Heating and Air Conditioning: Check

When we found out we were pregnant, I made two demands: by next winter, we would have dependable running water (aka replacing all the plumbing in the house) and heating for the main floor.  We had working baseboard heating in the family room and half-bathroom and that was it.  NOT a place to bring a baby home to, especially when none of the fireplaces are able to have fires!  (That’s a whole ‘nother blog post.)

We did get all the plumbing replaced— and renovated a bathroom in the process while everything was exposed anyway– but up until recently, we hadn’t figured out how to heat the main floor.  (Upstairs has functioning baseboard heaters.  Plus we got A/C up and working again upstairs too.)

So in the past few weeks, we have finally gotten around to making some changes.  A lot of pregnant women go through a nesting phase where they research/ buy/ clean a ton.  My nesting phase was researching heating systems and getting estimates from various companies.  Overall, we had five heating/ air conditioning companies come out and give us estimates.  (Side note: One guy told us our house was too complicated and he’d have to check with his manager to see if their company was even interested in taking on a project as big as ours– they ended up not being interested and didn’t get us an estimate.  So technically we actually only got four.)  The issue with our house, as is the case with all older homes, is it wasn’t designed with air ducts in mind…  meaning the crawlspace isn’t big enough for traditional air conditioning/ heating ducts, and there’s no room between the walls or floors like newer houses.

David took out the baseboard heaters throughout the first floor by himself (which was actually pretty crazy– he turned off the circuit breakers to the baseboard heaters, which I thought was overkill since they didn’t work anyway, and then he shocked himself twice because the circuit breaker was incorrectly marked).  We then had a carpenter come and replace the baseboard moulding where the baseboard heaters had been.  Here are two pictures that show the new baseboard moulding in our dining room– you can only tell it’s new because it’s a fresher white than the old stuff.  Otherwise they match up pretty perfectly!

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He did a pretty good job, huh?photo 1 (3)


You may have noticed those little circles in the floorboards.  They were installed for the old air conditioning system downstairs, a high velocity system that uses much smaller tube-like ducts than a conventional system.

This website describes the differences between a high velocity and a conventional system really well (better than I could at least, even after all of my nesting research!):

Duct SizingConventional systems have the highest impact when installed in an old home. They use large runs of metal ductwork (6″ in diameter is typical) that branches off of two main trunklines (perhaps 8″x18″) for the supply of cool air and return of the warm air. The size of ductwork typically requires giving up space–typically in soffits, knee walls or–in the case of multi-story homes–a closet.High Velocity systems usesmaller 2″ insulated tubing for supply lines. This smaller tubing results in a lower impact on existing space, typically fitting within walls and between floor joists.
FlexibilityBecause of the space required for metal ductwork, conventional systems have limits on where they can go. Some areas of an old home may be inaccessable without adding soffets or bump-outs in corners. Flex tubing is available but is much less sturdy and may not meet code requirements in some locations.High Velocity systems can place supply vents to more locations. They fit more easily between floor joists and wall studs and can make unusual turns more easily than rigid ducts can.
Air FlowConventional systems move air more slowly. The advantage of this islittle noticable “breeze”when the air is on. The disadvantage is that poorly placed supply and return vents can create “dead spots” of warm air in a given room.High Velocity systems intentionally create circulation throughout every room. Some may not like these air currents, but they do offer the benefit of amore consistent temperature throughout each room and the whole home.
NoiseConventional systems have larger ducts and pass air more slowly. It stands to reason, therefore, that they are typically near-silent. (Real life experiences may vary though–more on that later.)High Velocity systems use smaller air passages and move air at a higher velocity, so you’d expectmore “wind noise” from this type of system. Manuracturers have used additional sound deadening materials in supply tubes in recent years to mitigate this issue.
AstheticsConventional systems leave a bigger visual mark on a home because they require more and larger vents. Every room needs a supply and return, which are typically rectangular.High Velocity systems use small supply vents with cover plates the size and shape of CD-ROMs (or smaller). In addition, because of the physics behind the approach, they also only require one return vent for the entire house, instead of one per room. The result is a less noticable visual impacton the existing decor and less space lost to installing returns.
Mechanical SystemsConventional systems win out here for two major reasons. First, conventional systems are less demanding on your air handler giving it a longer useful lifespan. Second, metal ductwork is a simple material that lasts indefinitely.High Velocity systems use a more engineered tubing that is more prone to deterioriation over the long term (although manufacturers have made improvements in recent years). In addition, the higher air velocity and smaller tubing meansmore stress on mechanical componentsof the system. Finally, because the smaller tubing creates greater drag you typically need a more powerful (i.e., $$) air handler to achieve the same output as a conventional system.


We couldn’t get conventional ducts in our house anyway, so ultimately the decision was just to convert the old air conditioning system downstairs into a new heat AND air conditioning system– complete with new tube-ducts that run underneath in the crawlspace.

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Behold, our new thermostat in the hallway (above the existing return)!

