Vermont Farmhouse Renaissance?

Posted by Energy Wire on April 15, 2010 at 8:49 PM

Is it possible to make an 118-year-old Vermont farmhouse energy efficient?

Well, that's the experiment I'm undertaking, foolish as it might be.

We long ago installed CFLs and replaced the appliances with Energy Star-approved models. Now comes the hard part.

How do we overcome our $2,500 addiction to heating oil? And $1,000 for propane for heating hot water and cooking? And the $1,200 for electricity?

First, call in the certified pros. Enter Chuck Reiss of Reiss Builders and his blower-door contraption. Chuck's professional assessment:  "You have a pretty leaky house."

The numbers don't lie. According to the blower-door test, our home is about ten times as leaky as a newly-built home. The fix?

Seal the basement by foaming the joists and the stone foundation walls. Also, install a highly insulated door just below our bulkhead door to the outside. (Chuck suggests this will be the single-most energy-saving measure we will take.) Here's a photo of the foaming, not pretty, I know, but it's a basement.

Next, rip out the old R-11 fiberglass in the attic and replace it with 18" of cellulose insulation with an R-value of 60. In the process, seal all the cracks.

Then make sure all the external doors and windows are properly weatherstripped.

Finally, tap the sun. Chuck and crew installed a new solar hot water system to replace the 14-year-old, 50-gallon, propane-fired tank that had served us faithfully and warmly. The new system preheats the water via the sun and then relies on electricity to finish the job, making the water shower-ready. Moreover, we installed a timer to regulate the electricity to two hours each in the morning and evening when we're most likely to need hot water. Here's a view of our two solar panels silently doing their job this morning.

The result of all this somewhat-deep retrofitting of an old Vermont farmhouse? First, the temperature in midwinter in our basement increased by ten degrees. Next, the ambient temperature in our bedroom, on the second floor, just below all that new cellulose insulation, increased about five degrees, with no change in the thermostat setting. And so far we have plenty of hot water. I've noticed that the temperature at the solar collection panels has been as high as 160 degrees and we're barely into spring in Vermont.

Still to come is Chuck Reiss's post-construction blower-door test. We'll see if all the retrofitting described and pictured here gets us any closer to a newly-built house.

So what will all this save us? I'm guessing we'll reduce our propane bill by 80% and our heating oil bill by 25%. Our electricty bill will likely increase, perhaps by 25%, since we've replaced some of our propane load with electrons. Stay tuned for actual measurable results, as we move through the warm summer months and inevitably fall back into the cold of a Vermont autumn and winter.

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