My house is cold. What do?
November 21, 2020 8:42 AM   Subscribe

1970s brick end rowhouse in southern Ontario gets very cold in the wintertime. I don't know where to start when considering options to remedy this.

The situation:
Our three story home gets cold, especially upstairs. If the furnace set at 21, it can be 17 upstairs, or even lower. Especially in the front bedroom, which is probably under-insulated in the ceiling, sidewall, front wall AND part of the floor, as it overhangs a balcony.

It's a long, narrow home at the end of a row, so one side of the house is interior and not a problem. But the front, back and the huge exterior side wall are as far as we can tell, brick, vapour barrier, one inch of foam, and then dry wall. The roof probably isn't well insulated either.

Heating is forced air gas furnace. Ducts probably aren't well balanced. We have a couple register fans upstairs to try and help the heat get up there.

I'm not in a rush to do anything about this, we can get a space heater, but what is the right angle of investigation? What kind of contractor should I get quotes from? I'm curious about exterior insulation - we could put cladding on the big exterior side wall. But would the R value of exterior cladding make a difference? And would it be pointless if don't also do the front and back (that would look weird in the context of the row, and also be more complex as there are windows/garage/balcony).

Or should I be thinking about something else...a heat pump? Making the duct-work more efficient (cringe - that's probably more reno-ing than we are willing to do in the next few years. Don't really want to frame out and insulate on the interior either...). Should we just get a space heater and chill?
posted by stray to Home & Garden (20 answers total)
A lot of cities offer free energy audits where someone comes and looks at your house, and then makes recommendations on changes you can make to use less heat. Maybe see if that's a possibility first. The city may also give grants for improvements.
posted by pinochiette at 8:47 AM on November 21, 2020 [9 favorites]

pinochiette's suggestion is good.

Adding roof insulation if you need it might not be too difficult to achieve (at least compared to the walls), but how easy depends a bit on how your roof is built. If you have any kind of attic, a layer of insulation can probably just be added to whatever's there. If you have a flat roof with not much space between your ceiling and the roof surface it gets a bit trickier, but it may be possible to put another layer of foam over what you have already and reroof over that.

It may also be that your furnace is just undersized for what it needs to do, but upsizing might get into larger/more ducts which is out of your scope right now.
posted by LionIndex at 9:30 AM on November 21, 2020

Response by poster: Thanks folks! Looks like our city does not offer free energy audits, but you can get a rebate if you implement the recommended changes. Which makes me nervous but I will inquire further!

Should've mentioned - flat roof, no attic, but I hadn't realized it might be possible to insulate the roof, I'll add that to the list of possibilities.

Furnace is new and correct for square footage but yes, isn't gettin' up there. Thanks. I'll shut up now.
posted by stray at 9:36 AM on November 21, 2020 [1 favorite]

Part of the extra trickiness of adding insulation to a flat roof is that it may raise the level of your roof enough to affect drainage, or flashing around the perimeter - adding that in might be more than you want to get into now, but still may be worth at least looking at.
posted by LionIndex at 9:45 AM on November 21, 2020

Have you checked for air leaks, even tiny ones? Houses shift and caulk hardens and even if it’s been done once it might need redoing.

And forced air is the worst if there are any leaks - it will seek out its escape before you get any good from it. Radiant heat, better chance you’re between it and the leak for a while and get the benefit. There are radiant space heaters, I find one v pleasant in my cold upstairs room.

For the floor, padding under a carpet, or even cork flooring?
posted by clew at 10:14 AM on November 21, 2020 [1 favorite]

How drafty are your windows? I found that putting on the shrink-film for windows & adding heavier curtains made my old (1915) house significantly warmer. When I had an energy audit done, they also suggested adding some insulation around the vent stack/chimney (where it passed between floors) because cold air was getting sucked up around it.
posted by belladonna at 10:41 AM on November 21, 2020 [2 favorites]

If the city doesn't do energy audits, maybe the electrical/gas utility does?
posted by LionIndex at 10:44 AM on November 21, 2020 [4 favorites]

