Boosting resilience in your home in the wake of floods and other climate hazards
Flooding in Vermont in the summer of 2023 damaged hundreds of homes. Thousands are working to rebuild. Along with more frequent ice storms, higher temperatures, and other extreme weather, many more are thinking about the future.
Our changing climate means warmer air. Warmer air holds more water vapor than cooler air. That’s one reason why 2023 was Vermont’s rainiest summer in 75 years. Some flood-hit Vermonters are replacing heating systems and appliances in flooded basements. Others are repairing entire floors or even whole buildings. And still others are helping friends, family, and neighbors recover.
No matter how recent floods affected you, there’s growing interest in making homes more resilient. That means preparing homes to handle a changing climate better. Improving resilience can make your home warmer and more efficient in Vermont’s northern climate. It can also include upgrading or moving your home’s heating, ventilation, and electrical systems to better withstand flooding. The goal is to improve your home so it’s “hardened” against future floods and other climate challenges.
Vermont’s cold winters—and old housing stock—make for a chilling combination. Many homes can easily become more resilient through weatherization. Insulating and air sealing your home can reduce energy use, increase safety, and improve comfort. Better airflow in your home can protect against mold, pests, and drafts. And if a blackout happens, you can safely stay in a well-weatherized home longer. (And that home can better resist hazards like frozen pipes for a greater period of time.)
“Air sealing is probably the thing that’s going to affect you the most, in terms of comfort,” said Li Ling Young, an energy expert with Efficiency Vermont. “Air sealing is what’s going to make it possible to control the temperature, the humidity, and indoor air quality of your home.”
You should also make sure your home has a good "hat." That means air sealing and insulating the top of your home. This is important whether you have a flat ceiling (with an attic above), or a sloped ceiling that follows the roof. Air sealing helps keep warm air in, and prevents moisture from finding its way to the roof deck. This can extend the life of your roof. It also improves the comfort of everyone inside. If your heating equipment vents through a chimney, like a woodstove or older furnace or boiler, a well-sealed attic can even improve safety through good chimney draft.
The "boots" of your home—the basement—is another area to improve air sealing and insulation. Close up holes and cracks between the underside of the floor and the top of the foundation wall. Make sure any basement windows and bulkhead doors are sturdy and well-sealed. Someday that could keep flood waters out of your house.
Renters can also take steps to increase their home’s resilience. Air purifiers and dehumidifiers can help manage everyday moisture and improve indoor air quality. Whether you own your home or rent, some of these steps can be done yourself. Efficiency Excellence Network contractors specializing in this work can help take your efforts to the next level with comprehensive weatherization projects.
Left image: Li Ling Young is a Lead Engineering Consultant with Efficiency Vermont. She has more than 20 years of experience working on residential energy efficiency in Vermont. She’s passionate about helping Vermonters live in affordable, healthy, and energy-efficient homes.
Right image: Matt Sharpe is a Senior Engineering Consultant for Efficiency Vermont. He’s worked with customers to optimize their buildings and energy use for more than 20 years.
Upgrading your home heating and hot water systems to use less energy is another way to add resilience. It’s also an opportunity to move those systems out of reach from future floods.
"After this summer’s floods, we heard about a lot of damage to mechanical systems located in the lowest part of the building,” said Efficiency Vermont energy expert Matt Sharpe. He found equipment like oil furnaces, natural gas burners, and fuel oil tanks “were inundated when basements were flooded.”
Getting these systems out of the basement may be possible. Boilers, furnaces, and hot water heaters that are “sealed combustion systems” can be moved higher in your home. That's because they can safely vent directly through sidewalls. There are also “combi” boilers. They can heat your home and provide hot water without a large tank. These units can be wall-hung high off the floor, or even placed in a small closet. If moving systems out of the basement isn’t possible, moving them off the floor may be an option. Hot air furnaces, for example, can be hung from a basement ceiling. This won’t require moving the furnace to a new location. And it can bring down costs and challenges around finding enough space. But moving fuel-based systems isn't feasible for every home. Consult an electrician and a heating contractor about what’s possible. “It’s a costly project, in some homes, to re-route or run new fuel lines and wires, plus ducts or pipes,” Sharpe said.
