally in the struggle to save energy and keep our spaces toasty warm in the winter and cool in the summer.

How to Install Insulation - Fiberglass Batt


Insulation is the strong, silent type. Although it operates behind the scenes for the most part, it plays a vital role: keeping us comfortable indoors. Unlike fuel or electricity, insulation doesn’t cost anything from month to month, but it works to maintain a warm temperature in winter, a cool temperature in summer.

Despite the big difference insulation can make, many homeowners ignore its advantages. In one study, the Harvard School of Public Health found that 65 percent of homes in the United States contain substandard insulation. If in every one of those instances the insulation were brought up to the standards set by the International Energy Conservation Code, we would save 800 trillion BTUs annually—an amount of energy equal to 75,000 supertankers’ worth of crude oil!

So if you’re building a new home or seeking to improve the energy efficiency of an existing dwelling, don’t be mistaken—at home, what you can’t see can help you.

How to Install Insulation - Types


There are several different types of insulation, each with its own set of attributes and ideal applications. If for any reason a single solution is judged to be unsuitable for your home, then for optimal results it’s not only possible but recommended that you install a combination of insulation types.

Most common of all is blanket-style insulation, made from either fiberglass or rock wool. The material comes in rolls or square batts (with or without a foil or paper backer). For the convenience of contractors and do-it-yourselfers alike, blanket insulation comes presized to fit between most studs, rafters, and joists.

Meanwhile, loose insulation works best in parts of the house where there are irregular surfaces, or where major system components like the furnace are present. This type of insulation consists of either fiberglass or rock wool that blows into place by means of special equipment. Professional installation is advised.

For home exteriors, basements, and crawl spaces, opt for rigid insulation, whether foam- or fiber-based. A relatively new addition to the home-building and remodeling market, rigid insulation has quickly become a favorite, because it packs a lot of insulating power, measured as R-value, into a thin profile.

Closed- or open-cell spray foam insulation is resistant to mold, unlike other insulation types, and closed-cell foam in particular boasts an outstandingly high R-value. In contrast, open-cell foam insulates less well but offers superior breathability. Either type is expensive, in part because foam must be installed by pros.

The higher the R-value of an insulation product, the greater its resistance to heat flow—and the higher its cost. So what R-value does your insulation need to have? That depends on where you live. Energy Star provides an easy-to-read chart that lists the recommended R-value for different parts of the country.

R-values are cumulative, meaning that if you place R14 insulation over an initial layer with an R-value of 30, the insulation ends up being R45. Never compress insulation; doing so dramatically undermines it. Therefore, be wary if installing a denser material—say, rigid foam—over a lighter one, such as a fiberglass batt.

Insulation products are clearly marked. Pay attention to that labeling so that you can be sure to spend no more than is strictly necessary. Hiring a contractor? Ask to see the label on each roll, batt, bag, or panel of insulation going into the job. That way, you can be certain you’re getting the R-value for which you’re paying.

How to Install Insulation - Rafters


Home builders are in the habit of using only a base level of insulation. For that reason, it’s important to discuss your insulation requirements with the person in charge of the project. To avoid unnecessary delays, speak up early in the construction timeline, before the walls and siding have been fastened into place.

Any floor, wall, or ceiling can be insulated, including those in unfinished basements or garages. The catch is that if your basement floods or your garage gets drafty, insulation might be a waste of money. Ideally, you should fix water and air leaks before you proceed to install insulation in a space affected by either issue.

One key advantage in new construction is that builders have the opportunity to counteract a phenomenon known as thermal bridging, in which floor joists become a source of heat loss, causing a drop of up to 50 percent in insulation R-value. For best results, insulation must run above joists, not just between them.

How to Install Insulation - Paneling


Estimates say that only 20 percent of homes predating 1980 are properly insulated, so if you live in an older home, chances are that installing insulation would dramatically lower your heating and cooling bills.

If you’re interested, start with an energy audit (sometimes these are provided free of charge by the local utility company). Among other things, an energy audit reveals which parts of the house are subject to heat loss. Of course, those areas are the prime candidates for additional insulation.

You can assess your insulation needs without consulting an energy auditor. The labor-intensive process involves such things as peeking into the attic and crawl space and, where possible, behind walls or beneath flooring. If you want to know whether there’s insulation on the other side of a wall panel, one trick is to remove the faceplate from an electrical outlet on that wall. You should be able to see in.

How do you determine the R-value of any insulation that you find in your home? If it’s pink, white, or yellow, it’s likely fiberglass, which has an R-value equal to 2.5 times its thickness. If the insulation is gray or off-white, then it’s probably rock wool, in which case the R-value is 2.8 times the thickness. Loose cellulose insulation is typically gray, with an R-value that is 3.7 times its depth.

