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Caulk Is Cheap

I’ve been carrying a gun around a lot this summer. With the current state of the economy and international relations, I thought it would be particularly prudent. It’s light, with a fat, clumsy trigger, and its action sometimes gets pretty slow. Working around the outside of my house with the gun under my arm gives me a real sense of security in these times. It’s fluorescent orange and uses a variety of cartridges. But instead of blasting holes in things, my gun fills holes. I’m talking, of course, about a caulk gun.

This summer I’ve been working on my house. That translates into scraping, priming, caulking, painting and doing bits of carpentry here and there. My house is about 75 years old and made of wood. It is a two-story, cedar-shingled affair with a high-pitched slate roof and a chimney that runs through the middle of the house. “Working on my house” describes an ongoing process. Summer is prime time to prepare for staying warm and holding down energy costs in the coming cool days of fall and winter. It’s also prime time for painting. Caulking up cracks is an essential part of my painting preparations.

Working on this house for more than 20 years, I have had plenty of time to contemplate the idea of entropy: that systems break down, that energy and matter drift toward some uniform cosmic sameness. While cosmologists and grand theorists debate universal dynamics, I’m a little more grounded in my approach. I’m concerned with keeping my house from falling apart. I am also interested in reducing its metered energy demands. In order to do this, I expend a fair amount of human energy.

The basic problem I face in maintaining my house is that wherever pieces of wood are put together, cracks will result, and those cracks will grow over time. As the wood is exposed to water, air and sunlight, the cracks will become larger. Insects, molds, fungi and a spectrum of microscopic interlopers may also take up residence and contribute to further crack growth. A filling of caulk provides a temporary slowdown to this deterioration by protecting the wood. I caulk around windows, doors, vents, faucets, wires and cables that pass through my home’s walls.

The tiny cracks around windows, doors and other house features can add up to a good-sized hole for cold winter air to pass through. While small cracks may look benign enough, consider this: A one-eighth-inch crack around a couple of doors can lead to air infiltration equivalent to a 12-inch window left open 6 inches. Cracks also function as conduits for the flow of water, which can quickly facilitate wood’s deterioration and cause other problems.

Of course, someday my house won’t be mine, and someday the erosive forces of the environment (or condemnation proceedings) will win out, and convert the house into rubble and eventually dust. I know that regardless of how great a job I do, it will need to be done again, and again, and again into the future. Caulk helps delay this deterioration and settling in of entropy.

The caulk gun is a cheap and useful tool. Its purpose: to “shoot” caulk into cracks. The tip of a caulk tube should be clipped off at a 45-degree angle. I use a 3-inch nail to puncture its inner seal. After sliding the tube into the frame of the gun, I push forward a rod that pushes up against the tube. Teeth on the rod click into the trigger mechanism. Successive trigger pulls push a metal plunger into the tube one tooth at a time, forcing caulk out the clipped tip. I use a 1-inch putty knife and gloved fingers to push the caulk into place and smooth it down.

Despite the durability claims of caulk manufacturers, the length of time a piece of caulk stays in place will be more a function of its exposure to the elements than of claims on its packaging. While caulk may hold together for 25 or 35 years, this doesn’t mean it will stay where you need it for that long. On the side of my house where exposure to direct sunlight and rain is low, I have some caulk that has stayed in place for more than 20 years. On high exposure areas, I may have to replace it every four or five years.

While caulk contains compounds you wouldn’t want to toss into your compost heap, and its plastic tubes may remain in dumps far longer than my house will stand, caulking does increase home energy efficiency. Filling the cracks in our shelters also helps protect the largest asset most of us have. Investing time and money in our homes through activities like plugging cracks with caulk can have dramatic short-term returns in both lower heating costs and higher resale value. I also take a small environmental action when I purchase caulk. I boycott the products of a company that recently spent millions of dollars in a media campaign to keep its PCBs in the Hudson River (its name rhymes with “Don’t buy me”).

With the continuing U.S. addiction to petrochemicals, stuffing up the holes in one’s house can actually have subtle international implications. When you get your next utility bill, check out the small insert that provides you with a breakdown of the fuel sources that generate the energy used in your house. Only a very small percentage of this energy is from renewable resources (unless you’re operating off the grid). By reducing energy use, you may help reduce international strife over oil, cut the release of greenhouse gases and other pollutants, and keep a little more change in your pocket.

The world might just become more peaceful and better off environmentally if more Americans got caulking. The caulk gun is a gun Americans should be actively encouraged to own and operate. It might just be a source of real security.

—Tom Nattell

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