1800's farm house

ChristineMcIntyreJuly 1, 2013

Hi I am currently living in a 1950's cape cod home outside of valley forge park in Pa. My husband and I are in the process of buying an old farmhouse from the early 1800's. it is 2 stories and about 2500 square foot. Does anyone have experience heating and cooling a house like this? There is no central air, but most rooms have a ceiling fan. As for heat it is oil, hot water baseboards. I am worried we are going to spend a fortune heating this home, any input or suggestions from anyone?

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I only have advice on drafty old houses, not on how much they cost to heat. My house actually is so old it doesn't even have a central heat system in it yet. We are putting one in during the renovation, but right now we are working with a freestanding coal stove, a lot like a wood stove except less work and much cheaper.

First, insulate everywhere you can and seal up cracks around doors and windows.

Second, heavy drapes! There is a reason old houses always had them.

Third, learn to dress in layers. As anyone who lives in an old house will tell you, there is no need to be wearing a tank top and shorts in Jan.

Fourth, think about a wood burning stove or something else of the sort. We were going to go wood, but ended up with a base burner coal stove. I love it (goes with our house better too). When our central heat system goes in, we will still be burning this in the coldest months of winter. I have many friends with big old houses and they all have wood stoves. You would be amazed at how much you can heat with just a little wood and how truly warm it is, not just tolerable.

    Bookmark   July 2, 2013 at 12:00AM
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Along with the woodburning stove idea, focus on creating one or two "warm" rooms. Keep the house at about 60 degrees, or 65 or whatever you can stand, and then one or two rooms at a higher, more comfortable temperature.

This is what my parents did when we lived in an 1888 Victorian. There was some insulation and storm windows from the 1950s. But it was a big house and cost a lot to heat through a New Hampshire winter.

So there was a space heater in the kitchen and a wood stove in the living room. The house was heated to 60 degrees during the day, 55 at night--enough so that pipes didn't freeze. And we all just wore sweaters and other layers. At night, down comforters and wool blankets and flannel sheets.

We had the old hot water radiators and they do a great job of heating up a room, but they are not as energy efficient as the hot water baseboard heaters, so if you already have those, that will help to save on the oil bill a lot.

Then in the summer, if you don't want to install the duct work for a whole house air conditioner, focus on creating a couple of "cool" rooms with window a/c units.

    Bookmark   July 2, 2013 at 11:02AM
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My pre-Civil War farmhouse in northern NY has no central heat. Always was, and still is, heated with woodstoves.

Ours are more efficient and cleaner burning, now. It went through a period when it had coal stoves, but they are awful to live with and a serious health hazard so I wouldn't recommend that.

You may not need A/C.

Unfortunately the easiest route to A/C is also the least attractive sort of heating: forced air. But you already have some investment in the infrastructure for hydronic heating (hot water radiators). I disagree with other posters about the relatviely efficiency of hot water cast iron radiators vs. hot water in baseboards. Love the first, loathe the second.

There are very high efficiency gas-fired boilers (to make the hot water for the radiators and your DHW) if you need to replace the boiler. Fracked gas is much cheaper than Venezuelan oil right now.

But tightening up your house and some forms of insulation will give immediate rewards now matter what the season. Before you embark on this however, do read a lot about it as what is often recommended for "newer" old houses (post WWII) is not necessarily the right thing to do with really old houses. Really old buildings that are still extant have a different way of handling air infiltration and moisture ventilating. Combining modern standards with the older technology can get you in trouble. Also do not replace deteriorated old windows. In most instances they can be rehabbed to excellent energy efficiency, while retaining a very critical piece of your house's original design. And old windows, if they need re-rehabbing in another 50-75 years can be done, but newer windows will just be on an endless replacment schedule.

One thing that you quickly realize when working with a 19th c house is that what most home improvement purveyors think of as loooooooong warranties, (10-25 years), is barely out of "brand new" when looked at in the context of 150-200 years of service.

The very best thing you can do for your house at the outset is nothing other than clean it up and study it for 6 months to a year. Paint some walls, if you must put your own stamp on the place. The ideas you have now need to be informed by what you will discover about the house. And that goes double, or treble, if this is your first old building.

The most risky thing for old buildings is a new owner whose bank balance wasn't completely depleted in the purchase. Lucky is the house whose owner had to scrape every penny together for the closing. That's a built-in period of early financial rehabbing instead of early building rehabbing.

Below is my standard internet "housewarming present " for new owners. It's a set of documents about caring for old buildings from just common old buildings to museum-level buildings. The principles and methods are the same. And it comes from a non-commercial source (The National Park Service) so they're not trying to sell you anything.

Two other valuable websites:

John Leeke's (particularly good on structural issues, paint, weatherization and windows): www.historichomeworks.com

and a forum of very knowledgeable old-house enthusiasts: www.wavyglass.org (there maybe a "e" in wavy, not sure).



Here is a link that might be useful: National Park Service Series of Preservation Briefs of many aspects of caring for and repairing old buildings

    Bookmark   July 2, 2013 at 12:10PM
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Christopher Nelson Wallcovering and Painting

thanks to liriodendron , good stuff!