Your priorities should probably be:
1. Reduce infiltration by sealing up every possible crack, weatherstripping doors and windows where you feel cold air coming in. All that air is coming in at outside temperature and has to be heated.
2. Insulate the roof. Heat rises. After infiltration the roof is probably your biggest single heat loss.
3. Check for insulation against the perimeter joist in the basement. This is a major, overlooked location for heat loss as well as air infiltration. If there's no insulation there, get foam blown into those spaces.
4. Windows: interior or exterior storms will reduce heat loss through the glass as well as infiltration.
posted by beagle at 10:48 AM on November 21, 2020 [1 favorite]

As far as vapor barriers or insulation, sorry, I got nothing.
But I lived in a long, narrow house, called a saltbox, for about 10 years. Also had high ceilings. I had similar problems keeping it warm in the winter. Harder, in part b/c it wasn't attached to another unit on either side. A few years ago, my wife and I bought a pellet stove in our new house. Because of the relatively low temperature of the exhaust, our building codes (Oregon) let it be installed with the exhaust pipe running horizontal rather than vertical. This is a huge advantage over traditional fireplaces or wood stoves where the exhaust MUST run straight up and out through the roof. One 40 lb bag of pellets can run a stove for about three days. They plug into a standard outlet, so no hassles with three phase, 220 power as with the furnace or a heat pump. And many stoves can be programmed to operate with an external or the internal thermostat, or on a timer. Used ones can cost about $1000. A couple of these well placed might help solve the heat problem. Considering the time & money you may have to invest, these might be a decent, short term solution. We bought an Italian model called Ravelli. It's stylish and very efficient.
posted by CollectiveMind at 10:49 AM on November 21, 2020 [1 favorite]

If you have a flat roof with not much space between your ceiling and the roof surface it gets a bit trickier, but it may be possible to put another layer of foam over what you have already and reroof over that.

Definitely the way to go with a flat roof. We had that done a couple of years ago, and the comfort level (both summer and winter) got a lot better. This was done with 6cm (2.3") PIR panels after removing the old and worn (prone to leakages) tarpaper roofing, then a fresh tarpaper covering. The edge around the roof needed to be heightened.

Insulating on the outside also puts the existing roof structure in a warmer zone with substantially less chance of condensation (and from that mildew, fungus and rot) forming there. This also applies to outside walls, although if those are brick you won't have as much benefit (but still some) from moving the condensation boundary. It's definitely way easier, and thus cheaper, than any serious modification on the inside. Front and back would likely need to be done from the inside because of keeping the look of the block
posted by Stoneshop at 10:50 AM on November 21, 2020

The energy audit is a good idea. You may need to be conscious about the brickwork. If it is older style porous brick or softer mortar, it may be essential for interior heat to leak through to provide warmth during the winter, to prevent infiltrated water from freezing and causing rapid wear (spalling) of the brick and/or mortar. If you don't know what the story with your brick is, find a professional who can tell you for sure whether you can super-insulate that wall on the inside, or if some alternative is necessary.
posted by seanmpuckett at 11:17 AM on November 21, 2020

For under USD$200, these days, you can buy an infrared camera add-on for your phone which will let you take a look at where heat's getting out, around windows and doors, as well as any anomalies in your walls where insulation is failing for some reason. IR Cameras are best used to display contrast, so if your entire wall is cold because it was insulated by the foreman's nephew, then you may need to take a wide view of things to compare to other walls. You'll want to look around inside and out-- outside will show you where heat is coming out even from diffuse cold sinks inside.

