Cooling options for 1940's era home

kid320May 25, 2011

I have a home in suburban Philadelphia and I would like to know what kind of air conditioning options are out there for me beyond the standard window units. I want to be slightly educated on what options I have and be in the right frame of mind before I talk to a contractor.

I currently have natural gas heat with a radiator in each room. There are no air ducts in the house. It is a 30'x30' square 3 story colonial house with a full basement. The main living space of the house has 8 1/2' ceilings.

The basement is unfinished and I have plenty of room to install or run whatever I need through that area.

The third story is more of a walk-up attic, but the previous owners converted it to bedrooms back in the 1970's. So, you are pretty much standing in what would be the attic, but there are finished walls and a finished (low) ceiling up there. This space is vacant right now, but I would love to rehab it one day and turn it into usable space. So, I would rather prevent having any type of ductwork or large equipment installed up there (if it is preventable).

My current heating system is zoned, and I am not sure if this should be replaced at the same time. During the winter, I leave the first and second floor zones turned on. I never turn on the heat in the basement zone, and it might be 3 degrees colder down there than in my living room. I also never turn on the heat in the third floor (the baseboard radiators up there are completely drained) and I think the coldest it has ever been up there was 45 degrees on the coldest day of winter. There is a door at the top of the stairwell that I have insulated and I keep this closed for the winter. There is currently no reason to heat this space and allow my living space heat to escape into that area. During the summer, I keep this door open. There is a powered fan at the peak of the roof with a hatch in the ceiling that removes a great deal of heat. I also have soffit vents along both sides of my roofline.

In addition to adding air conditioning to the house, I would also love to add some type of whole house humidifier to use during the winter. I find that the radiator heat is very dry and I find that I am very sensitive to this dry heat. Everybody I talk to tells me to never get rid of the radiators because they are SO efficient. But, if, during the winter, I am going to be running the radiator heat and some type of whole house humidifier, is it worth it for me to just get rid the radiators and use the new system for heat?

I have heard about the mini-split systems, but I am very restricted with exterior wall space. They also do not meet my need for a winter humidifier.

I have also heard about things like a Unico or SpacePak system, which seems like it would be a great solution if I didn't have to install anything into the attic. Any example I have ever seen has some type of equipment and ductwork in the attic. I have no doubt that I could run this duct work through my walls from my basement to the floors of my third floor without much of a problem. So, can everything be installed in the basement and run through the walls to the third floor? Can these systems be operated as a whole house humidifier instead of a heater (if that's even a viable solution - as mentioned above, I may want to abandon my old heating system at this point)?

My last question would be, once I find a solution, what do I do about the 3rd floor space? Right now, I would probably run ducts to those areas and just leave them closed until I do something with the area and then open them up once I begin to use that space. You are basically in the rafters of the house. With the soffit vents and the roof fan up there, I would think that I would lose a lot of heat/ac out of that area, but perhaps I am not coming from the right frame of mind.

I realize this post is very long, but I am attempting to be as complete as possible. Anybody information (options, positives and negatives, price, etc.) would be greatly appreciated. As far as price goes, I have full confidence that I could do most of the labor myself when it comes to one of the high velocity systems, I would just need an initial hand designing and sizing the system properly. I'm sure I can find someone who is willing to help me out with that end of things.

Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

I don't understand the attic situation. It is a finished, but the living space is ventilated by soffit vents and a roof fan? That does not seem likely. As an alternative, you have knee walls but they communicate with the fan above a ceiling? I give up. I am not getting this picture.

One suggestion, seal up your house and you won't be as dry in the winter. You might not need the humidifier. If you have a leaky house you will have dry air in the heating season whether you have hydronic (or steam) heat or forced air. It is the same.

Radiators are not necessarily more efficient than duct heating, though they typial leaking ducts outside of the house envelope (usually attic) certainly decrease efficiency. Radiators just make for an otherwise more comfortable heating environment. If I had them, I would not be anxious to be rid of them. It is easier to have a well-zoned system with the pipes too.

If you don't need a humidifier, you can get some heat-pump mini-splits and use them for heat cool, but not the coldest weather if the electricity and gas rates agree. They can be put on interior walls. The installation is more time-consuming than the typical, simple drilling a hole through exterior walls but it can be done if you are willing to pay for it. Ceiling installation is an option too. When it is time to add the third floor, just add another set of mini-splits.

    Bookmark   May 26, 2011 at 3:47PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

EPA laws require a valid EPA card to work with open refrigerant lines, so a full DIY is not likely.

