Drafty old Aspen house gets energy makeover
April 22, 2011
ASPEN – It will take years for Bert Myrin and Walt Madden to recoup the funds they spent to make their 1888 Aspen house more energy efficient and self-sufficient, but they regard it as money well spent.
“We got the return on investment the first day,” Myrin said. “We believe you should take care of the mess where you make it. That’s really the return for me.”
Big environmental initiatives will dominate the news Friday, on Earth Day, but it’s the small steps many homeowners are taking that will be vital to conserving energy and reducing greenhouse gas production which causes global warming.
Myrin and Madden bought their house in 1999 and spent a decade throwing money away because of drafts, leaky windows and insufficient insulation. The Victorian house was built in 1888, remodeled and expanded in 1998 and purchased by them a year later. Myrin said the developer met the minimum energy standards during the remodel, which makes sense, from a developer’s perspective. More homebuyers are interested in the quality of kitchen appliances and granite countertops than how well the house performs in an energy audit.
As awareness of energy issues grew, Myrin and Madden got interested in adding solar electric panels to their house, to try to offset their power consumption.
They consulted with Aspen’s Community Office for Resource Efficiency and discovered there were vital conservation steps they should focus on before installing solar. They signed up for a home energy audit with CORE’s help and through thermal imaging learned the problem areas where heat was escaping from their home. The audit showed them several simple steps and a few big ones they could take to drastically conserve energy.
“It’s stuff you already know – you just need to see it,” Madden said.
Cold air was blowing in through electrical outlets, which are poorly insulated. That was easily tackled by installing inexpensive, foam gaskets.
Some of the window frames in the original part of the house had gaps so big a business card would slide through. Caulking addressed the problem.
Warm air pooled at their cathedral ceilings. A special fan now circulates warn air downward.
The simple step of keeping doors closed, especially upstairs, did wonders to conserve heat where it was needed.
They also invested in a meter to assess the electricity their appliances, TVs, stereo and computers were consuming. They adjusted habits to reduce consumption when appliances weren’t on but were in backup mode, and they installed timers on most light switches.
Two of the steps they were most interested in taking weren’t so simple. They had problems with “mammoth ice dams” on north-facing peaks on their steeply-angled roof. Myrin said he used to take his life in his hands crawling out to chip away.
The roof wasn’t insulated well enough, so heat escaped from the attic and would melt the snow then send water to the cold edge of the roof. That resulted in the big ice dam.
They invested heavily in insulating the attic in a couple of ways – insulation that looks like aluminum foil or a shiny, metallic solar blanket was shoved against the ceiling of the attic, on the underside of the roof. In addition, blown insulation was added to the attic floor.
Myrin is pleased to report that he no longer spends the winter chipping away at the ice dam. The insulation stopped the heat loss and took care of the problem, without installing heat tape.
While they didn’t want to disclose how much they invested, the conservation steps are paying off. Their natural gas bill dropped 40 to 50 percent in 2010 and 2011 compared to 2009.
Their second big investment – what they call the “showy” one – was installation of solar electric panels on part of their roof. Their house is subject to Aspen’s strict historic preservation rules, so they could only place the panels where they cannot be seen from Monarch Street. Nevertheless, they were able to install 33 panels in a handful of clusters on their various roof pitches.
They took the extra step of installing a micro-inverter on each panel to maximize the system’s production. They have lots of mini-pitches on their roof. The clusters of panels are daisy-chained, which means they will only produce at the level of the least-productive panel if extra steps aren’t taken. If a panel is partially or completely covered with snow, for example, that will drastically reduce the production of its cluster of panels.
In non-technical terms, installing micro-inverters allows each panel do its own thing. If all panels were south-facing and unaffected by shade, the extra expense would be unnecessary, but that wasn’t possible at Myrin and Madden’s house because of the historic house rules.
They had their photovoltaic system installed in April 2010 and experienced immediate gratification. Their panels produced more power than they consumed in May and June so they received a credit from the Aspen utility.
“We were feeding back into the grid in a 123-year-old house,” Myrin said.
Software on their computers allows them to gauge their system’s production in real time, over the course of its lifetime and any time segment in between.
Myrin said it would have been less expensive to offset their electricity use by planting trees in a South American forest, for example, but it also would have been a cop-out. He believes they have an obligation to take steps at their house to offset their energy consumption at the house. It’s responsible and more gratifying, he said.
Even if the fiscal return on the investment will take a while, their moves have paid big dividends already. They reduced their energy bill enough that they were runner-up in CORE’s Home Energy Makeover Contest. Contestants were judged on how much they reduced their household energy consumption in 2010 from the 2009 level. By finishing second, Myrin and Madden received $500 from CORE. (Glenwood Springs homeowner Steve Vanderleest won the competition and received $1,000 from CORE.)
CORE Director Nathan Ratledge said Myrin and Madden approached the energy makeover in textbook style. They addressed conservation first.
“Eat your efficiency vegetables before your renewable desert” is a popular saying on the conservation and renewable business, Ratledge said.
Their experience is also a good example of how old, drafty houses common in Aspen can be made energy-efficient with some relatively inexpensive steps, Ratledge said. Conservation expenses can usually be recouped in two to five years, he said. The payback on the investment in a home-based solar electric systems is really dependent on individual projects, according to Ratledge.