Open-wood ceilings, hollow walls, lack of insulation and a multitude of windows make the Eichler energy-challenged.
But the flat-roofed homes, builder Joseph Eichler's West Coast answer to Eastern tract-home communities, are now nearly 60 years old; the newest are aged 33. Roofs and windows are leaking; boilers and water heaters quit working as a matter of general aging.
Bringing the mid-20th-century Eichler into the 21st century can be an expensive proposition, according to certified green remodeler John Hammerschmidt, but there are things a homeowner can do to make an Eichler "green."
Most of the heat escaping from a building goes out through the roof, according to Hammerschmidt. When it comes time to replace the old one, he recommends switching from tar-and gravel to foam, but not just a conventional foam roof. Adding a layer that is thick enough to have an insulation value is key, he said.
It may cost $3,000 to $5,000 more than a conventional foam roof, but it will more than double heat insulation, he said. The standard tar-and-gravel on most Eichlers are only good for 15 years. As they age, they can become a liability. "You can't visually inspect tar and gravel to see if it will leak. Dry rot contributes to the cost," he said.
A foam roof can be inspected for leaks and will last the lifetime of most owners -- with the caveat that you have to paint it every 10 years, according to Hammerschmidt.
Adding blown-in insulation to an Eichler's hollow walls is also important. Homeowners will also want to schedule prepping and painting at the same time, however, as holes are drilled into the house at 16-inch intervals to add the insulation, he said. Using low-VOC (volatile organic compound) paint will not only be better for the environment, but also for occupants' health, he said.
As old appliances wear out, new technologies will add to the home's efficiency, he said. "The original boiler in an Eichler was 50-percent efficient; but new (high-efficiency) models are 90 percent efficient," he said.
Consider a tankless water heater, he added. Although initially more costly and requiring some modifications to plumbing, it can lead to larger savings overall. A standard water heater wears out on average in 10 years; but a tankless heater will last 30 years, and saving energy for the full life of the heater amounts to considerable cash savings. "It only heats the water you use, not in anticipation of what you would use," he said.
Replacing windows with double-pane is highly expensive, in Hammerschmidt's view. "There's too much glass," he said.
If a homeowner doesn't have much money to spend, there are less-expensive alternatives. Some window companies install insulating film, which isn't nearly as effective but helps. "You are looking at hundreds of dollars versus 10,000s of dollars," he said.
Joe Evans, a Palo Alto Eichler owner and volunteer with Acterra's pilot Green@Home program, which helps homeowners in Midtown and Barron Park to incorporate energy efficiency into their homes, created solid-plastic "storm" windows over some of the larger windows in his home.
"Eichlers have huge windows. I put solid, 1/16-inch thick solid plastic over the stationary windows. I do notice it's more comfortable," he said.
He also caulked the outside of the house, filling in gaps between the walls and ceiling.
"Eichlers tend to have open-wood ceilings where drafts get in," he added.
Those little changes can reap significant benefits, according to Hammerschmidt. Adding a vent, fan or operable window to the bathroom will cut down on mold, for example.
And "10 to 20 percent of energy use is lighting. A big chunk can be saved just by changing light bulbs," he said.
Compact-fluorescent bulbs use one-third to one-half the energy of incandescent bulbs, he added. LED bulbs are "not a big choice yet" due to their higher cost, but their price will come down, he said.
Through Acterra's Green@Home program, Midtown and Barron Park residents can receive three compact-fluorescent bulbs from the City of Palo Alto. Trained Acterra volunteers will conduct a two-hour, easy-energy audit and create a customized energy-conservation plan for homeowners. The volunteers provide and install a programmable thermostat, help choose a place for the three compact-fluorescent bulbs, help to optimize water heater and refrigerator temperatures, install flow restrictors in faucet and showerheads and teach residents how to measure tire pressure and inflate car tires, according to Debbie Mytels, Acterra's associate director for programs. The pilot program runs through August, but is expected to expand to other neighborhoods in the future, she said.
Eichlers do have some green-design advantages.
The home's radiant-floor heating is superior to radiant-baseboard heaters, which some people switch to. Heat from wall heaters seeps out through the walls, but hot air rises. Although it takes a while for the room to heat up, the floor heating is more efficient, he said. "You can heat a house at a lower temperature." Leaks in the floor-heating system can be easily detected and fixed, he added.
Eichlers are also well designed for winter solar gain, according to Hammerschmidt. The home's wide overhangs are angled to let in sun in winter and block summer sun. "And by planting deciduous trees on the west side of any home, you get solar gain in winter time. It's free energy," he said. For more information on Acterra's Green@Home program, contact Emily Juan at 650-962-9876 ext. 316 or email@example.com. Visit http://www.acterra.org/greenathome/index/html .