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Reheating a solid brick house

I have a rather large decision in the horizon and I'm hoping for some advice from some folks who have been around the block a couple times. Three years ago I purchased two side by side solid brick home in Pittsburgh, PA. The houses have solid brick walls, inside and out, mostly 3 courses, and there is a 6 course wall between them. They are four stories off of street level in the front and only one above ground level in the back, because of the steepness of the hill half of the house is carved into bedroock, including hand dug bedrock floors on the first floor of each house. There are three stories of livable space, and are about 1000 sq ft per floor, leading to each house being just over 3000 sq ft. The houses are almost perfect copies of one another. The houses have never had proper heat, there is no ducting of any kind, and as far as I can tell there never has been. Eventually the majority of the wood in the houses will be replaced since the houses have been in disrepair for at least 20 years and most of the wood is beyond help. Right now I am in the beginning phases of rebuilding, and winter is coming fast.

I am trying to make an educated decision on what kind of heat would be appropriate for these places. I have read through the forum as deeply as the search will let me and haven't found anything particularly useful for my situation, but I'm eager for good information. As of right now there is no gas in one of the houses, so gas would not be a 100% solution, I'm open to the idea of not doing them identically though. I have an energy audit scheduled for next month, but other than that I just have a big brick shell with no insulation, and nothing really stopping me from doing anything. I have a massive woodburning stove in the basement of each house, it takes several large 22in logs when you really get it cranking, and it can heat the house comfortably if you are there to feed it, we've gone through about 3 cords of hardwood per house the last couple years, but sometimes it's nice to just be able to flip a switch. I'm pretty handy, and I'm open to any ideas, but especially less obvious ones (geothermal, passive solar, etc.).

I will try to check on the thread here daily, I really appreciate any and all input.

Thanks in advance,
Mark

Comments

  • Jamie HallJamie Hall Member Posts: 8,280
    Well... I think I can see where your "explanationmark" handle comes from!

    Interesting project there.

    First thing. Insulation. Especially the roof, of course, but also on the brick walls (use a really really good vapour barrier on the inside surface!) and, I would suggest, against the bedrock, assuming that you don't want to have that exposed (if you do, that's OK -- but it will be a heat sink which will need to be accounted for). That will make the amount of heat you need to put into the place (or cooling, in the summer) much less.

    Second. Type of heat. Your design temperature is relatively low -- 0F in one source I found -- which kind of discourages heat pumps; they don't work very well at that temperature. I would suggest, then, a really good high efficiency boiler and a hydronic system, properly zoned and sized to the spaces. It probably would be worth the effort -- which might not be that bad -- to get gas into both houses; it's good for hot water, too. To my way of thinking that would be the most flexible and least intrusive option...
    Jamie



    Building superintendent/caretaker, 7200 sq. ft. historic house museum with dependencies in New England.



    Hoffman Equipped System (all original except boiler), Weil-Mclain 580, 2.75 gph Carlin, Vapourstat 0.5 -- 6.0 ounces per square inch
  • RichRich Member Posts: 2,484
    edited July 2016
    Could you describe the wall assembly that is against Earth in layers from outside to inward ? This will allow better assistance from a building science perspective . Like , where exactly to place the control layers so you don't get bit in the butt down the road .

    What type fuel gas is in the one space presently ?
    You didn't get what you didn't pay for and it will never be what you thought it would .
    Langans Plumbing & Heating LLC 732-751-1560
    Serving most of New Jersey , Eastern Pa .
    Consultation , Design & Installation
    Rich McGrath 732-581-3833
  • GreenGeneGreenGene Member Posts: 290
    edited July 2016
    Not sure what an energy audit will do based on the current condition of the home.

    You are going to want to start over, since you are replacing the sticks use foam insulation, you'll have to get a heat load done based on what the final outcome will be, currently you have nothing to base it on, you'll need to know what the R value will be of the walls and ceilings when done, plus the windows, doors etc, in it's current condition you can't size anything.

    If the home is rebuilt and the load calc is done you might want to go with a Daiken heat pump set up and keep the woodstoves.

    There are 100 variations and here they come.

    In the spaces below you are going to get people telling you to go with oil, gas, geo, steam, and a million other variables, are any of them wrong? are any of them right? .....depends on the fuel you may want to use if any, the new heat pumps are very efficient if installed in an efficient home.
  • explanationmarkexplanationmark Member Posts: 7
    edited July 2016
    Hello all,

    Thanks for the interest in my project. I will try to answer all your questions, feel free to point out anything that I gloss over if you're looking for more specific information.