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Isn’t that the coolest?  The downside is it’s smack dab in the middle of the wall, but the air return was already there anyway so I don’t really care too much.

There was, however, a catch to heating and cooling the first floor: the kitchen.  The kitchen was different from the rest of the first floor for two reasons: one, half of the kitchen subfloor was thick stone while the other half was wood (and cutting through thick stone for the air flow was impossible); two, the existing air conditioning circles in the floor were in really bad positions (in the middle of where you would walk, not in the corner of the room where they should be– meaning the high velocity air flow would blow your skirt up, or kick dog fur straight up into the room) and needed to be moved… except there was no good place to move them to due to the thick stone.

This presented quite a problem.  The rest of the house could be converted using the high velocity system but the kitchen couldn’t.  We toyed with a bunch of ideas until finally we decided on… drumroll please… a ductless system!

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A ductless heating and air conditioning system is basically what each hotel room has.  You can heat and cool the whole room independently from the rest of the house.

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Ductless systems are extremely efficient– more so than high velocity or conventional– so we’re hopeful it will do a good job heating the kitchen!  So far it’s doing a great job cooling but then again it hasn’t gotten tooooo hot yet (so grateful, don’t get me wrong!  Best August to be pregnant EVER!).  They’re also very affordable to run after the initial expense of installing one.  Their one downside is they are very obvious and not concealed whatsoever.  This was my main drawback to ductless, but ultimately, it’s actually not too noticeable above the wine rack in the kitchen.  I wouldn’t have wanted one of these in every room of my house but for one room, especially one corner of that room, it’s not bad at all.

So with that in mind, we’ve crossed off everything I HAD to have done before baby comes!  (Hear that, baby?  We’re ready for you now!)  At this point we’ll just be playing the waiting game!

3 thoughts on “Heating and Air Conditioning: Check”

  1. A moderately priced multimeter is much cheaper than either replacing or repairing a husband. Electricity, just like trees in the yard can kill you if you lose focus or get beyond your capabilities for even an instant.

    This is probably overkill, but it’s good quality reliable tool that will solve countless problems around the house. http://www.amazon.com/Extech-EX330-Autoranging-Multimeter-Thermometer/dp/B000EX0AE4 You can certainly find a cheaper multimeter but the handy thing about that one is the built-in non-contact AC voltage detector.

    Always, always, always turn off the electricity before you mess with ANY electrical item that you can’t unplug. The fact that your baseboard heaters don’t work does not necessarily mean that they aren’t getting electricity to them. Turn off the breaker and test the leads for voltage to make sure before you touch anything that might carry current.

    The high velocity duct system is interesting. I had never heard of that before. Our solution was to install a gas fired furnace with AC with floor ducts for the ground floor and a second heat pump with attic blower for the upstairs. The heat pump shifts to electric heat as the temperature drops but the gas heat rises so we don’t really need it so much. We mostly cool upstairs when it gets hot. None at all this year.

    1. Thank you! Not overkill at all! (And lesson learned about the electricity!)

      Interesting about the gas the switches to electric upstairs– never heard of that. We still haven’t come up with a long-term solution for heating upstairs (just using the existing baseboard heaters for this upcoming winter) and I’m going to have to look into that.

  2. We have two entirely independent systems.

    The attic system is a heat pump. Those do pretty much what it sounds like. They move heat energy from one place to another. To do that they compress a gas (freon or similar) in one place pump it through a sealed system and allow it to expand in another place. The system is a long loop.

    Compressing a gas makes it release excess heat energy. Decompressing makes it absorb heat. To cool your house, your AC/heat pump compresses gas outside of your house then runs it through a long pipe with lots of added surface area to allow the heat to escape (like the back of your fridge). That gas then gets pumped into your house through a well insulated tube to a similar long pipe with lots of excess surface area. That is inside a box with a fan that blows air over it. The gas expands there and absorbs heat from the air that passes over. The cool air is then distributed to cool the house.

    A heat pump heats by reversing that process. It compresses gas inside leaving the heat there. It then allows the gas to expand outside where it absorbs heat energy. The problem is that as it gets colder outside there is less heat energy for the gas to absorb so the heating function of a heat pump gets progressively less efficient as the temperature drops. Once the temperature drops below a certain point the system compensates with an electric heating element. Heat pumps have relatively low operating costs until that point and then the cost goes up.

    Our downstairs system has gas heat with an AC. Gas heat is still relatively cheaper than electric so we heat with that system alone. The heat rises so it work well unless it is really cold. In that case we use oil filled stand alone radiator heaters upstairs to supplement. We keep unused rooms closed off and turn the heat down to 55- 60 at night with an oil heater in the bedroom. We are perfectly comfortable and don’t waste money heating rooms we aren’t using.

    I’ve probably already bored you so won’t go into radiant vs. forced air, but aim for radiant heat if you can. That way you heat yourself and other objects in the room that will continue to heat you rather than air that leaks out and which feels cold as soon as it stops blowing.

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