Apartment running hot and cold
December 8, 2018 6:47 PM   Subscribe

We live in a two-floor rental apartment in a cold climate. We have forced-air heat. When the heat is running, it is often simultaneously unbearably warm upstairs and uncomfortably chilly downstairs — even if we shut all the vents upstairs and open all the vents downstairs.

We're pretty sure the real problem is badly installed or missing insulation. There are walls downstairs that are noticeably cold to the touch. But this is a rental and we can't fix that.

Upstairs and downstairs are on the same thermostat. Again, that's something that's probably contributing to the problem. But this is a rental and we can't fix that.

What can we do? We will be plasticking over the downstairs windows in hope that that will help. What other ways can we keep the downstairs warm without overheating the upstairs, and without having the ability to make permanent changes?
posted by nebulawindphone to Home & Garden (12 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Well, you could turn down the overall heat and then run space heaters downstairs. Or you could turn it up and then open an upstairs window. Not the most elegant or efficient solutions, I'll admit.

You could also get actual covers for the upstairs vents, or even just tape sheets of cardboard over them. Something that will provide a better seal than just closing them.

Which floor is the thermostat on? That will make a difference to your strategy here.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 6:54 PM on December 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: The thermostat is downstairs. (The furnace, though, is upstairs, which might be another thing that's making the problem worse.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 6:57 PM on December 8, 2018

OK, so if the thermostat is downstairs then the heat ought to run until the downstairs is up to temperature, even if the upstairs is a million degrees. Is it possible to get the downstairs warm, or even just the room where the thermostat is? If not, there may be something wrong with your heating system which the landlord could and should fix.

You could also, regardless of whether things are broken or not, try to get your landlord to call out an HVAC tech who can balance your system. Your ducts should have louvres in them near where the furnace is which help control how much air flows to various parts of the apartment, and a competent HVAC tech can adjust them such that your apartment heats more evenly.

Back in the world of jerry-rigged temporary solutions, you could perhaps rig up a box fan or two in your stairwell to help mix the air between the two floors. This might make your apartment feel drafty, however.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 7:03 PM on December 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

You could also have a go at balancing the system yourself if you can find the louvres. Just be sure to mark their current positions with a Sharpie so that you can reset them if you don't get the effect you are looking for, and experiment a little bit at a time (like one adjustment per hour) taking photos as you go to track the changes you're making. If you're patient and careful you should be able to get it dialed in eventually.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 7:15 PM on December 8, 2018 [2 favorites]

Are you sharing walls with other units, or are you in a stand-alone unit? I ask because the effect may be magnified if it isn’t just your heat that you’re dealing with. But in any case, heat rises, so it’s not a matter of thermostats per se, it’s just how air density works.

My 3-floor row home has this same tendency, and I’ve shut the vents in those rooms that don’t get used frequently (like the guest room). The heat tends to be most noticeable in my master bedroom, which has an en suite bathroom with a non-closing vent which seems to be the warmest spot in the house. If I close the door to the bathroom during the day, the temperature of the house tends to equalize a little better. I’ve also used foam vent inserts and they seemed to be a little effective, though they were mainly to catch dust and prevent things from falling down the vent.

If the furnace has a fan setting, you could try running it to circulate the air in the house.

Otherwise, I basically recommend setting it at whatever temperature is the most tolerable, and using throw blankets or electric blankets (can’t beat heated throws for energy-efficient warming, way better than space heaters).
posted by Autumnheart at 8:21 PM on December 8, 2018

If the furnace is upstairs, does the heated air for the downstairs come from ceiling vents, and the upstairs hot air out of floor vents?
That was the case in a previous place I lived, and we improved things by using a fan downstairs to mix the cold floor-level air with the warmer air near the ceiling.
posted by anadem at 8:55 PM on December 8, 2018

We have managed to keep more heat downstairs by hanging a curtain at the bottom of the stairs. It does a surprisingly good job at keeping warm air from just whooshing it's way to the upper level the moment it was pushed out of the ceiling vents. If you have a spot that divides the upstairs from the downstairs it might be worth hanging something just to see if you can keep more of the warm air downstairs. It's not a solution but it could give you some temporary comfort while you're figuring out a better fix for the problem.
posted by Miss Matheson at 9:05 PM on December 8, 2018 [3 favorites]

People telling you about vents clearly didn't read your post, because balancing can't fix your problem if a 100% closure doesn't alleviate the problem.

I have two suggestions:
1 Try setting the HVAC fan to run continuously
2 Block the return vents upstairs, thus the HVAC fan will have to force air downstairs (increasing recirculation)
posted by flimflam at 1:39 AM on December 9, 2018

Respectfully, balancing the system at the furnace may still help even if closing the vents doesn't. It's more effective to control airflow near the source than at the ends of the branches; that's why those louvres exist in the first place. I did in fact read the question.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 2:46 AM on December 9, 2018

You've closed the vents, but have you checked the dampers on the furnace?
posted by hooray at 5:05 AM on December 9, 2018

Response by poster: If the furnace is upstairs, does the heated air for the downstairs come from ceiling vents, and the upstairs hot air out of floor vents?

It's ceiling vents in both cases.
posted by nebulawindphone at 5:57 AM on December 9, 2018

Do you have any ceiling fans downstairs? They could be used to push warm air down from the ceiling.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 6:17 AM on December 9, 2018

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