How to reduce heat on our 2nd floor

We have lived in our house for a year, and we're finding the second floor (an addition done in the 1930s we think) is just a heat trap. Conversely, it's quite cold in the winter, too. (We need to insulate some of our downstairs windows, etc, but the windows upstairs are double-pane relatively new...)

I'm very ignorant about house stuff, and so I was wondering if others have suggestions for how to address this. We need to eventually update our roof (it's old), and I suspect the insulation in our very shallow attic above the bedrooms is pretty haphazard at best (it's hard to see the attic -- though we had some electrical work done and got a glimpse). Ceiling fans are an obvious first step (though our ceilings are low and we worry about kids throwing things into them), but are there other longer-term strategies? Do we address them now or when we update roof (and hopefully put in solar panels)? I know there's no way to update our 1919 house to a "passive house" (in my dreams), but what other ways can one improve air flow besides leaving windows open, box fans on, and keeping shades drawn as best as possible against the sun? Oh...and I would like to also plant more trees but that's not the focus of this question....but would love some guidance on:

1) what strategies others have used;

2) what contractors deal with this sort of thing (e.g. attic people? roofers?);

3) what are price ranges for interventions?


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We have a house built in 1907 with a southwest facing wall and have the same issue. We have roof and wall insulation but it's minimally effective. We looked into adding additional insulation it would be cost prohibitive.  Double pane because of the age and design of the house was $25,000 to 35,000 per window.  We had thought about installing a ventilation fan, but getting electricity to the power the fan and the ducting would be cost prohibitive.  We thought about installing a gas furnace for the winter, but Berkeley isn't allowing gas appliances to be installed in the city any more.

An electric heather is out of the question for us as PG&E is charging us $.50 kwhr.  We estimated it was cost $500 to $1,000 in electricity to heat the two rooms in the winter.

We meet with a guy in Orinda who specializes in passive heating and cooling.  He said it could be done but it would very expensive.

We looked into solar.  But they want $25,000 and then we would have to buy air conditioners and heaters.

So what do we do?  In the summer we open the windows and use fans.  In the winter we wear sweaters or don't use the rooms.  Far more cost effective to go out for the evening or take a short vacation on the days that are too hot or cold.

Hi! Try Atticare. My family had this problem when we moved into our 1909 bungalow last year. We had Atticare clean out the debris in our attic, install insulation and a whole house fan (turn it on in the evening and it sucks cold air into the house). Our house is only one floor but I would think these steps would work, regardless. They were very professional, provided a consultation and estimate, and were able to schedule within a week. It’s not a cure all—but on really hot days, the house stays cooler longer and cools down faster. 

We installed a whole house fanz. It is a great option to cool down a house when nights or mornings are cool.  It is a high powered fan that sucks air in from outside and vents it into the attic (which will also cool the air in the attic).  We run it on high for about 30 minutes, and it rapidly cools the house.

During the hotter parts of the day, it helps to have blackout curtains for windows with direct sun.  Alternately, a mini-split AC unit or wall/window unit can keep a hotter room cool during the day.

The whole house fan is far less expensive than an AC unit.  It’s $300-500 for the fan.  An electrician or good handyman could install it, if you aren’t comfortable doing it yourself.

We found solar roller shades have helped greatly! Still allow light in but block many rays, cellular shades are another option. Try Smith and Noble, Shade Store, or Budget Blinds depending on your budget. I don’t like curtains but do have to admit hanging linen curtains with a thermal lining has also helped greatly! 

Heat rises. So you may have to reduce heat on the first floor to solve this problem. The best solution would be to keep the heat out of the house in the first place. This mean installing blinds or shades on the outside of the house. This can be quite expensive, but effective. 

Another way to keep the heat out and the cold in is to open the house at night, and  use exhaust fans (maybe you have kitchen and bathroom fans that exhaust to the exterior) to push the hot air out and bring the cold air in. Then close the house up in the morning to preserve the cold air. 

Sometimes I cook outside. I plug in the crock pot on the patio so I don't heat up the kitchen. 

We have done a couple things to reduce heat on our second floor. First, we had a contractor cut a vent in our attic and install a thermostat-controlled fan. Whenever the attic temperature reaches 100 degrees, the fan automatically turns on and blows the hot air out of the vent. We have definitely noticed a difference on our second floor from this. And it doesn’t even have to be a very hot day for the attic to reach 100 degrees - the fan usually comes on any day the outdoor high reaches 70. The only downside, which is minor, is that the fan makes a low buzzing noise which can be heard on our second floor. But it’s never bothered us, and even during 90 degree heat waves, the fan usually turns off by 10pm anyway. 

