Homeowners in the mid-Atlantic are embracing the principals of green living while respecting the area’s history./Photographs by Dan Lidon
Whether residing in a Victorian mansion or postwar split-level, homeowners are discovering affordable ways to make existing homes more energy efficient.
Darren Wright knows a thing or two about old houses and drafty windows. Wright and his wife, Karen, own a castle-like mansion in New Castle called Lesley Manor, built in 1855 and on the National Register of Historic Places. Purchased by the Wrights in 2006, the mansion has 39 rooms spread over 13,000 square feet. More importantly, Wright says, “It has 99 windows, and each one is different.”
Although most people might not realize it, drafty windows and doors are among the biggest energy-wasters in any old house, not just mansions. Wright says that while the couple hasn’t been able to deal with all 99 windows at once, they have gradually installed new custom-built storm windows, “which makes a massive difference in energy savings.” And while the Wright home is not within New Castle’s historic district, “We’re trying to stay as close as possible to the historic nature of the house,” he says.
At $150 to $900 per window, the couple is willing to forgo some niceties to continue their upgrades.
“Every year we put up more storm windows,” Darren says. “Often it’s a case of, ‘Happy birthday, honey! I bought you a new storm window for a present!’”
Meanwhile, in the Brookside neighborhood just east of Newark, Carol Maker is undertaking a similar energy makeover in the postwar split-level house where she spent her childhood. “My family moved here in 1955,” she says. “The house was brand new.”
After living in Oregon for several years before returning to Delaware, Maker is now going through the step-by-step process of doing an energy upgrade of her new old home, adding major insulation in the third-floor attic in line with an energy audit she did after moving back.
“I was shocked by how little insulation the house had, although I remember as a kid it being too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter. I’m still feeling my way through the process,” Maker says. “Insulating the crawl space under the house is next.”
Just southwest of Glasgow, Kim and Scott Witman have decided to go solar after having looked at the technology several years ago. “The cost was exorbitant back then,” Kim says, “so we put it on the back burner.” Now, after almost 28 years of living in their attractive, single-level brick home positioned on a large lot, installing rooftop solar panels makes economic sense. “We figured that it will be paid for in about seven years,” she says.
Homeowners in the Mid-Atlantic region are discovering that not everything that’s green about their houses has to be the color of the mold that the local humidity regularly deposits on their exterior siding. They are deciding to stay in their older houses longer and investing to make them more energy-efficient.
There are a variety of reasons for these decisions, including the obvious ones of having more comfortable places to live during hot summers and cold winters, and saving money on fuel costs. But there is also a cultural vibe brought on by concerns about climate change, spurring people to take on the responsibility of helping save their small corner of the planet. And homeowners are finding multiple ways to reach these goals.
Call it the “greenification” of the neighborhood.
To speed up the process, both federal and local governments are encouraging this residential renaissance through tax credits and other financial incentives and by sponsoring programs that ensure that energy efficiency reaches homeowner in all parts of the state and at all income levels.
“Each year, we help about 240 homeowners become more energy-efficient,” says Brad Whaley, director of community development and housing for Sussex County. To qualify, the homeowner must have an income that falls under 80 percent of the county’s median, have paid taxes and insurance, and live in the renovated property as their primary residence. In return, the total expenses for the energy fix are paid for by the county, which puts the upgrade contract up for bid and then oversees its execution.
As with the Wright mansion in New Castle, Whaley says one of his biggest problems is windows. “Of the 240 or so houses we repair each year, I would guess that the major energy needs for around 200 of them are better windows and doors,” he says.
There are many ways that upgrades are being made to make homes both more energy-efficient and greener in general. Among them:
- Interior insulation and house wraps
- Energy-efficient windows and doors
- Alternate sources of fuel, such as solar, natural gas and geothermal
- More efficient heating and cooling systems
- More efficient appliances, from water heaters to refrigerators
- Smart home monitoring systems that better determine when and where heating, cooling and lighting are needed based on family activities
- Deciding which areas of a home consistently need more or less heating or cooling
“Thinking green” by deciding where energy use can be reduced, reusing products, recycling and buying environmentally friendly cleaning and gardening supplies
RELATED: 10 DIY Energy Upgrades for the Home
Vince and Elizabeth Moro have waded through many of the choices. It is a raw afternoon in late November, and the residue from a midday drizzle still hangs in the air. “Come around 4:30 p.m. while there’s still light,” Moro says in his email invitation to visit the 1800s farmhouse located roadside on a slope leading down to the Brandywine. The couple are currently living in half a house, having moved into the renovated portion while the other half is undergoing its makeover.
