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Old house renovation

pbennett45 Member Posts: 15
Hi Everyone... new to the message board - thank you in advance for any help.

I am 1 week away from closing on a 150 year old home with oil fired steam radiator heating. The house needs some love, the walls are about half plaster half drywall (some rooms have been redone) and it's likely I'll be tearing down walls to add exterior insulation and redo the electrical. Our plan is to put an addition on the house in about 5 years, probably adding 50% to the existing size (from 1300sqft to maybe 2000 sqft). To plan ahead for this, I thought I would do whatever I needed inside the walls of the existing house now to be ready to switch to a single natural gas powered furnace for the entire house once the addition is there.

My original thought was to add ductwork for a forced air system (and just cap off the ends for the next 5 years until the addition) since the walls will be open anyway. That would be compatible with adding central air to the house post-addition as well, which I would like to do. But I've been hearing that perhaps that's not the best plan - Ideally you want your central air supply high up in the room so the cold air doesn't have to get pushed up. But you obviously want the opposite for your heating supply.

I was hoping I could get some recommendations for what I should be putting in place now while I renovate, to prepare for an eventual system that meets the following requirements:

1) Compatible with a new single HVAC system once the addition is complete in 5 years.

2) Compatible with natural gas as the fuel supply.

3) Compatible with central A/C for the entire home once the addition is complete.

4) Preferably avoid radiators or other heating units that take up much space along the floor-wall line (pain to work furniture around)

I am open to running ductwork just for eventual central A/C if that is the best option, but in that case, what would be recommended for the heating system?

Any opinions?




  • rlaggren
    rlaggren Member Posts: 160
    I grew up in 100 year old houses. I _like_ them

    Congrats on your great house.

    But it's a good thing to go careful, plan ahead like you're doing. My .02 as follows:

    -Immediately: Keep the weather out. Roof, windows, doors, repair now. Renovate the above to your specs as soon as possible.

    -Stop plumbing leaks.

    -Seal up vermin leaks (eg, squirrels).

    Now you have time to plan.

    Start with the structure, at the bottom - the basement/foundation - and make right as needed. Look at what's there and understand that it may not make sense to redo _everything_. An old house is never going to be plumb, perpendicular and square - much less level, but you need to get the structure solid. Fix the rot you find.


    The first part of insulation and the most important is seal all the air leaks. To/from the outside and to/from different levels w/in the house. It's nitty-picky anal retentive work and it takes hours. I've done an old house from the inside (because re-siding was not an option) and it seems effective after 3 years; pm me if this is relevant to you. IAC, this is the perfect place for $8/hr labor, if closely and knowledgeably managed.

    .You might consider high pressure AC, with 2" PVC ducting. It can be done wrong, so the usual due diligence w/installers applies. It gives a much smaller "foot print".

    I agree with the theme of this forum, so ... Go Hydronic.   Old radiators can be considered a design feature and if you're adding lots more space later, they might be nice to keep (if you have them). Else baseboard or radiant would do the job in spades. Mr. ME has mentioned doing radiant ceilings in his own building - might ask how it's worked out.

    If the walls are open, repipe the plumbing in copper if not already - all the plumbing, not just the main runs. Replace the drains. If you're in freezing climate zone, keep plumbing in interior walls; install freeze-proof hosebibs.

    I like old wooden windows. They can be made weather tight and fairly energy efficient if you find a really top flight window man. If they are original, they're made of wood that will outlive you, much less any kind of vinyl; and no, that kind of wood can not be purchased any more. If you don't like the old weights (I do), put in spring tapes where the old rollers live at the top of the window. Casements are easy.

    I hope you get a lot of satisfaction out of your house. The possibilities are boundless.

    Cheers, Rufus
    disclaimer - I'm a plumber, not a heating pro.
  • pbennett45
    pbennett45 Member Posts: 15
    Thank you


    Thank you for the ideas. I certainly agree with your prioritized list of things to take care of... almost all of which have some work to be done. Definitely the weather and the vermin - hoping to close before the birds and squirrels come back so I can get the wholes in the soffits temporarily patched in time. Hopefully no plumbing leaks, but we'll certainly see - inspection didn't uncover any.

