Improve your home’s energy efficiency step-by-$tep with the Energy-Efficiency Pyramid

It’s really boring sounding and certainly not sexy,
but then, that’s home improvement for ya.
energy efficiency pyramidIn our story yesterday — 12 reasons to own (and love) a mid-century house — I discussed how smaller mid-century houses likely to have a smaller environmental footprint. Their smaller size also can mean lower utility bills. Even so, owners want to consider investing in new technologies that can reduce energy consumption and heating and air conditioning bills. But how to approach this quickly-confusing task — which is ripe with claims of ‘buy this green product’, ‘buy that green product’? The best source I have found so far is Martin Holladay’s story, which accompanies the handy Energy-Efficiency Pyramid.

The pyramid originated with Minnesota Power.

If you are interested in this topic, don’t scan — be sure to read through Martin’s entire story. In particular, note: Solar cells are now improved and have pushed ‘windows’ to the top of the pyramid. Martin says that replacing windows is “unlikely to be cost effective” overall. He does points out:

In a heating climate, the installation of low-e storm windows is more cost-effective than installing new replacement windows.

Windows are a big interest of mine — as in, I’m in the camp working to counter the greedy marketing onslaught that wants people to replace perfectly good windows with new windows today. I will say, in addition to the overall concern that such replacements are not environmentally/energy -justifiable, I tend to believe our old, slow-growth-wood windows will last much longer than many of the windows being built today. Another reason to go slow if and think this one through if you are contemplating the window-replacement issue. Martin has more advice on windows on his blog, and does the site he blogs on, Green Building Advisor. Lots of homework required on this big-ticket-expenditure, if you want to do it for whatever reason. Note: Old windows may have been painted with lead paint and there may be other concerns; get your own properly licensed professional to assess what you have and to make informed decisions. For more info and links see our Be Safe/Renovate Safe page.

  • Also see Martin’s story, Stupid Energy Savings Tips, in which he debunks numerous claims made by the ill-informed all over the internets.

Also please note: Martin’s story has been updated — although the Pyramid has not — to reflect improvements in photovoltaic / solar technology. I’m not sure I see where Martin would put PV’s on the pyramid now… but lower, it seems. Even so, I think a key point of this whole thing is not to get too juiced too fast about “sexy solar cells” as some sort of be all end all fixit silver bullet. There seem to be many more, very boring but very effective issues you can tend to first — and it sounds like the key is to get assessments first, then build a plan.

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  1. Roundhouse Sarah says

    I’ve got the original aluminum framed single paned windows on my ’64 home. They sweat in winter and rattle when people drive by with their bass turned up. I can’t imagine that they are very efficient. But I think recaulking around the frame and applying sone sort of window tint would be my best option. In my neck of the woods we are way more concerned with keeping the heat out and the cool in bc it’s above 80 for more than half the year. I had to change out my hvac system last year and have seen a 30-50% decrease in my energy bill, way more than expected. The best thing to do when you live in a sub tropical climate like mine is to paint the roof white or a light color. This seems like a no brainer but no one does it and roofing material is hardly ever offered in anything but dark colors. It’s an impractical trend having all these dark roofs in the south.

    • says

      Don’t I remember that your house has a flat roof? White roof coatings are now the norm in Philadelphia. And you really should look into if it’s practical to install low e storm windows; I had really drafty old wood windows (with chains, counterweights, and awesome wavy glass) in my apartment in college, and my roommate and I were shocked at how much quieter it was when I closed the storms for the winter. Having grown up in a newer area, he didn’t know what a storm window was! The triple track aluminum storms that are common on sash windows may not work with yours, but I’ve seen ads for interior storms that are held in place with magnets!

    • Robin, NV says

      Sarah – I concur with the white roof in hot climates. Where I live, we endure 90-100 degree weather from July to September. The sun is also super intense here (anything left outside just gets destroyed by the sun). For those of us in hot climates, white is the way to go.

      • Anastasia says

        When the storms came a few years back the house was destroyed. My Dad (a building inspector) had to kick, fight & scream to get the roof white. Even then the builder messed it up & the builder had to pay to replace the whole thing. But it DOES lower the costs. When I lived in Arizona White Roofs were the norm for a LONG TIME!

  2. Mary Elizabeth says

    Great article and good link, Pam.

    I have a few comments about why people might still want replacement windows in spite of the fact that they might not be the highest priority in terms of energy savings.