The other step we took was to have custom blackout shades installed upstairs. They are the accordion style with two layers and some type of insulating layer or material inside. It was pretty expensive as far as window treatments go but we love them and feel it was worth it. We keep them drawn all day on sunny days, then open them and the windows in the evening when it starts to cool off. 

One other thing we’re considering for the handful of really unbearable days per year is to get a portable AC unit that is certified for the square footage of our upstairs floor. We would connect it to our bathroom window and place it in the bathroom door facing the hallway, or in the hallway itself if it reaches, then leave the three bedroom doors open. We would also place a tension bar across the top of our stairs and hang a shower curtain to keep the cool air from running down the stairs. We like this solution because we really don’t need central AC - our downstairs stays comfortable even on very hot days, and we don’t want to pay for a central AC unit to be installed or the cost of cooling the entire house for just a few really bad days per year. 

Hi there! We also have a 1930s house that didn't have great circulation when we moved in. Two things we've done since that have greatly improved the situation:

1) We had a contractor install a duct & vent connecting our downstairs to our upstairs to allow for better air flow. This helped especially in the winter with bringing the heat upstairs. Not sure of the cost since it was bundled into a larger HVAC project we had done at the time.

2) We installed a whole house fan in our attic (this didn't require any roof modification for us and was quite simple), which is AMAZING and cools the upstairs really quickly on all but the few hottest nights of the year. We did this after 6 or so years of living in our house and can't believe we didn't do it sooner. It cost about $1500 (that was the cost of the fan + labor) and was totally worth it. I believe we just had a handyman type of person complete the work -- not a specialist. (Alternatively, our neighbor just figured it out himself, so it's DIY-able too!)

You may want to consider a "whole house fan." They are a bit intense (somewhat loud) and you have to open windows or doors partway before running (it sucks air from outside in and the hot inside air up and out). But you don't have to run it constantly - in the early evening when it cools down outside is a perfect time to use it. It works really well! I don't know how much they cost to install but I'm sure MUCH less expensive than going the route of air conditioning.

Attic fans are AWESOME. They are especially great in the evening when it's cooler outside than in. With a great WHOOSH, they suck all the stagnant air out of all connecting rooms. They also have a thermometer which turns it on and moves the air in the attic which I guess helps, but that's not as apparent as when you turn it on. 

We have found that window fans work much better than ceiling fans or freestanding fans. Since it almost always cools down in the evening, they are affective at bringing the temperature down to a comfortable temperature for sleeping. 

The right type of contractor is a "building performance contractor".  With a performance contractor step 1 is a audit, then a plan, possibly an application for cost matching, then building.  "Eco Performance Builders" in Orinda is one such contractor.   The idea is to look at how the whole house works, just apply a standard solution.

Energy Upgrade California can provide some funding.

With so little space in your attic, your best bet may be re-roofing, adding several inches of rigid foam on top of the roof deck.  Above the deck the insulation can be unbroken, as there are few obstructions.  If you go with a standing seam metal roof, you get solar mounts built in.  Standing seam metal costs more up front, but last much longer.  Metal roofs also reflect more of the sun's heat, can be installed with a cold roof gap, and solar also provides a lot of shading reducing roof temperature.

Air sealing is the most important thing, more important than insulation in most cases.

Your real problem may come from the lower floors.  Get that energy audit to find out.

Attic and whole house fans are tricky, as they can appear to help, but actually raise energy costs.  See for example "Green Building Advisor" "All About Attic Venting", or this from Building Science Corporation:

See also

One caution: take a step back before considering wall insulation.  On an old stucco house chances are the waterproofing layer between the stucco and the wood is in poor shape.

Insulation in the walls can trap moisture, completely alter the balance of the structure, and lead to rot in a few years.  A bad deal.

I kinda went cheap:  I use bubble reflective insulation cut to cover the windows that get sun, mostly South and West facing, about $20 for a 2'x10' roll.  This keeps the heat out.  I also use box fans that I can wedge into my windows in the evening or morning to bring cool air in before I close up the windows.  They cost about $20 each.