Green Solutions for an Old Home

Modern control systems and creative problem solving help cut energy use in this charming 103-year-old house.


A Control4 system helps the Varns manage energy in their home.

Old, historic homes are notorious for being cold and drafty. Scott and Sam Varn’s Asheville, NC, bungalow was no exception. “Even here in North Carolina winters can get very chilly and cold air would just pour in,” says Scott. “Homes like ours waste, on average, five times more energy than modern homes.”

Sealing the Deal
The Varns could have easily sealed up their home by putting in new energy-efficient windows, but that wouldn’t have set too well with their local historic resources commission. Built in 1905 by renowned architect William Sharpe Smith, the 2,100-square-foot residence is one of his designs featured in the Montford Historic District, as well as the National Register of Historic Places. To remove the original leaded glass windows would have upset the home’s architectural integrity. Fortunately, there were other less intrusive options that would afford the Varns a greener, more energy-efficient lifestyle.

Renovating the old home is nothing new to Scott. As co-owner of Harmony Interiors, an Asheville-based home systems installation company, he’s dealt with his share of inefficient homes. He knows that technologies like home automation systems and dimmable lighting definitely make an impact, but first he had to take care of that awful draft.

Draperies were one of his first lines of defense. Heavy fabric curtains were hung on the north-facing windows to help insulate the house from the cold outdoor air. The south-facing windows were kept uncovered during the day to collect the warmth from the afternoon sun. Secondly, Scott sealed up the electrical outlets. “When this house was built, electricity was still a bit of a novelty, so many of the outlets didn’t have back boxes,” he explains. “Even the outlets that were added later weren’t sealed correctly.” These outlets, in addition to old-fashioned door locks, provided open avenues for the outdoor air to enter. Fresh caulk and new gaskets did the trick, creating a stable indoor environment that could now be effectively managed by high-tech home systems.

Reducing Waste
After replacing the existing oil furnace for a gas unit, Scott installed a Control4 home management system. This would allow him and Sam to better regulate the new Control4 thermostat that went in place of the old unit. Scott programmed the new thermostat to adjust automatically based on the time of day. Having it set back automatically at night has helped somewhat, says Scott, but what’s made the biggest difference in their energy usage are the Control4 keypads. “My wife and I are like most people,” says Scott. “We waste a lot of energy simply because we forget to turn things off.” Mounted to the walls in prime locations, the keypads let the Varns adjust the thermostat remotely by just pressing a button. A goodbye command, for example, lowers the thermostat to an energy-saving daytime setting of 50 degrees. When the Varns return home, a hello command returns the thermostat to its original setting of 62 degrees. That may still seem a bit chilly, but Scott maintains that it’s the most energy-efficient level for this particular house. “The furnace can get the house from 50 to 62 degrees in about 10 minutes and can maintain that setting easily,” he explains. “It’s kind of like driving 55 for better gas mileage. To go faster would burn more gas, just as raising the temperature to 68 degrees would have required that the furnace run constantly and eat up more energy.”

Lightening the Load
There was no reason for the lights to run on full power, either, thought Scott. By swapping the home’s original toggle switches for Control4 dimmers and plugging table lamps into Control4 dimmer modules, the same commands designed to lower the thermostat could now also turn off the lights. The only exception would be at night. When the goodbye mode is engaged in the evening, the Control4 system keeps a few fixtures dimly lit so that Scott and Sam can see their way out of the house. The lights gradually fade out over a five-minute time period.

Even when the Varns are home, the lights are rarely on at 100 percent. “You can save a ton of energy just by dimming the lights a little bit,” says Scott. The lamps in the living room, for example, are set to go to a 40 percent intensity level. They’ll ramp down even further—to 10 percent—when the Varns engage the movie time button on the Control4 handheld remote.

As committed as the Varns are to curbing energy use, they weren’t about to trade all the incandescent bulbs for notably more efficient compact fluorescent bulbs. “Like most older homes, this house has very few overhead lights,” Scott explains. “So there are times when we need 100-watt incandescent bulbs to adequately illuminate the space. We can always dim those lights when we need to.” In some areas like the central stairs and the basement, the Varns opted for Energy Star-rated compact fluorescent bulbs. Although they can’t be dimmed, they use 75 percent less energy than traditional incandescent bulbs.

Efficient Entertainment
It’s easy to recognize the green aspects of controllable thermostats and dimmable lighting. The benefits are a little hazy, however, when it comes to entertainment systems. Plasma TVs, amplifiers, receivers and DVD players suck up their fair share of electricity, and the best way to cut their consumption is to simply turn them off. That’s exactly what Scott and Sam do, but with a twist. With the help of their Control4 home management system, the Varns can switch off every A/V component whenever they engage the goodbye or goodnight commands. In addition to eliminating wasteful energy consumption, this setup will help extend the life of the A/V equipment. “That $350 bulb in our Sony video projector will last a lot longer if we keep the projector off when we’re not using it,” says Scott.

Steps in the Right Direction
Going green in a 103-year-old house hasn’t been easy, the Varns admit. “There’s no exact formula: It takes a lot of experimentation and you need to really understand your old house to make green products and systems work for you,” says Scott.

He and Sam lived in their bungalow for six years before jumping on the bandwagon, and when they did, they greened-up their home gradually, making sure that each new addition would provide tangible benefits. “We didn’t want to save pennies to waste dollars,” Scott says. So far, the Varns’ plan seems to be working.


Comments are closed.