The Cross House

Mmmmmmmmmmm, warm.

Last January, I finally, finally, got the radiator system of the Cross House up and running.

Long-time readers will recall some, ahh, mishaps during the process but after some ado the miles of pipes filled with hot water, the many radiators filled up, and slowly the huge house responded and….warmth was my reward. It was glorious.

Today, the temperature plummeted to 23 degrees. I arrived at the house around 2PM, and opened the door.

And the house was warm. The thermostat is set at 63, and I walked over to it. I could tell the boilers were off (as they were silent) and the house was quiet. The inside temperature? Exactly 63 degrees. Just as it should be. I walked over to a radiator. I expected it to be be hot. But it was barely warm. Was it not working? I walked over to several more. All were barely warm.

Yet the house was at exactly the temperature it was supposed to be. And the boilers were off.

I shrugged, and went to work.

The boilers kicked on after a while. Then they went silent again. The radiators never got hot.

How is possible that such a huge house, with zero insulation and zero storm windows, can be kept at 63 degrees on a 23-dregree day with barely warm radiators?

Yes, I have worked hard to seal the house up, and 85% of the windows are now sealed, and countless cracks have been sealed. This is massive improvement from 2014 when the house was terrifyingly porous. While there are still some windows to be sealed, and some other issues to be addressed, the Cross House was comfortably warm today with barely warm radiators and mostly silent boilers.

I am baffled. Delighted, too.

I do know that plaster retains heat. Are all the plaster walls and ceilings retaining the heat generated by the barely warm radiators and radiating this back out? If so, this would be hugely compelling reason for people to  stop gutting old houses to the studs. That old plaster is important.

I also know that my installing a return air system has made a huge difference. All the heated air rises to the second-floor, where much of it is captured, sucked down, and blown out through the supply ducts in the basement and first-floor. Without this endless loop, the heated air would rise, rise through the second-floor ceiling, and vanish from the house. The boilers, thus, would be working constantly to replace the endlessly lost heat.

The previous owner reported that on cold days, with all the boilers running, and the radiators hot to the touch, he never got the house above 50 degrees. So, today? Wow.

By the end of 2019, I should have complete all the remaining issues on my Tight Punch List, and plan to do a  pressure test to see what I missed. While the house will never be super-tight (and nor would I want that), I am, so far, cautiously optimistic that the Cross House can be warm (something I have never been sure was possible), and warm in an affordable way (something I was even less sure of).

So, today, I arrived at the house around 2PM. I opened the door. And the house was warm.



27 Responses to Mmmmmmmmmmm, warm.

  1. Congratulations! I am envious as my own 8 yr. old furnace has a cracked heat exchanger and while the part is covered by a warranty, the labor to fix it is $500+. The irony of the situation is it is cold here, and a friend gave me an electric blanket- with no control or plug! So, Ross, nothing beats a warm house, that’s for sure! PS the heater is only 8 yrs old. I guess they don’t make anything like they used to, do they?

  2. Love the idea of the return air system. Smart! We have always loved the plaster in our 1923 house, and now I love it even more. We are only the 3rd owners of our almost 100 years old house. The original radiators were replaced with baseboard heating by the previous residents. They work well though. When we got married we added 1000 square feet to the house and the only place we ever have trouble is in the new part!

    • Hi, Jonathan!

      I never did a post about the return duct but the whole thing is pretty basic.

      If you have a house heated by radiators, I think a return duct is essential.

      You want the return opening at a HIGH point, like the ceiling of a second floor. Then you need a blower to suck the air into the duct, and blow it out through a LOW point, like, say, a basement.

      This will take the $$$$-created hot air and circulate it throughout the house. And this will make a huge difference is not only comfort, but in lowering your heating bills.

      • Oddly enough, our hot-water heated house is generally warmer on the first floor during the winter. I think it’s due to ample radiators on the first floor, and minimal attic insulation (only about 4-5″ of blown fiberglass between the ceiling joists below the gap-decked attic floor).

        I’ve yet to decide the best way to add attic insulation while maintaining the large area and storage space. I’ve considered putting rigid foam with a top layer of thin plywood on top of the existing floor.

      • Do you have information on how this system was sized? I am considering this for our 3 floor house with steam radiators. As a mechanical engineer i have been struggling to find good guidance for sizing.

      • I like the sound of that very much. I stayed in a basement Airbnb in the greater avenues and Capitol Hill of Salt Lake City.(the main part of the house was not maintained, but it was exquisite) The apartment was heated by the radiator pipes for the housing above, but there was no air circulation, so we had to open a window, even though it was below 50 degrees outside. The situation had me worry about old houses and having that air circulation with radiator heating(which I love) Your system is the perfect resolution imo.

        • The boiler room in our house is directly beneath the first-floor powder room. It keeps the tile floor delightfully warm in the winter!

          • And I’ll bet that was intentional in the build, too. When did thought cease to be a thing when it came to house building, I wonder…

  3. When I got up yesterday morning, it was 54 in my living room, by far the warmest room in the house. Outside, the wind was roaring, 45-50 mph sustained, gusts to 75-85. It was 35 degrees, wind chill 20ish.

