Can This Home Be Greened? A Suburban Rescue

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The Whitworth family (left to right): Logan, Elise, Lee and Lucas
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The Whitworths’ Austin home suffers from shoddy construction.
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The air-return duct is open to the wall cavity and pulls in hot, dirty air. Seal this duct completely, get a duct diagnostic test and repair all duct leaks.
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Water dripping from the shower door has caused extensive damage. The wall materials must be replaced and tile should be installed for better protection.
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Elise’s brother-in-law, a landscape architect, plans to transform the neglected yard with planting beds, sheltering berms, winding pathways and Texas native plants.

When Elise and Lee Whitworth moved two years ago from California to Austin, Texas, they bought a 1995 “tract home.” Like many first-time buyers, their biggest consideration was getting the most space for the dollar. With a home-based web-development company, two boys (Logan, 3, and Lucas, 2), and a dog, the Whitworths needed space badly.

Since they’ve moved to Austin–a renowned hub for the green building movement–they’ve become more aware of healthy home environments. A few months ago, Elise attended a green-building workshop organized by Austin Energy, the progressive local utility. She learned a lot, but she also became dismayed by her home’s low-quality materials, shoddy construction and lack of prior maintenance. Although the couple wants to add on a room and do something about the dried-up, unlandscaped yard, the workshop helped Elise understand that the house needs help before they make any additions. She wrote to Natural Home and asked us to help her green her suburban home.

Problem: Elise believes her home needs better ventilation. It smells dusty and musty, and when she cooks an aromatic meal, the smell lingers for hours. Typically, using the range hood and bathroom fans solves this problem, but a few other issues are at play here. First, the range-hood fan is a recirculating type that doesn’t vent outdoors. Second, the family keeps windows closed because the curious boys might crawl through them the moment Lee and Elise weren’t watching. Finally, the adults are deaf and can’t tell when the fans are running, so they tend not to use them so that they won’t accidentally leave them running unnoticed for hours.

Solution: Installing a new range-hood fan is a necessary, inexpensive solution. The on/off controls are obvious to see, or the adults can touch the hood to feel the vibration. In the bathroom, the Whitworths could replace the bath-fan switches with a switch timer that can turn itself off after a short time, or run for longer periods when continuous house ventilation is desired. A whole-house fan with automatic controllers also would help.

Can’t stand the heat

Problem: Upstairs rooms get warm in Texas summers, especially the bathroom and the boys’ east-facing rooms. Although the air conditioner is appropriately sized for the house, the room registers don’t blow much cold air. It turned out that the duct to the bathroom register was completely detached and was blowing cool air into the attic. On further investigation, I found that the main supply duct was losing its duct tape, and the return duct was barely sealed and actually open to the wall cavities. As a result, the air conditioner is drawing dirty, hot, humid air from the wall cavities and attic, which is why it smells dusty and the home doesn’t cool well.

Solution: The Whitworths could minimize the sun’s heat with solar film or solar screens on the east- and west-facing windows. I reattached the bathroom duct to the register, but a whole-house duct analysis and proper sealing with duct mastic is truly needed. Austin Energy’s duct program pays for almost half of this work plus many other energy upgrades. Further improvements could include more attic insulation or installing a roof radiant barrier.

Air quality: What you can’t see

Problem: After looking at the heating/cooling units, vent flues and ductwork, as well as the gas stove and water heater, I became uncomfortable about the home’s air-flow dynamics. Leaky ductwork easily “depressurizes” a home, bringing in dirty, hot, humid air from building cavities and outdoors, and backdrafting dangerous carbon monoxide (CO) from the furnace and water-heater vent flues. The gas stove also emits CO and water without a vent.

Solution: The professionals who analyze the ducts also can test for carbon monoxide and do a “combustion safety backdraft test” on the vent flues. The Whitworths have a CO alarm, but these monitors tend to accurately register only high levels of the gas and not the low-level, long-term exposures that could cause unexplained headaches and other health concerns. The couple also should get an inexpensive thermostat/humidistat combo to check the relative humidity. This device can direct them to run their fans and air conditioner to dehumidify the home, which will make it more comfortable and reduce mold-growth conditions.

Getting the right light

Problem:The fluorescent lighting in the kitchen and garage office uses inefficient magnetic ballasts and low-quality T-12 bulbs. It creates a poorly lit work environment because the garage has no windows. Outside, however, there’s too much light; the previous owner was a security fanatic, so every exterior corner has blinding floodlights that annoy the neighbors.

Solution: The Whitworths easily can upgrade to an electronic ballast and high-quality T-8 bulbs, which use less electricity. Bulbs with a high color-rendering index (CRI) and high temperature (measured in Kelvin) give effective light. An added upgrade would be to install a solar-tube skylight or a window in the office. To reduce the floodlight energy waste and light pollution, the couple should replace them with shielded fixtures that direct light downward and that operate on a motion sensor.

Damage from the drip

Problem: The upstairs shower leaks, causing major water damage on the wall near the door and stains in the first-floor ceiling below. A plumber caulked the inside of the shower stall, but that didn’t help. The problem is that the shower stall was glued to the drywall; it’s now dislodging and blocking the shower door from closing well.

Solution: For the moment, the Whitworths can lift the door to close it properly during showers, squeegee the water off the door before leaving the shower, then close the door tightly behind them. However, the constant drip from the door’s corner has damaged the wall, so eventually the shower stall needs to be replaced by one that’s firmly screwed into the wall studs. Also, the wall needs to be uncovered, the studs replaced and the entire shower area tiled so that the inevitable shower-door drips won’t cause more harm.