How To Heat A Big Old House. A Theory.
One of the single biggest impediments to owning a big old house — perhaps THE biggest — is heating and cooling.
Basically, in a big old house you will never be warm in the winter or cool in the summer. And even trying will cost a terrifying amount.
Because I am quite fond of comfort (unlike some intrepid souls who delight in roughing it out), I am determined to make the Cross House comfortable year-round. And at a reasonable cost.
How? Well, my plans are admittedly theory and only time will prove the veracity of my Great Plans.
Quiet radically, I do not plan to insulate the house nor install storm windows.
OK, I just lost most of you with that statement. I know, I know, you are thinking: Wow! This guy really IS nuts!
But, please stay with me for a bit.
I suspect that we have it all wrong in America about how we insulate our old homes.
The problem is not insulation but rather air loss. In short, old houses are not tight so all your conditioned air seeps out of the house, and exterior air gets in. It is a losing battle which manifests in discomfort and high bills.
So, I plan to stop all the air leaks. Well, most of them.
Even if I remove all the plaster/lath and infill the exterior walls with fiberglass this would not stop air leaks (as air passes through fiberglass insulation).
Even if I install storm windows these will not stop air leaks (as air/wind will still get through).
So, here is my program:
After each window is restored I will be sealing them with Seal N’ Peel caulk by DAP. This is caulk that just peels off. With most windows I will never remove the caulk; with select windows I will peal the caulk off every spring and replace late fall. Thus my windows will have NO air leakage.
My windows all have sash weights. I am restoring these to use, even though most of the windows will be sealed. Also, while pockets for sash weights are notorious for air leakage, I will open each pocket and seal each.
I will also be installing really good weather-stripping on all exterior doors.
The exterior of the house is, for such an old house, quite tight. Thank God. Nonetheless, as I paint the exterior I am alert to every crack and opening; I seal these.
The exterior walls are 2×6 balloon framing. If I can stop air infiltration these walls will act essentially as thermopane barriers, meaning that the air inside the framing will be dead air — and dead air is a great insulator.
However, no matter how heroic my efforts, some outside air will get into the balloon framing. Once it does, it can travel to ALL the framing, including all the interior walls. Why? Because the nature of balloon framing is that every wall (interior or exterior) is open to every horizontal joist. So, air getting in from a crack outside will travel into the exterior wall, then into the joists, then into interior walls, and on and on.
To stop, or at least significantly reduce this, I am going to stuff every nodule (explained below):
You see the framing above? ALL of this is open to each and very other piece of framing. Again, the vertical walls (interior and exterior) are open to every horizontal floor joist, and thus air traveling through one section of framing will travel through ALL the framing. So, I need to stop air from moving.
To do this I will, as mentioned above, stuff each nodule (filling each with closed-cell foam). By this please note the three X’s on the above drawing. Each X marks a nodule: this is where vertical balloon framing connects with a horizontal joist. By stuffing ALL such nodules (including interior nodules), any air which gets into one section of framing will be unable to travel through ALL the framing.
Has anybody ever done this? I am crossing my fingers that it will work.
The Lid. This is likely the most important idea. I get a tingle just thinking about The Lid.
As I understand it, 85% of heat escapes straight up. In short, heat goes right through your ceiling and eventually outside.
Heat does not naturally go sideways; it is not (much) dissipating through your walls or windows.
Thus, what I plan to do is create a sealed horizontal lid so heat will be unable to dissipate through the ceilings and to the outside.
My second floor ceilings are, blessedly, just over ten-feet-high. I plan to run 2x4s across them, and with the narrow end of the 2x4s kissing the ceilings. Then, I will have closed-cell foam sprayed between these 2x4s. Then, I will attach a vapor barrier to the bottom of the 2x4s. Then I will sheetrock over the 2x4s.
The existing plaster ceilings are in such poor shape (trust me) that I had planned to sheetrock over them anyway (one ceiling is missing entirely). Now, I will simply install sheetrock 3-1/2-inches lower than planned.
The Lid will stop heated air from dissipating through the ceiling, to the third floor (which has its own heating system), and out through the roof.
Amazingly, the Cross House has never had return air ducting for the heating. So, although the radiators make heat, none is “returned” and reused. As such, for 120-years the second-floor would have been warm, the first floor not warm, and the basement cold (even through it has radiators).
However, I had return ducts installed, and gorgeous things they be (occasionally I caress them). In the winter, I will turn Tower One on low fan, and this will suck all the hot air trapped by The Lid, down through the return ducts, to be pushed out through the basement and first-floor registers. This heated air will rise again (effortlessly because of the titanic-sized stairwell opening between the first/second floors) only to be sucked back down. Over and over.
Most rooms will have two ceilings fans also helping to keep the air moving.
When I think that I am done stopping air leaks, I will have a pressure test. This will help reveal overlooked leaks and most (but never all; I am not that naive) will then be sealed.
The closed-cell foam for just The Lid will be around eight grand. Ouch. But this pales in comparison to an estimated $1700 a month in heating costs without it, and the house will NOT be warm for all that monthly expense.
I figure that the $8K cost will pay for itself in less than ten years, and, more importantly, I will be warm during those years. Hallelujah!
Sealing the house will also hugely help keep the house cool, and return ducts have also been installed to suck up the cool air dropping to the lowest level and bring it back up to the highest level in an endless loop.
Well, this is the plan. Give me about two years to find out if it works.
Of huge importance to me is that, IF this all works, the future of the Cross House will be much safer, for most home buyers shun a heating/cooling black hole. I can think of no other issue more detrimental to the preservation of big old houses.
I invite comment.
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