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Unheated basement, cold main floor, hot 2nd floor

JenD Member Posts: 10
I am hoping that you all won't mind sharing some wisdom and might have some advice for me.

We own a townhouse/condo in TN, and our home is attached to one other unit. Our basement (which we don't own and have no regular access to) is beneath both townhouse units and is 1,000 sq ft of unheated cinder block on a slab foundation, with no insulation in the ceiling above.

We have forced electric heat, furnace is 2 years old. The furnace is on the 2nd floor, thermostat is on the main floor. In cold months our thermostat will be set at 72 F, and the 2nd floor will reach 10 - 12 degrees higher making it very hot up there and the floor of our main level is too cold to walk on without shoes. It is a long, uncomfortable winter.

I am trying to find a solution to balance the temperature in our house. This is quite a small townhome and there is no place to put a furnace on the first floor, and we do not own our attic space so are unable to install a 2nd zone heating unit up there (which has been suggested). We are not permitted to add heat in any way to the basement which is like an icebox in winter, of course affecting the temperature on our main floor.

To add extra complications, we not only have three outside walls but the unit attached to us has been and will continue to be empty (the owner has moved out of state and is not renting out her townhouse) and is not heated over the winter.

I am so tired of being cold and uncomfortable and we are in a bad situation. We are currently trying to update our house so that we can sell it and want to see if we can do something to even out the temperature here through the Spring.

We are currently updating our main floor half-bath and I wondered if adding radiant floor heating would help at all, even just in that small room, although we have that unheated basement below. We are also going to be updating our small kitchen and would add radiant floor heating to that space as well if it would help make that room more tolerable.

Your thoughts and opinions would be so appreciated. I am at a loss as to what to do. Thank you so much for any help you can offer.


  • Paul48
    Paul48 Member Posts: 4,469

    I have never heard of an arrangement like you describe. You don't own the basement below your condo? Can you elaborate on that situation a little?
  • JenD
    JenD Member Posts: 10
    Nope, don't own the basement.

    We really don't. We own from the drywall and flooring in. I have no idea why this is, but it is spelled out in a bunch of documents (deed, insurances, the city, etc.)
  • Paul48
    Paul48 Member Posts: 4,469

    Is it an area controlled , or owned by an association? If so, it would be considered unreasonable to think you you would be forced to keep the divide between your space and the unconditioned space uninsulated. Have you explored this option at all?
  • nicholas bonham-carter
    nicholas bonham-carter Member Posts: 8,575
    condo problems

    maybe the basement is owned jointly by you and the other owners as a common area, in which you should be entitled to enter; and would be partly responsible for any repairs. have a look at your condo association by-laws. the by-laws will also have some sort of requirements for keeping the unit heated, so you could force your neighbor to heat, or loose her unit. 

    if you can enter the basement, then putting up some insulation on the basement walls, and ceiling would help to improve comfort.--nbc
  • JenD
    JenD Member Posts: 10
    Common area

    Yes, you are correct, I should have expanded on that. The basement is considered "common property" and is overseen by the HOA. They do not want any owners in that basement area (they are concerned people will store personal items there as has happened in the past) and they keep it locked. We had to get special permission to get a key to let a plumber in to see the pipes from our half-bath.

    I hate to guess at what the cost might be to install insulation on bare cinder block walls and in the ceiling of the basement which has almost no ceiling panels, just bare floor joists above in some places (no wonder we're freezing, right?), but I guess it's a moot point because they won't allow it. At this point I would consider putting a furnace down there if I thought the HOA would let us.

