Saving Energy: How to Teach an Old House New Tricks Saving Energy: How to Teach an Old House New Tricks
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Saving Energy: How to Teach an Old House New Tricks

by Ben Jervey, Keith Scharwath

January 24, 2011

Last year, I bought a house in a bucolic village in the foothills of Vermont’s Green Mountains. It’s an old, drafty, Civil War–era, balloon-framed gem with a stone foundation. It shudders when the wind blows, groans when the heat cranks on, cries from the skylights as the roof defrosts, and coats anything left in the basement for more than 20 minutes in mold. It’s a living creature, and I love it. But after filling the boiler tank with 500 gallons of Johnson Energy’s finest diesel blend—or, rather, after receiving the bill from Johnson Energy and picking my jaw up from off the floor—I started searching for information about a home-energy audit. 

Making that first call is the hardest part. It’s easy to convince yourself that the whole process is going to wind up costing too much or that you might not even own the house for long enough
to justify any improvements or that it’s going to take up a ton of your precious time. But, really, the audit itself is simple, quick, and cheap (even incredibly cheap in many states where the incentives are surprisingly, well, incentivizing—mine cost $250 on paper but ended up being totally free).  And if you’re the type of person who wants to better understand your home—and who wouldn’t want to know everything about the biggest purchase they’ve likely ever made?—a home-energy audit is invaluable. 

I scheduled an appointment with Bill Morrissey, who runs Weatherization Works, a local contracting firm that I found through the “Home Performance with Energy Star” part of the Energy Star website. Morrissey came and blew through my house. Literally—the blower door test caused the curtains to flap. Over the next couple of hours, he was telling stories and peeling back layers of history all the way back to when the stone foundation was laid in 1865. 

A week later, Morrissey sent along his report, which formalized and quantified everything he had told me in person. My house leaks. A lot. Mostly from the basement—the top of the foundation wall—and through some easily patched “penetrations” in the roof. Collectively the leaks are the energy equivalent of keeping the front door open constantly. 

If you’re the type of person who wants to better understand your home—and who wouldn’t want to know everything about the biggest purchase they’ve likely ever made?—a home-energy audit is invaluable.

Morrissey didn’t recommend that I replace all my windows and—even though my furnace is firing carbon-spewing diesel (expensive carbon-spewing diesel)—he didn’t urge me to immediately install a new $6,000 boiler (though those would both help). Instead, he urged me to consider blowing in some insulation on the top foot or so of the old and leaky stone foundation wall), an action for which I’d get some great incentives from the state government’s efficiency programs. He suggested sealing some plumbing and electrical cuts in the house’s shell and the bulkhead door too, but the basement insulation was the low-hanging fruit. 

Acting on these relatively cheap and simple measures would immediately cut my heating demands by 45 percent, which translates to about $730 a year. With incentives, the payback time will be under three years. Add to that my electric savings of about 190 kilowatt-hours a year and cutting my carbon emissions by 6,200 pounds annually. Now my conscience can rest as easy as my wallet.

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Saving Energy: How to Teach an Old House New Tricks