21st Century Homes
Give your older home a facelift a little at a time or all at once—from updating the wiring, plumbing, electric, and aesthetics—so that it’s better than brand-new
WHEN JEREMY McCUISTON AND HIS WIFE, AMBER, inherited his great-uncle’s 1950s-era home on their family’s Todd County farm in the spring of 2009, they got right to work making it their own.
Before the end of the year, they’d installed granite countertops, new cabinets, and ENERGY STAR appliances in their kitchen; swapped their old HVAC system for a dual propane/electric fuel pump; completely replaced the home’s plumbing, electric, and duct systems; added new cellulose insulation in their attic; and modernized the floor plan to combine their kitchen, living room, and dining room into a single great room.
That’s not to mention adding hardwood flooring, crown molding, and energy-efficient doors, as well as painting every room and replacing the old fireplace with gas logs.
By the time they finished, their nearly 60-year-old home felt brand-new again.
“We started five years ago, keeping a folder of home improvement ideas we liked from magazines and online sites,” Jeremy says. “We’re really pleased with how everything came together.”
Like the McCuistons, many Kentuckians are finding that retrofitting their older homes allows for a perfect marriage of the best of older construction—vintage charm, larger lot sizes, and unique curb appeal—and today’s modern amenities.
Burlington resident Robert Prevatte, a former office manager for Cumberland Valley Electric cooperative, feels his 1960s-era ranch will be “better than brand-new” when he completes his total renovation later this year.
Prevatte took the home down to the studs, added a geothermal heating and cooling system, and replaced all the home’s wiring and plumbing. He also plans to repurpose the space once used as the home’s formal living room (which he felt he and his wife would rarely use) with a much more practical additional bedroom, laundry room, and bath.
“This house has 2x6 ceiling joists, and the ceiling has 2x8 beams. They’re just not used anymore. You don’t see those building standards today. (The construction quality) is just outstanding,” Prevatte says.
For some homeowners, like Gail Lincoln of Morehead, increasing their older home’s energy efficiency is the driving force behind the decision to retrofit. For others, enhancing their home’s comfort and accessibility, safety, and overall appearance are the main goals.
And for a few, like Elnor Corgan of Trenton, it’s all about the challenge of making something old, new again.
When Corgan purchased her historic 1830 home in 1988, years as a rental property had left it in disrepair. There were no floors in the kitchen or bathrooms. The sewage system needed to be completely redone. More than 40 windowpanes were missing. It needed a new furnace and air conditioner, a new roof, new wiring, new plumbing, new paint.
“We could see beyond the old paint and the old carpet. We could see that it was a very solid house, with lots of potential,” Corgan says. The house, Woodstock (named when built in 1830 for Sir Walter Scott’s novel), is now on the National Historic Register and a designated Kentucky Landmark.
Whether your home is 60 years or 160, use the following tips to maximize your older home’s potential—and give it a 21st-century facelift in several key areas.
Special note: When working with electrical, plumbing, or HVAC systems, always consult the expertise of a licensed professional.
Replace wiring Replace outdated knob and tube wiring or aluminum wiring with modern PVC-insulated (Romex) wire. Phased out in the 1940s and 1950s, knob and tube wiring is the earliest form of residential wiring. It cannot be grounded or spliced into a grounded circuit. “It’s antique,” says Gary Caton, of Caton Electric and Mr. Electric of Henderson. “It isn’t heavy enough to run modern conveniences.” Some smaller-gauge aluminum wiring, used during the 1960s and 1970s, has been linked with electrical fires and is no longer considered safe. Many insurance companies are now requiring replacement of knob and tube or aluminum wiring before they’ll issue a homeowners’ policy.
Increase your electrical service capacity Add dedicated circuits to areas that need them most, like the kitchen, laundry, media room, or office. Most new homes have, at minimum, a 200 amp service. Some older homes have only a 100 amp service, which may be inadequate to run multiple modern appliances and electronics simultaneously.
