Energy-Efficiency Tips for Older and Historical Homes

energy-efficiency tips for older homes

Written by Erin Vaughan


Eco-friendly doesn’t have to mean brand-spanking new. A lot of the focus in green building is on newer homes—which is great if you want to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a high-performance property with all the latest bells and whistles. For some of us, though, the historical authenticity of an older house counts for a lot more. How many people can say that they live in a house that George Washington slept in, for instance, or that was built from an original log cabin? Historic properties come with colorful stories that make them worth every penny you spend on their upkeep.

And oh, how you spend—specifically, on your energy bills. As you can imagine, building techniques have come a long way in the last hundred years or so, meaning that contractors and remodelers are now able to construct homes in ways that are more efficient and sustainable than ever. In older homes, not so much. For instance, if your house dates all the way back to the early 1800s, it may have been built with post and beam or balloon framing techniques—methods that are considered outdated today—which will impact how you insulate. Or you may have an uninsulated attic floor, drafty single pane windows, or leaky chimneys and flues.

Of course, it you live in a period home, you probably realize that its history is part of its charm, so making a slew of updates can feel a bit antithetical to your purpose. Additionally, due to design differences between older and modern homes, it doesn’t always pay to slap on more insulation or a fancy new heating and cooling system.

But preservation and sustainability don’t need to be at odds. Manufacturers produce a number of period-appropriate features that will fit right into your home’s aesthetic quality. And there are many upgrades you can make to your home’s existing structure to keep your energy use in check without any demolition at all. So come, let us tarry no more—see how you can save energy in your period home with one of the following projects.

Hire a Professional Energy Auditor

If you’re concerned about your historic home’s efficiency, an audit may be the best place to start. Older homes typically have less sophisticated ventilation systems, and many were designed to be heated room by room by fireplace. That means some of the ordinary energy improvements—thicker insulation, a tighter building envelope—may cause problems with excess moisture and mold if you’re not careful. Because an energy auditor will tailor their recommendations to your home’s unique systems, their advice should help you circumvent these kinds of issues.

Have Your Chimney Inspected

Here’s the problem with fireplaces: while a roaring fire is a welcoming sight in almost any home, chimneys take work. If your chimney needs maintenance, it could be drawing heated air out of your home—and burning up any energy savings you offset by using your fireplace. Your chimney is designed to pull smoke out of the interiors, which is a good thing when you’ve got a fire going. But if your flue cap is bent, rusted, or missing, you could be pulling heated air out of your home, too. Likewise, over time, cracks and gaps can form in the masonry, and the flashing can wear down around the area where the chimney exits your roof. A chimney sweep service can inspect your roof, chimney, and firebox, and make the necessary repairs, which will help save energy—and keep you safer, too!

Improve Your Windows

In older properties, much of the energy loss is due to lapsed maintenance—with so many things in need of repair, a period home can sometimes feel like a bit of a money pit. But a window replacement is one of those projects that gives back, particularly if you have older, outdated glass or warped frames. In some cases, as much as 10 to 25 percent of your conditioned air could be going straight out the window. Windows also greatly contribute to a home’s overall character, so you’ll really want to consider their appearance, as well. Most historic homeowners stick with classic wooden frames, but may opt to replace single pane windows with double glazing. If you’re not repelled by vinyl or fiberglass frames, there are products available that closely resemble natural woodgrains—and these materials significantly reduce maintenance. And if replacing your home’s historic windows is out of the question, you can often get the same energy savings by installing high performance storm windows.

Take on an Air Sealing Project

Don’t like the idea of replacing your home’s current window frames? A glass repair, coupled with an air sealing project, can also cut down energy costs—without sacrificing historical authenticity. In particular, replacing cracked or worn caulking with new silicone caulk prevents drafts and air leaks that may be causing your energy bills to soar. While you’re at it, some expandable foam or mastic sealant around duct and pipe exits, recessed lights, dryer vents—basically any opening in your walls or ceilings—will help, too. Also add foam tape under windows and around doors, and install a door sweep, as well. The EPA says that an ⅛-inch gap under the door lets in as much air as a 2.4 inch hole in the wall, so it’s definitely worth the 20 minutes it will take to put on the door sweep.

Insulate Your Attic

Fiberglass didn’t even exist in its current incarnation until the 1930s, and it didn’t become the preferred insulation material until the mid 1970s. Therefore, it’s not uncommon for older houses to have unfinished, uninsulated attic spaces. A massive amount of energy is lost through a home’s roof—some 25 percent, on average—while heating and cooling often seeps through uninsulated attic floors to the unconditioned space beyond, all of which drives up your energy expenses. Always defer to the professionals—as stated before, overinsulating a historical home can lead to moisture infiltration. If it makes sense for your property, though, it’s probably the number one thing you can do to save energy, especially considering that it’s a fairly inexpensive project with a quick return on investment. You may have bought your home out of your love of history, but energy efficiency projects are all about your financial future!


erinvaughnmodernizeErin Vaughan is a blogger, gardener and aspiring homeowner.  She currently resides in Austin, Texas, where she writes full time for Modernize, with the goal of empowering homeowners with the expert guidance and educational tools they need to take on big home projects with confidence.

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