Managing the Difficulties of HVAC Equipment in Historic Homes
Guest post by Jason Wall:
Historical housing can be rich with culture and charm, but it’s abundantly clear that yesteryear’s architects couldn’t have even been remotely aware of the housing needs of the 21st century – especially when it comes to indoor climate control. Having worked in many clients’ older homes with Griffith Heating and Air, (and in renovating my own 1920’s home,) I can personally attest to how structurally flawed older homes can be for heating, cooling, and ventilaiton.
These homes are notorious in having insulation like Swiss cheese, with gaps and crevices worn in with time that leak air. They are often equipped with extremely antiquated heating and cooling systems that are decades overdue for the junkyard. It’s simply illogical to live in a historical home without taking the effort to hire a contractor to address its HVAC system in order to meet our standards of living and budgeting. Nobody said it would be easy, but there are certain things you can consider to make it more manageable.
Here are a few heating and cooling tips to follow the next time you’re considering historical housing and need to consult with a professional contractor. (In addition, watch for these common A/C problems in your home.)
• Carefully consider how and where to install ducts A cozy fireplace, luxurious mahogany furnishings, and… A big ugly trail of ductwork? One of the obvious reasons homeowners enjoy historical housing is their rustic and nostalgic aesthetics. Haphazard ventilation installation can ruin an otherwise picturesque atmosphere. It can be very difficult to install ducts without looking a little out-of-place, but those with a strategic eye can pull it off. Flattened ducts are generally preferable for a well-concealed system, and a wise placement should direct ducts upwards and across large areas and corridors. Unfortunately, older homes frequently lack adequate space above the ceiling; ducts would have to be exposed in this circumstance in order to keep your home’s original detail without installing a suspended ceiling over it.
However, installing false beams into the house’s structure can be an effective (albeit labor intensive) way of concealing ducts. An easier − though less effective − way is to invest in slimmer, cylindrical ductwork and painting it to match the home’s décor. For smaller-scale historical homes, consider mini-duct systems instead, which have become increasingly effective over the years and require much smaller spaces to install. For those who enjoy subtlety, fan coil units can be an excellent addition. Their piping is less obvious than bulky ducts, and they can be exchanged with radiators for your needs.
• Locate leaks and gaps
While sealing the gaps in your home is a concern for every home, they’re a particular nuisance for older homes – especially those that have been neglected through years of weathering and warping. Meticulous repairs might be a good idea if sealants aren’t sufficient in covering problem areas. Use appropriate materials depending on the surface:
• Floorboards: Polyurethane coating is effective, but should be carefully and conservatively applied to preserve a natural look.
• Windows and doors: Use weather-stripping on any areas with potential gaps that have movable parts.
• Immovable parts: Use caulk on outdoor leaks, minor floorboard and wall leaks, and any immovable windows.
• Aerosol sealants: Take special precaution in using aerosol sealants or any other form with potent chemical scents. Given that historical homes typically have limited ventilation at best, it’s important to limit your exposure to any harmful chemicals.
• Plan ahead carefully
Taking special care to plan ahead, preferably with a specialist if you haven’t been licensed or have had previous experience with older homes, is necessary for three crucial reasons. The first is to preserve the precious history that these homes come with. Installing an HVAC system shouldn’t mean ruining a home’s appealing aesthetic. It’s difficult, but certainly possible. The second reason is to make sure that the structure can support any additional equipment you’re installing without causing damage; vents are a particular concern in causing damage to walls. And finally, the third reason is to preserve your own health.
Radon exposure can be a particular problem in older homes. It’s colorless, tasteless, and odorless, and it’s the second leading contributor to lung cancer. It’s likely second to carbon monoxide in terms of dangerous residential gases. Purchase a radon testing kit and carefully check the home. Seek out resources or specialists on radon mitigation if you’re unfamiliar with the process.
Another concern is asbestos exposure, which can lead to serious health problems later in life. There are plenty of other harmful substances and chemicals, and their presence in your home is entirely dependent on the age and make of your residence. Know what materials your home is made of, and take precautions to limit your exposure to any possible hazards.
These are just a few general tips to help those on their way in installing an HVAC system into an old home to “breathe life” into it. What other tips do you think people installing or consulting others about outfitting an older home with a new ventilation system should keep in mind?