    First, because the old window sashes may contain lead paint, as they were in one of my daughter’s homes, replacement windows may be needed as part of the lead abatement program required by the regional health department. In our case, one of our grandchildren had high lead levels in the blood and all of the windows in the main house and a rental apartment had to be replaced. Local and state regulations also require them in our area if a home is bought by or rented to a family with small children.

    Second, we’re a fan of new replacement windows in our house, in which we are “aging in place.” It’s all very well for a young family to be going through the chore of putting on and taking off storm windows as the seasons change, but it’s much easier for us to just deal with permanently installed, energy efficient windows that need no storms and tilt out for cleaning. Anyone out there remember old dad wrestling the storm windows up and down the ladder in spring and fall?

    Third, when we replaced all the windows in our old place, the new ones had anti-ultraviolet glass. This cut out the fading of carpets, bedspreads, curtains and other fabrics which was a problem with our old windows. It’s also better for your vintage art, etc. This problem can also be solved by applying anti-UV film to all your windows, but if you are replacing your windows anyway because of other factors, it’s a nice plus.

    • pam kueber says

      Thanks, Mary Elizabeth. Yes, there may be other reasons to do window replacements. The lead paint issue in particular is something all readers should be aware of and get with their on professionals to investigate and understand.

      On storms: It is possible to get combination storms/screens that are, for all intents and purposes, permanently installed.

      • Jay says

        Oh yes, as a kid, I was so glad when my parents had triple track storm windows installed. Before then, it was just single track and it was my job to swap out the screen with the storm glass twice a year. I think that may be one reason I had no qualms about replacing my ranch’s original windows and storms with vinyl replacement windows. No more hanging out windows to clean them – just tilt in. Also, the windows are small so full glass, no mullions gives the exterior a clean uncluttered look.

  3. Jay says

    I looked at the website from Minnesota Power where you can enlarge the pyramid and open the topics. The information is presented in easy to understand terms and would be very beneficial to any new MCM homeowner especially one in the snowbelt or sunbelt regions. I know I have been remiss in caulking and insulating. The mid century constructed homes may have been solidly built but tend to come up short in energy effiiciency – scant or no insulation. Heck, who knew 50 years down the road, energy prices would skyrocket.
    Solar panels and geothermal energy sound great but if you don’t win the lottery chances of installing these items on your home are pretty low.

  4. Brenda says

    Thank you for including some articles about these things – even if they aren’t as sexy as pink bathrooms!

    I work in the building profession and would like to add this thought about wood windows.

    Many people are replacing the original wood windows with cheap vinyl windows. They get sold on the idea that they have double pane, energy efficient glass. But those windows often come in only white, which isn’t the correct design solution for many mid century homes (the new owner of our last mid century home traded out the chocolate brown wood windows in an awning style with horrible white vinyl windows in an inappropriate style – completely changed the look of the house).

    Beyond design considerations, which are VERY important for your happiness with your home as well as future sales of your home, you should consider your money.

    The wood windows in your home have been there for 50 years and probably still work fairly well. What they are missing is double pane glass which is more energy efficient. They also might have some air leaks around the window which doesn’t mean the actual window has a problem, it just means that you need to add some insulation between the window frame and the house – ask a QUALIFIED contractor and/or designer about how to do this.

    Your old wood windows can be removed and double pane glass can be inserted into them if you desire. Wood has less thermal expansion and contraction than vinyl which means your window is more stable. Also, a wood window is next to a similar wood framed house, and similar materials will contract and expand as the same rate, working together. Vinyl and wood will contract/expand at a different rate and my not be in harmony. Also, you can repair a wood window, a vinyl window will need to be replaced. Vinyl probably will only last you 15 years +/-, while your wood windows have been there for decades. So if you think vinyl is the better alternative because of the cost, you’ll be replacing those windows twice for each wood window.

    I’d love to see more articles on the nuts and bolts of repairing the elements of our beloved mid century homes, because old is beautiful, but correct repairs and proper upgrades can help it be more energy efficient.

    Thanks for the article!

    • Robin, NV says

      Thanks Brenda! I’ve been trying to spread the word about the problem with vinyl windows for years. You nailed all the big issues with them. In the world of historic preservation, vinyl is a big no-no. Windows are a character defining feature of any building and putting white framed vinyl windows in a historic building drastically changes its character.

      • Mary Elizabeth says

        Brenda, it must have been very frustrating to go by your old house and see it! 🙁 They could have replaced the windows and still kept the original look.

