Button Up Drafty Old Homes to Cut Bills

By Mary Beth Breckenridge
Akron Beacon Journal
Saturday, October 11, 2008

We used to worry about catching a cold from an old house's drafts. Now we worry about losing our shirts.

Part of our country's housing stock was built when heating fuel was cheap and insulation unheard of. So present-day folk who assume ownership of older houses often face a huge task in improving their homes' energy efficiency.

It's possible to button up a house without sacrificing its character, say two preservation experts, Dave Mertz of the Building Preservation Technology Program at Belmont Technical College in St. Clairsville, Ohio, and Noelle Lord of Old House CPR in Limington, Maine.

Mertz's program focuses on developing the hands-on and analytic skills needed for preserving historical buildings. Lord's company provides assistance and consultation to people who restore old homes. She's also a contributing editor for Old House Journal and is writing "The Old House Handbook," due out in 2010.

Lord can attest to the possible savings. Her own house in Maine is 238 years old, but she said her annual heating oil bill has been a manageable $800 to $1,300 in recent years. The key is to avoid feeling overwhelmed, she said. Take things in steps, perhaps addressing the biggest problem areas first.

Keep in mind that every improvement reduces your energy bill to some degree and that even little steps add up. "It doesn't have to be an all-or-nothing thing," she said.

Here's what Lord and Mertz recommend:

ยท Insulate the attic: This chore is high on the lists of both experts. "The more you can fit, the better," Lord said, but realize that space limitations and construction quirks could prevent you from achieving the same R-value in an older home that you can in a new one. (R-value measures the ability of insulation to resist heat flow.) Be sure to seal and insulate your attic access, too, Lord recommends.

Neither Lord nor Mertz is a big fan of adding blown-in insulation to old walls, however. Non-standard framing and old construction methods can create blockages and make it hard to put the insulation where it needs to be, Lord said.

Loose insulation also can settle and leave gaps at the tops of walls, which is exactly where it's needed to stop the loss of warm air as it rises, Mertz said. What's more, it lacks a vapor barrier, which he said can cause moisture to collect inside the wall and cause problems from peeling paint to rotting wood. If you need to open up a wall, that's a good opportunity to add insulation such as rigid foam, Lord said.

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