Like many farmhouses from the 18th and 19th centuries, the Moro property was originally a small dwelling with a stone foundation. As the farm became more prosperous and more children joined the family, additions were built. Over the years, the building went through subsequent metamorphoses as 20th-century owners added electricity and plumbing.
These later upgrades were mainly just cobbled together without the residents attempting to systematically make the place both comfortable and attractive. But the Moros were not content to live in a proverbial “drafty old farmhouse,” instead doing a complete redesign to make their home more inviting and more energy-efficient.
“Every year we put up more storm windows. Often it’s a case of, ‘Happy birthday, honey! I bought you a new storm window for a present!'”—Darren Wright.
We walk first outside around the stone foundations of the house, where Moro points out the new, long-lasting copper roof. Inside the gutted section, with its exposed beams and unfinished walls, Moro, equally comfortable as a business entrepreneur and a hands-on fixer-upper, points out what he is doing and what still needs to be done.
“We’ve sprayed in open-cell insulation between floors,” he says, explaining that open-cell better fills in between the wood joists. Closed-cell insulation has a higher R-value (the measurement of a material’s resistance to conductive heat flow) by itself, but experts explain that when evaluating the efficiency of a whole wall or ceiling/floor, there isn’t that much difference. Plus, he notes, open cell provides better sound insulation.
Rather than relying on a furnace, the Moros are converting to zone heating and cooling by using mini-split ductless heat pumps to heat individual rooms or zones, the same solution Maker is considering to replace her old oil heater. Each unit costs several thousand dollars, but that cost can be recouped within a few years. Additionally, the Moros have resisted the temptation to have high ceilings—big energy wasters—in their reconstructed rooms.
For hot water, Moro has already installed a Navien two-zone tankless gas water heater that provides hot water on demand. “I can see no reason to store and continuously reheat 40 to 60 gallons of hot water,” he says. He is also installing more efficient Anderson 400 Woodwright windows throughout the house. The Moros do have one indulgence—a new fireplace. Fireplaces can be notorious energy wasters even while temporarily providing cozy comfort. “But I’ve installed cold air vents to the outside within the fireplace,” he says, “so there’s less air from the room going up the chimney.”
Like Moro, the Wrights in New Castle have also gone to zone heating and cooling, now with seven zones supported by heat pumps, compared with the two in place when they bought the property. In addition, they do in their large house what people should do in their smaller homes, particularly as children move out—shut the doors and close off heat ducts to unused rooms. The house’s design helps—pocket doors throughout can be closed to seal off large rooms. In at least one former fireplace, the couple has installed a rebuilt antique gas space heater that provides warmth without the inefficiencies of a traditional fireplace.
Of course, one of the trendiest, if no longer the newest, ways to address efficiency makeovers is through solar energy. “The first thing that people need to do before deciding whether or not to install solar energy is to look at what’s possible” both structurally for the house and financially for the family budget,” says Dale Davis, president of CMI Solar and Electric in Newark, which has been installing home solar panels for 20 years.
“Older houses are in some ways the most space efficient for solar,” he says, as they generally have larger, uninterrupted roof space, although minor reinforcements may be needed to support the extra weight of the paneling. Next, an energy audit will give an idea about how much solar paneling is necessary and how long it will take a homeowner to recoup the expenses of buying and installing a system.
In most cases, Davis says, the new solar house is permitted only to provide a maximum 110 percent of the anticipated energy the house will need. The energy bill from the utility company will be reduced accordingly. “We tell clients it will normally take seven to 10 years to break even, even if they get a loan for the project,” Davis says. However, homeowners interviewed for this article reported actual or projected paybacks within six to eight years.
