Energy efficiency basics. Energy-efficient home improvements for an older home

U.S. Department of Energy

Building codes constantly change to mandate energy efficiency. The newer a house is, the more likely it is to be energy efficient. But what are your home improvement options if you live in an older home? 

Upgrading an older home to make it more energy efficient can cost a lot of money. You can get the quickest return on your investment with some strategic planning. Some simple and relatively inexpensive changes can have a significant long-term impact. So start with them first. Energy savings from these changes can offset the cost of whatever big-ticket projects you must do later. 

Easy fixes

programmable thermostat remote. Energy efficient home
Remote control for a programmable thermostat. My photo

Some easy fixes can save a lot of energy and money. For example, perform all routine maintenance on your mechanical systems in a timely manner. 

Have your furnace and air conditioner inspected every year. The inspector can replace parts that are likely to fail before they cause big problems. If you have a forced warm air system, change the filters regularly. If you have a steam or hot water system, identify and fix faulty air vents and have the boiler cleaned regularly.

Keep an eye on your heat pump or air conditioning condenser. It’s an easy and not obvious way to an energy efficient  home: If you have plants encroaching on it, get some clippers and prune them to at least three feet of clearance. 

There are more than a dozen different places in a house where you can check for air leaks yourself. In many cases, some caulk, weatherstripping, or other quick fixes can solve the problem.

Do you still have incandescent light bulbs? They are wasting electricity. Replace them with LED bulbs. LEDs have come way down in price in recent years, and each one will outlast a dozen of the older bulbs, while using much less electricity. 

If your home doesn’t already have a programmable thermostat, get one. It’s a nearly effortless way to control the temperature in your house for maximum energy efficiency. Or if you prefer, get a smart thermostat that’s connected to the Internet. You can control it even if you’re not home.

Have you ever noticed in office buildings that when you go into a room, the lights come on? They turn off automatically, too. You can accomplish the same thing at home with  occupancy sensors (also known as motion detectors). 

Upgrading appliances

If you need or want to replace any appliances, make sure to choose Energy Star-rated products for an energy efficient home. 

Your water heater accounts for almost 20% of your home’s energy usage. When it comes time to replace yours, ask your plumber about tankless water heaters. They may or may not be a good choice in your area. One downside is that they will not provide hot water in event of a power failure. On the other hand, you don’t have to run water waiting for it to heat up.

Alternatively, you can ask about a hot water circulating pump, which also enables hot water to come from the tap instantly. I have another article about water-saving fixtures.

I’m not going to say much here about installing a solar system, but it’s worth mentioning as an energy-efficient home improvement. You’ll need panels, an inverter, and a battery for storage. With a solar system, you’ll still have electricity in the event of a power outage.

On the other hand, if you live in an area that suffers frequent power outages, you can consider a gas standby generator with a transfer switch.

Energy audit

Infrared tomography of heat loss. energy efficient improvements for an older home
Infrared tomography showing heat loss.

If you’re ready to tackle a more extensive project, start with an energy audit. The first step in solving any problem is to define and limit it. For example, where does your older house exchange heat with the outside? Those places make it harder to heat your older home in the winter and cool it in the summer. 

An energy audit identifies them and helps you decide what energy-efficient home improvement project to do first. Your utility company might perform a simple one at no cost. You can get a more in-depth analysis by hiring an energy auditor. 

A blower door test will find air leaks. An infrared tomography test will show areas of heat loss.

Sealing an older house

Homes built before air conditioning became common used such design features as thicker walls, awnings, shutters, and vents to control air flow. Any remodeling project ought to keep these features in mind so that you improve them with newer technology instead of working against them. 

But before air conditioning, having a tightly sealed house was not necessary. Older homes that have not been upgraded tend to be drafty. It may have once been an advantage. Nowadays, taking steps to seal the house are among the best and most cost-effective projects for boosting energy efficiency. 

Let’s consider two important aspects of sealing your house: windows and insulation.

Windows

I hate to recommend any kind of  plastic, but if your older house still has single-pane windows, you can cover them with a plastic film in the winter and shrink it with a hair dryer. Not only will you save on your heating bill, you’ll find it more comfortable to sit next to those windows. 

If you don’t have storm windows, get them. You may still need to use the plastic film, but then again, maybe not.

Fortunately, most heat loss from windows isn’t through the glass. Make sure the sashes and sash locks work as their supposed to. Find any cracks or leaks and caulk them. And/or add weatherstripping. And while you’re weatherstripping windows, don’t forget the exterior doors. 

Buying new windows is very expensive, but eventually they will pay for themselves in lower heating bills and increase resale value of your older home. It will not happen quickly, however. Replacing windows is a better investment if you plan to keep the house for a long time. 

Insulation

spraying attic insulation. energy efficient home improvements for older house
Spraying insulation in an attic.
Housing Innovation Alliance via Flickr

About insulation, let’s leave aside the expensive project of adding it to your walls. Your energy audit will let you know if it’s necessary.

Consider your attic and basement/crawl space. These are the most accessible areas in your home and the easiest to insulate if necessary. 

The roof is a major culprit in heat loss. If you have a “cold attic,” that is, an unfinished one not used for living space, it probably has batting or loose fill between the joists. If you’re losing heat through your roof, adding to the insulation you already have can make your older house more energy efficient. You can also make sure to insulate the underside of the roof. 

A properly insulated roof not only protects the living space below. It also protects ductwork and whatever other mechanical systems you have in the attic. 

An unfinished basement—without any equipment or ceiling tiles––or a crawl space ought to have insulation between the floor joists. If the crawl space has a dirt floor, it also needs a moisture barrier. Pouring a concrete floor is effective but expensive. Heavy plastic sheets provide moisture protection for less money. 

Financing energy-efficient home improvements

Check to see what financing assistance is available for an energy efficient older home. The federal government subsidizes energy-efficient home improvements, and so do some states, cities, or counties. These subsidies often come in the form of tax rebates. 

Recently, some states have offered Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) financing. It provides property owners with money to make improvements. The owners pay it off little by little over time as part of their property taxes. 

Some of the companies that do the work for you may provide financial incentives. For example, a solar energy company may install solar panels on your roof for little or no upfront costs. Instead, you will pay it for the electricity you use for a certain length of time. And that cost may be less than what you pay the utility. 

Home improvement projects can be very expensive, so as part of your planning, make sure to explore all the financial incentives available to you. 

Sources:
Best energy efficient upgrades for an older home / Bill Gassett, Maximum Exposure Real Estate. August 8, 2016
Green home improvements and PACE financing / Anita Clark, Anita’s Corner.
How to make an old house energy efficient / Gordon Bock, Old House Online. October 26, 2018

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