Thick walls, deep eaves, and high ceilings are all reasons why old houses feel cooler in hot weather and warmer in winter than more recent buildings do. Even so, many old houses lack insulation and central HVAC systems, making it hard to retrofit them with the latest in technological advances.

By Mary Ellen Polson

Here are 10 old-house-specific ways to make your home more comfortable and energy efficient, along with bonus tips on tune-ups and swaps.

Turn it Off (or Down)
We’ve heard the drill for years. One of the simplest ways to save energy and cut electric bills is to turn off lights and appliances when not in use. That goes for energy-hogging appliances like flat-screen TVs and internet modems, too. (You may want to invest in a timer that reboots both shortly before the household wakes up.)

That said, more than 40 percent of household energy consumption is generated by heating and cooling. To keep costs in check, install a programmable thermostat, if you haven’t already. For every degree you cut back on heating or air conditioning over an eight-hour period, you’ll save one percent on your energy bills. These devices can be tricky to install, but once up and running, they allow you to raise or lower temperatures automatically, or with a tap on a smart phone: at night, during the day when no one is home, or when the family is away.

Programmables are also a boon for second homeowners; it’s possible to crank up the AC or heat while you’re en route to your getaway place. Depending on brand and features, a programmable thermostat costs as little as $30 or up to $250.

Keep It Clean
Clean your furnace filter once a month, changing it as needed. Dirt can clog mechanical parts, causing the unit to work harder to generate heat. Vacuum registers and vents regularly.

Roll batt insulation at right angles directly over any existing insulation in the attic to reduce heating bills. Then cut pieces to fit edges.

Roll batt insulation at right angles directly over any existing insulation in the attic to reduce heating bills. Then cut pieces to fit edges.

Add Insulation
The easiest way to increase the effective R-value, or thermal resistance, in a drafty house is to add batt or loose insulation between heated and unheated areas—the floor of the attic and underneath floor joists in the basement.

Use a ruler to measure the depth of attic insulation and check behind switch plates to gauge the depth of sidewall insulation. Studies show that adding 3″–12″ of new insulation to an unheated attic can cut heating costs by 20 percent, and cooling costs by 10 percent. Install the new insulation at right angles to the previous layer. It isn’t necessary to use the same type of insulation; you can use the new “no-itch” or poly-wrapped products, which are easier to handle and safer to work with. Similarly, if the basement is unheated, install blanket insulation between exposed floor joists. Add pieces of batt insulation to the area along the top of the foundation where it meets the exterior walls.

Installing sidewall insulation usually requires the help of a specialized contractor. Depending on a variety of factors, your home may be a candidate for loose cellulose or injectable spray foam insulation; both require skill and precision for proper installation.

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