Greening a 19th Century Cottage

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INSULATING AND SEALING AIR LEAKS in the basement will improve overall energy efficiency.
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New ATTIC INSULATION will help keep the bedroom warmer.
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HEATING DUCTS should be installed in the porch room where Pat keeps her birds.
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Built during the late 19th century as a summer cottage, this Hudson River Valley home needs BETTER INSULATION to weather the winter.
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Although the hot water heater chimney vents outside, it's too close to the exterior wall, so dangerous carbon monoxide could still enter the house.
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The living room looks cozy, but on cold days, visitors wear their coats inside.
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Homeowner Pat Cramer

Just outside of Ossining, New York, Campwoods Grounds is a group of cottages that a Methodist community built in the 1880s to use as a summer retreat. Unfortunately, the homes’ adorable exteriors hide some major problems for year-round resident Pat Cramer, an associate professor of English and women’s studies at the University of Connecticut at Stamford. Luckily for her, a few renovations can make the bungalow fabulous inside and out.

Pat bought her cottage in 2003 because it was “affordable and cute.” Given her budgetary constraints at the time, she was more focused on purchase price than on maintenance costs, and she didn’t anticipate how expensive it would be to heat and cool the house. In fact, her 1,000-square-foot home’s winter utility bills range from $400 to $450 per month. She also didn’t realize that the home’s many building performance problems would make living conditions uncomfortable.

Keeping warm indoor temperatures is important to Pat, especially because she cares for rescued cockatiels and parakeets. To address the winter chill and exorbitant heating bills, she hired a contractor to install a new, energy-efficient boiler. Unfortunately, the house’s many other problems conspired to minimize the new boiler’s benefits.

The moral of the story: A house is a whole organism with many integral parts, and a homeowner should use a holistic, systematic approach to solving its problems. Given the complexity of the cottage’s energy troubles, I invited Andrew Fischer of Choose Green Energy in Mohegan Lake, New York, to assist in the evaluation.

1. Eliminate the Carbon Monoxide Threat

Problem: An old house like Pat’s has many potential health hazards-asbestos, lead paint, mold and electrical hazards-yet carbon monoxide is the most immediate threat. This poisonous gas is exhausted from all hydrocarbon fuel-burning appliances such as gas stoves and gas-powered water heaters.

Solutions: To improve indoor air quality problems, Pat needs to vent all combustion appliances to the outside. I noticed the chimney for the hot water heater is too short and is installed too close to the house’s rear wall. Pat needs to test this chimney for proper draft. In addition, she should clean and tune the furnace and the furnace chimney annually to improve combustion efficiency and ensure safe operation.

I also recommended one other safety measure: Install carbon monoxide monitors in rooms with gas appliances (kitchen, laundry area).

Cost: Fix the water-heater vent and clean the furnace chimney: $500. Carbon monoxide monitors: $60 to $170 each, depending on the level of detection sensitivity.

2. Fix the Damp, Drafty Basement

Problem: The basement has a dirt floor, and part of the foundation is composed of stone rubble. The basement’s open construction allows rodents, insects and other critters inside. Moreover, the dirt and rock collect moisture.
Gaps around the basement door and openings for plumbing and electrical service are also a problem. They allow air infiltration, which contributes to the “stack effect.” (The stack effect involves the rising of hot air that creates an upward draft toward the attic.) This basement draft therefore increases the amount of heat lost through the roof.

Solutions: Pat should seal all holes and openings in the walls and ceiling and use a dehumidifier to address the moisture problem. She also needs to waterproof the basement. Fischer recommends a durable, relatively inexpensive material that’s normally used as a pond liner. Pat should drape the liner along all floor surfaces, up the sidewalls and over the sill plate. It must be held firmly in place with stone, cement or fasteners that won’t rust.
She should insulate the basement’s ceiling between open floor joists and insulate the walls with a nontoxic, expanding-foam insulation, such as formaldehyde-free Sealection 500. This spray-foam insulation also will seal the pond liner edges.

Cost: Pond liner and spray-foam insulation/sealant (such as Sealection): $3,600 for 600 square feet. Energy savings: about $198 per year.

3. Keep the Birds Chirping

Problem: The furnace duct system doesn’t reach the back porch where Pat keeps her pet birds. To keep them warm, she installed electric heaters-by far the most expensive form of heating in the Northeast. In addition, the windows are low quality and poorly installed, so costly heat escapes easily. (Fischer estimates this room alone probably accounts for 30 percent or more of Pat’s winter electric bills.)

Condensation on the windows-created when the heaters blow warm air on the cold glass-damages room surfaces and encourages mold growth. The adjacent laundry area generates additional back-porch humidity because it is vented improperly with a flexible dryer hose.

Solutions: Get rid of the electric heaters and install a simple supply duct and diffuser to bring furnace heat to the back porch. (The energy savings from replacing the electric heaters with the gas- or oil-based forced-air heat is about $314 annually.) To reduce laundry-area humidity, the flexible dryer vent should be replaced with a solid-metal duct that’s properly vented to the outside.
It’s equally important to insulate the windows. Pat could install interior storm windows made of glass (moderate price) or plastic (very low price, but they contain vinyl, an environmental toxin). The expensive alternative is to replace the windows with high-performance, double-paned models that have low-E coatings and argon (or other inert gas) filling the space between panes.

Cost: Heating duct installation: $600. Add $350 more to make this room its own zone to keep the birds’ area warmer than the rest of the house. Metal duct installation: $30 in materials; $90 for labor. Storm windows: Plastic Tyzall interior windows: about $20 in materials; $120 if installed. Glass storm windows (interior): $180 to $200 each. Insulated wood-frame replacement windows: $500 to $1,000 apiece.

4. Invest in Insulation

Problem: Although Pat’s cottage has 3.5 inches of fiberglass insulation in the attic slopes under the roof, it’s in shoddy condition, was poorly installed and shows signs of air infiltration in several spots. Half-inch gaps in at least 20 percent of the batts result in an effective R-value (insulation value) of 5 rather than the factory rating of 11.

Solutions: The attic insulation needs to be upgraded to the highest R-value within Pat’s budget. Fischer recommends the Sealection 500 spray-foam insulation, which has a 60-second cure time with minimal outgasing that only occurs during installation. Spray foam seals air leaks, which dramatically reduces drafts and heat loss, thereby increasing overall insulation efficiency. In Pat’s house, the foam insulation will afford a maximum insulation level of R-23 with the house’s current 2-by-4 roof construction. However, if she’s willing to pay to build up the rafters to 6 inches with 2-by-2 strips, she could install a thicker layer of the foam insulation, achieving an R-value of 36.

Cost: Remove the existing fiberglass insulation, install furring strips to make rafters 6 inches deep, install 5.75-inch layer of spray foam: $1,580 for 362 square feet.

Robert Politzer is president of GreenStreet Construction Consulting in New York.

RX at Your House

Andrew Fischer
Choose Green Energy
(914) 739-0584
solar-power and energy-efficiency consultant

Innerglass Window Systems
(800) 743-6207
interior storm windows

Loewen Windows
(800) 563-9367
wood-frame windows

Sealection 500
(877) 336-4532
spray-applied foam insulation

Tyzall Plastic Storm Windows

Carbon Monoxide Detectors

Kiddie Nighthawk with LCD Display

NSI 3000 Monitor
Available from and
very low-level detector