    Bookmark   May 26, 2011 at 11:28PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

Thanks for taking the time to reply.

juliekcmo - It is good to know about the EPA card - I wasn't really planning on a full DIY. If I went with one of the high velocity systems, I would try to cut down on as many labor costs as possible. So, I likely try to do the things I can do myself, like fish the ducts through my walls. That is probably 80% of the labor right there.

ionized - Just to give an understanding of my third floor - yes, there are knee walls up there, and there is a finished ceiling. There is a 2'x3' hatch in the ceiling that I open during the summer. When I do this, I can see the peak of the roof (and the powered fan) whuch is only 18"-24" above the hatch. There are a few spots where knee walls aren't quite finished and I could probably crawl behind them. It is very old construction up there and, if I were to do anything with that space, I would gut it and start over. So, I would have the capability of sealing everything up nice and tight. I hope that explained things a little better.

I do have my house pretty well sealed. I have all new double pane windows and have installed new entry doors. The only thing I haven't done is insulate the exterior walls (working on abandoning the old knob and tube electrical wiring first). I grew up in a house with forced air heat with a humidifier. I never realized how much I needed that humidifier until I moved here. I currently sleep with a portable humidifier during the winter and that seems to help a whole lot, but I would rather have a whole house solution so I don't have to deal with the portable one.

I am not anxious to get rid of my radiators, but I am not totally against it if it would make sense while installing a new system.

I didn't realize mini-splits could be installed on an interior wall or ceiling - that's good information to have. The need for a humidifier is still a sticking point with me, but it is good to know.

Thanks again!

    Bookmark   May 28, 2011 at 12:53PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

When designed and installed correctly the4 Unico and Spacepak systems work well.

I have used both (Unico more often) with very good results.

You really need to get the outlets in corners of rooms and places no one will be sitting.

The air comes out plenty fast and blows hard.

    Bookmark   May 28, 2011 at 3:08PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

brickeyee - Thanks a lot for the info, that is good to know.

    Bookmark   May 28, 2011 at 5:49PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

I hope that your house is sealed as well as you think it is. Unfortunately, new windows and doors are often installed poorly and leak. Holes cut for plumbing and electrical are often left unsealed as well. When you insulate, be sure to do air sealing if you can. Often the powered attic fans suck a lot of air out of the living space increasing, rather than lowering. AC costs. You might consider getting a blower door test.

Installing minisplits on interior walls will mean opening the walls to get the plumbing through, but you have to do that to install ducts too,

    Bookmark   May 29, 2011 at 3:30PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

"Installing minisplits on interior walls will mean opening the walls to get the plumbing through, but you have to do that to install ducts too,"

Make sure you see and hear mini-splits before having them installed.

Wall damage ca be kept to a minimum using high velocity systems.

The ducts are small enough to fit in a 2x4 wall if required.

A well insulated main duct in an attic (2 inch duct-board) and then the smaller flex lines to each vent.

Even if you need to run through closets from a second floor attic to a first floor, the smaller flex lines are easily boxed in and reduce the space loss in the closet to the ducts.

    Bookmark   May 30, 2011 at 10:55AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

How are returns handled in a high velocity system? How large are they and Is one needed in each room?

brick - If I am not mistaken, I could probably prevent the main duct in my attic (3rd floor) and just run everything out of the basement, correct?

    Bookmark   May 30, 2011 at 12:43PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

"How are returns handled in a high velocity system? How large are they and Is one needed in each room? "

They normally use a single large return.

The ones from the HV companies are designed to fit between 16 inch joists, but are longer than that.
24 inches and a run length of about 10 feet with a 90 degree turn is recommended for noise isolation.

One of the more important things is to make sure the air hanlder is isolated so it does not transmit vibration to ceins and walls.

In attics i double up some rafters (usually about 32 inches apart) and then hang a platform to hold the air handler.
A few cork & rubber isolation mounts under the air handler, and a section of vibration isolators in the liquid and vapor lines (the all copper ones) oriented vertically has been adequate.

    Bookmark   May 31, 2011 at 3:59PM
Sign Up to comment
More Discussions
Seeking input on HVAC replacement
I am getting ready to do a full replacement. Current...
Advice on Attic insulation
So we just finished the second year in our house and...
Need help with selecting Eff Heat Pump replacement.
20 yr old American Std Heat Pump stopped working. ...
HVAC design
In determining the HVAC system to use in our new construction,...
1 vs. 2 stage cooling? 80% vs. 95% furnace?
I'm in SoCal near L.A. (zip 91354). Two story house...
M. A.
People viewed this after searching for:
© 2015 Houzz Inc. Houzz® The new way to design your home™