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Does insulating homes make sense as a carbon footprint reduction strategy if no thermostats are installed? In Russia, we generally don't have them. If heat built up thanks to better insulation, people would just open their windows and the excessive heat would just be wasted. We have rundown buildings, but they need to be demolished altogether, not insulated, with people relocated elsewhere. Is insulation a proposal fit only for EU countries and such? If so, they are decently insulated as it is, it appears to me. Why is it promoted so much then?

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    even without a thermostat, one should be able to turn the radiators down, no?
    – njzk2
    Nov 25, 2022 at 22:56
  • @njzk2 it's either on or off Nov 26, 2022 at 9:50

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It's true that if you feed a constant heating power to a building, and insulate it better, it's still constant power so same energy consumption. The insulation in such a case would just increase temperature indoors.

However, I'm 99% sure there are no buildings heated by constant power input, because the weather ourdoors is constantly changing. There has to be some adjustment, either closed loop (thermostats) or open loop (predict the heat power need based on temperature outdoors).

If you have thermostats, it's easy: the insulation is very beneficial. If you don't have thermostats, perhaps you should consider installing them, as I'm sure adding extra insulation will be at least 10x costlier than just installing thermostats.

If the control is open loop, it's still possible to get extra benefit from additional insulation. That open loop control is then just adjusted to deliver a little bit less heat to the buildings at a given temperature.

In a district heating network, a primitive open loop control could be that every building has a certain water flow speed (which can usually be adjusted with some adjustment screw), and the district heating network temperature depends on the predicted average heating need in the area, based on the temperature outdoors. In such a case, the adjustment screw just needs to be turned to result in little bit less water flow to get the energy benefits from better insulation.

So, the answer is: yes, insulation is always a good plan if it can be done cost-effectively.

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  • But unless you insulate every single home, adjusting anything down would make some people freeze, wouldn't it? Nov 26, 2022 at 9:54
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    @SergeyZolotarev No. Usually in district heating water flow can be adjusted per-apartment or at least per-building.
    – juhist
    Nov 26, 2022 at 18:47
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Not all homes, everywhere are insulated. Insulation also is relevant in hot climates to keep homes cool. Installing insulation is usually one of the first steps to reduce energy usage for heating or cooling.

As for Russia, I'm assuming homes are provided heating from a "neighborhood heating center" and that the only control home occupiers have is to either have the heating on or off or to open or close the windows. In such situations the benefit of having all homes insulated is that the "neighborhood heating center" can deliver less heat to the homes. If it currently supplies hot water for radiators at a certain temperature, with all homes well insulated that temperature could be reduced resulting in the heating center using less energy to heat the water.

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Does insulating homes make sense as a carbon footprint reduction strategy if no thermostats are installed?

Insulating homes purely as a strategy for reducing their carbon footprint makes sense only if the occupants need to run heating and or cooling devices. If heating and or cooling are necessary, the simplest, most available 'thermostat' still being used in the majority of the world, I assume, is the human occupant. If we feel too hot they'll open a window, if they feel too cool they might put on more clothes, or invite sun-warmth into the house. And they can turn down or up their own heating and cooling devices if they live in an independent house, or install a thermostat to help with that if they live in a block of flats.

As electronic thermostats can only measure and implement a general temperature, human thermostats will still need to fine tune for their personal comfort.

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  • Insulation is pointless, if you are opening windows to control the temperature. Dec 10, 2022 at 20:33
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    @ctrl-alt-delor Insulation is pointless, if you are opening windows to control the temperature while running the heating. Plenty of us in temperate climates control temperature with the windows in summer, and heat our houses in the winter. Insulation reduces the need for heating and also probably reduces solar gain.
    – Chris H
    Jan 31, 2023 at 15:03
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    @ChrisH Yes. Opening windows, while heating or cooling systems are running. Is the problem. Not the opening of the windows. I often open windows, if this will control the temperature, without resorting to turning on some device to do it. Feb 1, 2023 at 10:12
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If you are venting heat to atmosphere as a temperature control tool, then the first thing to do is fix this problem.

I once lived in a block of flats with community heating, and radiators that were too powerful. My strategy was to cover the radiators with towels. If I was staying longer, and had permission, I would have boxed the radiators in, and used a thermostat controlled flap to let the heat out.

When your heating controls are improved, then think about insulation. Also help everyone else using the community heating system.

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  • You can normally also adjust valves, even if it's just nearly closing an isolating valve mainly meant for maintenance. In one rented house I had to do both - the combination of me feeling the cold less than my housemates and a rather uneven system meant my room was an oven if they were warm enough. After covering the radiator with towels, pushing furniture up against it also helps
    – Chris H
    Jan 31, 2023 at 15:05
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Yes, if you can adjust the temperature of the water heating the building. E.g. with my house’s heating system, I can choose the building’s “type”: well insulated, moderately insulated or poorly insulated. The value I chose affects the temperature of the water sent from the heating unit to the radiators. (Other factors such as outdoor temperature are also involved).

And if the heating source is carbon positive of course :)

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In desert climates, one building technique is to use massive walls, either stone or adobe. The net result is a building that takes days to come to equilibrium with the outside temperature. Over a period of weeks to a month, depending on wall thickness the building will come to an equilibrium of the average temperature +- a few degrees.

In a desert climate with daytime temps of 120 and night time temps of 30, this would give an interior temp that would stay close to 75 degrees.

Windows with shutters can be used to adjust this 10-15 degrees either way.

Large buildings (think big skyscrapers) even in winter have a net cooling problem. When a building is several hundred feet thick, the waste heat from lights, computers, photocopiers etc produce more heat than the building can shed. Outer walls lose heat, but inside rooms generate more than is lost.

The answer is to move air, mix it withs some outside air, and adjust the temperature, and redistribute it. Air to the outer wall rooms has to be warmer to make for all that cold glass.

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Insulation is a passive technology that requires no energy or fuel to run it, and once installed, lasts decades. Thus its more useful and economical to insulate homes, than invest in new heating technology.

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