In an existing home, it’s usually pretty easy to add insulation in areas like the attic, basement, or crawl space. Walls, on the other hand, can be very tricky—or, in other words, expensive. Here, the least invasive, most cost-effective solution is to rely on blown-in or spray insulation.

• To cut blanket-style insulation, place the product over a piece of plywood, paper/foil side down. Lay a two-by-four on top, temporarily compressing the insulation to a manageable thickness. Then run a standard utility knife along the edge of the lumber, through the insulation and down to the plywood.

• Insulation expands once unpackaged, so leave it wrapped until you are ready to use it.

• Many insulation products release hazardous particles. If you choose to install insulation yourself, wear full protective gear and a dust respirator.

• Do not install insulation directly adjacent to any element of the home that gets hot, such as recessed lighting. It’s a fire hazard.

• If you’re insulating your attic, take care not to cover the vents, as they are essential for maintaining adequate airflow in the home.

Increase Your Comfort Level This Winter with a Humidifier

In the winter months, when heating systems are really chugging away, indoor air can become dry and staticky. A whole-house humidifier is a great way to add back a little moisture. Here are the basics.

Whole House Humidifier


Scratchy throats, frequent nosebleeds, dry skin, and static electricity can be common occurrences in winter—particularly when the combination of heated air and tightly insulated houses reduces humidity levels indoors.

GeneralAire Drum Style Humidifier

GeneralAire drum-style humidifier at

“With frigid temperatures gripping most of the country, heating systems on full blast, and houses all buttoned-up against the cold, the air in a home can get pretty dry this time of year,” points out Daniel O’Brian, a technical expert from online retailer The solution to improved health and comfort, however, can be as simple as adding a humidifier.

Although everyone knows the old adage “it’s not the heat, it’s the humidity,” few people understand the relationship between the two. The actual heat a body feels is a combination of both temperature and humidity. The minute you turn on your home heating system in the winter, it begins to remove moisture from the air. Dry air feels cooler than moist air, so in a dry interior, in order to maintain a temperature that seems comfortable, you end up raising the thermostat higher than necessary. By adding humidity back into the mix, you can alleviate the dryness, lower the thermostat, and still feel comfortable—saving money on heating bills in the bargain.

“Not only can low humidity dry out your skin and throat, and generally make you feel uncomfortable,” says O’Brian, “it can contribute to other health issues—from making you more susceptible to colds and flu to aggravating conditions like asthma, allergies, and sinus problems.” Children and pets—especially birds—can be particularly sensitive to dry indoor air.

“Extremely low moisture levels can even be damaging to your home, causing wood floors and fine furniture to warp and crack, interior paint to dry out, chip and flake, and wallpaper edges to shrink and peel,” O’Brian notes. “And, if you think those static shocks are painful to the touch, think of what they are doing to your electronics!”

Honeywell By Pass Whole-House Humidifier

Honeywell bypass humidifier at

The simple answer to alleviating all these problems is to install a humidifier, which can be used to increase the moisture levels in specific rooms or throughout the entire house. Indoor humidity levels of 35 to 50 percent are considered to be the most comfortable, depending on personal preference.

Most people are familiar with single room humidifiers, which use cool mist, warm air, or steam vaporization to increase humidity in a room. There are also a variety of whole-home humidifiers that can be installed directly in line with your heating system to increase humidity levels throughout the entire house.

While there are various types of whole-house humidification systems, nearly all are controlled by a device called a humidistat, which allows you to set the exact level of humidity desired. Depending on the type of system you choose and the size of your home, a whole-house humidifier will use from 1.5 gallons up to 12 gallons of water per day when the furnace is operating.

Drum humidifiers are commonly used with forced-air heating systems. Drum systems feature a sponge attached to a drum that rotates slowly through a water reservoir. Warm air from the furnace passes through the sponge and picks up moisture, then the moist air is distributed throughout the house.

Bypass humidifiers are connected between hot and cold air return ducts. They use the pressure difference between the ducts to force heated air to pass through the humidifier and return to the furnace. Such humidifiers don’t contain a foam drum but rather a series of plastic discs with small grooves on both sides that allow for sufficient evaporative surface area without requiring a great deal of space.

Honeywell Humidifier Digital Control

Honeywell humidifier digital controls at

Whole-house humidifiers are typically controlled by humidistats, devices that sense the moisture in the air and allow you to maintain the desired level of humidity; they come in both manual and digital models. As the humidity level in a space drops, a set of electrical contacts in the humidistat close, turning the unit on. When the humidity level rises, the electrical contacts open, thereby turning the unit off. Some models have a dual function and can be used to control a dehumidifier in the summer months, when excess moisture becomes a problem.

