Can This Home Be Greened? A 1970s Solar Ranch Gets a Whole-House Audit

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Photo By Povy Kendal Atchison
Greg and Anne Oberg, with Gracey, hope to create a beautiful living space that’s healthy for their family.

Greg and Anne Oberg’s garage is filled with mountain bikes, road bikes and tricycles, reflections of their family’s keen interest in fitness and health. So when they started thinking about renovating their 1970s ranch-style home in Longmont, Colorado, naturally they made the family’s health one of their priorities. 

The couple already has made significant changes to the home since they moved in a year ago, including replacing a rotted deck with one made of ChoiceDek recycled wood/ plastic-composite lumber. Now they’ve asked Natural Home for help prioritizing their goals to make the most of a $30,000 budget.

Solar panels heat the home’s water in summer and provide some heat for the rooms in winter, yet Greg and Anne want to further improve their energy efficiency. They also want to replace some of the home’s more outdated décor–including the living room’s gold, “amoeba- patterned” shag carpet–without filling the house with dust and debris. Anne and their 3-year-old daughter, Gracey, spend much of the day at home and didn’t want to live in a construction zone any more than is necessary.

The low-hanging fruit

Problem: A house as old as the Obergs’ is bound to have some air leaks, easy-to-overlook sources that add up. The Obergs may want to scan their whole home for leaks around doors, windows and vents that can cause drafts and hot or cold air loss.

Solution: Fortunately for Greg and Anne, previous homeowners made one of the best possible energy-efficiency improvements by insulating the attic when they installed a solar heating system. Caulking, sealing and weather-stripping all the seams, cracks and openings to the outside is more “low-hanging fruit”–an easy way to save energy. These simple steps can eliminate leaks around doors, windows, plumbing, ducting, electrical wire and penetrations through exterior walls, floors, ceilings and soffits over cabinets. A lot of electricity can be saved simply by replacing traditional incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescent lights (CFLs), which are more expensive but last up to 10 years. To save even more energy, the Obergs could replace their old windows with new, more energy-efficient styles and install ceiling fans, reserving the air conditioning for very hot days.

Kid-careful construction

Problem: Dust, paint fumes and insulation fibers are problematic during construction. Every effort should be made to avoid exposure, especially for youngsters like Gracey, whose developing bodies are more vulnerable to toxins and airborne particles.

Solution: Construction is a great time to visit Grandma! Even if no one is living at home, be sure to completely seal off the construction area from the rest of the house so that your cleanup will be limited. You may want to seal all the air ducts and literally close off the area with dust barriers such as heavy-duty tarps. (ZipWall creates an airtight barrier held by spring-loaded poles instead of tape or nails, which damage walls and ceilings.) If you open the windows and use a fan (ideally a high-tech builders’ model called a “blower door” fan) to blow construction fumes outside, you’ll minimize the home’s exposure. With fans in place, cleaner air from the rest of the house moves into the construction area, not vice versa.

Windows: Too cool for comfort

Problem: The Obergs’ metal-frame, single-pane windows are poor insulators. Given the family’s tight budget and desire to move in two or three years, I was hesitant to strongly recommend energy-efficient windows because they’re a costly investment that the savings can take years to pay back. However, improved windows would make their home more comfortable now and will dramatically improve their home’s resale value.

Solution: If the Obergs replace as many single-pane windows as they can afford with double-pane, low-emissivity (low-E) glass, they’ll maximize the benefit and minimize the cost. They could start with the windows in rooms they use most often, such as the living room and bedrooms. That’s also the way to get the biggest bang in resale value. I recommend a “double-hung” window to replace Gracey’s west-facing bedroom window–these open from the top and bottom and are great for catching summer breezes that might otherwise be blocked by the bushes outside.

Build tight; ventilate right

Problem: Once Greg and Anne start upgrading windows and sealing leaks, they’re making the house “tighter,” which reduces natural ventilation. A house is an interrelated system: Changes to one part inevitably affect other aspects. A tight house can lead to a buildup of indoor air pollutants, like gases released by building materials, which become concentrated if they’re not circulated with fresh, outdoor air.

Solution: With proper ventilation, a home can have excellent indoor air quality and still be energy efficient. Naturally, you’ll want the fresh-air source far from laundry or car exhausts. Leaky homes sometimes create negative air pressure, or “backdrafting,” that causes unhealthy combustion gases (such as carbon monoxide) to move from the heating system into the living space. A simple solution for the Obergs would be to use a bathroom exhaust fan with a “through-the-wall” vent to the outdoors to ventilate the whole house.

Adding bathroom quality, not cost

Problem: The Obergs’ bathrooms are outdated, dark and poorly ventilated–prime habitat for mold spores that could cause serious health risks.

Solution: Bathroom carpets are reservoirs for dust and dirt, and bathroom moisture exacerbates mold growth. Greg and Anne can substitute ceramic tiles or natural linoleum and use low-toxic sealants and grout such as those from AFM Safecoat to lay the tile. By bringing sunlight into their bathrooms with a “solar tube” that channels sunlight through a reflective pipe, the family can improve both the health and the appearance of their bathrooms. Solar tubes are more energy efficient than skylights and are a relatively inexpensive upgrade. And a well-lit bathroom boosts home resale value because natural light looks and feels refreshing.