Category Archives: PORTAL

A heat pump, for what it’s worth


By CCHRC Staff

The “Ask a Builder” series is dedicated to answering some of the many questions Fairbanks residents have about building, energy, and the many other parts of home life.

Q: What is a heat pump and can it work in Fairbanks?

A heat pump is a mechanical system that uses a series of liquidfilled pipes or tubes run underground to heat (or cool) a building. The liquid captures the ground heat and uses it to heat your home. You might think our Fairbanks ground would be too cold to support such a system, but even at lower temperatures a heat pump can still function appropriately. In Alaska, this tubing has antifreeze added.

In Fairbanks, these tubes need to be buried below the frostline (about 10 to 12 feet down) where the temperatures are fairly stable across the seasons. Heat pumps use more electricity than the typical house, but the increased costs are offset by the savings in fuel. There is some concern that, depending on your site, the heat pump will take enough heat from the ground to cause freezing, however more research needs to be done on this question. Locally, we’ll probably see more of these systems being installed in the next few years, but for now, it is an emerging technology for our area.

Q: My boiler needs to be cleaned. Is that something I can do myself, or should I call a professional?

You can do it yourself but it is a messy and sometimes difficult job. Older boilers may require removing side shields, top pieces, gaskets or other parts that can be damaged and cause leakage.

Most newer boilers have hinges and open from the front, making them much easier to clean. These boilers make it simple to get a brush onto the heat exchange surfaces and leave few places to gather soot. In the long run, it is probably best to have a professional do the cleaning.

Q: If I want to build a higher tech home and add some solar panels or wind power, how does orientation play into that?

Fairbanks is a tough place for wind power because it is generally a calm region of the state. The orientation of your home will not be a hindrance to adding any type of wind system as long as you have the wind resource. High areas in the hills around Fairbanks have the best potential for this kind of renewable energy system. Fairbanks is certainly a good place for solar much of the year. Solar systems should be oriented to the south in order to catch as much light as possible.

If you are building a new home, orienting it as much as possible toward the south will be advantageous for any kind of solar energy collection, whether passive or panels.

If you want to add solar panels on to your house, place them on your roof or outside walls at the height they will collect the most light.

Before making any decisions it is best to contact a solar installation company that can do an assessment of your property. These companies can do an analysis that will tell you where panels will receive the most sun exposure year round.

Alaska HomeWise articles promote home awareness for the Cold Climate Housing Research Center (CCHRC). If you have a question, e-mail us at You can also call the CCHRC at (907) 457-3454.

Get the most out of that energy-sucking kitchen device: Your refrigerator


By CCHRC Staff

The “Ask a Builder” series is dedicated to answering some of the many questions Fairbanks residents have about building, energy and the many other parts of home life.

Q: Refrigerators are expensive to operate. How can I make sure mine is using less energy?

In terms of energy efficiency, refrigerators are often ignored but use a large percentage of a home electricity budget. And typically, a new refrigerator with automatic defrost and a topmounted freezer uses about half the energy of a 1990 version.

So use that as a benchmark. If your refrigerator is old and needs repairs or is close to the end of its expected life (which could be around 15 years), then it makes good sense to replace it.

In terms of maintenance, check door seals. Sometimes the seals get brittle or lose their compressive memory which can cause small gaps. As a rule of thumb, you do not want to be able to take a piece of paper and slide that between the seal and the refrigerator case. Another method is to close a flashlight inside the fridge. If you turn off the lights in the room and can still see light coming out of the fridge, then it’s probably time to replace the seals.

Also, the refrigerator compartment should be between 36F and 38F and the freezer should be between 0F and 5F. You can’t always trust the dial in the fridge to do that, so if you really want to be sure, put a thermometer in there and use the fridge dial setting as a point of reference to make sure the temperature is correct. Another important thing to look at is cleaning the condenser coils once a year. Those coils are at the back or bottom fridge. When coated with dust they make the fridge work harder and thus use more energy.

The location of your fridge is key. If the refrigerator is in the sun, next to the stove, or any other warm space, it will use more energy trying to stay cold.

A fridge in a cool space will help save energy.

When you’re preparing food to go into the fridge, let it cool down fully before storing away.

Remember, a refrigerator is a temperature-regulating appliance. Hot food will raise the temperature inside the compartment and the fridge will have to work harder to bring that temperature down to the proper level.

If you are looking into buying a new fridge, top and bottom units tend to be more efficient than side-by-side units. However, the bottom line when buying a fridge or any appliance is to look at the yellow Energy Star tag.

Energy Star information will tell you kilowatt hours per year for your model, which you can compare with other models.

Q: Why is it so important to seal around fixtures like vents, can lights and such?

If these areas are in an exterior wall and not properly sealed, air and moisture will easily move through these areas. You don’t want to be losing heat, or pushing moisture into walls or the roof. Moisture getting into a roof can cause rot, mold, ice jams and a variety of other problems.

Typically on new construction these areas are sealed. Even more convenient: many new building materials have gaskets that seal to the vapor barrier. However, older homes have electrical boxes, recess lighting, exhaust fans and other components that often were not sealed when installed. Air can easily pass into the attic space through these gaps. To seal, use spray foam or caulk which should seal these areas well.

Alaska HomeWise articles promote home awareness for the Cold Climate Housing Research Center (CCHRC). If you have a question, e-mail us at can also call the CCHRC at (907) 457-3454.

When is it time to replace your boiler?


By CCHRC Staff

The “Ask a Builder” series is dedicated to answering some of the many questions Fairbanks residents have about building, energy and the many other parts of home life.

