Advice for heating a 3-story Vermont home built in 1900?

I'm a science writer, as opposed to an energy professional, and I joined this group to try to keep tabs on the reality of energy efficiency, and not just what people are doing in the lab.  Now, however, I find myself in the position of having a practical need for advice.

I recently purchased a 3-story, 4-unit building in Vermont.  The building had been vacant and the (copper) baseboard radiators have been removed.  In addition, the heating oil furnace is very old, and needs replacement.  I was quoted a cost of $40K for a new natural gas furnace and replacement radiators, but if I'm going to spend that much I want to be certain I make smart energy decisions.  The windows, by the way, are all double-paned (although I didn't notice if they were vinyl-framed in my one visit to the building).  

So — what should I do and/or learn now to avoid smacking myself in the head three years from now?  Any specific new technologies that are effective in the New England climate?  Anything out there on the edge that might be worth a look (and not just for the heating system)?  

Thanks for any advice.

Richard Gaughan

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Hi Richard,

Being a science writer and this being rental units, here is a moral dilemma you are facing, do you super insulate to reduce the heating costs or do you just let the tenants pay the bills?  A new more efficient heating system is a move in the right direction, but it should always be proceeded by efficiency improvements within the structure, at least IMO.

Since energy efficiency is what this forum is all about my first recommendation would be to have an independent energy audit.  An audit done by a contractor that has products and services to sell is a conflict.  I'm not familiar with what Vermont has to offer for programs, but that may help.

Once you have an audit in hand it should detail where the most significant improvements can be made.  Example, air sealing is always a good place to start (before too many places get buried) and it often provides the greatest improvement for your dollars and efforts.

Once air sealed and fully insulated, then a sizing calculation can be done (usually called a manual J) and typically a smaller heating system can be installed.  In addition to costing less to heat, the units will be more comfortable.

If you wish to expand your skills, you can perform the basics of an energy audit audit, but time is money and right now auditors may not be that busy.  Don't wait until November as all will be busy.

That will get you started, let's see what others have to say.


Being in Vermont, here is their air sealing guide:

Bud is right on. Get a professional auditor to assess the building. Finding the right person may take some research.

My question: what are the unit costs for natural gas and electricity?

Hi Richard.

If we are talking a circa 1900 home, is there any insulation in the walls at all?  Being a rental building I assume so to meet code requirements.  I have encountered rental homes here in my area, pre-1950, that hve zero insulation in any walls and have sort of slipped past the system as far as meeting codes.

Does your building have insulation in the walls?



To add to Richards list of what might have

Bud, you got cut off mid-sentence.... can you hear me now??

Oh my!!! I think it was there.  What I wanted to point out was the need to check for lead and asbestos, items which a good home inspector would surely catch.  With that many years of history there are all sorts of concerns that may not have been addressed, especially if it is or is going to be rental units.

Thanks David,


Thanks to Hal, Bud, and David for the information. The property has been through a couple obvious upgrades. I know for certain the ceiling is insulated, and the walls are relatively new, so I'm assuming they're insulated as well. No obvious asbestos (in wrapped pipes or floor tiles), but I'll keep that on the list. Unit cost for electricity is about 15¢/kWh. It looks like natural gas is about $16/thousand cubic feet, but I'm getting that off the EIA website and have no idea how that connects to reality. My plan is to "weatherize" as much as I can reasonably afford. I guess what I'm saying is I'm going to insulate (and seal, now that I have more information on its importance) to some point of diminishing returns. The interior paint and electrical all looks circa 2000 or so, but the furnace/blower is "vintage."

I am meeting with an energy auditor, but from what I can tell the organization that offers the auditing actually pulls their auditors from the local community of professional installers.  I will be speaking with a few contractors, so I should be at least somewhat protected against the inherent conflict of interest.  What I'm more worried about is that the folks in this relatively small town may be comfortable with what they've done before and somewhat resistant to adopting what might be more efficient, but less familiar equipment.  Should I be concerned, or is anyone in this business going to be generally well-informed about new products or technologies?

Anything is possible as I have met great independents & even great "contractor" based ones - on the other hand I have met some that are real doozies in both camps also. With that most "contractor" based ones are going to look at solutions for what they sell or do. You might want to call my good friends at Energy Circle to see if they have a good recommendation for someone in your area.

I would recommend that whomever you choose does duct testing as it doesn't matter if you put a high performance engine in a system that blows all the power before it ever gets to the tires


One more quick question that might give a clue if you have insulation in the walls.  From the picture, I am assuming the exterior is the old redwwod 3/4"shiplap or possibly newer siding?    You can drill a 1/2" hole, needle nose pliers and remove a small sample to tell what might be in the walls.  Small piece of 1/2" dowell, sand and paint.

Before doing that, the question;  Is there a mold problem on the interior side of any of the exterior walls?  I have found that a mold issue to be a good indicator of there being no insulation in the walls.  In the wintertime, the mold will be on the bottom 1/3 of the wall.  There iis always humidity in the air.  Heat energy travels towards cold surfaces, like it travels towards cold walls.  In that process, the heat energy carrties some of that  humidity along for the ride.  The humidity stops at the wall, the heat energy keeps on going to the cold outside.

The top of the wall stays warmer and dry.  the bottom part stays damp and you have mold.

Might be worth a check.  If you do have mold, good chance no insulation.  I'm sure there is always exceptions to that.



Thanks to all who replied with information and advice.  Just figured I'd give a bit of an update.

I met with an organization dedicated to providing advice for energy savings (which, in Vermont, primarily means cutting down the heating).  We're going to get an energy audit done, but so far it seems as if the upper floors are at least insulated (if not sealed), and we're anticipating the big problem being a basement that is about as unsealed as possible.

After the upgrades suggested by the audit, we're going to replace the four separate (30+ year-old) heating oil furnaces with one LP furnace.  We're also replacing the baseboard hot water radiators throughout the unit.  We're going with four separate heat-pump water heaters (one for each unit).  The plan is next year to supplement/augment the heating system with four separate multizone heat pumps.  Although they are not rated down to the mid-winter temperatures typical for the area, other homeowners have had very good experience with energy use reductions with a hybrid system of this sort.  Rumor has it that next year's heat pumps may be rated for even lower temps, but the primary reason for waiting a year is just to keep costs manageable.

Thanks again for the help, and any further comments will certainly be appreciated.


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