Retrofitting Existing Homes for Energy Efficiency

By Melissa Dittmann Tracey

LAS VEGAS – Targeting existing homes for energy savings will go much further to curb greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. than focusing on newer homes, panelists said Wednesday at a talk on green building during the International Builder Show here in Las Vegas. New homes, in general, are already built more efficient, but older homes can be big energy wasters.

Indeed, homes built before 1983 are to blame for 70 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions related to single-family energy consumption in California, said Mike Hodgson, president of Consol, who detailed results of a study conducted this fall for the California Homebuilding Foundation.

A $10,000 investment in retrofitting a 1960s home for energy efficiency could make a big impact: It could save 8.5 tons of carbon, Hodgson said. Meanwhile, increasing energy efficient of a new home by 35 percent over current state requirements would reduce emissions by only 1.1 tons.

Changes to older homes that are needed include replacing mechanical units that are 20 years or older, replacing water heaters that are 15 years old, and upgrades to ceiling insulation. If such energy savings measures are taken to existing homes, in 7 years, gas emissions could drop by 33 percent in California alone, Hodgson said.

“We’re no longer talking about just putting on sweaters or lowering the thermostat,” added Devon Hartman of Hartman/Baldwin, a design and building firm in Claremont, Calif. “We’re talking about creating energy through efficiency measures.”

Hartman said that green building is “revolutionizing everything we do with building. We’ve been doing things all wrong. We need to put a halt on how we do the insulation, energy, and caulking in a building.”

Hartman, who performs energy audits on homes, says on average he sees duct systems that leak 30 percent and sloppy building practices that haven’t focused on cutting energy costs.

He said more education is needed in the building industry and among home owners on how to retrofit homes for greater energy savings. He also said incentives need to be available from the federal government so people will make the needed changes to their older homes.

Melissa Tracey

Melissa Dittmann Tracey is a contributing editor for REALTOR® Magazine, writing about home & design trends, technology, and sales and marketing. She manages the magazine's award-winning Styled, Staged & Sold blog.

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  1. This is an excellent article highlighting some of the issues around older homes. I look forward to reading more details about how to increase energy efficiency as I’ve been doing lots of my own research within my own real estate practice. Things we’ve looked at so far for my own home/office are rain barrels, CFLs, additional insulation, and renewable floor materials. I’d like to see more about compact wind energy, retro-fitting grey water recycling systems, solar, and anything else you can come up with to share.

    Reba Haas
    Team Reba of RE/MAX Metro Realty
    Seattle, WA

  2. Wow! What a shocking statistic that 70% of greenhouse gasses are from houses built before 1983.

    I felt proud of myself in having a “green” corporate rental (low voc paints, CFLs, energy from wind) until one of my tenants, who works for Xcel energy monitoring the wind for windmills, shed some light on my “do gooding”.

    First, he said that when the wind kicks up they must power down the coal to a very inefficient level.

    Second, he said if Xcel used the money it intended to spent building additional power plants on instead making homes more energy efficient, there would be no need to build the power plants.

    His point was that becoming more energy efficient is the best and first way to be more “green”.

    It’s great to see that the green movement has shifted from “put on a sweater, turn down the heat” to “install triple pane windows, use less heat”. It’s about time we put the technology we use to create comfort to also reducing our energy consumption.

    Reduce, reuse, recycle is suppose to be a hierarchy. Reduce being the first.

    Although we really want to have solar installed, especially with the great rebates in Denver, we have decided that making our home more energy efficient should be our first step.

    Jen Grauer

  3. Lauren R Gould

    I am so happy to see that LEDs are now becoming available mainstream. I am so tired of hearing about CFLs without the attendant but critical warning about MERCURY. What a ridiculous Madison Avenue tradeoff, incandescent for mercury! True, CFLs might be cooler and cheaper, but how many people realize they must be disposed of in a very deliberate way? Precious few. To not do so creates HAZMAT problems.

    That LEDs are now available surely will reduce their cost. At last.

    Please, let’s jump on the LED bandwagon if we have to use lights at all. Daylighting might be the best way, but not everyone can retrofit or choose to build this way. At least LEDs are a great, long lasting SAFE solution!

  4. This is an excellent article. I need to know how my clients should prioritize green projects. Is ceiling insulation #1?

  5. homeowner Carroll
    Hope is important because it can make the present moment less difficult to bear.

  6. This is an excellent article. I need to know how my clients should prioritize green projects. Is ceiling insulation #1?