Energy Advice for Historic Homes

This guest post was written by Sean Stucker, Director of Facilities for Historic Columbia Foundation in Columbia, S.C., and originally published in the Columbia Star Newspaper on September 12, 2014.

A 1956 ranch house in Athens, Ga., meets the historical requirement for age—50 years— for the National Register of Historic Places.

If you are a lover of old homes, then buying a historic house would be your natural choice. However, in the wake of a recession fueled by an abrupt halt in new construction and in light of the fact our cities and established neighborhoods naturally get older as the years pass, anyone looking to buy  a home these days will have far more to choose from and will have much greater flexibility in terms of price when considering pre-existing homes.

By now, post-WWII suburbs and even early ranch-house communities from the 1950s and ’60s meet the historical requirement for age—50 years—for the National Register of Historic Places. Indeed, my Forest Acres Colonial Ranch in Columbia, S.C. celebrates its semicentennial next year! Historic houses and neighborhoods offer a variety of benefits: character of architecture and design, proximity to downtown and central business districts, proof they can stand the test of time, and so on. In terms of energy efficiency, though, older houses often fall short of what their newly-built counterparts can offer.

Lack of insulation and leaky windows are some of the most commonly identified culprits, but mechanical systems and appliances can also play a part in wasting energy. If the ductwork is original or even several decades old, it could be full of leaks and could be heating your crawlspace even more than your living room. If this is the case, you may elect to replace it wholesale, but if there are minor leaks, you can also try fixing them yourself with some metal tape (not regular duct tape) and mastic (a gooey sealant).

In addition to the duct work, the heating and cooling unit itself can waste a great deal of energy. An older furnace or heat pump may still function and supply a certain level of heat and air, but newer models with higher SEER ratings can deliver up to 35 percent savings in operating costs. Updated kitchens may feature trendy counter tops or lighting options, but they also include modern (perhaps Energy Star) appliances, which can offer vast reductions in energy usage compared to older —or perhaps even original—appliances.

Those kinds of upgrades can be expensive but can also deliver greater returns on energy cost savings. There are, however, some inexpensive and simple things you can do too. Caulking the gaps and cracks around interior window trim and along baseboards and adding weather stripping to doors and windows are easy DIY projects that can make a big difference. Similarly, you can install foam covers to the back of socket and switch plate covers, and you can even add spray foam insulation to the cavities around electrical outlets, light switches, and ceiling boxes in order to reduce conditioned air loss in both winter and summer.

When it comes to insulating the rest of a historic house, it’s generally not cost effective to add wall insulation and doing so can even cause major damage to the wall substructure in plaster walls, but having proper attic, duct, and water pipe insulation, as well as a crawl space vapor barrier, “provides the greatest benefit with the lowest risk of damage,” according to the EPA.

Stay tuned for our next preservation spotlight on windows. We’ll examine why they matter so much to historic buildings and learn ways to improve their efficiency as we continue to explore why #PreservationMatters!

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