by Heather Rae
Consider a basement, a typical basement in rural Maine. Call is what it is — a cellah — a five foot high, dirt-floored head-knocker, with a boulder emerging from beneath its easternmost foundation wall. Add some radon, as radon is pervasive in these parts. Throw down some plastic sheathing; ‘affix’ this sheathing to the craggy foundation ledge with bricks and rocks. Tromp all over it in muddy boots. Add to this spider den a new 275 gallon oil tank and an older horizontal Thermapride forced air furnace. Connect the furnace to a badly built, unlined, chimney and a labyrinth of ductwork that heats only the first floor. Note the flexi-duct added as an afterthought to route warm air to the upstairs bathroom. Bring in a metered town water pipe with a spigot that does not entirely turn off the main water supply. Watch the copper plumbing waver unsecured from the floor beams. (See the plumbing break at random joints when James and John go to reconnect the copper pipes to the clothes washer. See the undulating plumbing trickle water, preventing James and John from soldering joints for hours on a Friday afternoon. Hear John ask his wife to take a taxi to a meeting; he won’t be home too soon.) Rejoice that the electrical box and wires appear to be new, functioning and properly installed (although the remnants of knob and tube wiring remain.) Consider that this homeowner would prefer the furnace and the decrepit chimney go away altogether, along with the $1800 cost to line the chimney with steel…steel because the emissions from burning oil are so corrosive. Know that I would also like a tighter, more comfortable, healthier and more energy-efficient house, whether or not this basement, this crawlspace, is included in the thermal envelope…most preferably, not. Can the house be made energy efficient enough to warrant a propane-based heating system? Rephrasing that, can it be done without huge costs for landscaping and water and radon remediation prior to air sealing and insulating? I have been jonesing for PEX (cross-linked high-density polyethylene) that won’t bust in freezing temperatures. It’s easier to install and move and repair. (I’m hoping it’s greener than copper, but that’s another matter entirely.) By replacing the copper with an insulated chase of PEX and foaming the underside of ceiling of the basement can I consider ridding the basement of the furnace and its leaky ducts and removing the chimney? Can I then phase in an on-demand hydronic heating system — the one that will heat hot water, too? It’s all so easy in theory to make a house energy efficient, but these conundrums are as painful as knocking a head on a cellah beam.
Heather Rae, a contributor to cleantechblog.com, manages a ‘whole house’ home performance program in Maine and serves on the board of Maine Interfaith Power & Light. In 2006, she built a biobus and drove it from Colorado to Maine. In 2007, she begins renovation of an 1880 farmhouse using building science and green building principles.