Exploring heating options for an old house

By: Shannon Dauphin Lee , Contributing Writer
In: Old House Construction, Home Improvement Tips

An old house is…well, old. It has ancient wood, sloping floors, rattling pipes, and wonky wiring. It is absolutely chock-full of character, but it also comes with its share of problems. That can make choosing the most efficient and safest method of heating a bit of a challenge.

Choosing heating for your old house might have already been done for you. After all, a house built before air conditioning likely doesn't have the space to install that HVAC system, and a home that uses boilers might not easily convert to radiant heating. But no matter the situation, rest assured that there is a safe, effective and efficient way to heat your old house.

Heating options for old houses

Often the heating you choose for your house is based on what was there long before you arrived. A boiler in the basement, a fireplace and wood stove, or fuel oil furnaces are all common finds in an old house. With some ingenuity and planning, you might be able to use more modern methods of heating. Here is a basic run-down of the options, including some pros and cons.

  1. Radiators. If you have a very old house, you might have this kind of heat. Each room or area of the house has a radiator, and that is powered by a boiler. The boiler forces water through the pipes to the radiators, where the hot water heats the house. It's a very efficient form of heating and the costs are low, but they heat slowly and can distribute uneven heating, which can be annoying.
  2. Radiant heating. Rather than send the hot water to radiators, radiant heating pipes water into tubes underneath the floor, heating the room from the ground up. However, radiant heating might require major changes to the flooring in your old house, and that can destroy the character.
  3. Baseboard heating. This hydroponic heating works much like a radiator, but is often more efficient. The big problem is that the heating elements take up the baseboard space, which means you might not be able to put furniture against the walls.
  4. Forced air. One of the most popular heating methods, this works with a furnace that heats air and pushes it into the house. They can be very efficient and provide nice, even heating. The problem lies in the duct-work; many old houses aren't built with enough space to accommodate the large ducts that are required to move the heat around.
  5. Electric heaters. These portable heaters allow you to have targeted heat in any room, and there are no constraints as to installation -- as long as you have a good outlet and the space to run the heater safely, you're good to go. The problem lies in how expensive the heating can become, the tedious nature of moving the heaters around, and the potential for fire if the heaters are improperly placed.
  6. Geothermal. Though geothermal is often considered the mother of efficient heating, this might also be one of the most difficult ways to heat an old house, as installation can be tricky.
  7. Wood stoves. Many old homes already have a wood stove, or at least have an area where one used to be. Modern wood stoves burn more than just wood -- they can accept biomass or wood pellets, among other sources. Wood stoves must be scrupulously maintained to ensure safety.

There are other heating options, of course, but these are the most common ones you might consider when it's time to upgrade the heating in your old house. Take your time in choosing which type of heating suits your lifestyle and your home's structure. You can also take into account the cost of various fuels in your area, such as propane gas, natural gas, or electricity. These factors can all help you determine which type of heating is a sound investment that will keep your family safe and comfortable without destroying your yearly budget.