If Someone Offered Free Vinyl Siding

Note: This is going to get a bit lengthy, but if you are interested in my ongoing battle with insulation decisions, read on.

Last week, we had a free post flood assessment offered courtesy of Efficiency Vermont. The organization has really stepped up to help those affected by the flood throughout Vermont. Though I signed up beforehand, I heard more about the post flood assessment at the Button Up Vermont Workshop, and was under the impression that the assessment would address all sorts of flood related problems: moisture, mold, air sealing, insulation, etc. Although insulation wasn’t on my list of post-flood worries, I was eager to talk to someone about mold and cleaning my house and to hear about other energy efficiency measures for future reference.

I need to note that the contractor who visited my house was a subcontractor of – not an employee of – Efficiency Vermont.

Upon the contractor’s arrival, I summarized the flood damage and events for him, but what he really wanted to see was the basement. After I explained the water levels and what we did to clean the basement, etc., he looked around and asked if I would be opposed to spray foam.

SPRAY FOAM?  As if I wanted to talk about spray foam. However, I gave the contractor the benefit of the doubt and said that I am opposed to spray foam, but if he could convince me of the merits of spray foam, then I’d consider. This was a matter of understanding the product, not questioning his professional abilities. He didn’t have a great answer for me, but we talked about air flow and the space in between the first floor joists. (For reference, there is absolutely no insulation in my basement.) He said my basement was perfect for foam because it could be hidden and there wasn’t really an aesthetic to ruin; it’s not like I had a dry laid stone foundation. Aesthetics is only one part of my concerns.

The contractor mentioned that normally putting spray foam in a basement like mine – just between the joists, above the concrete foundation – would be about $1500. Hmm, that sounded like a good chunk of savings. I considered it a bit more, with caution. I said I had to talk to my husband about it. When I couldn’t reach him, I called my father-in-law, who seemed to be in favor of it. However, I was still not convinced (because I’m difficult like that).

In the meantime, the contractor said he would do a blower-door test. That was neat! If you’re wondering, our house is completely average for air leakage. While this was going on, I was frantically reading about spray foam online and harassing a few preservation colleagues for their opinions (thanks, Jen). Nothing I read about spray foam was beneficial to historic buildings. Nothing. Yikes! For starters, here is a paper from Historic New England.

Why so frantic? Well, it seemed like a decision that I had to make that day. Admittedly, I did not ask outright, but that seemed to be the case. Back to discussions with the contractor. He had said that either you insulate everything or nothing at all; you can’t insulate half your house if the other half is not insulated. I brought that up, figuring that my walls did not have insulation. Why should I insulate the basement, I asked? No good answer. He also told me that spray foam isn’t reversible. And he never mentioned anything about a vapor barrier.

Finally, Vinny and I had a chance to talk. I told him that something about spray foam just made me nervous (well, lots of things) even if it’s just in a few spots. I didn’t want to regret doing something later. The only thing that sounded good about this offer was that it would be absolutely free to us. Vinny, agreeing with my hesitation, said to me,  “If someone came around and offered free vinyl siding and installation, would you take it?”  Without skipping a beat I scoffed and said, “No.”  He replied, “There’s your answer.”

Good point. Doing something to my house just because it’s free, when it’s something that neither one of us feels comfortable with or has researched enough, would be a ridiculous decision. My main conclusion was that the 83-year-old house does not have any problems, but I change the air flow, it’s quite possibly asking for problems. Right? Why ruin a good thing and fix something that doesn’t need to be fixed? Before we decided on the amount of heat loss and cost and understand how this house works through winter, we shouldn’t mess with the system.

However, this particular contractor was focused purely on air sealing. To his credit, he did talk buildings with me and gave me much to think about. He looked in the attic and checked out the insulation there (currently 6″ of cellulose that possibly doesn’t extend to the eaves – yes, I am aware that it needs to be addressed). He was patient with me and didn’t give me a hard time when I sort of said okay for spray foam and then nevermind. Perhaps it was my own mistake, but I was not under the impression that this assessment would only be about air sealing. After all, you can’t air seal your basement and not consider the effects on or what is needed for the rest of the house.

If someone such as myself who is so vehemently opposed to spray foam (in my own house anyway) could waver a bit by the temptation of free work and materials, then surely I was not ready to make such an important decision without any warning ahead of time. I hate to think that others made rash decisions for their own buildings.

This is not meant to sound like a rant, but more to explain why I was probably the worst candidate for this type of flood “assessment.” I am grateful for Efficiency Vermont’s assistance to flood victims across the state and think overall they’re doing a great job. However, their sub-contractors on this job should be better informed.

The most beneficial part of the “assessment” was realizing just how much I need to study before making decisions about insulation. It was a good reality check for me as a new homeowner to think carefully through every major project.  But for now, I’m holding true to my anti-spray foam and air sealing, especially because the drafts of my historic house are no worse than a normal house less than half its age.

We can discuss other types of insulation after I read some more material. This graduate thesis by Sarah Elizabeth Welniak, Energy Efficiency in Historic Buildings, seems like a good place to start. What else do you recommend?

Button Up Vermont Workshop

Last week I attended a Button Up Vermont workshop, hosted by Efficiency Vermont, geared toward those affected by the recent Irene flooding.  Efficiency Vermont is an organization committed to teaching Vermonters how to reduce energy costs, choose more sustainable energy sources and to increase the use of local energy. Many flood victims are forced to rebuild portions or all of their homes, choose new heating systems, choose new insulation, buy new appliances and much more; therefore, Efficiency Vermont is aiming to guide people to energy efficient choices.

The workshop announcement sparked my interest for three reasons. (1) Since the workshop was geared towards post flood recovery, it would discuss cleanup such as mold and moisture concerns, which is currently one of my main concerns. (2) We do need to buy a new heating system, and we are trying to decide between oil or wood pellets or both. (3) Also, I was curious to hear what they would say about windows and historic materials. Would they advocate replacement or maintaining what is existing?

To my delight, one of the first things the presenters discussed was mold and moisture. Fun, right? Much of it was geared toward wood and fabric, not concrete. But, I think here is where I solidified my idea to scrub the basement walls. More on that particular endeavor another time. It was generally helpful in the sense that it made me feel better as we had done many of the right things so far. And, it was a good reminder of what we still needed to accomplish. Many people had questions about dirt floor basements or mold on furniture.

Regarding heating systems, it is something I know little about (first time homeowner here!) so I appreciate any discussion on the different systems. Efficiency Vermont offers rebates and incentives to buy certain systems (that goes for appliances, too).

Now, about windows. I am relieved and proud to hear that Efficiency Vermont said that new windows are not worth it; the payback required for the ridiculously expensive windows is much too long. Hooray! That was exciting for me, a historic window lover.

The main part of the workshop (it was more like a lecture, than a workshop) was the discussion about insulation, specifically spray foam insulation. Yuck. I do not like any of it, partially because I have a hard time believing that it’s not toxic in some way (off gases?) and partially because I think it’s ugly. All insulation is generally hideous looking, but something about spray foam creeps me out. Am I crazy? Anyway, while I know energy efficiency is related to insulation, I tend to care less about wall insulation because I want my house to breathe. So if that means a drafty house, I am okay with it. (I know, I expect a lot of disagreement here.) I was disappointed by the emphasis on this insulation, but a lot of people do have to replace the insulation on their first floors, so the discussions were appropriate for the setting.

Overall, I’m glad I attended the workshop. After all, maintenance is preservation and preservation is maintenance, right? Has anyone else been to something similar? What did you think?