Greening a 19th Century Cottage

Quaint can also be comfy with better insulation.

| January/February 2007

Just outside of Ossining, New York, Campwoods Grounds is a group of cottages that a Methodist community built in the 1880s to use as a summer retreat. Unfortunately, the homes' adorable exteriors hide some major problems for year-round resident Pat Cramer, an associate professor of English and women's studies at the University of Connecticut at Stamford. Luckily for her, a few renovations can make the bungalow fabulous inside and out.

Pat bought her cottage in 2003 because it was "affordable and cute." Given her budgetary constraints at the time, she was more focused on purchase price than on maintenance costs, and she didn't anticipate how expensive it would be to heat and cool the house. In fact, her 1,000-square-foot home's winter utility bills range from $400 to $450 per month. She also didn't realize that the home's many building performance problems would make living conditions uncomfortable.

Keeping warm indoor temperatures is important to Pat, especially because she cares for rescued cockatiels and parakeets. To address the winter chill and exorbitant heating bills, she hired a contractor to install a new, energy-efficient boiler. Unfortunately, the house's many other problems conspired to minimize the new boiler's benefits.

The moral of the story: A house is a whole organism with many integral parts, and a homeowner should use a holistic, systematic approach to solving its problems. Given the complexity of the cottage's energy troubles, I invited Andrew Fischer of Choose Green Energy in Mohegan Lake, New York, to assist in the evaluation.

1. Eliminate the Carbon Monoxide Threat

Problem: An old house like Pat's has many potential health hazards-asbestos, lead paint, mold and electrical hazards-yet carbon monoxide is the most immediate threat. This poisonous gas is exhausted from all hydrocarbon fuel-burning appliances such as gas stoves and gas-powered water heaters.

Solutions: To improve indoor air quality problems, Pat needs to vent all combustion appliances to the outside. I noticed the chimney for the hot water heater is too short and is installed too close to the house's rear wall. Pat needs to test this chimney for proper draft. In addition, she should clean and tune the furnace and the furnace chimney annually to improve combustion efficiency and ensure safe operation.

I also recommended one other safety measure: Install carbon monoxide monitors in rooms with gas appliances (kitchen, laundry area).

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