If your heating system has been damaged, or you’re just ready for a replacement, heating with cold-climate heat pumps is another solution. Heat pumps are electric, so there’s no fuel to burn or store. Ductless heat pumps—sometimes called mini-splits—don’t have any basement components. They can be hung on walls in rooms to provide heating to the whole home, or to an area of a home. Another type of heat pump, ducted heat pumps, can work with your home’s existing ductwork to provide central heating. The outside component of heat pumps can be installed on a raised stand or mounted on an outside wall to keep it out of harm’s way.
If you do move your heating system higher in your home, you can help prevent frozen pipes in the basement by sealing up holes and cracks at the perimeter of the floor, and around any windows or bulkhead doors. If you have turned your boiler off because you're using heat pumps, ensure you drain the water from the boiler piping to avoid a freeze-up and the potential for a burst pipe.
If your home is well-insulated and air-sealed, heat pumps can usually meet most of your heating needs. But a supplemental or “backup” heat source is always a good idea. Wood stoves, or more advanced pellet furnaces and boilers, are one option. New models are more efficient and cleaner than ever. And using local, reliable, and low-cost wood or wood pellets for fuel make them a resilient option.
Getting your water heater out of the basement may be the biggest challenge to making your home resilient to flooding. Most water heaters take up a lot of space. Moving one can also be expensive, because it involves relocating a lot of plumbing work. For some homes, an insulated space for a water heater can be made in a mudroom, a breezeway, or even an attic. If you decide to move or upgrade your water heater, heat pump water heaters will save the most energy. Just remember to make sure there’s enough space to disperse the cool air that comes off a heat pump water heater.
Tankless, "on-demand" water heaters may also be an option. There are electric, natural gas, or propane-powered options. They take up the least amount of space and are ideal for locating somewhere in your home other than your basement. However, gas-powered tankless heaters have to be vented. The limited output of tankless water heaters may also be a barrier for larger households.
No matter what kind of heating or hot water system you have, there’s one more piece to the resilience puzzle: your electric panel. Moving the panel out of flood-prone areas helps ensure it won’t get submerged. And moving your panel is also a chance to upgrade it. An upgraded panel can accommodate more electric appliances in the future. That can include electric clothes dryers, cookstoves, and heat pumps. It can also make room for adding a home electric vehicle charger in the future.
You’ve insulated and air-sealed your home. You’ve upgraded your heating systems and moved as much as you can out of reach of future floods. But it doesn’t stop there. Clean energy technology is advancing rapidly. That means there are even more ways to increase your home’s resilience.
Solar panels can generate the electricity you need to power your home. Excess electricity usually goes right into the grid. Or it can be stored for when you need it most in a home battery backup system. In the not-too-distant future, that solar energy could also go directly to charging an electric vehicle. In the event of a blackout, that home battery could run your home for hours or days, depending on how efficient your home is. Some utilities will even pay you to use the energy in your battery to meet peaks in energy demand. That means your battery can help your neighbors by adding power to the grid.
“A home battery that works with your utility is a great way to help our electricity supply be cleaner and more stable. The many resiliency benefits for your home is just the cherry on top,” explained Li Ling Young. “A whole-home battery also shows the importance of weatherization. A weatherized home will make better use of a battery,” she added.
As electric vehicles become more common, their large batteries could one day be plugged right into your home. That would send power to your lights and appliances—instead of the car’s motor. Carmakers like Ford already offer systems that can turn EVs into a home battery back-up to power your house during blackouts.
Combined with solar panels, you could one day power your home, your car, and your home battery with solar energy. And with powerful storms more likely due to climate change, that kind of resilience can keep your lights on, your car charged, and send stored energy to support the electric grid. That’s as resilient as it gets.