Seal of approval

A window into how to keep out winter's chill with caulk

November 10, 2007|By ROB KASPER

This week's cold snap reminded me that it is time to try to make the house into an insulated bunker, sealing leaks, stopping drafts.

There seem to be about 1,000 fronts on this battle. Tactics range from putting another layer of insulation in the attic, to inserting foam-insulating plates on the electrical outlets of outside walls, to putting sweeps on the bottoms of outside doors. They are all pretty boring. The only weatherization procedure that sounds like fun to me is detecting drafts by carrying a lighted incense stick around the house, watching to see where the smoke disappears. To do this right, you have to turn off all the fans and furnace blowers in your house. And you've got to like the smell of incense, which I don't.

So the task I ended up focusing on recently was caulking around the exterior edges of windows. I picked this weatherization chore for a couple of reasons. Plugging up leaky windows could, according to some estimates, lower heating bills by as much as 10 percent.

Caulking materials do not cost much, easily less than $25, and the task could be accomplished in an afternoon. And, as a bonus, you get to shoot a caulk gun. This gun is not a firearm, but it does have a trigger and bestows a certain sense of empowerment. I find it hard not to swagger when toting a caulk gun.

Allegra Bennett, who is something akin to a caulking coach, offered encouraging words. She is known as the Renovating Woman. She wrote a book in 1997 with this title and publishes a magazine with the same name. Many people in the Baltimore area probably know her from the series of television spots "Simply Saving Energy with Allegra" that she appeared in last year for Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. I know her from her years at The Sun where she worked as a reporter.

"Caulking your windows is a first line of defense against heat loss," she told me. "It is not hard. It is not one of those things you have to hire a contractor to do."

Beginners, she said, "sometimes worry ... that they can't do it. But I tell them, don't let the caulk pool [build up in one spot], and don't panic. After you do one window, you get much better on the second one."

For a lesson on the correct way to caulk windows, I went to Phillip Gerald, a maintenance technician with the St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center. The nonprofit group renovates vacant houses in Baltimore and rents them to low-income families. Gerald, who was in the construction business before working for St. Ambrose, estimated that during the past 20 years, he has caulked hundreds of windows.

He led me to a rowhouse on Ilchester Street in East Baltimore's Barclay neighborhood that was being renovated.

The first step, removing the old caulk from the gap between the brick front of the house and edge of the window, was the nastiest. When caulk gets old, it shrinks and cracks and lets in cold air. Gerald used a utility knife to cut the surface of the old caulk, a heat gun to loosen it and the tip of a glazing knife to pry out the old caulk.

A homeowner could substitute a hair dryer for the heat gun, Gerald said. But he cautioned that you don't want to apply too much heat. Overheating could cause vinyl windows to buckle or could peel the paint on wood windows, he said.

Next, he cut the tip off the tube of caulk at a 45-degree angle. Rookie caulkers would use a utility knife to do this task, and Gerald indulged me by opening one tube with a knife. But Gerald is a professional caulker and opens caulk tubes with style. His gun featured a device that snipped the tips of caulking tubes. The gun also sported a swiveling metal probe that pierced the seal at the base of the tube's tip to release the caulk. Those of us toting lesser guns have to use a nail to pierce this seal.

The U.S. Department of Energy has published a comprehensive guide to common caulking compounds (search online for EERE Consumer's Guide to Caulking), detailing what they do, how much they cost and how you clean up after them. Instead of memorizing this chart, I simply asked Mickey Fried, one of the home-repair gurus at my neighborhood hardware store, for a brief overview of caulk. Crucial factors in picking a caulk, he said, are how easy it is to apply, whether it can be painted and what materials are being plugged up. He also said that while General Electric and DAP are two common brands, recently ferocious animals, such as King Kaulk and T-Rex, have entered the caulking scene. Caulking exterior windows, he said, usually calls for a mild-mannered type of caulk, a blend of latex and silicone.

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