Add additional outlets Some older homes have only one outlet per room—a challenge when you’re looking for places to plug in TVs, com-puters, lamps, and more. In new homes, outlets are required within 4-6 feet of a doorway and every 12 feet thereafter. In most cases, experienced electricians can add outlets with minimal cutting of your drywall or plaster. Consider opting for new, tamper-resistant (childproof) outlets, which are now required in all new construction in Kentucky. And while you’re at it, have your family and media rooms wired for Internet and HDMI (high-definition multimedia interface).
Add GFCI (ground-fault circuit interrupter) outlets In new homes, these are required in bathrooms, outdoor receptacles, over kitchen counters, and in garages.
Replace/upgrade your fuse box Homes built before the 1970s may still be using a fuse box (circuit breakers weren’t introduced until the late 1960s to early 1970s). If you have a fuse box, it’s time to consider replacing it, says Gary Caton. “It’s definitely out-of-date, and very hard to find parts for them if something goes wrong,” he says. Some insurance companies are now requiring fuse box replacement before they’ll issue a new policy on the home.
Replace/upgrade your circuit breaker If you currently have an older-model circuit breaker, consider replacing it with a new, “smarter” arc fault breaker, now required in new construction. Unlike older models, these are able to detect arcing (i.e., shorts) within your circuit and shut the circuit down, reducing the chance of an electrical fire.
Have a professional check your panel At least every 10 years you should have a professional inspect your panel or fuse box. Electricians can look for signs of rodent damage or weather corrosion.
Replace wired, AC-powered smoke detectors Because they take a lot of electrical surges and collect dust over the years, smoke detectors become less sensitive over time, and should be replaced every 10 years, Caton says.
(Carbon monoxide detectors also need to be replaced; some manufacturers recommend every seven years, but consult manufacturer’s information to be sure.)
Consider installing a whole-house surge protector This stops the surge at the main panel, supplementing your secondary surge strips in use with TVs and computers.
Consider adding a mechanical interlock system to your breaker panel Doing so will allow you to safely transfer power into your house from a portable generator in the case of a power outage, Caton says.
Consider PEX tubing When it comes time to replace older copper or PVC piping, consider PEX tubing. This relatively new plumbing material is more resistant to freezing and therefore less apt to burst in cold weather, says Mark Schmidt, owner of Schmidt Remodeling in Owensboro.
Install low-flow toilets, plumbing fixtures, and showerheads All toilets and fixtures manufactured after 1994 are mandated to be low-flow, but if your home predates that, you can retrofit existing sinks and toilets to be more water-efficient by installing inexpensive flow restrictors and low-flow aerators.
Add water filtration and garbage disposal Add a whole-house water filtration system, or at minimum, a filter at your kitchen sink. Also add a garbage disposal; however, note that disposals are not recommended if you are on a septic tank. Prospective homebuyers have come to expect these as basic amenities, even in older homes.
Replace your water heater Consider replacing your water heater if it is more than 10 years old or if you’re concerned with a leakage problem. Heating water accounts for up to 30 percent of the average home’s energy budget. Buy the highest electric Energy Factor (EF) water heater you can find, since incremental cost isn’t that high and the dollar savings benefits are continuous. Don’t forget to insulate it, then turn the thermostat down to 120°.
While the hot topic in home remodeling used to be adding home theaters and modern bathrooms and kitchens, today it’s all about increasing energy efficiency, says remodeler Mark Schmidt.
But before investing in new windows or a geothermal heating and cooling unit—both expensive upgrades—first work to make your home as energy efficient as possible through simple, inexpensive fixes, suggests Kevin Osbourn, communications manager at East Kentucky Power Cooperative, who’s been retrofitting his own 100-year-old Winchester home for the past 16 years.
“The things that are quick and easy paybacks, many people don’t do. But they should: Fix leaks in the ductwork. Add attic insulation. If you can see sunlight under an exterior door, make sure it has a good threshold and put in a door sweep and weatherstripping,” Osbourn says.
Roy Honican, residential services coordinator with Blue Grass Energy Cooperative, agrees: first get your home efficient, then consider adding a geothermal unit.