    Jamie Hall's First thing:insulation

    In regards to insulation I have had many people tell me many things, the thing that scared me the most is that if I insulate on the inside and trap all the moisture from the outside into the bricks and then it freezes, I'll very quickly destroy the old mortar (house built in 1900) and the house will begin to fall apart rather quickly, the walls need to breathe to be happy. I don't really know how this applies to the original plaster walls with 15 layers of paint on them, which obviously don't breathe, but this is what people say. It is very obvious that the water does travel through the house, so I would feel hesitant to seal it into the wall, but I've never talked to someone that was an expert on the subject, suffice to say I don't know what to do about this, and I've never been convinced either way on it. As far as attic insulation is concerned I am in good shape, and it made a huge difference for heating when we did it. Without the attic insulation the woodstove hardly put a dent in the overall heat, only heating the rooms around it.

    When you walk into the ground floor of the houses it's between 50 and 70 year round, when I was first looking at the places when they were abandoned I went in on a -5 day and the inside was still about 40, having no heat all winter. Will covering the bedrock hurt this natural heating/cooling effect?

    Second thing


    Perhaps the cave-like nature of this heating and cooling situation would allow a heat pump, but I have very little experience with any heating and cooling, it's the one big hole in my knowledge base. Right now we are using a stiebel eltron instant electric hot water for the kitchen and bathroom, it works great and we are very happy with it, while gas isn't out of the question if there is an option that doesn't include gas I would prefer it, just for the 24 bucks a month as the baseline for the gas service. I don't know what a hydronic system would entail, but I much prefer the idea of running water lines than ducting.
  • explanationmarkexplanationmark Member Posts: 7
    Could you describe the wall assembly that is against Earth in layers from outside to inward ? This will allow better assistance from a building science perspective . Like , where exactly to place the control layers so you don't get bit in the butt down the road .

    What type fuel gas is in the one space presently ?


    Rich,

    Right now both houses are running on 100% electric (and wood). We have induction burners, instant stiebel eltron water heaters, and wood heat. We like this arrangement, but are open to getting gas if it is the best option in the long run.

    As far as I know the houses are built straight onto a shale like bedrock. there does not appear to be any sort of outside sheathing or anything other than brick or mortar between me and the outside world. At the ground level we do see a bit of moisture in the walls, but for the most part the below grade house is dry. So to specifically answer your question from outside to inside we have:

    dirt/bedrock | brick | mortar | brick |mortar | brick | plaster (in some places) | inside!

    There are no air gaps in the wall, it's all solid 3 course brick!
  • explanationmarkexplanationmark Member Posts: 7
    Gene,

    What would the energy source of new heat pumps be? We are in the process of putting new cheap windows in, insulating the attic, and getting everything closed up pretty tight for the audit, I think we'll at least start to see same useful number from the audit, even if they just tell us where our big problems are. For example, I don't know how much the exposed brick breathes, and if we'll have to plaster over all the walls that lost plaster due to water damage. Anyway, it's going to be an adventure, just trying to suck up as much information as I can before I start making big choices that will be hard to reverse.
  • PinkTavoPinkTavo Member Posts: 64
    Ex-mark.....I had a similar issue, concerning foam insulation over 3-wyth brick, with a 1925 Grocery Store that is now my home. I am in Denver, so we don't have humidity issues. I think it would have worked OK on the above ground portion of the walls, but decided that the basement would not be a good application as I think the basement walls need to breath more. Like you said...the 1" of plaster and 15 coats of paint directly on the brick shouldn't be much different than a spray-foam sealed wall. I also have "soft" bricks mixed in with "hard" bricks. Hard bricks are used fully on the exterior wyth. In the basement the soft ones were what I was worried about. After 90 years some of these are spalling out. If all "hard" then I would have considered insulation in the basement. By "soft" I mean the cheaper, less fired, bricks like in Victorian homes. I think the builder cheaped out and used these for part of the structural mix. There are some concerns out there (that I have seen on-line) about the spray-in foam degrading over time and collecting moisture....not sure if this is valid. Maybe using the poor mans closed cell foam sheets (like what the Wallies use under radiant poured floors) sealing and venting top and bottom would be a solution. On a side note: I didn't insulate (except for the attic) and still have a heat loss on a 1900 sf structure of about 50K; which matches the EDR of my radiators. Much less than the old steam boiler puts out at about 200K input (it's old so likely only 100K output!).
  • GreenGeneGreenGene Member Posts: 290
    edited July 2016
    Heat pumps would be electric. Any exterior walls that have to be repaired should opened up, sealed with foam and sheet-rocked.

