Al Heavens is a Haddonfield, N.J.- based, nationally syndicated, home-improvement writer and author whose newspaper columns, magazine articles and books have been the first word on remodeling for 50 million readers for more than three decades. He is the author of What No One Ever Tells You About Renovating Your Home and Remodeling On The Money: Fifteen Innovative Projects Designed to Add Value to Your Home, and was “The Gadgeteer” on Discovery Channel’s Home Matters program.
I lived in a house built in 1906. It has a “closed” heating system, which used water heated by a 1906 coal-fired boiler converted to No. 2 fuel oil in the late 1940s. Simply put, the heated water traveled to radiators in every room of the house through cast-iron pipes and then returned to the boiler to be reheated.
The 13 winters I lived in that house were uncomfortable, even though the heating system worked perfectly. The house had been built, and the furnace converted when coal and oil were cheap. There had been no need nor financial incentive for energy-efficiency when my house was built, so the walls were cold and the windows rattled even in a slight breeze.
In 1973, there was a sixth-month embargo on oil sales to the United States by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. Rising prices and shortages of heating oil led to an effort to make homes use energy more efficiently and reduce utility costs.
Homebuilders responded at first by over-insulating, which resulted in poor indoor air quality and mold issues. The first led to increases in respiratory problems and allergies. Mold has, in the years since, become one of the biggest sources of litigation and liability in real estate.
Thanks to 50 years of research and experience, however, we’ve gotten better at making our houses more energy efficient. Although the initial costs can be higher than those associated with traditional building practices, the payback, in both comfort and lower energy bills over time, is usually worth it.
I assume that you are planning to use your remodeling project to make your house as energy efficient as you can. There are plenty of books on the subject, so I’ll spend my time with you focusing on some highlights.
“I have always believed in a whole-house approach to energy efficiency. What I mean is that you cannot make piecemeal changes and expect to increase your comfort level and reduce energy costs.“
Remember the windows in my 1906 house that rattled in light breezes? I could have replaced all 31 of them with any of the high-efficiency windows I wrote about, but without insulating and air-sealing the adjacent walls, comfort levels would still have been low.
My advice is that, before you get started, and to take my whole-house approach, you might want to pay for an energy audit. This is a room-by-room analysis, including a blower-door test and a thermographic scan, to determine where there is air intrusion through cracks and openings, as well as incorrect insulation installation or a need for more.
Let’s talk about insulation and air sealing. Any discussion of insulation requires an explanation of R-value, so here goes: Insulation material has pockets of trapped air that prevent heat from penetrating it. R-value measures how well the material resists that heat transfer. The higher the R-value, the better the resistance.
Air sealing is as important as insulating, if not more, according to my expert sources. In older houses, there are gaps where joists meet the foundation of the house, for example. Those gaps allow the flow of outside air into interior spaces, so sealants such as spray foam are used to close those gaps before insulating.
Many builders and contractors use polyurethane spray-foam insulation to seal those gaps because it nor only seals and insulates, but also acts as a barrier to moisture intrusion. Although you can buy spray foam in cans for small air-sealing jobs, major applications should be left to the professionals.
Fiberglass and mineral wool insulation are do-it-yourselfer-friendly, if you wear protective gear, including gloves, glasses, and a respirator mask.
Cellulose insulation, made of 100 percent ground-up paper, and treated with boric acid to reduce the possibility of fire, is another choice. Its use is also best left to professionals who know how to control its application.
Once you have those exterior walls air-sealed and insulated, you can start looking into other ways to save energy.
I’ve already mentioned windows. My test of efficiency involves standing in front of the three kitchen windows that overlook the back garden during a windstorm. If the trees are bending in 40-mile-an-hour gusts and I can neither hear nor feel the breeze, I don’t need replacements.
You can make older windows more efficient. When I’ve written about replacing windows in older houses with new, I have received invitations to old-house workshops by people hoping to change my mind.
I can see the point. I reworked about 20 of the 31 windows in my 1906 house and did make them operate better. That included sealing and insulating the window weight pockets, re-glazing and adding storm windows. They were better, but not as efficient as the newer ones.
Much of the heat is lost in the space around the windows. Cold air can find its way through the gap where the bottom edge of a windowsill meets the wall, and air sealing and insulating can address this.
When shopping for new windows as well as doors, check the R-value and U-value. As with insulation, the R-value measure a material’s resistance to heat transfer. The higher the R-value, the better the insulating properties of the glazing.
U-value measures overall energy efficiency, indicating the rate at which heat flows through the entire window or door, frame and all. The lower the U-value, the more energy-efficient the window and door.
Double-pane windows with low-emissivity (transparent coatings that reflect heat) can reduce heating bills by 34 percent in colder climates. Windows also should have solar control coatings to block solar gain in the summer to lower cooling costs but let in visible light.
Because high-efficiency windows are made of a variety of materials, aesthetics can be an important part of your purchase decision. One reason why old-house advocates don’t like new windows is because they believe they cannot get ones made of wood or won’t fit into original openings. That is not true. There are a lot of high-performance windows on the market that meet their needs.
It is true that window openings in older houses can be odd-sized because we had no universal construction standards before World War II. A contractor who is quick on his feet can solve the problem easily.
There are so many parts to energy efficiency that I can only skim the surface, so let’s look at a few more ways to find your way to a comfortable house with lower energy costs.
For example, if you are remodeling or adding a bathroom, consider flow restrictors on faucets and water-saving showerheads. Low-flow toilets, originally poorly designed and requiring more than one flush, and dual-flush toilets should replace the ones that use three to seven gallons to do the same job.
There are high-efficiency water heaters, furnaces and refrigerators, dishwashers and washing machines. The list is endless.
I don’t miss that 1906 house and its ancient boiler. The energy-efficient house in which I’ve lived for the last 18 years is comfortable year-round. When I do wear a sweater, it has more to do with the fact that people in their 70s need some sort of insulation to hold in body heat. I’ll only start worrying when I need one in the middle of a heatwave.
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