Managing the temperature in my home
November 21, 2021 7:58 PM   Subscribe

The rooms in my house seem to vary quite a lot in temperature and I'm not sure if this is normal or how to fix it.

I own a home that was built about 12 years ago. I am not very handy and I know little about stuff around the house, so if you can answer as though you're speaking to a five year old, that would be fantastic. About a year ago, I purchased a smart thermostat and some sensors to put around the house. Since then, I've discovered that the temperature difference in the coldest and warmest parts of my home are about 5 degrees Celsius. Right now, it's 18.5 C in the coldest bedroom upstairs and it's 23 C in the basement. Is this normal? Is it normal for different parts of the house to be so far apart in temperature? If not, what things can I be doing to fix this?
posted by NoneOfTheAbove to Home & Garden (12 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
This is a very normal thing to happen when you have a heating system with only a single thermostat.

Your thermostat has the ability to turn the heat on and off, but it can only turn it on or off for the entire house at once. Every room's heat source is sized based on how much heat your HVAC company expected that room would lose over time (usually based on how much exposure the room has to the outdoors and how insulated it is), but there are many reasons this won't produce the same heat everywhere:
  • The HVAC engineers could have done a bad job or not had all the information (maybe the kind of windows being installed changed at the last minute?)
  • You can do stuff in the room that makes it hotter or colder, like physically being in there, turning on lights, running hot water, etc.
  • If a room has windows, it will get a varying amount of sun based on the time of day/year which can make it hotter or colder.
  • Depending on the kind of heating system, it can take longer for heat to reach rooms that are farther away from the furnace or boiler, meaning that in shoulder seasons when the heat tends to cycle on and off more, those rooms wind up being colder than in the middle of winter.
These factors all tend to be exacerbated if you keep doors closed, which prevents airflow between rooms.

That said, 5 degrees is a pretty big range. It is probably worth having your HVAC company come to rebalance your heating system. The way this will work will depend on what kind of heat you have. If you have hydronic heating (hot water radiators), they can adjust the flow of water to each radiator. If you have forced air, they can use baffles to adjust the airflow to each vent. These will adjust the relative amount of heat that goes to each room when the heating system is turned on, but your thermostat will still control whether the system is on or off for the whole house at once. So your problem won't go away entirely but it will get better and less predictable (rather than upstairs being cold and downstairs being hot, certain rooms will be hotter/colder depending on what you're doing that day, how sunny it is, or whatever.)

If you have electric resistance heating (like electric baseboard heaters), you should probably get multiple thermostats because those are very easy to adjust room by room.
posted by goingonit at 8:11 PM on November 21, 2021

Oh one more thing to mention. Since it's specifically the upstairs that's colder, and since it's not the middle of winter right now, you could be able to improve your situation by adjusting the "swing" of the thermostat. If a thermostat has a wider swing, then instead of (say) turning on when it's 19C and turning off when it's 20C, it will turn on when it's 18C and turn off when it's 21C. This would fix the fourth issue I mentioned above, namely that the heat is never on long enough to reach the upstairs rooms. The downside is that every room will have a wider temperature range over the course of the day.
posted by goingonit at 8:18 PM on November 21, 2021

As goingonit says, this could be normal or it could be something to be tweaked to make it better. If the furnace is forced air and is located in the basement and the basement is the warmest room, it is likely getting far too much hot air output of the furnace since heating the basement is the shortest path for the heat to take.

Environmental conditions can make rooms vary hugely in temperature. When I am working from home by myself in winter I have the thermostat set at 62F. So during late fall/early winter here in Cincinnati it means the heat rarely turns on. The thermostat is in the first floor living room on internal wall that isn't exposed to sunlight. However, my first floor office is way warmer than 62F thanks to a window letting sunlight stream in plus a few computers and monitors pumping out heat.

Lastly, if you have a smart thermostat with multiple sensors placed around the house (like an ecobee) then make sure you are properly telling the termostats which sensors to use when and which to ignore. As goingonit says, if you have a single zone for heat, all the termostat can do is turn on all the heat or turn it off. In my case, during the day, my thermostat only considers the first floor for making decisions. During sleeping times, only the sensor in the second floor bedroom is considered. That means while I am comfortable in bed, the first floor and basement are likely being heated far too warmly because it takes more work to get the heat from the basement to the second floor.
posted by mmascolino at 8:32 PM on November 21, 2021

If you have forced air heat, you may be able to to balance your temps by opening dampers in rooms that are too cold and closing them in rooms that are too hot.
Anything beyond this you will need an hvac tech. The tech may be able to add duct booster blowers in the ducts to the cold rooms.
posted by H21 at 9:09 PM on November 21, 2021

Response by poster: Ok, this is a slight follow-up question. The vents in the basement don't seem to be able to close. They seem locked in the open position. What's that about? Is there some reason I shouldn't close the basement ones? Should I get replacement ones that actually close? This post made me remember that I was thinking that an obvious solution would be to close those vents, but that they wouldn't.
posted by NoneOfTheAbove at 9:38 PM on November 21, 2021

Yes I would say getting vents that close in the basement would definitely help. I have the vent in my sons room closed about 90% or it would be unbearably hot for him.
posted by piyushnz at 10:46 PM on November 21, 2021

I’m also seeing lots of sites that say closing vents are a bad idea (eg.) but the argument is usually based on the fact that this will create uneven heat and cause your furnace to work harder. But if your starting point is uneven heat distribution I think at least partially closing these in hotter rooms can only help. Of course I am no expert and also have the handy person equivalent age of a five year old.
posted by piyushnz at 10:52 PM on November 21, 2021

Is it possible the basement vents you're looking at are air returns? Does hot air go out of them, or does air come in?
posted by goingonit at 3:24 AM on November 22, 2021 [2 favorites]

(assuming they are vents, getting louvered vents and closing the louvers will help but isn't the best solution -- a damper inside the duct will be more efficient and more effective, and there is probably one installed. A technician can show you where it is and how to adjust it.)
posted by goingonit at 3:35 AM on November 22, 2021 [1 favorite]

You can also get smart vents (e.g.) that pair up with your smart thermostat and close when a particular room hits the desired temperature. Besides evening out the temperature in your home, you can use it to make it uneven in desirable ways if you choose, like keep one room hotter or colder than the others deliberately or heat/cool different rooms at different times of day.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 6:41 AM on November 22, 2021

I have this same issue due to single zone HVAC servicing the whole 4 story home. Like others said above, if you have dampers that can be adjusted by a HVAC technician, that would be good to do.

For your basement vents that aren't able to be closed, one of the cheapest and simplest thing to try would be magnetic vent covers. Make sure to measure your vent and order the right size.
posted by thewildgreen at 9:47 AM on November 22, 2021

Response by poster: Thank you all. We had someone come and service our furnace and sort out why the basement vents weren't closing. Things are much better and there isn't a huge temperature difference anymore.
posted by NoneOfTheAbove at 10:21 PM on December 3, 2021

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