    I threw my clothes in the dryer, hastily built a fire in my 100 plus year old wood stove, grabbed my hot clothes from the dryer, and dressed as fast as possible in front of the stove.

    Just another day here in the Columbia River Gorge.

    I am in the midst of a major rebuild. I recently completed tearing down 27 feet of exterior wall, and rebuilding it, improving as I go. The amount of rot, poor constuction, and deferred repairs for well over 100 years HAD to be dealt with this year, along with a new roof (I hired that job out)

    But right now, there are no bird blocks, no insulation, and no windows in that wall.(the window openings are covered with plywood “shutters”) Our bathroom is part of this project, and taking showers is quite the experience, with the wind literally blowing the water around. It’s like camping… well, extreme camping maybe. *grin*

    So, when you said your house is a quiet 63 degrees, I smiled. I’ll get there. Soon

  4. Ross, you say here “How is possible that such a huge house, with zero insulation and zero storm windows, can be kept at 63 degrees on a 23-dregree day with barely warm radiators?”

    But doesn’t the house have that “dead air” insulation gap in the external walls? Though Bob filled some of it with foam, didn’t he? isn’t that actually a bad thing to do? I’m trying very hard to remember what you’ve said about it before, creating condensation and mold because the house can’t breathe then and so on?

    For me though, this is just the house showing you that you’re doing all the right things, you’re letting her work the way she was designed to, with a little modern day assistance from the air re-circulation: you’re NOT ripping the old windows out and replacing them with plastic ones; you’re NOT tearing all the interior walls down; you’re NOT replacing the perfectly fine roofing materials with new and inferior ones, just because; you’re NOT tearing down all the original plaster and replacing it with inferior sheetrock, also just because; you’re ABSOLUTELY NOT putting in forced air heat (this thing sounds so truly horrible I’m SO glad UK homes are heated by radiators by default!).

    You’re simply giving the house the tools she needs to do her job; to provide shelter and comfort to those lucky enough to enter her, and she does it with aplomb, doesn’t she. 😃

        • Yes I agree. Although the previous owners of our 100 year old house put in baseboard heating, that is ok from a functional standpoint. I love radiators! I think they are beautiful, but if they were here, they are long gone.

          Our almost almost 100 year old house has its original windows, which I imagine could be restored. I need to ask Ross about what that really means. We definitely would not ever put in “modern” windows but perhaps at some point we could restore our windows. Our windows are beautiful with real panes. We have many old and intact homes here in New Rochelle.

          • The process often depends on the condition of the windows. In cases like many of the Cross House windows (and several of mine), it means removing the sashes from the window frames, then making repairs to them while you scrape, sand, and repaint the frames. If the frames and sashes are in good condition but have loose glazing and peeling paint, then my practice is to leave them in place, reglazing and painting them where they are. That may not be the absolute best way, but when winter is hard upon you and you still have a dozen to do, it works for me, LOL

  5. That must be a great feeling to come in to a warm house that was only recently a porous shell! You really have accomplished so much. Sealing air gaps (like rotted holes in the wall and all the little ones you’ve addressed) really makes a difference. It’s hard to heat the outdoors!

    I’m also often surprised at how cool our radiators feel when the house is warm. When there’s a really large temperature differential between indoor and outdoor or if they are heating up the house after being set low while out of town, they get a bit hot, but otherwise they’re just comfortingly warm, silently keeping the house comfy. It’s one of my favorite parts about cast-iron radiator heating. Most of the time, you just forget it’s even there.

  6. I have radiators and it’s the same thing. Barely ever warm, but the house is toasty. Gas fired boiler furnace. Nearly 30 years old. Only time radiators his is when the temp is in the negative. So that’s awesome how well yours is working!

  7. This post makes me very happy. When I was in the house a few times (in the winter of 1979, I think), it was still a rooming house and very chopped up. I remember roasting on the first floor as I went in the front door, but it was freezing in the basement. The second floor was warm, but nothing like the first floor.

    Happy to know that the whole house is now toasty. It should make working on your indoor projects this winter MUCH more pleasant.

  8. Last night and this morning was our first taste of winter (temps in the mid-20s, wind chill in the low/mid teens) since I restored all of our old windows this past summer, and I am thrilled to say that our house was warmer this morning with the thermostat at 62 degrees than it ever was before set at 72 degrees! Even with the cold wind and snow howling around us, I couldn’t find a single cold draft anywhere! And this is after I removed and gave away 37 aluminum storm windows! Ross, your good advice on restoring windows should be shared with the world, LOL!

    • Mike, maybe it will be… I mean Ross can write books, we know this – a tome both educational and entertaining about restoration seems obligatory, can’t we hope? ​😏 ​

      • I’ve said all along that I will reserve the first copy of his book! 🙂 My wife got tickled at me yesterday morning; I was going from window to window, room to room, pausing to stand perfectly still to “sense” any draft. When I failed to feel cold air, I was like “YESSS!!!”, and then moved on to the next, LOL…

  9. I literally did the same thing the other day. Ran around the house in a panic touching the radiators. Then moving a thermostate from floor to floor checking the tempatures around the house. Yup 60, yet radiators barely warm. Whew!

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