Part of this calculation is figuring in government programs, such as tax credits, which encourage switching to solar. Basically, the federal Consolidated Appropriations Act will allow a 26 percent tax credit for solar systems installed during 2020 and 22 percent for 2021. There is no maximum credit, and the home can be a primary residence, vacation home or rental property. Davis estimates basic solar home installation costs about $20,000 before rebates and credits and about $12,000 after.
The Witmans’ Glasgow residence is a good case in point. “We decided to begin by replacing our roof, which was 20 years old,” says Kim Witman, “so the project cost was somewhat higher—about $38,000 for the roof, the paneling and the installation. We decided to pay $11,300 out of pocket and took out a loan for the rest. The federal tax credit [which was 30 percent in 2019 when their project was undertaken] reduced that by $11,400, and a Delaware tax credit by another $3,000. So we figure we have a net cost of about $23,000, which we financed at $266 a month for 10 years. With the utility savings, we figure after seven years it will have paid for itself.”
State Rep. Paul Baumbach recently moved into a 30-year-old one-level house north of Newark, and he is looking for a similar return on his investment.
“I drive an electric car, and we would have had solar energy installed at our previous house, but it was in the woods,” he says. “We had to have the roof shored up on our new place, so the total work took about seven days.”
Baumbach also had to have a tree next to the house removed that would have shaded parts of the roof’s four sections of paneling. “But we’ve already put a new tree in further from the house,” he reports. Baumbach expects a seven-year return on his investment.
Tom York, who with his wife, Mary Louise, recently moved to Milton from North Carolina, had 22 solar roof panels installed over the course of two days at their Sussex County home. “I really appreciate that $20-a-month electricity bill,” Tom says. “Previously, the monthly bill ran about $100.”
Less glamorous than solar energy but quite effective and cost-saving are energy-efficient appliances such as refrigerators, freezers, washers and dryers. As older appliances need to be replaced, one way to help the environment and the utility bill is by purchasing appliances that come with the Energy Star label. Energy Star is an EPA-sponsored program that endorses appliances that meet its standards.
The Energy Star website, energystar.gov, states that if every appliance purchased in the U.S. this year were Energy Star certified, it would prevent greenhouse gas emissions equal to those from 215,000 cars and save $360 million in annual energy costs.
Although the smart home technology that tends to get the most attention might be doorknob cameras that allow you to talk to potential burglars while you’re having dinner 20 miles away and devices that allow you to watch your pets while you’re visiting grandma, smart home devices can help you conserve energy as well—whether or not you are at home.
The list begins with smart thermostats that control home temperatures based on family routines, both while you’re at home and when you’re away. Additionally, there are smart sprinklers, electrical plugs and lighting, as well as automated blinds to manage how much sunlight rooms receive.
In addition to federal tax credits and assistance programs for lower-income families, there are also other energy programs sponsored by the state and by utility companies. Energize Delaware has several programs to encourage making old homes energy efficient, including total home energy audits. More information can be found at energizedelaware.org.
Carol Maker’s energy audit, performed by a private contractor, helped her identify and prioritize needed improvements, starting with added insulation. “The audit cost me $400, but $300 of that was covered by Energize Delaware, plus they installed free energy-efficient LED lights throughout my house.”
Delmarva Power, an Exelon Company, doesn’t offer in Delaware the incentives for improved home energy efficiency that it offers in Maryland, but the company continues to provide energy integration for customers who also use solar power.
“As of Oct. 31, 2019, approximately 5,634 Delmarva Power customers in Delaware had installed private solar at their residence or business, totaling around 63 megawatts,” says
Delmarva senior communications specialist, Timothy Stokes.
“We do have net energy metering in Delaware, so customers who generate their own electricity with renewable energy sources can interconnect with the electric grid and receive bill credits for excess generation,” he says. “A special net-capable meter measures the energy a customer uses off the grid and the excess generation the renewable system provides onto the grid, and calculates the difference, or ‘net.’”
Maker, who was required to have a professional energy evaluation before she sold her home in Oregon and voluntarily did one when she moved back into to her home in Newark, says. “I think energy audits should be a requirement in Delaware. If you want to make your home greener, an energy audit is where it all begins.”