Fixing an Old House? Follow Einstein's Advice
I get a lot of questions from people asking how they should go about fixing their homes. Sometimes it's specific (What's the best way to insulate my kneewalls?), and sometimes it's a hands up in the air, With all these problems, where do I start? I'll focus on the latter today and let Albert Einstein provide the guidance you need.
Einstein was a smart fellow. His theory of general relativity is so difficult that in the early years, scientists speculated that only three people in the whole world understood it. He also had a knack for cutting to the heart of a matter, and many of the things he said have a much broader applicability than just the world of physics. For example, what he said about problem solving should be your guiding principle if you intend to address the energy effeciency and performance of an old house.
"If I had an hour to solve a problem I'd spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions."
Create your plan
An older homes is a complex system of building enclosure and HVAC problems. It can be unsafe, smelly, uncomfortable, rotting, ineffecient, and downright scary. For purposes of this article, I'm going to assume that the house is livable. Also, newer homes may have many of the same problems as older ones, but Einstein's advice applies no matter the age of your home.
Step 1 is to figure out what exactly you're dealing with. If you're a homeowner looking at this as a DIY project, I suggest you bring in a professional to help with the analysis, especially if you have combustion appliances in the home. Hire a pro who can do combustion safety testing so that you'll know how likely you are to get carbon monoxide in your home by backdrafting a water heater or furnace. They'll also be able to spot other potential hazards, such as asbestos.
A big part of your plan needs to include sequencing. It's important to do things in the right order, not only because of cost but also safety. For example, if you need more insulation in your attic, you don't do that until you address the air sealing. It's more expensive and disruptive to have to air-seal a ceiling after you've installed new insulation.
But you don't want to do the air-sealing until you know what you're dealing with in terms of combustion safety. If you have a natural draft water heater or furnace inside your home, making the home more air-tight may put it over the edge and cause backdrafting that puts carbon monoxide into your home. Get a pro to assess the combustion appliances and do worst case depressurization tests for your home.
Ask a lot of questions
Here are some important questions to ask in the planning and assessment phase:
Why do you want to do this? Maybe it would be better to move, or not to buy the house if you're still looking.
What's your budget? It's better to get clear on this early in the project...and expect it to be higher than you imagine.
Will you be getting it all done at once, or will you need to stretch it out over a few years? Doing it all at once is better but may not fit in your budget.
If you need to finance the project, what options are available to you? An Energy Improvement Mortgage can be a great option.
What incentives can you draw on to help cover your costs? Are there utility rebates or government tax incentives in your area?
Are there any historical preservation restrictions or objectives? If it's a really old house or in a historic district, you may be limited in what you can do.
How far will you go with the improvements? Just make it comfortable and safe? Deep energy retrofit? Net zero energy consumption?
Who will manage the work? On larger projects, hiring a pro will probably be worth the extra cost.
What health and safety problems need to be addressed first? A natural draft furnace in that hall closet is a high priority.
Will you be replacing HVAC equipment? If your furnace or air conditioner is more than a decade old, it's at least time to start planning for it.
Will you need to add mechanical ventilation? Air-tight homes need fresh air.
Does switching fuels make sense for you? In some cases, you might want to get rid of your natural gas, propane, or oil-burning heating equipment and go with electric heat pumps. In other cases, you might want to switch from electricity to gas, propane, or oil. You've got to look at the numbers to make this determination.
Should you add photovoltaics to generate solar electricity? If you're planning to go net-zero, the answer is probably yes.
What materials do you want to use? Some people want to use natural materials as much as possible, or materials with low or no VOCs.
What's the proper sequence for doing the work? As mentioned above, getting this right not only saves money and time, but also can affect health and safety.
Keep in mind that this list of questions is not complete. Every house has unique characteristics and will require a solution tailored to its needs and your goals for the project. Working with a pro can help you come up with the one appropriate for you and your home.
Following the critical path
Seth Godin's article today is titled Understanding Critical Path and fits right in with this discussion. As he writes, "Critical path analysis works backward, looking at the calendar and success and at each step from the end to the start, determining what you'll be waiting on." Again, it's all about planning. Knowing what you have and where you want to go with it. Thinking through all the steps and giving your project the greatest possibility for success.
Back to Einstein's quote - Remember, he said he'd spend most of his time thinking about the problem before trying to tackle the solution. Once you have a thorough understanding of what you're dealing with, it's a lot easier to know what to do.