Let’s face it, your home’s utility bills never seem to go anywhere but up. The electric companies steadily raise rates, even if the cost of fuels like coal, oil, nuclear, solar, or wind go down.
It’s like the third thing you can never avoid. Death, taxes, and higher utility bills. There is some good news though. The cost per kW hour may continue to go up, but that doesn’t mean the bill itself has to go up. By making some simple energy saving fixes to your old house, you can save some green and save the planet too.
We’re not talking deep energy retrofits here. These are things you can easily do today and the cost is minimal!
Return on Investment
The return on investment (ROI) is one of the most important factors when deciding what energy savings you should aim for. It doesn’t make sense to spend $25,000 for replacement windows when the payback for them takes approximately 41.5 years (Source). If it takes almost 42 years to get your money back, does that really even count as a savings? Read more below.
The problem with a lot of the products that are proudly touted as energy efficient is that they may not actually save enough money in the long run to justify their costs. Avoid “green washing” products that claim they can save you a fortune in energy savings, but have little 3rd party testing to back it up. If they can’t guarantee you’re going to get the ROI on the product in less than five to ten years, it’s probably not worth the expense.
When it comes to any energy efficient home improvement, always start with the items that will deliver the biggest ROI. I call this the “low hanging fruit.” Don’t worry about installing a geothermal heating and cooling system until you’ve caulked your trim. Likewise, don’t replace all your windows until you’ve added a programmable thermostat. Actually, don’t replace your old windows at all.
In this post, I’ll go through and show you the low hanging fruit to take a care of first before you start to dig deep and make huge changes in the name of energy efficiency. You may even be able to avoid the huge projects because you have improved your energy score so much by implementing all these little changes.
The biggest culprit for energy loss in any older home is air infiltration. Heated air is drawn outside the home in the winter and cool air conditioning becomes overrun with infiltrating hot air in the summer, making an old home drafty and inefficient to heat and cool.
Most of us immediately jump to the conclusion that a cold house needs more insulation, but the first place to start should always be sealing the air leaks. If you want to find out just how leaky, and more importantly where the leaks are, a blower door test is the way to go.
Blower door tests determine the amount of air exchanges that occur in a house over a course of time. The tests don’t take long to do and can yield a good baseline for how your house is doing. Once you get the results, you can begin to eliminate the drafts one by one and usually for much less money than insulating.
This is where the biggest payback will be in any energy efficient renovation program you can create. Most of these leaks can be resolved with inexpensive fixes like adding weatherstripping to doors and windows and caulking exterior gaps between siding and trim, meaning your payback time (or ROI) is extremely short.
Areas to Check For Air Loss
- Chimney – Make sure you have a damper to keep the drafts out and make sure it’s closed when the fireplace is not in use.
- Windows & Doors – Add weatherstripping to any operable windows and doors, including upgrading sweeps underneath doors. If your windows are caulked or painted shut, then there’s no need to worry about this step until you get them restored and working again.
- Trim & Siding – Caulk the vertical joints on the exterior of your house where the siding meets the trim. These are often some of the biggest offenders of air infiltration on old houses. You don’t want to caulk the joints between each course of siding, though as these are meant to be open. It’s just the vertical joints to worry about.
- Penetrations – Anywhere that electrical service or plumbing lines penetrate your building’s exterior needs to be caulked up as well.
Insulation can be a lovely thing, but just going hog wild and stuffing it in every crevice like a lot of folks do isn’t a good idea. It can be a waste of time and money if you’re not insulating strategically.
Again, start where the biggest ROI is. Most homes lose a lot of energy through the attic and roof. In warm climates like mine here in Florida, the roof gets battered by the sun all day bringing temperatures in the attic to ungodly levels like 130º to 140º! These high temperatures can’t help but cook the inside of your house, not to mention, high attic temps have been shown to shorten the life of asphalt shingles.
In cold climates, the heat from the living spaces is drawn up into the cold attic and escapes out through the roof. You paid good money for that warm air, so lets try to keep as much of it as we can.
In both cases, adding blown-in insulation on the floor of the attic is the easiest and safest way to solve the problem. Most of us have access to the attic without having to tear plaster down, and this makes the cost of insulating the attic the cheapest with the shortest ROI of anywhere in the house.
Once you’ve got a good blanket of insulation on the floor of the attic, you can beef things up even more by adding batts to the underside of the roof as well. This isn’t as sexy as things like closed cell spray foam, but as far as ROI goes, these simple methods return the greatest money in the shortest time due to their low initial cost and ease of installation.