    Product would be something like this.

    http://daikincomfort.com/products/ductless/multizone-multisplit-2-3-4-8zone

    You're going to want to start educating yourself in the latest, anything you do now that's the best will be passe' in a few years, that's why you want the best now. Standard insulation is now regarded as a glorified air filter, it doesn't stop infiltration, foam does.

    You may want to search your area for a energy specialist who may know what's best for your type of house, there is a thing called a thermal bridge, anything solid like framing, bricks etc that connect the inside to the out will conduct heat so even though you insulate in the 16' section between beams the beams themselves will still conduct heat, that's why it's called a thermal bridge, heat will move through it. Whenever the temperature between inside and out is different heat moves in the direction of cold, how much is dependent on how many degrees and the quality of construction.

    Be careful with new windows, the biggest loss is the gaps around the windows, seen people spend 40k on new windows and the contractor didn't seal around the window, they gained nothing.

    This is a good video to get started.

  • GreenGeneGreenGene Member Posts: 290
    You can foam seal existing walls by making a small hole but it's best to leave that to a pro because they must use low expanding foam and do it right, if you over fill a wall it could literally expand and push the wall or something out which would be pretty depressing.
  • FredFred Member Posts: 6,487
    I have a large (5000 sq.ft.) turn of the century (1902) brick house too. It is three layers of brick, just as you describe, however my house has one inch furring strips and lathe on the inside of the brick walls and the plaster over that. That air gap is what allows the brick to breath. Typically, in this area (I've restored over a dozen houses over the years), when plaster is laid right over the exterior wall, the inner most masonary wall is clay tile that are laid, like brick but are hollow. The plaster is then laid directly on that tile but it is a hollow tile that still allows the exterior brick to breath. My guess is that there is a small (1/4" to 1/2" ) cavity between each layer of brick, on your house and that still allows the brick to breath. You are correct, in cases where old, soft brick can not breath, they absorb moisture and that will freeze during the winter and burst the surface off of the exterior brick face. Do you see any of that occurring anywhere around the house? If so, I definitely would not put a vapor barrier directly on the inside walls. If you frame those walls out (on the inside) and provide a "dead air" space, it will probably be ok but that will also entail beefing up the window and door frames to accommodate the increased wall thickness. It does change the interior appearance of the structure. If you are a "purest" as it relates to historic preservation, that is something you may object to. I have no insulation in my exterior walls, given I only have 1" air gap between the brick and the lathe/plaster. With 3 layers of brick and a layer of plaster, I'm happy with my heating costs. I have good insulation in the attic and I have tried to minimize air infiltration. Having said that, I still have the original, single pane windows with no storms (I don't like the looks of storms) and my highest gas bill, in the winter, including a 50 gallon water heater and a gas dryer and commercial gas range (not used very often as I tend to eat out) is about $350.00. I'M in Ohio and our design day is 5 degrees. My heating system is a steam boiler/system/natural gas.
  • Jamie HallJamie Hall Member Posts: 8,280
    The comments on breathing brick and moisture are spot on. If you insulate, it should be on studs with a clear air space between it and the innermost brick wythe. A one inch space, unobstructed, which can vent should work. And, as I said in my first comment -- you need a really truly impervious vapour barrier on the inside of the insulation. You should have that anyway, insulation or no insulation, and keep an eagle eye on the folks installing wiring and piping and the like -- they just love to punch holes in the vapour barrier and not seal them back up again.
    Jamie



    Building superintendent/caretaker, 7200 sq. ft. historic house museum with dependencies in New England.



    Hoffman Equipped System (all original except boiler), Weil-Mclain 580, 2.75 gph Carlin, Vapourstat 0.5 -- 6.0 ounces per square inch
  • CanuckerCanucker Member Posts: 438
    You can have it good, fast or cheap. Pick two
  • GreenGeneGreenGene Member Posts: 290
    Agreed, brick homes are different, after doing a little refreshing seems there's some opinions that say not to insulate, some say just use foam to seal leaks. So I was in error.