        Robin, I absolutely love wood windows, so I agree with the idea of taking out the old ones, stripping off old paint, repainting and reglazing them. That would be a good option for people fixing up an empty house (see Chad’s Crooked House blog for lots of window adventures) or for the person who had the leisure to do one window at a time. My dad pulled out, stripped, and repainted and reglazed some window sashes in our old Victorian while I was growing up. He also replaced all of the rope pulleys and weights that operated the windows. (Most people will probably have no idea what I’m talking about, right?) That option was also discussed as a way of solving our daughter’s lead abatement problem. The cost of doing it was quoted as higher than the replacement windows, plus they faced the inconvenience of living in a fully furnished house with no windows for a couple of weeks. They decided in favor of the replacements.

        In our old 1970s-built condo, DH and I gradually replaced all the warped and energy inefficient aluminum windows and sliders with wood Andersons, but we had to replace the entire window frame and the trim inside and out too. That way we got the color we wanted inside (light cherry stain) and the color required by the condo association on the outside. In addition, we got to add more insulation around the windows. Very labor intensive, but well worth it in the long run. Prior to that, since exterior storms were not allowed by the association, we had installed interior storms. Still, the new windows gave us much better energy savings than the combination of storms and old windows, and we did track our energy use very carefully.

        I think the bottom line is that people have to study all the options and decide what is the best fit for their house, their budgets and their DIY skill levels.

        • pam kueber says

          Precautionary Pam here again: PEOPLES, there may be lead and asbestos and other vintage nastiness in our vintage houses — GET YEE YOUR OWN PROPERLY LICENSED PROFESSIONAL and assess your situation with them so that you can make informed decisions. Do It Yourself may be fine but when it comes to environmental and safety issues, only DIY after consultation with your own properly licensed professional so that you truly know what you are doing and why!

  5. Robin, NV says

    I was surprised the article didn’t include the use of a thermostat for heating/cooling. In the winter, I set my thermostat at 64 during the day when we’re home and then drop it to 58 at night or when we’re at work. It does all this automatically and consistently, which I’ve heard saves on energy. My wonderful old oil furnace heats up the house SO fast too. Within minutes of it coming on in the morning, the house feels nice and warm.

    I was interested to see windows at the top of the pyramid. We just replaced our single pane windows with double pane and this is the first winter we haven’t had frost on the inside of the windows. My husband and I discussed getting storm windows but we weren’t sure if we could get them for our aluminum framed windows. I may be wrong but I thought storm windows were more of a wood frame thing. Do the main windows have to be set up for storms? Or can they be retrofitted? I’d be interested to know more about that.

    We also replaced our exterior hollow core (!!) doors with solid doors. The difference is phenomenal. I no longer feel the chill coming through the doors.

    • Allen says

      For what it’s worth my aluminum windows have aluminum storm windows installed on them and they do a great job at keeping the glass clear of frost.

    • Jane says

      After much research and deliberation, we too had our single pane aluminum windows replaced. I’m sure it was not the ‘authentic’ thing to do to our mini-Leichler but the more energy efficient we made our house, the more frost became an issue. Storm windows for our trapezoid clerestory windows alone were more expensive than new windows for all the windows so we installed almond vinyl windows which match our almond brick and I think they look better than the aluminum! As I hit middle age (okay that was a while ago) I am all in favor of low maintenance and comfort – no drafts, no fading, no water damage and our gas bill speaks volumes. I love mid-century style and authenticity when practical but single pane windows in a climate with a real winter – notsomuch.

  6. says

    I’ve been following Martin Holladay since Pam wrote about him a while ago. I think some of the best ideas are the easiest, like if you’re building site the house correctly, have wider eaves to shade the windows of the summer sun, install awnings, put a trellis in front of south facing windows or plant a deciduous tree on the west side of the house. If you block the sun and heat from getting to the house it keeps it cooler in the summer. And of course insulate to the max.

  7. chutt says

    Thanks for the updates on this issue Pam!
    It’s something we think about a lot as we keep things going in our old (1920) house as well as when we maintained our last (1960) house.
    For that house, we had great success with adding a second pane of glass to our existing (and VERY neat) colored windows. That area had sometimes a 50 degree temperature differential over a 4-6 hr period, and we never had issues with condensation. I think a lot of that you hear from window folks is sales hype.