“The house is what determines how long the heating system will run. If you put a geothermal unit in a house that’s real drafty, it’s still going to run all the time,” he says.
Russ Pogue, manager of Marketing and Member Relations at Big Rivers Electric Corporation cooperative in Henderson, confirms:
“It is critical to weatherize and seal your house, duct work, and add insulation prior to planning a new HVAC installation, as this will affect the size and cost of the unit your house will ultimately require. You could save substantial money on both the unit as well as future energy costs if you weatherize and seal your house before installing a new unit.” However, if your unit goes out, you may not have the option.
Adds Pogue, “Always make sure your HVAC professional does a heat loss/heat gain calculation (referred to as a Manual J calculation) when installing new equipment. The unit cannot be sized based on a general guideline of square footage alone.”
Feel free to contact your local electric cooperative for help in interpreting the report, as it can easily be misinterpreted.
For more information on which areas in your home to fix first based on best payback, and more on how and why you should seal leaks first before replacing an HVAC system, download Kentucky Living’s 11-page guide at Kentucky Living's 2010 Energy Guide.
To reduce your home’s energy leaks, Rob Hundley, partner at BACK Construction and its division Comfort Heating and Air Conditioning in Lexington, suggests these simple steps:
Provide proper air sealing for the house Minimize air leaks wherever you find them. Purchase a sealer such as an approved caulk or foam at a home improvement store, and use it to block gaps around light fixtures and bath fans leading up into the attic. Use mastic to seal leaks in your air ducts. Use caulk to seal around windows and doors.
Check for proper insulation In the attic, aim for at least an insulation value of R-38, and in your floor, a value of R-19, Hundley says.
(Be aware that many homes in Kentucky built before 1950 have no insulation in their walls whatsoever. Contractors can add blown-in insulation to exterior walls from the exterior or from the interior by drilling only minimally invasive holes in your drywall or plaster. If you have plaster walls, be sure to work with a contractor who specializes in plaster repairs.)
Honican also suggests adding insulation to any area of the house that currently has none, including attic access points, such as pull-down stairs, or the foundation walls of an unfinished basement.
For Kentucky Living’s 2009 and 2010 Energy Guides to more ways to increase your home’s energy efficiency, go to Kentucky Living 2010 Energy Guide or "Kentucky Living 2009 Energy Guide". The 2009 Energy Guide provides a DIY Energy Checkup for locating and eliminating leaks.
Replace outdated fixtures, ceiling fans, faucets, and cabinet pulls. Nothing dates a house as quickly as outdated fixtures. But you can easily shave decades off the look of your house by investing in these simple, do-it-yourself upgrades.
Rethink floor plan If the scope and budget of your remodeling project allow, rethink the floor plan of your home. Older homes’ compartmentalized layouts can date them and often lead to unused space (i.e., formal living or dining rooms that get used only once a year). Moving toward a more open floor plan will make your home feel much more modern than it really is.
Replace flooring and paint Replace worn or outdated carpet and flooring and repaint the walls. Both will go a long way in freshening up your rooms.
MANUFACTURED HOMES can be particularly susceptible to duct leakage, especially those built before 2000, says Roy Honican, residential services coordinator with Blue Grass Energy Cooperative.
Make plans to inspect your duct work yearly, and if you notice a gap, reconnect the ductwork and seal it with mastic.
REMODELING A REGISTERED HOME? If your historic home is part of a local, state, or federal historical building registry, be aware that there may be restrictions to the type and scope of remodeling you can do.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation offers extensive information on ways to achieve your renovation goals while preserving your home’s historic character. Go online to www.preservationnation.org/resources/homeowners for more information.
SIMPLE SAVINGS Go to www.simplesavings.coop for demonstration videos and informative tips on adding insulation and sealing leaks throughout your home.
KEYWORD EXCLUSIVE: KY HOME PERFORMANCE
Want to make energy upgrades to your house but feel uncertain how to pay for them? Go to KY Home Performance for information about the KY Home Performance program, which offers loans to eligible homeowners for “whole-house energy improvements.”