    Bookmark   July 3, 2013 at 3:56AM
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Everything liriodendron said!! We also heat with wood, no central heat here. (Aside from initial costs, very cheap=we scrounge our wood so it's free) For woodstove advice, visit Hearth.com, you will find a lot of general knowledge as well as other old home owners heating with wood. We use a portable ac unit when it gets REALLY hot. And no "e" in wavyglass.

    Bookmark   July 4, 2013 at 6:14AM
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I Live in Maine in a old farm house from 1742. We have a oil burner, but heat with a wood stove in one part of the house and have a propane stove in our living room. We have a pocket door so we can keep that room toasty warm. This year we are putting in a pellet stove.

    Bookmark   July 4, 2013 at 7:16AM
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Listen to Liriodendron, especially regarding moisture and ventilation, and air infiltration. The older it is, the more important this will be. Our old house is two hundred year old triple course brick. If cracks and leaks around doors and windows in the plaster are closed, the air pillow between the bricks make it surprisingly non-conductive to heat and cold even if brick is not considered a good insulator since it's the air channels between the courses doing the insulating. Also attic ventilation may have to be mofified and integrated if you ever change from something like a slate roof to shingles since slate and cedar shakes allows natural ventilation.

We just put the house's first central heating system in maybe ten years ago and also went with hot water heat, so that we did not compromise the interior with heat ducting. It's a wonderful and even heat. I made sure it was ZONED! so that keeping the rooms we used mostly could be heated without every room needing it. I find a natural gas grate in the most used areas plenty sufficient to use so that the boiler is not turned on too soon, or needing to crank the stats too high. We had an energy audit done and found our biggest culprits were air around window frames and fireplaces. That's not a hard fix. You will learn to open windows when cool and shut blinds when hot and live more naturally with the environment and find it is pleasant and not inefficient. We are NOT uncomfortable in winter or blistering in summer and we have eight rooms, a large house and have cut our energy bills IN HALF since installing the boiler and making other passive changes with landscaping and addition of a passive solar gain solarium where the back porch used to be.

    Bookmark   July 4, 2013 at 4:53PM
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Hi, We bought a 'new' Federal house near there last year. the first question is what is the house made of? Is it one of the old stonies that are so common in the area? The second is the oil furnace heat radiators or forced air? We pay a lot for the heat. The stonies have the advantage of being heat sinks, so the heat does not really go on until later in the day except on the coldest days. We are still in the process of insulating the house, but this type of house CAN NOT be insulated like modern wooden construction. You need to emphasize the insulation around the windows, doors and in the attic, but if you insulate the exterior walls you are buying yourself trouble. accourding ro our oil guy the average heat bill will be around $2400 for a winter for an average size house in the area. you might think about putting high velocity AC in later, but it is not that bad near there.

    Bookmark   July 7, 2013 at 10:01PM
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Hi Christine --

Four years ago I bought a 1923 foursquare with radiators and no AC, to renovate. My initial preference for providing AC was a ductless mini system, because they are super energy efficient. As it turns out, however, I would have had to have three separate compressors, one each for the first and second floor and the basement, half of which we made into a bedroom and bath.

I ended up going with a Spacepak high velocity system, which uses small-diameter flexible ducts that can be run between the walls and among joists of the second floor to cool the first floor.

The ductwork was installed when we had demolished the walls and reframed for a slightly altered layout. The coil assembly, which dehumidifies and vents the system, is in the shallow attic. The compressor is outdoors. The entire system cost 16k (I am in DC; PA may be less expensive).

It does an excellent job. Early on, there was a problem that the contractor had trouble diagnosing that ultimately turned out to be a manufacturing defect in the coil assembly, but once that diagnosed and fixed, I am very happy with the system.

For a studio apartment we developed in what had been a workshop in a separate building, I did go with a ductless mini system that both heats and cools. The indoor part of the system hangs just over the door, about half way between the floor and the cathedral ceiling. A reversible ceiling fan can help push the heat down and distribute the cool air even to the sleeping loft. That system seems also to work quite well.

Hope this info is not too complicated and that it helps. If the walls of the house you are buying are intact, I would definitely look first at the ductless mini system, which can be installed with the least making holes in walls. The system I installed in the studio is Mitsubishi Mr. Slim. On the home page of the link below, you can see on the wall what the indoor parts look like.

If you want to look into the high velocity systems, the two I know of are Spacepak and Unico. I was unable to find any objective info comparing them.

Cheers and good luck.


PS. For a 1905 farm house with radiator heat I am hoping to buy later this month, I am going to try to get proposals for both high velocity systems and ductless mini systems. The latter have fewer moving parts and need less servicing, I believe.

Here is a link that might be useful: Mistubishi Mr. Slim

    Bookmark   July 17, 2013 at 3:32PM
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Honor, how have the energy costs been for the split? We're looking into them for the cottage, so we'd have a heat source if we needed to go out of town during the winter to keep the place from freezing. We're also thinking about them in a rental we own that also has no central heat (gas DV stoves). Neither has room for ducting, no basements for furnaces.

    Bookmark   July 21, 2013 at 12:58AM
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