12 Ways to Make an Old Home More Energy Efficient

Just because you have an old home doesn’t mean you can’t save money and reduce your carbon footprint with timely updates.
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This article is part of Old House Appreciation with Bob Vila, a month-long series dedicated to showing you the best places to find historic homes, pros and cons of investing in an older house, potential repairs and precautions, and our favorite examples in a variety of house styles to keep you inspired along the way. We’ve included current market trends mixed with Bob’s tried-and-true advice, our vetted shopping guides, and the behind-the-scenes tips you need to make your old house a home.

Older homes are attractive for their charm, architecture, and historic value. They’re also known to be less energy efficient than contemporary models. Residents of older homes may be concerned that upgrades could sacrifice the special characteristics that attracted them to the house in the first place. However, there are several ways to upgrade an older home to make it more energy efficient without compromising its character. Not only will you save energy by making these changes, but your utility bills will also be lower.

If you’re not sure where to begin, consider doing an energy audit of the home to assess how much energy it currently uses and how much you could save through the simple changes highlighted below.

1. Upgrade the HVAC system.

12 Ways to Make an Old Home More Energy Efficient - hvac close up
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When upgrading an older home, start with the all-important HVAC system that typically accounts for at least half of the utility bill. Check for a clogged filter and other issues that could reduce airflow, causing the system to work harder. It may be necessary to hire a professional for a thorough inspection.

If it’s time to replace the unit, look for one that doesn’t make you choose between comfort and the historic charm of the home. Fortunately, there are now high-velocity mini-duct HVAC systems that allow cooling and heating elements to blend into interior design. By opting for this more compact system, you won’t just bring the home up to date, but you’ll also be saving energy.

RELATED: 9 Energy-Saving Home Upgrades That Pay for Themselves

2. Seal the attic and add insulation.

12 Ways to Make an Old Home More Energy Efficient - man unrolling insulation
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Make it a priority to check the attic for heat loss. Older homes, especially those built prior to 1980, may not have enough insulation. Adding sufficient insulation and sealing up drafts in the attic can help preserve warm air to maintain a comfortable temperature throughout the home. Without it, the heating system will have to work harder, which will only increase costs. Sealing air leaks and adding insulation in the attic will boost energy efficiency and can save up to 10 percent on annual energy bills. You can hire a professional or add the insulation yourself. Be sure that the insulation is about five inches deep, and ask about the optimal R-value for insulation in your area.

3. Address drafty doors and windows.

12 Ways to Make an Old Home More Energy Efficient - weather stripping
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Drafty doors and windows can really put a damper on an old home, but sealing air leaks or installing new doors and windows can make a tremendous difference. Air leaks, typically caused by cracks or holes around windows and doors, provide a way for warm air to escape outside. This leads to inefficiency and higher heating bills. Sealing leaks around doors and windows with caulk, weatherstripping, or putty can save you an estimated 20 percent on heating and cooling costs, according to Energy Star. Also, consider replacing older doors and windows with new ones if there are noticeable gaps causing air leakage, visible damage or rot on the frames, condensation between panes, or if they no longer open and close easily. Vintage lookalikes can help you keep your home’s aesthetic.

4. Swap out old lights for LEDs.

12 Ways to Make an Old Home More Energy Efficient - replacing light bulb
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One of the simplest steps to improve energy efficiency is to switch out old-style incandescent light bulbs for light emitting diodes (LEDs). Not only are LEDs more efficient by using about 90 percent less energy than older bulbs, but they last up to 25 times longer than traditional incandescent bulbs. They are particularly versatile and energy efficient because they produce “directional” light, which means they emit light in a specific direction as opposed to other types of light bulbs. All of these benefits can also lead to cost savings.

RELATED: The Best Energy-Efficient Light Bulbs

5. Purchase Energy Star appliances.

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Replacing existing appliances with more energy-efficient ones labeled with an Energy Star rating can make an older home more sustainable. The Energy Star program consists of a number of appliance categories to choose from, such as induction cooktops and stoves, clothes washers and dryers, dishwashers, air purifiers, dehumidifiers, freezers, and refrigerators. The energy savings can really add up when using a more efficient model. For example, heat pump dryers use about 30 percent less energy than conventional ones.

6. Update the electrical system.

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Something many people miss when updating a house for energy efficiency is the electrical system, a core component of any home. Older homes tend to have run-down electrical systems that can’t function properly with modern appliances and energy usage. Unfortunately, an outdated system can increase the risk for dangerous fires and electrical shorts. It’s a good idea, therefore, to replace the electric panel/ breaker box for both safety and sustainability reasons.

7. Change to a metal roof.

12 Ways to Make an Old Home More Energy Efficient - metal roof install
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Although it could change the look and feel of an older home, the benefits of a metal roof as far as durability and energy efficiency are worth evaluating. While traditional shingle roofs last about 20 years, metal roofs can last two to three times as long.

What makes metal roofs more efficient? They’re attached with a batten/counter-batten system that allows airflow underneath, resulting in a significant decrease in hot air flow and therefore a reduction in cooling costs. They also retain less heat in the summer when solar reflective coating is applied. It’s easier to install rooftop solar on metal roofs, and they’re 100 percent recyclable.

8. Install rooftop solar.

12 Ways to Make an Old Home More Energy Efficient - solar roofing
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There is nothing more intriguing than combining a home’s old-fashioned charm with modern-day, sustainable technology. By installing rooftop solar, about 3,000 pounds of carbon dioxide can be kept out of the atmosphere each year. Plus, solar panels last 25 to 30 years, making them a smart investment in the long run. This is an excellent way to bring an old home into the modern age, while saving money on electric usage long term.

RELATED: Slash Your Electric Bill with 11 Savvy Hacks

9. Get a heat pump.

12 Ways to Make an Old Home More Energy Efficient - heat pump
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Installing an energy-efficient heat pump as part of the HVAC system is another way to upgrade an old home. What makes heat pumps unique is that they both cool and heat a home using a refrigerant and compressor. They pull heat from the outside and transfer it inside. Then the process is reversed to cool the air temperature as needed. This dual-purpose process can save both energy and money over time. Plus, it’s not necessary to buy separate heating and cooling systems.

10. Switch shower heads and toilets.

12 Ways to Make an Old Home More Energy Efficient - shower head
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Sometimes it’s the little things throughout a home that can make all the difference. Replacing shower heads and toilets with more energy-efficient models can result in both energy and financial savings. By installing low-flow shower heads and faucet aerators, up to 2,700 gallons of water and more than 330 kilowatt hours of electricity can be saved each year since there is less demand on the water heater.

Did you know that toilets make up about 30 percent of your home’s indoor water consumption? Older models use way more water with each flush, so replace them with more efficient ones containing the WaterSense label that meet the Environmental Protection Agency’s specifications for water efficiency and performance.

11. Look for leaky faucets.

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Nothing is more irritating than dripping water. Leaky faucets can end up inflating your water bill if not addressed. According to the EPA, the average household’s leaks can result in about 10,000 gallons of water wasted every year. Be on the lookout for leaky faucets, which can happen due to aging plumbing or drain lines.

12. Fix the fireplace.

12 Ways to Make an Old Home More Energy Efficient - cleaning fireplace
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Finally, fixing the fireplace in an older home is an important step in making the home more energy efficient. Fireplaces and chimneys are often taken for granted, but they should be checked and cleaned on a regular basis to make sure they’re operating safely and effectively. Keep fireplace dampers closed when not in use to prevent warm indoor air from escaping through the chimney. Consider bringing in a professional to inspect the chimney, chimney cap, and fireplace, and to make any necessary repairs.