Q: Oftentimes, if you get an energy rating done, replacing the boiler is the top recommendation. Is it worth the money and effort?

Boilers need to be examined on a case-by-case basis, so before you do anything, speak with a heating professional.

Often, there are little things you can do to a boiler that will make them more efficient. A lot of these little fixes depend on where your boiler exhausts, if you can add an outdoor reset, how much baseboard you have and if it’s time to have your system tuned. Sometimes small changes or additions in controls can help increase the efficiency of the boiler, and sometimes it just needs to be replaced with new technology.

However, fixing your old boiler won’t help if you are trying to gain points on your energy rating. Consult your energy rating paperwork to determine if the payback from replacing your boiler is worth the effort.

Q: Since we are in an Arctic climate, are there any challenges to having a wind system way up here?

There are not a lot of problems with most homesized wind turbines and their materials caused by the cold, dry Interior climate. That being said, wetter parts of Alaska have problems with ice collecting on towers and blades. When that happens, it throws the blades out of balance.

One way to gauge the effectiveness of a wind system is to check where it is made or where this type of system is installed. If a system is successfully installed in the cold regions of Canada, it’s probably OK for Alaska. Some systems are designed for areas that do not have cold temperatures, and they may not supply the right parts or materials, such as cold-weather grease, to function well in our climate.

Q: Most double- and triple-pane windows have gas between the panes. If a pane breaks, the gas will leak out. Is this any type of hazard?

Today, most window gases are Krypton or Argon. These gases are inert, so they pose no threat to human health. Still, multiple- paned windows are more energy efficient with the gas inside. As gas leaks out, air will leak in along with a little moisture. The moisture will cause frost or fog inside your window.

On that note, a window pane doesn’t have to be broken to let the gas escape. If the seal around the edge of the window fails, the gas can leak out. You can tell when a seal is broken because condensation will build up inside the window between the panes even if no glass is broken. Again, any frost or foggy windows are a sign that you could have a broken seal. Seals break down over time due to age, building settling, hot or cold exposure and a variety of other factors. Fortunately, windows can be refilled with gas and resealed by a professional.

Alaska HomeWise articles promote home awareness for the Cold Climate Housing Research Center. If you have a question, e-mail us at or call 457-3454.

Alaska weatherization, rebate programs stimulate economy

From the Alaska Journal of Commerce, Monday, November 16, 2009:

A statewide weatherization program with the potential of reducing energy costs in thousands of Alaskan residences will improve some 1,740 homes in 2009 alone, and Alaska Housing Finance Corp. expects to more than quadruple that number by 2011. The goal is to weatherize 4,000 homes in 2010 and 7,500 homes in 2011, said Bryan Butcher, public affairs director for the state agency, whose mission is to provide Alaskans with quality affordable housing.

“We can show there are average savings of 25 percent on energy right now, and we are hoping it goes up,” Butcher said.

Click here to read the full story.

Homebuilding workshop Oct. 24 in Fairbanks

Cooperative Extension Service housing and energy specialist Rich Seifert  will teach his Cold Climate Homebuilding Techniques workshop Saturday, Oct. 24th in Schaible Auditorium on the UAF campus. The free workshop will run from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. and includes a manual and a CD.

The workshop will focus on insulating homes and will cover options for retrofit, ventilation, indoor air quality and permafrost and foundations. It is also designed to help homeowners who plan to participate in the state’s home energy rebate program.

Call 907-474-7201 or 907-474-6366 to register.

CONTACT: Cooperative Extension energy and housing specialist Rich Seifert at 907-474-7201. Debbie Carter, CES public information officer, at 907-474-5406 or

Good Communication Key to a Successful Weatherization Rebate

BY Adam Wasch, Energy Outreach Consultant for CCHRC and UAF CES
Energy Focus: Fairbanks Daily News-Miner February 12th, 2009, Section A3

Meeting a contractor for the first time can be more nerve racking than going on a blind date. What habits does he or she have? Will you agree on the work that needs to be done? And, most importantly, will they take into account your needs? Plus, with so many Alaskans weatherizing their homes and lining up home improvement projects for the spring, will you even get a second date? Continue reading

Home Improvement Options in Fairbanks

BY Susan Keltner, Portal On Retrofits Training And Loans
Energy Focus: Fairbanks Daily News-Miner December 18th, 2008, Section A3

Have you decided on a New Year’s resolution yet? Here’s an idea: resolve to make your home more energy efficient in 2009. It’ll save you money, make your home more comfortable and more valuable. Afraid you’ll lose motivation by the time spring rolls around? Not a problem. Now is actually a great time to start planning improvements. Continue reading

Wealth of Federal, State Energy Incentives Available to Homeowners

BY Adam Wasch, Energy Outreach Consultant at CCHRC
Energy Focus: Fairbanks Daily News-Miner November 20th, 2008, Section A3

Did you spend your $1,200 state energy assistance check on gas and groceries? Don’t despair! There is still money available to help make your home more energy efficient or take the leap to solar energy. And, from a tax perspective, you’re actually better off waiting until 2009 to make certain energy-related improvements. Continue reading

PORTAL Keeps the Energy Doors Open

Energy Focus: Fairbanks Daily News-Miner October 16th, 2008, Section A3

Last week in this column we discussed the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation (AHFC) Energy Rebate program, created late last spring to help homeowners make their homes more energy efficient.

This week, we’ll discuss how to make the right decisions about your home, what resources are available to help you arrange for and understand your energy ratings, and how to undertake energy efficiency changes. Continue reading