    The energy audit should reveal the leaks.

    Brick homes like log homes are considered to be a mass, and there's all kinds of arguments about how to rate them for R value.

    This article talks a little about the do's and don'ts for brick buildings, definately consult a pro because some buildings have failed especially from cellulose insulation that really traps moisture.

    http://www.greenbuildingadvisor.com/blogs/dept/musings/insulating-old-brick-buildings
  • PinkTavoPinkTavo Member Posts: 64
    Fred....my plaster is directly on the brick...so maybe it is in such good shape because of spaces between they wyths as you describe. Never thought of that. BTW...I know it is directly applied because we tore out a bathroom with an exterior wall and I had the pleasure of tearing off all the remaining plaster for an exposed brick look. Wasn't fun! The one place I used insulation was in a "stand-off" wall along the new tub because I didn't want a cold (north) shower wall. I used metal "2x4's" and installed 2" closed cell foam board, double foil faced, on the inner part of the section...leaving a space between the foam and brick...I sealed the foam to the 2x4 with cauk and tape, I then put in a 2" dia eave vent at the top and bottom of the wall into the dead-space...hidden in a closet for venting. There is also a radiator right next to the bottom vent...so I figured there would be some warm air pulled into and out of the void by convection.
  • explanationmarkexplanationmark Member Posts: 7
    I don't have enough time to properly address everyones comments, or read the above articles, as I'm on my way out from work. Just to keep things on track I will say that there are absolutely no air gaps in the brick, all the brick seem to be hard brick, and they are laid in a pattern that locks the courses together with no room for air, the plaster is then laid directly onto the brick, no lathe or any other sort of air gap, no "opening up" the wall or anything like that, it's solid brick and mortar. There are some places in each of the houses, maybe 30 bricks total, where the bricks have lost their faces, but considering there are probably tens of thousands of bricks in the houses I'd say the bricks are pretty damn good. Keep in mind one of the houses sat without a roof and without heat for 20 winters.

    Are there any translucent vapor barriers that I could paint over the brick? I assume I would just have to put a vapor barrier on the exterior above grade walls (a very small percentage of the walls in the house). As it is right now about half of the plaster on the walls has been removed or fallen off due to water damage, even if I was to do only the exterior above ground walls it would still be a huge process.

    I will write more tonight, thanks for all the information so far, I will be reading it all.
  • PinkTavoPinkTavo Member Posts: 64
    I have seen "translucent" barriers in two cases. One in a restaurant with exposed brick walls....soft variety.....they sealed to keep the brick and mortar (which is extra-soft...lots of lime) from falling onto peoples tables and plates. The other case was a neighbor who built a shower using an exposed brick interior wall that the sealed...with something....and it has held up well for 10 years or so since he did it. I would check with a masonry supply house on their advice. Some places aren't much help, but one like Rio Grande Supply here in Denver are great for answering questions and recommending products and tools.
  • FredFred Member Posts: 6,487
    edited July 2016
    There are clear sealers that some suggest acceptable to seal brick. I'm not a proponent of those or anything that prevents the brick from breathing. The fact of the matter is there will always be some moisture in the walls, even from the basement and/or attic as temps change, on the home's interior from cooking, showers, whatever, and it needs to be able to escape. Moisture comes from within as well as outside. I chair a Landmarks Commission for the City I live in. We have 15 Historic Districts and an additional 100 structures that are protected locally and/or on the National Register. We hear cases, every two weeks from residents/building owners of one of those districts/buildings on any exterior changes to a property. Occasionally someone will want to paint or seal their brick structure. The ONLY time we allow that to happen is when the brick face is already deteriorated, as a result of some misguided prior efforts to seal/insulate the structure and there is no recourse other than to try and contain the damaged brick faces. We further recommend finding ways to remedy the actual problem, which is allowing the walls to breath.

  • PinkTavoPinkTavo Member Posts: 64
    Fred, keep in mind that many Victorian brick houses were painted from the get-go. What I see here is people using brick stain instead of paint....mainly on 1950's, 1960's ranch houses; which are moving into the "historic" category (especially if they are architecturally significant). Can't say that I like that, because they are usually covering up my favorite blond brick, but at least it's not paint.
  • FredFred Member Posts: 6,487
    edited July 2016
    PinkTavo said:

    Fred, keep in mind that many Victorian brick houses were painted from the get-go. What I see here is people using brick stain instead of paint....mainly on 1950's, 1960's ranch houses; which are moving into the "historic" category (especially if they are architecturally significant). Can't say that I like that, because they are usually covering up my favorite blond brick, but at least it's not paint.

