Can This Home Be Greened? A Pennsylvania Pick-Me-Up

A 1920s Dutch Colonial goes in for the basics: remove toxins, improve efficiency and ensure durability.

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AFM Safecoat's floor finish is nontoxic.

Photo By Liam Goble

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Recent Arizona transplant Joe Keleher bought a 1920s-era Dutch Colonial home in Wellsboro, Pennsylvania, three years ago but had been renting it out while he lived out of state. He’s now moving back into the house and wants to renovate. Joe’s goals include removing or reducing the toxic materials used during the original construction, increasing energy efficiency and lowering the home’s maintenance costs—while spending as little as possible.

As a Pennsylvania Home Energy service provider, my first step was to conduct a home energy audit, which includes a full home inspection; a blower door test, which uses air pressure to find air leaks; thermal (infrared) scans that measure heat and show air leaks and infiltration; and health and safety testing, including heating system diagnostics. In addition, Shaun Pardi, my colleague at Envinity (a green design firm), suggested building materials and techniques that would reduce or eliminate toxins within the home, one of Joe’s main concerns.

Before beginning the home analysis, we interviewed Joe and learned that the basement has a history of flooding. Joe also mentioned that he was concerned about toxins, especially in the home’s outdated carpet. In addition, the home energy audit revealed a general lack of insulation as well as significant air infiltration.

Our final report included a cost-benefit analysis of different energy-efficiency improvements Joe could install in the home; a heat-load calculation for heating system replacement; and a do-it-yourself checklist for Joe to complete.

1. Remove potential toxins

Joe’s chief concern was the toxicity of the home’s materials. Our investigation revealed that the carpets were the major potential source of pollutants.

Solution: First, Joe should remove the carpet. Many carpets are made using chemicals that outgas dangerous volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as 4-phenylcyclohexene, toluene and styrene into the home’s indoor air. Carpets also collect dust, dirt and chemicals tracked in from outdoors.

Because of the home’s age, the subfloor is probably constructed from hardwood or Southern yellow pine. If the subfloor’s condition is adequate, Joe could refinish it using nontoxic water-based polyurethane or a boiled linseed oil finish.

Cost: If DIY, approximately $150. If contracted, approximately $6 per square foot; around $3,000 total.

2. Make the home more durable

A building’s durability is extremely important. Keeping a home dry is the most important issue. Joe’s home has had some obvious drainage issues around the foundation, where water was coming in contact with the house and causing some of the foundation to crumble.

Solution: Joe should contact a landscape contractor to create a swale that would divert water around the house. Additionally, the contractor should raise the grade immediately against the home to encourage water to flow away from it.

Cost: Depending on the type of soil and rock beneath the home, from $1,000 to $5,000.

3. Replace the outdated boiler

Joe’s gas boiler operates at around 83 percent efficiency. Technology on the market today allows gas boilers to operate at up to 99 percent efficiency. An 83 percent-efficient boiler lets 17 percent of the heat escape up the chimney, essentially heating the outdoors in winter.

Solution: Joe should replace his outdated gas boiler with a more efficient model. Takagi and Buderus both manufacture high-efficiency condensing boilers. Joe should order a heat-load calculation to identify the correct-size boiler for his home and climate. Most installers can perform this calculation; online calculators are also available: www.heatload.com/unico/heatloadpreform.htm.

Cost: $8,500

4. Improve energy efficiency

The most important steps toward reducing a home’s energy consumption include air sealing, adding insulation, upgrading the heating system and considering renewable energy systems. Joe’s home has almost no insulation. For most of central Pennsylvania, the U.S. Department of Energy recommends R-25 insulation in the walls and R-50 insulation in the attic (the R-value rates an insulation’s efficacy; the higher the R-value, the more insulating the product). Joe’s walls are constructed with 2-by-4 lumber, which limits space for insulation and means we can achieve only about R-13 in the walls. Joe should add R-50 insulation to the attic.

Solution: To achieve R-50 in Joe’s attic, he should add approximately 17 inches of insulation. Fiberglass, cellulose or Icynene all have roughly the same R-value, about R-3 per inch. Cellulose is the most environmentally benign and could be blown into the attic in a "loose-fill" application; the walls could be "dense-packed" with cellulose to achieve the maximum rating, around R-13.
If he made these fixes, Joe would save about $400 per year in utility bills, qualify for the federal tax credit and may qualify for incentives from state programs.

Cost: Approximately $3,850 for materials and $2,850 for labor (walls and attic)

Joe’s steps to a toxin-free home

After doing his homework, homeowner Joe Keleher made himself a five-step plan to create a healthy, efficient home.

1. Remove/remedy known toxic building materials such as asbestos, lead paint and carpeting.

2. Install water filter systems for drinking and showering.

3. Check incoming water pipes and replace aged or lead pipes.

4. Check basement/crawlspace for potential toxins such as radon, mold, mildew and carbon monoxide. Toxins in the basement will affect air quality in the upper floors.

5. Make certain windows open and shut properly. (Outside air is cleaner than indoor air, even in city settings.)

Liam Goble is a Home Energy Rating System (HERS) Rater and Building Performance Institute (BPI) Multifamily Building Analyst who works for the employee-owned company Envinity Green Design and Construction in State College, Pennsylvania. Envinity designs and builds high-performance homes, installs renewable energy systems and performs energy audits for residences as well as commercial, industrial and institutional clients.