On the scale of what you may end up spending to resolve this issue, and certainly your eventual savings on heating bills, $200 is not much. Plus, you'll have a very interesting holiday family photo to send out, while everyone else is still trying to be interesting within visible-light frequencies, yawn!
posted by Sunburnt at 11:23 AM on November 21, 2020 [1 favorite]

Our best use of money was putting insulation in our (tall) crawlspace. We had an audit done, that’s what the guy said, and he was right. Second place was replacing the windows.
posted by kerf at 11:25 AM on November 21, 2020

You should definitely insulate the side wall, and you can do it from the exterior. That will probably help a lot. If you have the ressources, insulating the roof will spare you money and help save the planet in the long term. Maybe you can top it with sebum.
Get professional advice from a specialist architect or engineer before you hire a contractor. They can help you find the right contractor. They might want to do the front and back too, but if so, suggest to do the work in phases, so you can see how much you gain from the first parts. (My ex is such a specialist. He will always advise people to do the whole package, because that is what he is supposed to do. But in practical life, it isn't always necessary).
Also, see what energy policies are in the pipeline both on the state and national levels. Maybe if you wait till summer to do this, there will be new possibilities for either rebates or actual money as part of a green post covid reconstruction package. That should be on the agenda in all countries who have signed the Paris accord.
posted by mumimor at 12:14 PM on November 21, 2020

Since you asked about heat pumps, we've had a Mitsubishi ductless heat/ac system in place for nearly a year and absolutely love it. It's super effective, quiet, and fairly inconspicuous. You definitely want to pair it with good insulation to get the most out of it, though.

Depending on the layout of your house, they are easy to have put in. We had 4 units installed and it took them maybe 6 or 7 hours from beginning to end to get everything in.

Ironically, we were mainly interested in the heating part, but the split systems that do A/C as well are so close in price that we ended up getting that model and were amazed (and grateful) at how well it worked.

(On the topic of rebates, we were eligible for a significant one as well, and my suggestion there is if you go that route, find a company or person who is very well-versed in the finer details of getting rebates and doing as much of the paperwork for you as possible.)
posted by jeremias at 12:34 PM on November 21, 2020 [2 favorites]

For immediate remedies, just echoing super thick curtains, even hang quilts along the walls you think are the worst. I lived in an incredibly badly built/reno'd apartment in New Brunswick and that made a big change in the room. It will depend a bit on your aesthetic sense.
posted by warriorqueen at 2:26 PM on November 21, 2020

Instead of redoing the roof look into lowering the ceilings on the top floor and putting insulation between the new and old ceilings. This will only work if the ceilings are high enough. As for the part over the balcony carpeting will help.
posted by mareli at 3:55 PM on November 21, 2020 [1 favorite]

Over my previously very cold floors I added two inches of rigid insulation, new 3/4" subfloor and flooring on top of that. If you have the ceiling height to make that work I can definitely recommend that for over the balcony. Any insulation will help, even if you don't have room/can't make a transition that large between rooms work.
posted by kate4914 at 4:56 PM on November 21, 2020

Definitely start with the energy audit as everyone else has said. We are in a 1952 brick single family in Montreal. We did an energy audit and the low hanging fruit was blocking the fireplace (we stuffed some insulation up it and then taped transparent plastic over it with double sided tape), blocking/plasticing off the crawlspace vent to the attic and redoing the weather stripping around the doors. We also have curtains on the windows and sliding doors, rather than blinds. Other cheap stuff we haven't done yet but was recommended include caulking around all the gaps in the house including electrical outlets and floorboards. Adding insulation to the attic space was recommended.

We redid the basement and completely re-insulated it ($$$). It is by far the most comfortable place in the house in winter now and having it done makes a difference to the heating costs of the whole place.

We were able to recoup a decent chunk of our spending through two provincial government programs (including the cost of the audit when they came back to measure the changes we had made).
posted by Cuke at 10:26 AM on November 22, 2020

In the short term, I recommend using winter plastic seals on all the windows - and if you think the window FRAMES might be drafty, put the adhesive around the outsides of the frames, not on the inside. Don't skip the blow-dryer step. Then get some heavy curtains - a heavy quilt with clip-on o-ring hangers in a pinch - much wider and longer than your windows. Put that up as well. You can velcro it in place if there are children or curious cats ready to move it around.

The longer-term solutions like energy audits and infrastructure work are good recommendations, but for right now, when you're cold, I'd recommend the above.
posted by juniperesque at 8:19 AM on November 23, 2020

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