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Community and Q&A

Strategies for Decent Energy Retrofit Payback Period

RayT_817 | Posted in General Questions on

Looking to upgrade a 1 story ranch built in 1950 with a full basement in climate zone 4A (ny metro area). I’ve listed the details below. I’m looking for ideas with a decent time of payback rather than full on deep energy retrofit.

– Frame house with brick veneer all around. Veneer appears to be in good shape
– Traditional vented room with gable ends with a fan for powered ventilation. I plan to disconnect the fan, seal the attic, and increase insulation to R60.
– Gas powered hydronic radiators for heat
– Through the wall AC units / no ducting in the house. I will get rid of these, close the holes, and install mini splits
– Chimney brick fireplace: I do not plan to use this, but not sure if taking it out would be worth it
– Windows are mixed between wooden single pane and dual pane windows throughout the house. I probably will replace them all as I have a lead paint concern.
– I don’t know what type of sheathing is in the house
– Plaster walls on main floor, probably original with no insulation
– Basement was finished in the 2000s with drywall. I will need to find a way to insulate the rim joists.

I want to add insulation in the walls, but I’m not sure how to go about it. I thought of two ways to go about this.
1 – As this house was built in 1950 and may have lead issues (waiting on inspector), I considered just taking down the plaster walls and replacing it. This would give me a chance to insulate, maybe add a smart vapor barrier, and update the electrical if needed, but I’m not sure if it’s cost effective.
2 – Use a service that fills the wall cavities without demolition.

Any suggestions are welcomed. Thank you all for taking the time to read my question.

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  1. jenniferz5 | | #1

    Hi Ray,
    I am not a pro, but I have nearly completed updating my 1950's ranch here in NW CT.

    Also test for asbestos - I found it in my basement's ceiling tiles and in the mastic under the vinyl tiles in the kitchen; it is in most popcorn ceilings (I didn't test mine because I'm not going to disturb them) and pipe insulation in homes of that era. I might worry that mortar or brick veneer (could be cement to look like brick) would have asbestos, too.

    Like you, I have a strong desire to replace my single pane windows. They are so flimsy, my son broke one pane just pushing the window open! However, you will find that folks here - I am one of them now - feel that the quality of the wood you may never again find; plus, payback time for those new windows is just not worth it. Here is a great website for wood window restoration suggestions and solutions:

    Re: insulation, I have found that my walls are incredibly thick and filled with what appears to be fiberglass batts enclosed in black paper. Once I closed up various leaks in the home and super-insulated the attic, the walls weren't an issue.

    Finally, my best advice is to get a professional HERS inspection (not from the electric company!) It costs $1000-1500, and is easily the best money I have spent on my home.

    1. RayT_817 | | #3

      Thanks for the suggestion on the inspection. I'll add that to the inspector's task list.

      If you don't mind some additional typing, would you mind listing out what you did and the time it took?

      Also, how did you find your HERS inspector. When I try to google Energy Auditors Near me, all of them seem to be spray foam contractors.

      1. jenniferz5 | | #7

        I found my HERS rater from RESNET here:

