This Old House Needs An Affordable Update: Here’s How
“One-third of the energy you pay for probably leaks through holes in your house. Air leaks can also cause moisture and indoor air quality problems,” writes Daniel Morrison for the Green Building Advisor. Hence the need for buildings with beautiful bones to get an update, from improving insulation to upgrading HVAC, if you want to save hard-earned money.
Last week’s column noted that the average age of a MoCo home is 54 years old. The grand old Victorians and cottages along Main Street and on the block where this writer lives can be two to three times older. Behind the interior plaster walls, strips of wood called lath are nailed to joists and behind that lath, any insulation that exists has fallen, like knickers where the elastic is shot, to the ankles of the joists. The large front windows of many a Victorian may still frame the fragile glass in rotting wood sealed more by layers of paint than anything else. One of our front windows had a BB hole in it. Fortunately, an owner ages ago installed “storm windows” that are now sealed in place by paint. The remaining few original windows do not allow residents to open them on a mild spring or autumn day. In winter, they are filmed with lovely ice crystals, in summer heat radiates from them.
Bathrooms and kitchens in many old homes lack ventilation, allowing mold to build on walls. In kitchens using gas appliances, the slow leak of gases contaminates breathing air.
With all of the Inflation Reduction Act incentives, now is the time for budget-conscious locals to plan their updates.
Climate team member John Smillie handled insulation work himself – caulking windows, adding rim joists and installing foam board in the attic – then hired KRM Insulation for blowing cellulose in his attic and sealing the ducts in his house. He hired Cook Home Services to add crawlspace foam and attic radiant barrier. Thanks to Google, anyone can search for insulation contractors in your locale or seek recommendations from your HVAC company.
Knowing your insulation needs necessitates two common tests: a thermographic scan and, more commonly, a blower door test, which uses fans to check the pressure of air in the house, allowing an expert to locate areas with the most leakage in your home. In some areas, utility providers either conduct or recommend contractors to provide this service. CEL&P does not offer this, but KRM Insulation helped Smillie with his test. Cook walked through with him and helped him recognize weak points he could seal himself. More information about both the blower door test and energy audit can be explored at energy.gov’s page for professional home energy assessments.
In tandem with sealing up your home, you can take advantage of rebates and incentives to replace your water heater with a heat pump version, your primary HVAC system with a heat pump, your gas cooktop with an induction cooktop and old windows with better-insulated replacements. All of these could save thousands of dollars beyond the upfront (and now mitigated) costs of the updated materials.
For heat pumps, Smillie recommends talking to an HVAC contractor and reading guidelines such as NYT’s Wire Cutter’s “Heat Pump Buying Guide.” Ideally, new construction would include a ground source heat pump, commonly referred to as a geothermal system, because it can save absurd percentages in heating and cooling, but the investment (and yard space) require a steep investment for existing properties. The 30 percent tax credit attached to it tends to sparkle.
In place of geothermal, most people opt for a central ducted heat pump. While your HVAC is young, you may plan ahead, but if your AC unit is on the far side of mature – ours is! – then the heat pump incentives shine a bit brighter right now. A heat pump works by either pumping the heat out of a house in summer or pumping it in during winter, with far less energy and dollars than the old technology. Whisperings that heat pumps may face a challenge in northern climes have been disproven, as Smillie noted. “Yes, heat pumps do work in cold climates! The Scandinavian countries are some of the biggest adopters, and they’ve had big success in Maine,” he said.
Smillie learned that you must “make sure your electrical panel has enough space to accommodate your needs. Check to make sure a heat pump coil will fit with your existing system. They had to replace my old A/C coil with a bigger coil that sits on top of the furnace / air handler. It still fit.”
He found that you’ll need to decide what you want to do for backup heat. “I kept my gas furnace because it was new and highly efficient. It takes over below 20F. If you get a highly rated cold climate heat pump, you might decide to ditch the gas / propane backup and just have an electrical resistance backup. If you are going that way, again, make sure your electrical panel has space to accommodate.”
You may also consider a heat pump water heater because the savings of up to 70 percent, coupled with rebates and tax credits lead to an immediate payoff. Smillie notes that these are noisier than conventional water heaters, so if yours is in a closet on the main floor, you may want to assess for sound impact.
Finally, if your house lacks ducted air conditioning, or adequate ducting (as does this writer’s old house!) then mini-splits are a remarkably efficient solution.
In short, carpe diem. Seize the opportunity with the Inflation Reduction Act in order to make your home more affordable to heat and cool and up its resale value.
-The League of Women Voters is a nonpartisan, multi-issue political organization which encourages informed and active participation in government. For information about the League, visit the website www.lwvmontcoin.org; or, visit the League of Women Voters of Montgomery County, Indiana Facebook page.