Areas to Be Careful When Insulating
- Old Wiring – If you have exposed wiring in your attic (many of us do), you want to check and make sure adding insulation doesn’t pose a fire threat. Some wiring (like knob and tube) can cause fires if the wiring insulation has fallen off and you cover it with insulation. The simple solution is to have an electrician come out and check things out for you to make sure you’re safe.
- Vents – Most attics are vented to allow air to come in through the soffits and pass out through the roof via ridge or off-ridge vents. If you cover up these vents when insulating, you mess up an important ventilation system your attic needs. Don’t cover soffit vents with insulation, and likewise, if you insulate the underside of the roof, you may need to use baffles to give the air a path to move from soffit vent to ridge vent unhindered. Here’s a good PDF that discusses the ins and outs of venting.
- Can Lighting – Older unsealed recessed can lights need to have air flow around them to be safe from becoming a fire hazard. If you have any of these can lights be sure to keep the insulation away from them or replace them with an IC rated unit. Here’s a great article on can lights and how to tell which kind you have and how to keep them safe when dealing insulation.
Energy Efficient Appliances
If your appliances are more than 10 years old, you could notice a big difference in your electric bill by upgrading to today’s more energy efficient models. Yes, a big cause of high utility bills in old houses is poor air sealing and lack of insulation, but if you’ve got a harvest gold refrigerator from the 1970s still running in the garage, there might be another cause too.
I joke about the refrigerator because this is honestly a big problem for folks. They buy a new energy efficient fridge and stick the old one in the garage. This doesn’t do a thing for your energy bills, because now you’ve got two refrigerators!
Get rid of the old appliances and find some energy saving models today. Refrigerators and freezers are big energy users as well as older electric clothes dryers. An upgrade here can save you significantly, depending on how old and inefficient your existing model is.
The same thing goes for air conditioners and heaters. If you’re using an old window AC unit, that is about the least energy efficient appliance you can have in a home. People hold onto these old window units like they’re a family pet. It’s time to let it go! Consider replacing it with a mini-split system, or at the very least, a new and more efficient window unit.
If your HVAC system is still working well and you don’t have the money to replace it, then a simple tune up and cleaning can work wonders for extending its life and helping it to work more efficiently. These items need regular maintenance and without it, their lifespan is shortened and they cost more money to operate.
I won’t go into this here because I have written on it extensively elsewhere, but the energy savings that adding either interior or exterior storm windows provides is IMMENSE! If you haven’t crossed this one off your list, you are leaving money on the table. Read more in the link below.
Little Stuff That Adds Up
There are a lot of little things you can do to keep energy costs down too that don’t exactly fit into a category, but when done, they can add up to big savings.
- Light Bulbs – LEDs are much more efficient than incandescent bulbs and they can provide a significant savings on your utility bill. I’m not quite sure that the ROI is high enough for me since the bulbs are still rather expensive, but as costs continue to go down, so does the ROI which makes them a good buy when you can get some at a little lower price. Ultimately, do the math in your situation and determine if it makes sense.
- Curtains and Blinds – Whether it’s to keep the summer heat out or the winter cold at bay, curtains and blinds can make a significant improvement in not only your energy bills, but also your comfort. Thick curtains excel at keeping the outside temperatures away from the living areas.
- Ceiling Fans – Fans keep the air moving so you don’t feel as hot as you really are in the summer, which keeps you from cranking down the AC any more than necessary. They cost very little to operate and the savings are significant.
- Programmable Thermostat – It doesn’t have to be a fancy one like The Nest, but a good programmable thermostat will cut heating and cooling costs significantly if you know how to use it. It’s worth any money you spend, in my opinion.
- Electric Blankets and Space Heaters – In my house, we affectionately call the electric blanket ” the demotivator” because the minute my wife gets under the blanket, you can’t get her up to do anything! It’s much a cheaper to run an electric blanket for one person than it is to turn the heat up in the whole house. The same goes for space heaters. Putting a space heater in your bedroom lets you turn the heat way down overnight and still sleep comfortably. Only heating the rooms you need saves money and resources.
Stay warm this winter or cool this summer and maybe save a little dough in the meantime by following these easy fixes. If you have any other ideas, mention them in the comments for all to see.
Founder & Senior Editor
I love old houses, working with my hands, and teaching others the excitment of doing it yourself! Everything is teachable if you only give it the chance.