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.