    Very few brick Victorians (or any other brick structures) were painted from the get go. Also, keep in mind, back during that time, most paints were either milk based or what was called "White wash" which was a lime based solution, neither had the moisture barrier qualities of today's paints.
    Also, brick homes of the 50's and 60's (mid century) are now being considered for Historic designation. We are considering a couple mid-century modern neighborhoods for Historic designation here. Of course, some are already protected more because of the significance of the architect or the design, like Frank Lloyd Wright homes and some of the All-Steel homes. Having said that, technology had changed and the brick on homes of that era were glazed and fired and hardened, unlike the soft brick of the 1800's and early 1900's. Theglazed and fired brick is much more impervious to water, however, if you look closely at most of those homes, near the bottom course of brick, you will see a course of brick with what is called "weep holes" ( joints between the brick, with no mortar in them. That was to allow moisture, behind the brick, to escape.
  • SWEISWEI Member Posts: 7,356
    Lime plaster works wonderfully on old brick. Watch out for clueless 'masons' who tuckpoint using Portland-based mortars.
  • PinkTavoPinkTavo Member Posts: 64
    edited July 2016
    Fred...stand corrected....this was what I had been told by someone who does about the same thing you do here in Denver. What did happen was...even if these old ones were white washed to start with...they were painted there after....maybe in the 20's or 30's. When the Victorian craze hit here..in the late 80's...people sand-blasted off the paint and as a result ruined the thin brick surface. Whereupon, they typically covered with stucco (wire lathe) and painted to save the house from crumbling. We have the odd situation where about 30% of the homes in my historic district (which was designated mainly for Victorian Homes) are 1950's 'working man" brick ranches, 2-BR, 1-BA on a slab. There were still many open lots post-war...and that was the in-fill. They are protected as if they are historic, while those across the street not in the district are being scraped and replaced with $1.5 M dollar homes (2-side-by-sides on a 50 ft x 125 ft lot...at $750K each). Makes for some real variety!
  • PinkTavoPinkTavo Member Posts: 64
    SWEI...that was one of the things I learned from asking questions at our local masonry supply house. Mortar must be softer than the brick. It is hard to find someone to take a sample, test it, and provide the proper mix for restoration (not to mention color matching so the new mortar isn't all bright white).
  • SWEISWEI Member Posts: 7,356
    It sounds a bit odd, but if you put a tiny bit of the the mortar on your tongue, you can easily tell if it's lime-based.

    Matching colors is an art for sure. We have a bunch of buildings here with brick-colored mortar and they can take some effort to match.
  • FredFred Member Posts: 6,487
    Absolutely correct @SWEI and @PinkTavo . When someone wants to tuck point a house in one our Historic Districts, they are required to have the original mortar tested and the new must match the original. And yes, during the 80's so many people, who wanted an antique home but wanted it to look new, sand blasted the brick and absolutely ruined them. Those are the ones we know have to seal periodically
  • explanationmarkexplanationmark Member Posts: 7
    Hi folks,

    I read through all the comments and appreciate the discussion. I had already read quite a bit about vapor/insulation/air sealing brick homes before, but at least it seems like I'm in line with the experts here for the most part. I put in cheap windows and foamed them all in, then had a buddy blower door test the place to find the spots that I missed. Once I replace the last door with a decent door we should be in good shape for the energy audit.

    I'm really interested in my heating options though. Assuming in the short term (by short term I mean the next 10 years) I am not going to insulate the outside walls of my 6000 sq feet (between both houses), what heating solutions do I have for a house like this? One thing I have been keen on using the the 4 chamber chimney in the middle of the house, although I don't know how practical that actually is.

    I looked into the Daikin unit above, it seems pretty solid. An HVAC contractor I know also recommended a mitsubishi mini split option, which I assume is similar.

    Thanks,
    m.
  • explanationmarkexplanationmark Member Posts: 7
    Also, that building science link was great... will be very useful when I get to that stage.
  • jumperjumper Member Posts: 1,203
    Why take a chance? Stay away from vapor barrier. If you don't mind altering the appearance siding is inexpensive insulation.
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