    I also read something interesting about safety and vinyl windows in high fire risk areas (we used to live in one near a forest). Fire advice is to [edited by Pam — Readers, you need to get with our properly licensed professionals on such issues so you can get the latest advice and make informed decisions ]
    Vinyl windows, however, will [edited by Pam: Readers, you need to get with our properly licensed professionals on such issues so you can get the latest advice and make informed decisions]

    I never liked the way vinyl windows look on an old house, but I didn’t think about it as a safety issue!

  8. Nora Stengrim says

    We already had double pane windows when we moved into our home. Last year, we purchased thermal drapes and put the ultrviolet film on the windows. Between the two, our heat bills went down and we had to run the air conditioner far less. Probably not as big of a help as other options, but far more economical than other options. We got the idea from a friend with the old single pane wooden windows and it helped them as well. As Pam has stated, the total cost versus the total savings is something to be looked at.

    • chutti says

      Great point!
      If folks are going to use venetians or thin tab top cotton curtains, they will really NEED those double pane windows.
      I never thought of it that way.

      Should folks use lined drapes as were intended in the period, the energy loss seems like it would be considerably less.
      Definitely feels that way in our house!

  9. Lilly says

    The 1950’s ranch we rented for a couple of years up in the snow belt really wasted energy. I think insulation was the issue. It had some form of cellulose insulation and you could tell it had settled in the walls. Re-insulating probably would have helped considerably. It also had the original late 1950’s forced air furnace. The combination meant that you needed the heat on when it hit 40 degrees outside or had to run the central AC non stop in the summer. Proper insulation and a new furnace would have likely solved the bulk of the energy waste in that house.

  10. gsciencechick says

    We get regular updates from our electric company that we are one of the most energy efficient homes in our area based on size. We still have original windows. We replaced the HVAC last summer; still have gas heat. We also have a tankless water heater installed on the exterior. Our gas bills dropped dramatically after getting the tankless. We also had the patio doors replaced to energy efficient french doors.

  11. Jackie says

    Do explore alternatives to vinyl replacement windows. There are wood options available, if you must replace, as well as metal choices that are better made than the first-generation aluminum windows.

    Quite aside from the health issues presented by vinyl, these windows are made to last only 15-20 years–and that’s if the seal on the double panes doesn’t pop sooner (causing fogging and frost) or the plastic hardware doesn’t break.

    Lead paint is not a reason to discard a window. It is a reason to invest in safe, proper window restoration.

    The National Park Service offers some great guidelines on windows in historic preservation projects (and as all of us here know, preservation isn’t only for Victorian mansions–mid-century counts event if it’s 20th). The website references a great study done in 2002 confirming the benefits of storm windows.

  12. Jacki says

    Living in Phoenix, we have more of a heat issue than cold. Removable Shade Screens on our single paned windows are very efficient in our 6 months of summer and triple digits. I would almost say necessary on our 1963 home

  13. says

    Great article. Since we moved into our house (actually, even before), we’ve steadily been working our way up the pyramid. We’ve pretty much got everything except the top three set. I keep looking at solar electric and the cost keeps coming down but it definitely isn’t there yet in terms of return on investment. Windows are definitely an even harder one to justify.

  14. Scott says

    Pam, you are so right about the windows. My house’s 1954 windows were replaced shortly before my purchase in 1999. By 2009 nearly all those windows had warped to some degree, the southern exposure ones to the point where I had to replace them in 2010 and 2013.

  15. Sheila Roberts says

    One solution to single pane wood windows that are fixed style is to install a 2nd pane of glass a 3/8 inch or so in the same casing. It forms that great important air pocket needed .
    We have these on all of our fixed windows and they are much less expensive than replacement of the original wood type. You cannot see the difference.It is best appreciated in the winter.!

    It is impossible to really insultate well unless you also consider the window coverings. Even with state of the insulated windows you can still save 50% more with the right window covering. That too is a pyramid. Insulting the walls is a start. Insulting the window type, then adding the right window covering.

    • pam kueber says

      Can you cite your data source for the claim that you can save 50% with a window covering?

      The only window covering that I know of that prevents convection are Window Quilts.

  16. Sheila Roberts says

    One more thought the great looking 2 inch metal blinds although they are so… retro are the worst solution for insulation. They actually conduct heat and cold so if your room feels cold now it will definitely get colder. Using a wood blind which is similar in look will give you some insulation in a closed position both summer and winter and the price is low.

    • pam kueber says

      hmmmmm…. I have been told that unless you use a Window Quilt-style solution — totally sealing that window from the interior — convection is gonna get you no matter what. In the grand scheme of things.

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