        I have owned my home for five summers and most of those years have been in damage-control, rather than beautification (as I had hoped!) Here is a list of everything I can think of; let me know if you have any questions:
        -HERS rating and Manual J calculations
        -Lead and asbestos spot tests (I used the DIY tests that you send to a lab from Green Building Supply)
        -Added 7" of Rockwool Comfortbatt to attic (on top of fiberglass batts that were there already)
        -Attic door insulation "box"
        -Attic Smart Baffles
        -Excavation around the crawlspace (which was making us all sick due to obvious mold), french drain, bitumin coating on the concrete block covered by Rockwool Comfortboard 80, and gravel around the house
        -Standing seam metal roof with 12' overhangs (my roof is 5.5/12, so I couldn't go out any more - there were no overhangs at all and lots of water damage on siding)
        -Replaced all siding with Western red cedar lap siding (the existing cedar shakes had been replaced and repaired many times, and I had to repair water damage)
        -Encapsulated the crawlspace with plastic (as thick as I could get at one of the big box stores) and taped all seams
        -Rockwool Comfortboard 80 in rim joists (still working on this - not a pleasant job!)
        -Rockwool Safe 'N Sound in crawlspace and basement ceiling (still working on this)
        -Santa Fe Compact 70 dehumidifier runs 24/7/365 in center of crawlspace
        -Removed old oil tanks, furnace, and ductwork (there is a Q&A on here about that with great info from the pros) and replaced with MRCOOL 27k DIY Ductless Minisplit with 3 heads: 12k in main room, 9k in kitchen, 9k in bedroom hallway; filled all air vents with Rockwool, but left them in case I want to use them later
        -Panasonic WhisperGreen in bathroom
        -Hearthstone Clydesdale wood-burning insert (that really covers heating for the entire house all winter!)
        -Miele heat pump washer and dryer
        -Cork floating floor over Quiet Walk underlayment in entry (over vinyl floor with asbestos mastic underneath)
        -Painted the nearly rotten (due to water damage) and a bit moldy/musty smelling plywood underlay in entry with Caliwel Paint (encapsulates mold and doesn't allow it to regrow - so far it is working)
        -Austin Air Healthmate air purifier for house
        -Hygrometers for main floor and basement to keep an eye on humidity
        -Moved the kitchen from what is now the entry (the front door would open into the 7' x 14' kitchen!!) to the old sunroom (16' x 13' :)) using recycled, solid wood cabinetry from Renovation Angel (which included a drawer dishwasher)
        -Replaced exterior doors that were rotting
        -Caulked the heck out of everything
        -Planted around the exterior with plants that soak up water and/or divert water from the foundation (I am on the wrong side of a hill)
        -Added ethernet to all rooms

        Ready to install:
        -Cadet SoftHeat baseboard heaters for the main room and bedroom hallway as backup heat in case we can ever travel again
        -Panasonic WhisperWarm in laundry room
        -Cork floating floor and Quiet Walk underlayment in kitchen
        -Siga Fentrim window flashing

        Surely I am forgetting some things, but you get the idea. It wasn't all at once and is still a work in progress, but it seems that something always comes up. My last house was built in 1915 and the only thing I had to do was replace the 25-20 yo boiler! GBA has been a life saver.

  2. GBA Editor
    Kiley Jacques | | #2

    Hi Ray,

    This sounds like an ambitious and admirable project. It so happens that Martin Holladay wrote about the topic at the heart of your question: Payback Calculations for Energy-Efficiency Improvements. I hope it proves helpful.

    1. RayT_817 | | #5

      Does "ambitious" subtly mean expensive and time consuming?

  3. charlie_sullivan | | #4

    Is the fireplace on an external wall? If so, there's probably a lot of thermal bridging through that.

    If it's internal, consider removing the brick down to the attic floor level.

    1. RayT_817 | | #6

      It's actually in the middle of the house. Why only remove it halfway?

      1. jenniferz5 | | #8

        We had two fireplaces in the middle of our house - one is the main fireplace, the other was in the sunroom/now kitchen. I wanted to remove the sunroom fireplace in order to have more room in the kitchen. Due to the age of our home, every single contractor (and fireplace company) that I spoke with said that it would be too expensive and dangerous to remove it. Instead, I insulated the fire box and covered it with drywall (this was recommended by the fireplace company and several contractors). If you want to keep it, the inserts nowadays are great.

    2. rondeaunotrondo | | #10

      Charlie, can you elaborate on this comment? I haven't seen this recommendation for chimney removal.

  4. mgensler | | #9

    I'd recommend getting a blower door test done with thermal imaging. The cost in our area for a 4,000 square foot house is $400. This will give you a good plan to start fixing the items that have the best return of value and comfort. You might find that the uninsulated walls aren't that big of an issue compared to other things. That's what we found. We're in zone 4a with a 1960 ranch w/ 2004 addition. The original house wasn't too bad until the previous owners modified it in 2004. Lots of holes were made in the envelope that we are in the process of fixing.

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