Last year, when reader Joe Keleher dedicated himself to making his 1920s Dutch Colonial home in Pennsylvania toxin-free and energy-efficient, he turned to Natural Home for advice (“Can This Home Be Greened?” November/December 2009). We set up a consultation with two of our green building experts and, after following their renovation recommendations, Joe is feeling healthier and saving $150 a month on utility bills.
Liam Goble and Shaun Pardi of Envinity Design and Construction in State College, Pennsylvania, found several areas where Joe could increase efficiency and improve indoor air quality. His aged carpet harbored toxins; the home lacked insulation; the gas boiler was inefficient; and the foundation’s drainage issues led to frequent basement flooding. Joe immediately got to work, tackling many projects himself.
Joe made renovations last fall in preparation for the harsh Pennsylvania winter—the test to see if his energy-efficiency retrofits worked. The home’s previous tenants paid a monthly average of $250 for utilities. After incorporating Goble and Pardi’s suggestions, Joe paid less than $100 in utility bills during the cold months.
1. Remove potential toxins.
Joe’s biggest concern was removing toxins to improve his health.
Problem Solved: Pardi suggested Joe remove his carpet and refinish the wood floor found underneath to improve the home’s indoor air quality and Joe’s quality of life. Joe sanded the original floor, refinished it with linseed oil and stained it with a homemade product made from brewed tea (see instructions below*). Joe also painted the walls with low- and no-VOC paint and installed water filters on his shower and kitchen sink.
While he can’t scientifically measure the benefits of these fixes, Joe says the air in his home feels cleaner and he feels healthier. “It brings me the peace I needed as I recover from health issues related to toxins,” he says.
Original estimated cost: $150 for DIY; $3,000 for contracted work
Actual cost: $406 for sander rental, linseed oil and tea
*Wood Floor Stain
24 orange pekoe (black tea) bags
1 gallon boiling water
1. Steep tea bags in boiling water. Add more tea bags for a darker stain, fewer for a lighter stain.
2. Once cool, apply to wood flooring with a rag and let dry.
2. Fix the home’s foundation.
Joe’s driveway tilts toward his house, directing rainwater to an already unstable foundation. Drainage problems have cracked and deteriorated the home’s basement walls, which came from a poorly made batch of 1920s cinder blocks with high gravel content.
Problem Solved: Goble suggested Joe hire a landscape contractor to create a swale that would divert water around the house and raise the grade against the home to encourage water to flow away from it. Because of limited funds and time, Joe has not yet addressed the landscaping issues to direct water away from his home. He did replace the crumbling cinder blocks with new ones coated with waterproof finish. He also invested in a sump pump and dehumidifier to control water levels in the basement and keep it dry.
Original estimated cost: $1,000 to $5,000
Actual cost: $948 for foundation repairs, sump pump and dehumidifier
3. Improve energy efficiency.
A home energy audit revealed that Joe’s home had almost no insulation.
Problem Solved: Because the home’s layout offered limited wall space to add insulation, Goble and Pardi suggested that Joe add R-50 insulation to the attic. Goble also suggested replacing the outdated gas boiler with a more efficient model.
Joe spent two days rewiring and adding Guardian fiberglass insulation to his attic. Working in a cramped space made this DIY project challenging. “I was contorting myself over wires and trying not to step on certain areas,” Joe says. Joe also contracted Steve McCarthy of Starbright Energy Services to insulate his walls and basement with R-20 blown-in cellulose insulation. Before and after air-leakage tests showed that adding extra insulation doubled the efficiency of Joe’s home. Because of his budget, Joe did not replace the boiler. Now that the home is better insulated, however, the boiler runs less often.
Original estimated cost: $15,200 (including boiler); $3,850 for insulation materials; $2,850 for labor; $8,500 for new boiler
Actual cost: $11,308 for rewiring, insulation and supplies
5 Steps to a Toxin-Free Home
After our experts visited, Joe made a five-step plan for a healthy, toxin-free home. How’s he doing?
1. Remove and remedy toxic building materials. Joe removed the carpet and painted his walls with no- and low-VOC paint.
2. Install water filter systems. Joe installed an Aquasana filter in his shower and a Brita filter on his kitchen sink.
3. Check incoming water pipes and replace aged or lead pipes. Joe hasn’t addressed this yet.
4. Check basement for potential toxins. Joe had his basement tested for radon and found acceptable levels.
5. Make sure windows open and shut properly. The previous tenants replaced some windows so they would open and shut with greater ease. Joe occasionally leaves them open to allow air to circulate.
What I Learned From the Process
• Remodeling causes a challenging chaos of boxes, tools and dust, but it has its rewards. Here’s what I learned along the way.
• Create a plan. Based on your wants and needs, create a list of what you hope to achieve. Keep a holistic view of the structure and make a complete list of work that needs to be done.
• From your plan, design a logical work flow. Consider your work list in steps. For example, replace old wiring before insulating (electricians don’t like digging through insulation, and they charge accordingly). In hindsight, I should have done wall repairs after the wiring and insulation work.
• Decide what work to contract. While I have some experience with home improvements, I had to contract out some steps. I got as many estimates as I could and was surprised at the differences (the estimates for foundation repairs ranged from $675 to $4,300).
• Be patient and keep your sanity. My home improvements took about three months to accomplish. Stress is part of the process. I did plenty of work myself. I found taking breaks along the way helpful.
• Thank everyone who helps. Working on a house often requires assistance, and you’ll have a number of people to thank.
— Joe Keleher
kitchen sink filter
Erie Energy Products
recycled-content cellulose insulation
no- and low-VOC paint
raw and boiled linseed oil