Older homes frequently had built-in energy efficiency features that our modern technologies do not take advantage of, or that have fallen into disuse or misuse. Historic homes, in particular, must be treated carefully, in order to not alter the character or harm the original fabric of the structures. Because these homes were built before many of our modern technologies, some employ fundamental conservation strategies, but still do not meet today’s standards of energy efficiency.
Simply by changing your habits and the way you operate your home, you can conserve resources and save money before spending a dime.
Most of the pointers in our heating, electric, water and safety posts apply to older homes as well, but there are some unique issues you should take into consideration.
- Don’t heat or cool rooms that aren’t in use. Traditionally, families would live in certain areas of their homes in the hottest and coldest times of the year. Figure out which areas of your home are the easiest and cheapest to occupy during these times, and close off areas that are not being occupied.
- Reduce levels of illumination in your home; contemporary homes are typically over-lit by historical standards. Besides the electric to fuel your lighting, lights generally add heat, and contribute to your cooling loads.
- Planting deciduous trees on the south and west sides of your home will provide shade in the summer, and additional cooling through transpiration. Evergreens planted on the side of the house facing prevailing winds can act as a windbreak in the winter. Consult a professional about the proper placement of trees, because most people underestimate the size of adult trees, which could cause more detriment to your home.
- Shutters, window shades, drapes and window awnings are traditional devices to control interior house climate. Used appropriately, they can mitigate the drawbacks of keeping your original, single-pane glass windows. Historically, in the summer, you would open the house first thing in the morning to let in the cool night air. As the sun begins to warm the air, you close the windows and shades on the sunny side of the house. Simply operating your double-hung windows properly, alternately opening top or bottom, or both, will assist you in cooling your house. In the winter, shades are closed at night and on the cool sides of the house, but opened to let in the sun for solar heat gain.
- Fireplace dampers can be opened on warm days to allow warm air to rise up the chimney and promote air circulation. On cold days, be sure to close the damper tightly to prevent heat from escaping
- Ceiling fans have a very practical use. They typically consume only as much power as a large light bulb, and significantly less than an air conditioner. During the winter, a ceiling fan can help warm the room by recirculating the warm air that rose to the ceiling.
- Dust or clean radiators at least once a month during the heating seasons. Avoid painting radiators if possible, or use a special paint designed for heat transfer. You can increase heat output from a radiator by placing a small fan on the floor aiming at the radiator.
- Consider your exterior paint color. In warm climates, light colors reflect more of the sun’s heat. In northern areas, darker colors will absorb more of the sun’s heat during the winter.
Investments in your Historic Home
Before opening your wallet for renovations, consider the impact changes may have on your home. The following investments could offer significant energy cost savings, or they could be costly mistakes.
Most of your home’s heat is lost through the roof. Attic insulation should be your first focus, while installing insulation in the walls should be the last step. Depending on your home’s construction, insulation in the walls can cause serious paint peeling, rot or mold issues. Unheated basements and crawl spaces can benefit from insulation, if it is installed properly.
Storm windows can be just as energy efficient as new double-pane windows, when installed and maintained properly. Find windows that do not detract from your home’s appearance, and blend them with your trim paint color. Be sure to caulk the storm windows properly to avoid condensation, as well as caulking the interior and exterior window trim.
Air leaking through small holes in old houses is a major source of heat loss. Verify the following areas on your house are sealed:
- Make sure your exterior paint is in good condition.
- Make sure any mortar is sound, and repoint if necessary. Avoid masonry sealers, as they can trap moisture and cause deterioration.
- Caulk all construction joints, and fill all holes in exterior wood with putty or glazing compound.
- Caulk gaps in interior woodwork, especially where it butts plaster surfaces, and around electrical outlet boxes. If you feel cold air on a cold winter day, you have an air leak!
- Insert strips of felt between wide gaps in floorboards that allow cold drafts.
- Weatherstrip around doors and windows.
Before attempting any renovations on an old home, please do thorough research of reputable sources. I highly recommend The Old-House Journal Compendium, which is where I gathered most of the information in this article, as well as the websites listed below.
Improving Energy Efficiency in Historic Buildings – Preservation Brief – National Park Service.
Energy Efficiency in Historic Buildings. Technical Preservation Services, National Park Service.
Energy Advice for Owners of Older and Historic Homes. Environmental Protection Agency.