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This Old House Needs an Affordable Update: Here's How

Published on 5/13/2023
“One-third of the energy you pay for probably leaks through holes in your house. Air leaks can also cause moisture and indoor air quality problems,” writes Daniel Morrison for the Green Building Advisor. Hence the need for buildings with beautiful bones to get an update, from improving insulation to upgrading HVAC, if you want to save hard-earned money.

Last week’s column noted that the average age of a MoCo home is fifty-four years old. The grand old Victorians and cottages along Main Street and on the block where this writer lives can be two to three times older. Behind the interior plaster walls, strips of wood called lath are nailed to joists and behind that lath, any insulation that exists has fallen, like knickers where the elastic is shot, to the ankles of the joists. The large front windows of many a Victorian may still frame the fragile glass in rotting wood sealed more by layers of paint than anything else. One of our front windows had a BB hole in it. Fortunately, an owner ages ago installed “storm windows” that are now sealed in place by paint. The remaining few original windows do not allow residents to open them on a mild spring or autumn day. In winter, they are filmed with lovely ice crystals, in summer heat radiates from them. 

Bathrooms and kitchens in many old homes lack ventilation, allowing mold to build on walls. In kitchens using gas appliances, the air quality from the slow leak of gases contaminates breathing air.

With all of the Inflation Reduction Act incentives, now is the time for budget-conscious locals to plan their updates.

Climate team member John Smillie handled insulation work himself - caulking windows, adding rim joists, and installing foam board in the attic - then hired KRM Insulation for blowing cellulose in his attic and sealing the ducts in his house. He hired Cook Home Services to add crawlspace foam and attic radiant barrier. Thanks to Google, anyone can search for insulation contractors in your locale or seek recommendations from your HVAC company. 

Knowing your insulation needs necessitates two common tests: a thermographic scan and, more commonly, a blower door test, which uses fans to check the pressure of air in the house, allowing an expert to locate areas with the most leakage in your home. In some areas, utility providers either conduct or recommend contractors to provide this service. CEL&P does not offer this, but KRM Insulation helped Smillie with his test. Cook walked through with him and helped him recognize weak points he could seal himself. More information about both the blower door test and energy audit can be explored at’s page for professional home energy assessments.

In tandem with sealing up your home, you can take advantage of rebates and incentives to replace your water heater with a heat pump version, your primary HVAC system with a heat pump, your gas cooktop with an induction cooktop, and old windows with better-insulated replacements. All of these could save thousands of dollars beyond the upfront (and now mitigated) costs of the updated materials.

For heat pumps, Smillie recommends talking to an HVAC contractor and reading guidelines such as NYT’s Wire Cutter’s “Heat Pump Buying Guide.” Ideally, new construction would include a ground source heat pump,  commonly referred to as a geothermal system, because it can save absurd percentages in heating and cooling, but the investment (and yard space) require a steep investment for existing properties. The 30% tax credit attached to it tends to sparkle.