Anyone reading this is probably familiar with the draws of antique or historic homes: they tend to be loaded with character; beautiful; sturdily built; often featuring quaint, charming and idiosyncratic flourishes, detail-work, decoration and fixtures. The true appeal of old and historic houses, though, is more than the sum of its parts. There’s a basic, maybe indefinable, sense of connection with history, coziness, contentedness and comfort that attends antiquated abodes.
As readers are likewise probably aware, however, there’s a catch attending the inhabiting and upkeep of a house built in a bygone age: the denizens of bygone ages didn’t enjoy access to the most modern heating and cooling amenities. As such, the price of enjoying that old home often includes a sizable HVAC bill. Despair not though, historic homeowners are not without options for reducing that particular expenditure. Read on.
The Three Rs and the P
A couple of quick prefaces are probably in order here. First off- all work on historic buildings should be undertaken with what may or may not be known as the “Three Rs and the P” in mind. Those are: Restoration, Renovation, Reconstruction and Preservation. For the sake of saving space, keep those in mind for all of these steps. Getting in touch with (or looking over the info provided by) the National Trust for Historic Preservation or any number of similar restoration and renovation resources on the web can prove extremely helpful for appropriate methods, supplies and suppliers for improvement work.
Close the Gaps and Pad the Walls
This is the second preface: the first step to undertaking any physical HVAC-efficiency upgrading is sealing off any cracks, gaps, splits or breaks in the outer shell of the building. The most efficient, entirely-integrated, room-specific radiant heating system controlled by a top shelf smart thermostat isn’t going to do much good if hot or cold air is escaping in and out of your house through gaps in its skin.
Obviously, the outer walls should be scanned for any chinks or breaks everywhere, but the air-loss danger zones are anywhere anything breaks the continuity of your framework: pipes, spigots, vents, faucets, wires leading in and out, etc. Check around chimneys- breaks often go unnoticed around them- and be sure that the flue is closed! Another oft-missed biggie: recessed lights. Badly sealed recessed lights often terminate at tubes that lead right up to the attic (the attic will come up again), and those tubes are like straws that draw warm (or cool) air right up to the attic and out of the house.
Check the attic and basement too. As much as 45% of a heating bill can be attributed to a drafty, unsealed and uninsulated attic. Attics and basements also tend to be visited by a home’s owner less often than the space in between, which makes the missing of breaks around pipes, windows, doors, etc., more likely. Though those gaps no less likely to increase your HVAC bill. Wherever you find those openings, seal them off with a caulk or an expanding sealing spray foam.
Once the gaps are closed, insulate wherever possible. Depending on when a home was built, there’s a decent chance that no insulation (or that sub-par insulation) was incorporated into the building. (A house built between the 1930s and the1950s might have asbestos-material insulation. If it’s undamaged, leaving it alone might be the best policy. Asbestos is dangerous when damaged, moved, disturbed, degraded, etc. Never attempt to remove asbestos insulation, and if you’re not sure about the asbestos content, have it checked out.) The takeaway here- close gaps and insulate.
Perhaps the biggest air-loss offenders are doors and windows. Badly fitting doors and windows are both huge culprits, as is missing or degraded weather stripping- check the weather stripping. And double-paned windows are almost always worth the initial investment (which isn’t all that excessive). Plus, if there’s a way to work it into the decorating scheme (or hide them behind nice drapes or something), cellular or “honeycomb” shades are surprisingly effective at increasing HVAC efficiency. For doors losing air at the base, something as simple as a “kick-under” draft stopper can make a big difference.
Working with What You’ve Got
The first step to working with what you’ve got is identifying what you’ve got. Familiarize yourself with your heating system. The pros and cons, failure risks and upgrade options are profoundly different depending on the heating system. For instance, a hydronic heating system (which is more likely in an old home than the now more common “forced air” setups) is easier to convert to radiant heating, and have boilers that can be replaced with more efficient newer models. However, there’s also a risk of leaking, rust and pipe degradation that doesn’t accompany a forced air system.
Of course, this isn’t an exhaustive list, but sealing off a home’s outer framework, insulating it, upgrading the windows, fitting the doors and becoming familiar with a house’s heating system to consider upgrades or replacements- all of that is a great place to start. The earlier-mentioned smart thermostat is real money (and energy) saver. Doing research on this sort of thing is obviously as helpful as doing research on any other subject- very helpful. That’s about it for this primer, so- good luck and good temperature.

Ruben Keogh is a retired plumber, HVAC pro, amateur conservationist and environmentalist, who found his true calling after progressing from apprentice to journeyman blogger. When he acquires the experience, wit and insight necessary for master blogger status, he’ll let you know. Meanwhile, Ruben spends his time daydreaming about snorkeling in Costa Rica, hiking and his lovely wife Gina (not necessarily in that order, or course).