Front Porch Blog

Two historic homes get some TLC energy

Sean Dunlap and his wife Lynnea McElreath live in a wood-slat farmhouse in Boone, N.C. built in 1938 by Lynnea’s great-grandfather. They bought the house and moved in eight years ago and have been slowly refurbishing the house ever since. Sean describes living in their drafty house in the wintertime as “frustrating and expensive.”

In January, the DIY couple won $800 worth of energy upgrades in Appalachian Voices’ “High Country Home Energy Contest.” John Kidda, a Boone-area home energy contractor, donated an extensive energy audit so they will have a detailed report to use for future projects. He was astounded to find that Sean and Lynnea’s house leaks air 10 times more than an average home.

“Your house is so drafty,” John said to Lynnea during the energy audit, “that it is overpowering the exhaust fans. I’ve never seen that before.”

Starting a family has halted the couple’s progress on most projects due to a diminished budget and time. “Having an infant in a house that gets really, really cold in the wintertime is an additional stress,” says Sean. They have used extra blankets and space heaters to stay comfortable, but, in part due to education they they received from Appalachian Voices, are aware that energy efficiency is the solution.

When she’s not taking care of her children, Lynnea enjoys researching how to modernize their home, which led her to discover Appalachian Voices’ contest last fall. Sean knew their house was drafty, but was at a loss to stop it. “I don’t think we really understood the causes,” he says.

After working with our Energy Savings for Appalachia team, Sean and Lynnea are finding out what they can do to alleviate the exacerbated “chimney effect” of a leaky house.

They had recently installed a wood-burning furnace in their basement, which decreases their heating costs substantially. Before, their utility bills averaged around $330 a month. The insulation and air-sealing they were awarded will ensure that the heated air stays in their house and the cold air stays out. This results in the Dunlaps using a lot less energy to keep their home warm and comfortable in the winter. The energy audit they received as part of the contest gives them a roadmap for future improvements.

Another couple benefits from energy efficiency

Vance and Thelma Woodie also live in an old home. Their historic home near downtown West Jefferson, N.C. was once heated by a coal-stoker furnace. Coal still litters the basement floor. Vance, a Korean War veteran, bought the home with the help of the G.I. bill. It had a major roof leak and they spent all they had to get it fixed. “Back then we didn’t have nothing; we still don’t have nothing,” says Vance.

They have replaced that furnace with a modern one, but the 80-year-old duct system needs updating. There is even still asbestos tape on the duct that heats their kitchen. They had improved the house little by little each year, but when Vance retired, they could no longer afford upgrades on a fixed income.

Even though they close off part of their second floor during the winter, they still spent an average of 15 percent of their income on utility bills before the awarded retrofit. Chuck Perry, program director for North Carolina Energy Efficiency Alliance, completed a walk-through energy assessment of their house as part of their prize. He identified the duct system as the place where the highest energy impact will be seen. The air loses heat as it travels through the ducts, and even warms the basement, because the duct system is not insulated or sealed. This means that the heater has to work even harder to heat the house to the temperature the Woodies want, resulting in a substantial amount of wasted energy.

He also explained to the Woodies a major air quality problem. One of the air intake vents is in the hand-dug basement, which means their heating system is taking up air, and dust along with it, from the basement to heat and distribute throughout the house. “Oh I notice it,” says Thelma. “When it first comes through I usually put my hand over my nose.”

As runners-up in our “High Country Home Energy Contest,” the Woodies have had their duct system sealed and insulated.

“I know it’ll help a whole lot,” says Vance of the energy upgrades he won. Living in the High Country his whole life, he knows that there will be another cold snap before trout season starts, the first weekend of April. The Energy Savings team will be keeping track of his energy use through a partnership with ResiSpeak, a program that takes weather into account when comparing monthly and annual energy usage.

The Energy Savings team is working with a local electric membership cooperative, Blue Ridge Electric Membership Corp., to explore the development of a utility-implemented program that provides a loan for home energy retrofits. Blue RIdge Electric wants to be sure that any new programs do not cost its members. On-bill financing would increase access to energy efficiency to a service territory with a 23 percent poverty rate.

The contest culled members of Blue Ridge Electric that spend a disproportionate amount of money on their energy bills compared to the whole service territory. The average applicant pays more than double on their energy bills than the average Blue Ridge Electric member, and three times the national energy bill average.

Vance says he would take advantage of an on-bill financing program. “People like me can’t come up with the money when they need it,” Vance says, “It would help a lot of people.”

Check out our High Country Campaign where you can sign on to our petition to Blue Ridge Electric or send a letter of support for energy efficiency and ask Blue Ridge Electric to do more for its members.

Eliza Laubach hails from the Midwest though her heart was captured by the Blue Ridge Mountains. She worked with AV from 2014-2016, first as an AmeriCorps Outreach and Communications associate and then as an Energy Savings coordinator, communicating the benefits of energy efficiency to residents of WNC.


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