The amount of humidification you need in your home is determined by the total square footage of the house, as well as the home’s construction and insulation. Online retailer offers a handy calculator to help consumers determine the best product to meet their needs. The company offers a large selection of humidifier products and packages from leading manufacturers, and highlights informative articles and instructional videos on its Web site.

For more about humidifiers and heating products, visit


This post has been brought to you by  Its facts and opinions are those of

Quick Tip: Installing Blown-In Cellulose Insulation

Many homeowners choose to contract a professional for this work, but if you want to save money and do it yourself, you ought to have little trouble installing blown-in cellulose insulation.

If you need to insulate your attic, blowing in cellulose insulation is an easy job you can do yourself by renting a blower. To install the insulation, blow the cellulose in up to the level of your floor joists. Cellulose is made from recycled newspapers and is treated with boron, a natural pest repellent and fire retardant. For best results, be sure to distribute the cellulose in an even layer. In an attic with two-by-six joists, you can achieve an insulating factor of R-19.

For more on insulation, consider:

Blown and Sprayed Insulation
Bob Vila Radio: Insulation R-Values
Blowing In Cellulose Insulation (VIDEO)

Electrical Panels 101

Let's take some of the mystery out of those wires and switches that lurk behind the door of your breaker box. Come along and take a peek with us, but don't touch!

Wiring a Breaker Box - Electrical Panel


In your home—in everyone’s homes, in fact—the seat of electrical power takes an unassuming form. Concealed by a nondescript metal door, the breaker box doesn’t look very impressive, but it’s the reason you can turn on the lights, the blender, the air conditioning, and the TV. The breaker box, or service panel, operates as a central relay point: It takes power from the street, then feeds that power to the different electrical outlets and hard-wired appliances throughout your residence.

Most people open the breaker box only when there’s a problem—for example, when a circuit needs to be restored after tripping. And that’s the way it should be. Homeowners are wise to be hands-off with electrical elements, especially those they don’t understand. Make no mistake: The breaker box is dangerous. Hire a licensed electrician if you think the panel needs attention. The goal of this article is merely to explain a bit more about all of those mysterious wires and switches.

Double Pole Service Disconnect
At the top of the breaker box, the switch that’s bigger than the others is commonly referred to as the “main.” (Technically, it’s called the double pole service disconnect.) This is where, after passing through your electricity meter, two hot wires from the utility company hook up to your house. Each wire carries 120 volts. If you were to put this switch into the off position, the electrical current to your house would be broken and your dishwasher would suddenly stop running. Turn the switch back the other way, and your dishwasher—not to mention your refrigerator, home office computer, and bedroom alarm clocks—would come back to life.

Hot Bus Bars
From the main breaker, each one of the two hot lines from the utility company passes into its own bus. To the eye, a bus looks like a regular metal bar. One bus runs vertically along the left side of the panel. The second bus runs vertically along the right side.

Neutral Bus
A third metal bar, the neutral bus, receives the electrical current back again after it has exited the breaker box and flowed throughout your home doing its work.

Wiring a Breaker Box - Diagram


Circuit Breakers
The circuit breakers straddle the hot bus bars, and if there’s an overload—say, from too many appliances running simultaneously—the affected circuit trips and automatically suspends the electrical current. In addition, circuit breakers serve as the origin points for the wiring that runs to different parts of your home. That’s why there are labels (with the names of rooms or major appliances) next to the individual switches. Each circuit has two hot wires feeding into the breaker, as well as a neutral wire that connects to the neutral bus. Together, these three wires exit the breaker box and go on to provide the juice for their designated circuit.

There are two main types of breakers:

• Single Pole: These consist of one switch, handle 120 volts, and can be either 15 or 20 amps.

• Double Pole: Handling 240 volts with amperage ratings from 15 to 70, these look like two switches joined together.

Hardwired lighting, electrical outlets, and baseboard heaters typically require 15- or 20-amp breakers. Water heaters and dryers are best served with 30 amps. Meanwhile, electric ranges take 40- to 50-amp breakers, and such things as the air conditioning system may be served by an even larger breaker or a subpanel.

The wiring into a breaker must correspond to its amperage. Twelve-gauge wire suits 15- to 20-amp breakers; 8-gauge wire goes with 40- or 60-amp two-pole breakers.

In the maze of wires that inhabits your breaker box, there’s one more to be aware of: the grounding wire. Typically a bare copper wire, it connects the neutral bus to a metal water pipe (or to a metal rod buried in the earth). Grounding prevents currents traveling through frayed wires from carrying on to metal surfaces they weren’t intended to reach.