    We will definitely not be residing - it's old beam and batton siding that we love the historic look of. Even if we were going to, it wouldn't be until after the future addition.

    I've read a lot of bad things about those mini pvc A/D ducts... Have you had better experience with them?

    As for the heating... from what I've read here and other places I'm torn again. If we weren't going forced air, I don't see the point of switching. Most hydronic options require some unit in the room screwing up furniture placement. I looked at radiant underfloor since it's going to be open anyway - but according to the equations on www.radiantec.com it seems iffy if we'll ever get enough BTUs out to heat an old house that, even with a lot of help on the insulation from is probably never going to surpass "Fair" insulation overall. It is also probably more expensive than we'd be interested in.

    I've read a few anti-forced air arguments on the web - it seems the primary ones are allergens and dryness, is that correct? I'm a bit confused on the dryness - I guess my parents must have always had a humidifier in line with the ductwork, because I was always fine growing up, but when I moved out in college to an old rental house with steam heating - I've never had drier more cracked skin in my life. So I'm actually MORE concerned about dryness with the steam - but it sounds like without a humidifier, forced air would be even worse??

    If I were to leave the steam system in place, what would you recommend for the addition down the road? 2 separate systems? It seems like steam has completely disappeared in favor of hot water systems.

    Anyway - Thanks for the suggestions, much appreciated.

  • clammy
    clammy Member Posts: 3,113
    edited November 2010
    buderus panel rads

    Hello paul ,rusfus has given you some good advice ,as for a/c take a look at unico systems hi velocity system the runs to eah room are smaller and are great for old homes i have installed a few and they have always worked out great and as for heat i am a hvac guy at heart but i do not install hot air i always pass on those jobs in terms of effeienty they waste alot of engery between the required eletric used to move the air and duct loses and the size of properly sized and don't forget to seal and insulate the  ducts also and the space they take up and then don't forget that you will need return duct work also ,not to sound bias take a look at buderus panel rads they wall mount take very little space and fit into just about any deco and are used with a hot water boiler ,panel rads coupled with a modulating condensing boiler and sized for low temp boiler water is a thing of beauty ,they can be piped as a home run system with 1/2 pex or better yet pex al pex and add a thermostatic raditor valve is easily installed on each raditor to give you temperture control at each raditor with no added electrial controls aside from 1 main thermostat.The big upside of panel rad home run systems is that when you do your planned addition you just run some 1/2 pex  tie it into a manifold and you are done .Chek out buderus panel rads i have them in my own home and have installed on jobs and have had no complaints again coupled with mod con boiler it is a execellent set up ,PS what shape is your chimmey in also ,hope this is not to much info wishing you good luck and peace clammy  
    R.A. Calmbacher L.L.C. HVAC
    NJ Master HVAC Lic.
    Mahwah, NJ
    Specializing in steam and hydronic heating
  • Alan (California Radiant) Forbes

    don't really screw up furniture placement.  You can place furniture directly in front of them as long as you allow cold air movement along to floor to the radiator and hot air movement vertically above the radiator.
    8.33 lbs./gal. x 60 min./hr. x 20°ΔT = 10,000 BTU's/hour

    Two btu per sq ft for degree difference for a slab
  • Jamie Hall
    Jamie Hall Member Posts: 23,441
    Were it mine to play with...

    I'd definetly keep the steam, and bring it up to speed.  It's simple, reliable, and if done right it's quiet.  And you have most of the major bits and pieces.  As Alan notes, you can put furniture in front of radiators -- just allow for air circulation.  And there are nice panel radiators available, too, as his photos show.

    The addition could be more steam -- steam isn't dead, it's just a little hard to find good people to do it, but they are out there pretty much everywhere you will find a house that age!  Or it could be hydronic, running off the steam boiler or its own boiler.  Or it could be forced air.  You will not have closed off any options by keepng the steam now.

