Friday, March 27, 2015

The Harsh Reality of Winter in an Old Home

According to the calendar, spring has officially sprung. I’m still a bit skeptical that winter is really, truly, finally over, particularly since my evening commute on the first day of “spring” looked like a scene from Narnia.

Nonetheless, now that the cooler days are apparently behind us I’ve been reflecting on our first winter in our new home. We moved into The Papered House in late fall, so we just had a brief period of time to adjust to our new home before the seasons changed.

All things considered, we survived the winter very well. There’s honestly not much that we can complain about, especially in comparison to what so many others experienced. We didn’t have five feet of snow weighing down our roof. Our house is well insulated and the ancient heating system kept cranking all winter. We had a frozen pipe, but it didn’t burst. In other words, we consider ourselves pretty darn lucky.

 But even though we didn’t have any weather-related catastrophes, we still felt the full force of winter. Here are a few things we’ll be glad to leave behind.

 Astronomical Heating Bills  
Our heat and hot water is supplied by an oil-burning boiler that is old enough to join AARP. I wish I were exaggerating, but I’m not. All evidence suggests that our heating system was installed in the 1950s. So far, it’s been surprisingly dependable. We have cast iron radiators and the steam heat keeps the house cozy and comfortable. We also haven’t had significant issues with hot water (there were a few weeks when we could only take hot showers for about 4-5 minutes. But that issue hasn’t occurred recently).

Despite our boiler’s good qualities, it is enormously inefficient. We knew that oil heat would be more expensive than gas. This is almost always true, even when the oil boiler is brand new. But the age/inefficiency of our boiler amplified the costs. This winter, we used approximately 1100 gallons of oil. Multiply that by $2.50-$3.00/gallon, and you have an idea of what we spent to heat our home. Oil prices were unusually low this winter, and I shudder to think how much we would have paid if prices were in the more typical range of $3.50-$4.50/gallon.

And here’s the thing: At 2,200 square feet, our house is spacious, but not sprawling.  We have good insulation and we didn’t even set the thermostat very high. This winter, we kept our house at 64 degrees when we were home. When we were out of the house or asleep, we would turn the temperature down to 60-61 degrees (I know this sounds chilly, but it really wasn’t that bad. The humidity created by steam heat results in an environment that feels warmer than the temperature would indicate. In fact, I felt warmer at home than in my office, which has forced hot air and a temperature of 70 degrees). Anyway, all that to say that our oil consumption can’t be blamed on the size of our house, or poor insulation, or keeping the thermostat set too high. It was purely caused by the inefficiency of our ancient boiler.

Since our hot water is also produced by our boiler, we’ll continue to burn through oil even when the weather is warm enough that we no longer need to heat the house. The good news is that we have the option to convert to natural gas at any time. Most of our neighbors have converted and the gas company might pay the cost of running new gas lines. Once the work is complete on our big-ticket projects(roof, chimney rebuild, flashing), we’ll be soliciting quotes to see if it will be feasible to do the conversion before next winter. It would be a pricey conversion, but we estimate that we’d recoup the initial investment within three-four years, especially if oil prices creep back up.

Uninvited “Guests”
Shortly after we moved in, we started hearing occasional scratching sounds in one of our walls. The sound was very sporadic – just every six weeks or so – and only when there was heavy rain or wind outside. Strangely, the scratching sound never moved through the house. It was confined to one particular spot: near a window in the office/sitting area on our second floor. We feared that we might have a squirrel or other rodent making itself comfortable in our walls. We checked in the attic to see if there was evidence of critters. We knew that there had been a squirrel problem in the past, since a previous owner had installed wire squirrel cages under some of the eaves. But when we went into the attic, we didn’t see any evidence of an ongoing squirrel problem.

In January, we called a wildlife control specialist (how’s that for a euphemism?), who thought we had a different problem: bats. He didn’t find any evidence of bats in the attic, but there were small holes in our siding large enough for a bat to enter. There was also a trace amount of guano near the window where we had heard the scratching. According to him, most of the local bats head to a nearby cave to hibernate in the winter. Our bat must have missed the memo, so he sought alternate shelter in our house once the temperature dropped. So not only do we have a bat living in our wall, but it’s a stupid/lazy/procrastinating bat. Great…

In all honesty, we were relieved to learn that it was a bat rather than a squirrel. Squirrels tend to wreak havoc on a house, chewing through wood and electric wires. Bats are relatively harmless, so long as they don’t have rabies. Still, we don’t want our bat friend to make himself too comfortable. Perhaps he’s a hospitable fellow and will invite other bats to join him. And perhaps they’ll discover the attic and start to roost there. Perhaps the bat is actually a female bat and will give birth to little bat babies, who will then inhabit our wall. None of these are good scenarios. The wildlife specialist recommended filling the holes with a caulk-like substance so that the bats don’t have a way to enter our home.
Ideally, we would have liked to have had this rectified as soon as we identified the issue. However, the caulk that will be used to patch the holes won’t set when the outside temperature is below 40 degrees, so we had to wait. The wildlife specialist will be coming in the next week or so to patch all the holes. He’ll also set no-kill traps for the bat(s), as they’re a federally protected species. Later this spring, we’ll also be putting up some bat boxes in our yard, to encourage the bat to make a new home outside of our house. Bats are one of the most effective natural forms of pest control, as they eat many harmful insects. We’re happy to have them around our garden – just not in our home!

Exterior Damage
As is common for many Victorian homes, our house has decorative woodwork adorning the roofline and the front porch. Some folks refer to this as the “gingerbread” look. The bargeboard under all four gables was intact when we bought the home – until some time in late January. After an ice storm, my husband and I came home from work to see shards of wood lying on the ground. We looked at the roofline and discovered that the bargeboard was no longer attached to the rear gable. Based on the appearance of the shards, its seems that the bargeboard was starting to suffer from wood rot. Perhaps it was only a matter of time before it became detached anyway, but we can't help thinking that the harsh winter weather must have accelerated the process. 
Now, we'll need to have a new piece of bargeboard custom made to match the existing ones. Here's a quick sketch to show you what the bargeboard will look like once the missing piece has been replaced. I'm no architect, but this will give you idea of what I'm talking about.
We felt dismayed when this happened. The exterior details are one of the primary reasons we bought this house. The Victorian homes in our town all have slightly different gingerbread; it's what makes each house so wonderful and unique. We're committed to keeping our home's historic character intact to the best of our ability, and we're determined to replace this bargeboard...eventually. We're not sure how extensive or costly this project will be, so there's no timeline to repair it until we do more research. And given that we have so many other items to repair, we might have to push the bargeboard repair to the back burner for a few months or even longer. The good news is that the missing bargeboard is on the rear of our house, so the damage isn't visible from the street. However, if this particular piece of bargeboard was brittle enough to fall on its own, we're worried about the condition of the identical pieces on the front and sides of our house. It's possible that we may need to replace additional bargeboard in the near future.

In addition to the bargeboard, we're also noticing other exterior repairs that we'll need to do in the future. Our porches are showing signs of wear and tear that are much more significant than when we moved into the home. The constant snow/ice and the accompanying salt treatments really did a number on our porch steps.

This winter has taught us that these little mishaps are par for the course with an older home. We didn't have any major disasters this winter, but even so, we're left with several maintenance issues that need to be addressed. As I mentioned in the beginning of this post, we made it through the winter relatively unscathed. My husband and I have repeatedly said to each other "well, it could have been much worse."
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