    Does anyone know if there is anything I can do to help make my home more comfortable that doesn't involve the basement?
  • Paul48
    Paul48 Member Posts: 4,469

    It's unconditioned space. You don't need to insulate the block walls. You do need to insulate the floor of your condo.It's a relatively inexpensive, homeowner project, that can be done in a couple hours without breaking a sweat.If there was a leak in an exterior wall, the association would be responsible for repairing it. The same applies here. You need to contact the association and tell them that this is completely unacceptable.Tell them that you would be willing to provide the labor to install the insulation that they provide, but either way, it needs to be taken care of, now. Jen......they are just people, and right now, they are standing in the way of you being comfortable. Ask gently, then shove, push, or walk over them.
  • JenD
    JenD Member Posts: 10

    I'm right then, that the basement is the key to all of this, that if we can insulate against the cold coming from there we can make the main floor tolerable and therefore the top floor more pleasant? sigh. Our HOA is not.... accommodating, one of many reasons we want to move, actually. But if insulating the main floor's floor/basement ceiling is the only way to make our living situation more acceptable then I will try to reason with these unreasonable people. Thank you very much for your advice!
  • JenD
    JenD Member Posts: 10
    ....the whole ceiling?

    It occurs to me... it may be senseless to insulate *half* the ceiling in the basement, is that right? Meaning, in order to keep the cold from coming in to our unit we'd have to ensure that the entire basement ceiling was insulated, including the portion that is beneath our adjoining unit (owned by the aforementioned absent, unreachable, and not to mention penny-pinching homeowner-neighbor)? Is that correct?

    Oh, my husband is not going to take this well at all. He's unhappy with the cold but he will remind me that we do not have the budget to insulate 1000 sq ft of basement ceiling. Guess I'd better start saving up.
  • icesailor
    icesailor Member Posts: 7,265
    Unconditioned Space:

    Paul is absolutely correct.

    The walls are not the big heat loss factor. And in the basement walls, the largest heat loss is from grade UP and not from grade down. Based on an average ground temperature.

    It is absolutely unreasonable for them to not allow you have insulation installed between the floor joists in the cellar. Your Condo rules must be really poorly written is someone can leave and turn the heat off in their unit. One would argue (not me) that pipes may freeze in the unheated unit. I can't quite figure out if you live on the first floor or the second. This sounds like a big old house that was condo'ed so someone could make a lot of short term cash. Now, everyone is stuck with the results. I see this all the time where I work. The only thing worse are Time Share units.
  • icesailor
    icesailor Member Posts: 7,265
    Another Question:

    Do I understand that these units are side by side? Or are they up and down where you own either the first floor or the second floor.

    If it is side by side, I think that the Condo Association is full of septic tank sludge. You probably own to the bottom of the first floor floor joists. You have every right to insulate the floor. But understand that the heat loss through the first floor into the cellar isn't all that much. Nowhere near as much as you think. But it will help. You may have other issues.

    Tennessee being a "Right To Work For Less" State, and consumers are all junk policies, you may not have a lot of recourse. In Massachusetts, where consumers like myself have a little more control over our lives, we have some remedies for things like this.

    It sounds to me like you are suffering from a severe case of unintended consequences.

    And you may need a really competent HVAC person go over your system. It may just be seriously out of balance.

    If it is an up and down unit unit where you own the up and down, you are probably cold on the first floor and hot on the second in the summer when the AC is on. Hot air rises, cold air falls. Honest.

    In the winter, because the heat/AC unit is on the second floor, the heat will tend to stay there. Heated air doesn't like to go down. If you find that the second floor is overheating but the first floor is cold, you need to install fans that will circulate the air in the direction you need it to be.

    This is "Air Movement 101". That's why you need a qualified HVAC person. Not Bubba with a truck full of filters.

    I've plumbed Multimillion dollar homes with a gas AC/heater in the attic to do the second floor, and one in the crawl space. In the summer, the second floor was so hot, they opened the door for additional cooling. And the attic AC unit never shut off. The first floor was 15 degrees colder than the thermostat setting. And the AC unit never ran.

    When I was asked for my opinion about the problem, the owner was told that I didn't know what I was talking about.

    Maybe I don't
  • SWEI
    SWEI Member Posts: 7,356
    the whole basement?

    If all the floors are uninsulated, your HOA should probably undertake to insulate the whole place.  Get an insulation contractor to quote you on wet-spray cellulose or foam or something that can properly fill all the voids and your comfort level will increase quite a bit.

