OLDER HOMES CAN HAVE LOW ENERGY BILLS TOO
Older and historic homes may have plenty of character, but they also frequently have higher than average energy bills. Because updates may be more complicated than in newer homes, many homeowners believe that there is little they can do beyond turning down the thermostat, changing out the light bulbs, and continuing to pay high utility bills each month.
But actually, the poor energy performance of older buildings can be a real opportunity. Here at Green Horizon, we regularly see homeowners achieve savings of 20% or 30%, and it’s possible to achieve even more. And when you are facing huge, monthly energy bills, 20% is a lot!
But it’s important to remember that changing one thing in a building can always have unintended consequences elsewhere, and this is particularly true of older structures. (Over sealing the building envelope, for example, can lead to build up of moisture. Making sure that your contractor understands your home as a complete system is of crucial importance.
BUILDING PERFORMANCE IS A MOVING TARGET
Since the 1920s, technology has improved, building codes have been tightened, and the discipline of building science has developed. We now expect buildings and homes to do more from an energy efficiency perspective. A home built back in the 1920s, before the days of HVAC, would have been constructed to allow free flow of air and to avoid moisture build up. But today, you can’t just install a HVAC unit on a home like that and expect it to perform well—the building envelope is just too leaky.
Many older homes may not even have insulation, so installing some simple fiber glass batting or high-tech spray-foam insulation can have a massive impact on energy bills. Even homes built back in the 90s are, to some degree, behind the times. The last twenty years has seen a revolution in our understanding of how air infiltration and moisture interacts with buildings – and that paradigm shift has lead to an emphasis on sealed crawlspaces, attics and improved ductwork.
TECHNOLOGY KEEPS IMPROVING
It’s not uncommon for a HVAC unit installed ten or 15 years ago or so to be rated at 10 SEER or less. (SEER stands for Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio, and is the standard measurement of efficiency for HVAC systems.) And yet building code for new construction specifies a minimum of 13 SEER (14 SEER starting on 2015), with the Government’s Energy Star program specifying at least a 16 SEER rating. In fact, high efficiency units are now available that achieve 19 SEER or even more.
Sometimes even the way a unit is installed or what it’s attached to can make a significant difference – most units that are 5 years old or more were installed without proper air sealing of the ducts, so even if you have a relatively new unit you may want to have it checked over. It doesn’t make sense to install high-efficiency or any new system if the ductwork it’s attached to wasn’t properly designed, sealed and insulated.
UNDERSTAND THE WHOLE HOUSE
It is always important to understand the complete picture when it comes to investing in your home energy performance. Because home building has gotten more standardized over the years, it can be a relatively easy process to ascertain what needs to be done on a newer home – often a visual inspection will be enough to assess the state of insulation, draft proofing, HVAC etc.
But older homes present a more complex challenge. Wear and tear can lead to structural defects, building codes may have been different or even non-existent, and there several upgrades and modifications over the years that complicate things even more. Even architectural features like gables and dormers, which create character in a historic home, may have unexpected effects on air and moisture flow — and that means they impact on how much you spend heating and cooling your home.
For that reason, we recommend a complete home assessment of your home before investing in any major improvements. Home Performance experts use sophisticated tools like infrared cameras and blower door tests (essentially a giant fan that sucks air through your building) to determine how air and moisture move through your home. The result is a complete picture that provides a road map to greening your home, thus allowing you to invest your money where it matters most. Using contractors or other professionals that understand the concept of the “House as a System” is an absolute must when developing a plan of attack for improved home performance, comfort and efficiency.
Living in an older home is no excuse for high energy bills. But be wary of wasting money. To get real results, and to update your home without losing its character, take some time to understand your home as a complete system. The small upfront investment of time and money will pay itself back in no time.