This Old House: Efficiency meets antiquity

Most of us live in a house that is less than ideal in terms of energy use.  In my family’s case, this fact was obvious to us the moment we moved in.  Our house is 103 years old, and when we bought it in 2002 it was about as inefficient as any house could be.  There was no insulation; the floor joists of the attic were open to the air, so cold air blew over the second floor all winter; and there were wide cracks in the foundation that let in a constant supply of winter air into the basement (where the heating ducts are).  Old empty heating ducts in the wall meant that cold, moldy air from the basement would get syphoned up as the air above heated and rose.  And there was an extra 1950’s refrigerator guzzling electricity in the kitchen.

Where to start?  We unplugged the extra fridge right away, and as soon as it got cold we called Oberlin’s local utility, OMLPS, for a free heat loss inspection.  The OMLPS technicians broke the news that outside air was leaking in from every direction.  Before Christmas, we had an insulation company blow cellulose into the walls, and we threw up some fiberglass batting in the attic.  We pulled out the caulk gun and bought cans of spray foam insulation, and starting plugging up cracks.  It was a start.

But what we really needed was a plan to make a continuous insulated envelope all the way around our house.  We learned (unfortunately, well after we’d crawled around in the attic for hours pushing fiberglass between the joists) that our attic insulation wasn’t doing much good because there were so many air leaks – most heat is lost through air movement, so plugging cracks can be more important than insulating.  We had also failed to stop the air from running between the floor joists; so even though the attic was insulated, there was still cold air running between it and the second floor.

We pulled out the fiberglass (ugh!), and hired a company to spray expanding foam insulation in the attic and between those floor joists.  They also sprayed it in the ceiling of the basement.  The foam expands to fill every crack, so all those air leaks were taken care of.  Plus the insulation value of the foam is equal to that of fiberglass, so one product took care of two problems at once.

And suddenly the house was warm!  The basement was much warmer, as was the floor just above it.  And the difference in the attic was incredible.  We also found that allergy symptoms decreased, since we no longer had moldy air from the basement circulating through the house.

Since then we have added a tankless water heater and insulated our hot water pipes.  We switched to a geothermal heating system when our furnace died, and our bills are even lower.  We’re still plugging cracks in the foundation with cans of spray foam.  But we’ve got most of them by now.

We are still working on our house, and there are still some challenges.  There is nothing but siding between the outside world and the beautiful pocket door in the front hall.  When the contractors tried to insulate that strip of wall, we got a lot of cellulose in the front hall!  So our thermal envelope has a big crack it, and it will require taking the siding off to fix it.  We also have yet to get around to sealing and insulating our heating ducts, despite my good intentions.

Retrofitting old houses can be challenging, but the increase in comfort, savings, and sustainability are huge.  Luckily, you don’t have learn things the hard way like we did.  This summer, POWER is offering free home energy assessments, as well as personalized help with finding contractors and taking advantage of all the great programs in the area.  POWER’s Program Director Pat Knight is happy to sign you up for an assessment (440 789 4531).

What have you done to your old house?  Post your comments below to share your lessons learned.

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Cindy Frantz is the Co-Chair of the Energy Planning Committee of the Oberlin Project. She is the Chair of the Board of Directors of Providing Oberlin With Efficiency Responsibly (POWER) and Associate Professor of Psychology at Oberlin College.

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Deborah Evans May 30, 2012

I can so identify with your story. I once had a 133 yo home. It was so much fun doing what I wanted that it seemed most others weren't interested in doing. I loved it. I'd like to keep in touch and be updated on all of yours progresses. Maybe join at some point or something.

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Guest March 15, 2017

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Cindy Frantz
Cindy Frantz is the Co-Chair of the Energy Planning Committee of the Oberlin Pro
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