    Forced air heat is not regarded with much favour on The Wall -- but that doesn't mean it doesn't work.  It does.  I admit I don't like it, but I've lived with it in other places than where I am now.  Allergens and dust are definetly a factor, unless you have -- and maintain -- a very good filtration system.  It's that "maintain" part that folks mess up on.

    Dryness, however, isn't unique to any type of heating system.  They will all do it.  What it is related to is infiltration.  The more infiltration you have, the dryer the air is going to be.  If you can really tighten the place up, it may not be that dry.  My bet, though, having advised on (and worked on) a number of historic homes, is that you aren't going to be able to get it all that tight.  My own suggestion for low humidity has always been room air humidifiers but, if you were to go with forced air, it is possible to put power humidifiers in the duct work.  They work nicely, but do present the possibility of serious mold unless the system is kept scrupulously clean all the time.

    I note that some of your rooms are still plaster.  I am a restoration guy (I'm building super for a National Register "Cottage" in northwestern Connecticut, and that's what I do) rather than a renovation guy, but might I mention that redoing the walls in real plaster where they need doing, rather than plasterboard, is far more satisfactory and, oddly, only slightly more expensive.  Something to think about.
    Br. Jamie, osb
    Building superintendent/caretaker, 7200 sq. ft. historic house museum with dependencies in New England
  • Charlie from wmass
    Charlie from wmass Member Posts: 4,322
    Paul steam is alive and well in many places

    If you have the system already there I argue it is far greener to keep the steam. Carbon foot print is seldom considered but if it is you would be replacing all your distribution pipes and heat emitters for a 4 to 6 percent fuel savings. Granted even I have been known to recommend steam systems be removed as what was there had been wrong since it was installed 100 years ago and was worked on by those who knew even less from that day forward.
    Cost is what you spend , value is what you get.

    cell # 413-841-6726
  • Charlie from wmass
    Charlie from wmass Member Posts: 4,322
    As for AC

    Space Pak and Unico both have small duct high velocity systems systems.
    Cost is what you spend , value is what you get.

    cell # 413-841-6726
  • Mad Dog_2
    Mad Dog_2 Member Posts: 7,110
    My house is around 110 this year........

    We did a complete gut in and out that started in 2000....almost done but still finishing up some mouldings.  Take your time, TRY to be patient and don't live and die by completion dates or you'll go nuts.  Good luck.  Mad Dog
  • Steamhead
    Steamhead Member Posts: 16,899
    edited November 2010
    I agree

    keep the steam.

    Are you certain what size the addition will be? Have you had a heat-loss calculation done on the plans for it?
    All Steamed Up, Inc.
    Towson, MD, USA
    Steam, Vapor & Hot-Water Heating Specialists
    Oil & Gas Burner Service
  • LarryC
    LarryC Member Posts: 331
    No one mentioned Mini splits for AC.

    Home owner here. 


    I am surprised no one mentioned using mini splits for A/C.  No ducts and no howling hi velocity air terminals.  External compressor that serves up to 3 or 4 internal units, room by room cooling, smaller tubing runs between units and the external unit.  A dedicated A/C system without the compromises for trying to make it do dual functions.  I believe it is scalable, so you add units as you need them.
  • Big-Al_2
    Big-Al_2 Member Posts: 263
    edited November 2010
    Through the Wall

    Here in beautiful Wisconsin, we only really need A/C a few weeks a year, and even then we can usually turn it off at night.  I kept our steam and put in a two ton through-the-wall A/C unit. The part that sticks outdoors is located where it isn't easily seen from the street, and I painted it to match the house.  It easily cools the whole first floor. Sure, it's less than elegant and it makes some noise, but for an investment of a few hundred bucks vs. several thousand, we can put up with it for the amount of time we actually run it.  If I lived in the deep south, well, that would be a different story.
  • pbennett45
    pbennett45 Member Posts: 15
    Thank you everyone

    Thank you for all your comments. It all leaves me more confused than ever but only because there is so much great information to look over! Once we close next week we'll start making some serious plans and price things out - great to see such a wide variety of options though.
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