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Solutions for old house heating problems

Shannon Dauphin Lee

As winter approaches, thoughts begin to turn to what will keep you warm during those bitterly cold days. If you live in an old house, staying warm can be surprisingly tricky. Some rooms might be toasty warm while others are freezing. You might have the whole place comfortable, but then your heating bills make you decidedly uncomfortable. Fortunately, there are several solutions that might work. Some of these require the help of a contractor, while others are simple do-it-yourself fixes.

Problem: Your house is cold no matter what you do.

Solution: Insulate like crazy.

If your heating system is working overtime but your house is still frigid, chances are the heat is escaping. The only cure for this is insulation, and lots of it. Start with attic insulation, because heat always rises. If you don't want to mess with your walls, look for a contractor who can install foam insulation or pellet insulation. If your old house has the space to install insulation in the floor, that can be helpful for homes in northern climates where the ground becomes very cold for the duration of the winter. Finally, don't forget other parts of your house that can be insulated, such as investing in new doors or windows.

Not sure where to begin with insulating your old house? This chart from EnergyStar can tell you which R-Value is recommended for your location. Talk to a contractor before taking the plunge, as your old house might have older wiring, plaster walls, or other features that necessitate insulation work by a professional.

Problem: There is absolutely no room for a new heating system.

Solution: Look at radiant systems.

Many old houses are built with very little room, including no closets to speak of and tight doorways. In a home where space is a premium, putting in ductwork can be impossible. Fortunately, dry radiant systems can add heat to your floor while sacrificing only about an inch of height in the room. It's one of the most space-effective options for your old house. This in-depth information from Energy.gov can help you choose the type of radiant heating that will work best to keep your home toasty warm.

In the meantime, work with the heating options you already have. For instance, the boiler system might need to be upgraded in order to make those old radiators more effective. If you have fireplaces and wood stoves, get in touch with a chimney sweep to help ensure they are working at peak efficiency.

Problem: Drafts are coming in everywhere.

Solution: Block anywhere air can get through.

You've got the heat running just fine and the insulation is doing its job, but now you can feel the drafts -- and the cold wake-up call is hitting your heating bills, too. It's time to go to war armed with weather stripping, door sweeps, heavy-duty caulk, and even insulating pads for those places where drafts can surprise you, like behind light switches and electrical outlets. After everything has been sealed up, you can also consider covering old windows with plastic film and caulk, hanging heavy drapes over patio doors, and paying attention to the seals around outlets, such as dryer vents. The Environmental Protection Agency offers a list of places where drafts can get through, as well as solid information on how to stop the air infiltration.

Problem: The cost of heating is still far too high.

Solution: Explore all other heating options.

If your utility bills get far too high to handle during the dead of winter, it might be time to look for alternatives. Firewood is very inexpensive -- if you have a wood stove, you're in luck, as it can be used on its own or in combination with other heating methods. Other options include natural gas or propane gas, fuel oils, and even coal. The U.S. Energy Information Administration offers an excellent calculation tool to help you decide between various heating fuels, and Duke Energy has a few helpful tools as well.

If your home already has ductwork installed, your options grow broader. Upgrading your furnace can decrease utility bills, and so can geothermal units. The up-front investment can be steep, but you could see a savings of $200 per year on your utility bills, according to EnergyStar.

Whether you choose a quaint pellet stove or natural gas, stick with that old boiler system, go for the radiant heating, or install a geothermal heat pump, good insulation and blocking drafts can save money. Start now by exploring your options for old house heating -- before the snow starts to fly and the temperatures plummet.

About the Author
Shannon Dauphin Lee is a freelance writer and occasional novelist with a serious weakness for real estate. When she's not writing, she and her husband are taking road trips to explore covered bridges, little wineries and quaint bed-and-breakfast inns in their beloved Pennsylvania.


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