Energy Upgrades


By Robert J. Lytle, CR

Many homeowners find themselves asking "Where do I start with this whole energy efficiency thing? I want to make my home more energy efficient, but everyone I talk to tells me something different. Who should I listen to?"

Energy Efficient Houses Modifications, such as sealed attic the access shown here, improve insulation and reduce airflow.

Most of us are beginning to feel the pain of increasing energy costs, which will only get higher in the future. Living in an older home--especially an older home in an historic district - adds to the frustration because you don't want to do anything that would damage the home or its historic fabric. In addition, everyone is selling their own "solution." The window guy is saying replace your windows. The heating contractor is saying replace your furnace, your air conditioner or your heat pump. The plumber is telling you to install a tankless water heater and the solar guy is recommending his products as the ultimate solution.

First, consider just what you want to do with regard to energy and the environment. Do you want to approach it from the "energy efficiency" perspective or, from the "energy conservation" point of view? And what, you ask is the difference? Briefly, the energy efficiency approach favors action like replacing the air conditioner with a more efficient unit. The energy conservation perspective encourages reducing non-renewable energy use and its subsequent environmental damage. An environmental conservationist may choose to go without air conditioning entirely. The former doesn't require life style changes while the latter does.

Energy efficiency and conservation are about decisions, and informed decisions always give the best results. So first of all learn as much as you can about what's going on with your house. Where is it drafty? Are there fireplaces that you don't use? If so, they should be blocked because chimneys are exhaust ports to the out-of-doors. Check your doors. Can you see daylight around your entry doors? Get down on your hands and knees to check the threshold seal. If you see light or feel drafts, the edges should be resealed with new weather stripping.

Energy Efficient Homes Weatherstripping your doors is an inexpensive way to reduce heat loss.

When examining these places, you are inspecting the "envelope" of your house. The envelope is where heated and cooled space meets unconditioned space. It typically includes the ceiling and walls of the top floor, the walls and floor of the first floor.

Think about walking out on the porch with guests as you say good-bye. Close the door behind you instead of standing there chatting for another few minutes with the door wide open. Are all the storm windows closed except those you've opened for natural ventilation? Is the thermostat turned to 68 degrees or lower in winter and to 75 degrees or higher, in summer? And don't forget the small things. Do you turn off the water while brushing your teeth or shaving?

The next step on the efficiency track is to have your house tested. Have an evaluation done that includes, at minimum, a "blower door test". You might well wonder where is your home's blower door? You've never heard of it, much less had it tested, you say.

Blower Door Test Richmond A blower door test can estimate where energy is escaping from a building's envelope.

A blower door test is a test of the airflow through the cracks and crannies of your home. It quantifies the amount of air that's moving through the envelope and consequently allows for estimating how much energy is escaping without providing comfort. Once you know where the problems are, a competent professional can guide you through a menu of options to make your home more comfortable and cost less to heat and cool. With this laundry list, you can make informed decisions over time.

Don't rush out to replace existing mechanical systems. Get your envelope right first, and then you can look at the systems as part of an overall plan. Meantime, minor changes in personal behavior can satisfy your desire to be part of the solution. They'll cost nothing and help keep you young, too.

Door Jambs
Robert J. Lytle, CR (Certified Remodeler), with a BA in fine arts from Washington & Lee University, began working on old Richmond houses over 30 years. He was lead finish carpenter on the restoration of the Virginia Governor's Mansion and is currently president of NARI Central Virginia. (National Association of the Remodeling Industry) A licensed contractor, and principal in SilverHammer Additions, L.C., he specializes in energy efficiency upgrades and serves as an expert witness on construction related issues.

Questions for Bob? Send to


Hi Bob,

My husband and I are considering purchasing a home built in the 60?s, and I have some concerns. They have converted the attic to an upstairs, and I am wondering what kind of problems that may cause energy wise. They have updated the home, but I have heard the house is generally inefficient. They have also converted the garage, and it appears to have been done well. It was originally about 3,000 sq ft and now is 4300 sq ft. Do you foresee any problems that we may have in making a home more energy efficient under these conditions. I am concerned that changing the attic like that may give us some problems in making it more affordable energy wise.


Dallas , TX

Hi Nancy,

My short answer with regard to the energy efficiency of the attic is: Who knows? Did I say short, flip answer? Defining further, you want to find someone competent who can test the house ie. perform an energy audit. After they test it, they will know and can communicate your options to you. I'd suggest that you make an energy audit a prerequisite to purchase in addition to a conventional pre-purchase inspection. You will have a better idea of what you're getting into before you get into it.

Check out this website for resources:

Look down the home page on your left and click on the 2nd USA map icon that says "Find a Certified Rater."

Thanks for your question and good luck!