    You may still have balance issues afterwards but you need to insulate first.
  • JenD
    JenD Member Posts: 10

    SWEI, yes I agree, but the HOA has already said they will not allow spray foam insulation. They said, and I quote, "How will the floor breathe?" They did not answer when we requested that we be allowed to add bat insulation. We will ask again, tho they have indicated that they will not be paying for any of it. As I mentioned above we will try to get them to pay for material costs and we will tell them we wil pick up labor costs, but again, we will have to pay for labor costs for the entire 1,000 square feet of ceiling insulation, although our unit is only above half, or 500 sq ft.

    icesailor -- there are two units side by side. We own the main and 2nd floor of one unit. The main and 2nd floor of the opposite unit is owned by someone else. The basement, which is open space between both units, is considered common area and overseen by the HOA.

    We do not have cooling issues, surprisingly. In summer we are quite comfortable on the main floor and the second floor, our a/c works well on both levels.

    A well-respect hvac company told us we should consider zone heating, but that isn't an option for us given the layout of our home and lack of access to attic/basement space.

    I am contacting three heating and air companies that also have insulation services, to request costs for insulating that basement ceiling. I guess it's a start.
  • JenD
    JenD Member Posts: 10

    A friend has likened my situation to "rooms over an uninsulated garage". This might make it easier for some of you to picture, maybe?

    As well, this is a large, older complex, built about 1960. We have 140 units here, most of them are rows of two story townhomes, but there are three "duplex-like" sets like mine where there are only two attached, with walkways between sets, and ours are the only ones not built directly on slab foundations, we all have cinderblock basements, with three feet above grade. This was helpful when we had a big flood a few years ago, the biggest in Nashville history -- we were very lucky and took no water in our living spaces, although the basements flooded four feet.

    If we get to move, I hope to never live in a condo again.
  • SWEI
    SWEI Member Posts: 7,356

    I'm not a fan of spray foam - in large part because it doesn't breathe.  Wet-spray (sometimes called damp-spray) cellulose is one option that does.  In the hands of a skilled operator with the right binder it can be sprayed underneath floor joists.

    AirKrete is another option if the basement is infrequently accessed.
  • jumper
    jumper Member Posts: 2,123
    electric heat

    You already have electric heat so I'd turn off the electric furnace and put electric heaters in each room. I'm partial to liquid filled ones. That way you have control in each room. If Tennessee had longer winters the change would pay for itself with energy savings.

    More expensive but even more efficient is ceiling radiant.
  • GoodRatsBrew
    GoodRatsBrew Member Posts: 8

    I would recommend a ductless minisplit system and abandon anything located in the "common area".  This would allow you to combine your heat and AC and allow for more control on the 1st and 2nd floors.  Just my .02 but they are quite efficient and allow room by room control.
  • icesailor
    icesailor Member Posts: 7,265
    More on heat/cold:


    Just because you are comfortable in the summer with the AC on doesn't mean it is optimal. AC lowers the humidity and your evaporation from your body is part of what you experience as comfort. The cold air from upstairs will fall to the first floor through a stairway unless you have an Open Floor Plan" which is worse.

    With heat in the winter, you have described EXACTLY what will happen. The cold air on the second or upper floors will flow down stairs and cool the first floor. Any heat sent to the first floor will rise to the ceilings and travel to the upper floors, overheating the upper floors. Then, many airheads design air systems with built in emphysema. If the return for the second floor air handler is on the second floor, and there is no return on the first floor ON THE FLOOR!!!! then it will NEVER heat the first floor but will overheat the upper spaces.

    I have done two story electric heat retrofits and to get the owner to do it, and save them money, I remove only the electric baseboard on the first floor, and replace it with hot water baseboards. The first floor well takes care of the second floor. Because the bedrooms are usually on the second floor, I tell them they can always turn on the individual thermostat in a cold bedroom. They have told me that they rarely if ever turn on a thermostat

    Trust me. You have a balance/circulation problems.

    Years ago, FWA systems had a supply and a return in every room. Today, they only need one by the furnace. I don't know what changed.
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