Advice about Heating a House

Parent Q&A

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  • We are at the point in our home renovation where we need to cut out some of the scope. We have found some significant plumbing issues that we have to address, so we need to find the money somewhere. We were planning on replacing the defunct HVAC system with a ductless mini split system. But it is just too expensive at this point. We are insulating the walls and attic and replacing the windows and exterior doors. Our contractor recommended just putting in a few recessed electric heaters until we are ready to install the mini split system. Has anyone done this before, and can you share your experience? Are your PG&E bills astronomical in the winter? Is there another potential solution you would suggest? We could also do a gas wall furnace but running the gas lines and using a gas appliance seem like not the best direction from a sustainability point of view - but maybe I'm missing something. For weather context, the house is in west Berkeley.

    It is difficult to advise without knowing what your defunct hvac system is. But you may want to patch that up and keep it running. 

    alternatively, you may want to consider using one or two ptac units. They are heat pumps adequate for about one room. They are easy to install because in addition to using no ducts, they use no pipes. They are a bit noisy, though. 

    I've been in the same quandry. We insulated earlier this year and it made a big difference. I'm looking at electric under floor heat mats for bath and kitchen. There are also toekick heaters   —they get raves from some and total fails from others—basically mini wall heaters but could be a good stop gap for you.

Archived Q&A and Reviews


Best option for a house without heat?

Aug 2012

I have a 1200 sq ft house, built in 1922, with no current heating system in place so I have to start from scratch. I have looked into getting forced air heat installed, with vents, gas furnace & thermostat, but the estimates I've gotten are really high, and I'm feeling like it's not the most efficient system. What other options are there? I used a space heater in the baby's room last winter, but it was still freezing in the rest of the house, and my pge bills were quadruple what they are in the summer. I have also looked into radiant heat, but the cost of that was even higher than the forced air system. What else is there? Fireplace insert? Looking for recommendations on an economical, energy efficient, environmentally conscious heating system. (Don't tell me wool sweaters! ) Thanks ColdWinters

We put in a hydeonic air handler in our house. We used a high efficiency water heater with a daikin fan coil 'furnace' . This system is more efficient, quieter and cleaner than a regular furnace but not as expensive a full radiant heating system. We worked with Big Blue plumbingand were very pleased with the whole process. Ask Paul to show you the client testimonial video. Big Blue plumbing 510-540-6060. Barry

Heating vent locations? Need advice

August 2010

We?re having a remodel done in Oakland and trying to figure out where to put our heating vents on the 2nd floor. Ideally, we would put them in the floor since heat rises, but due to the structural issues of the floor, this is somewhat difficult because of various beams. So, the other choice is to run the ducting up to the attic in one location, and then distribute it through the ceiling (some rooms have lofted ceilings up to 11 feet tall). The upstairs will be very well insulated since it?s new. Anyone have experience with ceiling vents in their home? Does it make a big difference in terms of temperature, noise, or feeling the blowing air? Because if it does, we might push harder to have floor vents. Thanks for your help! Katie

To reply to your question about vent locations.....I have them on my ceiling and I really don't like them. the house never seems to get warm that way and the air seems to blow in my face. If I could change them I would but we have a wood stove that works wonderfully..... Good luck! anon

Replace floor furnace?

December 2009

We are buying a new house, well old house (1904) but new to us, smaller 3 bedroom, about 1000 sq. ft. We would like to consider replacing the scary floor furnace with central heating. Does anyone have any recent recommendations for people to do it and how? I have read about the eheat but with a 2 year old, we may be moving quickly from room to room and would prefer that the house is balanced in heat if that makes sense. thanks!

We replaced our floor furnace years ago. They are notoriously inefficient, so we replaced it with central heating (ducts and furnace) with a furnace with 90% efficiency. The main cost is ducting. If you don't want to do ducts, I would recommend a high efficiency wall heater like a Rinnai model. You can find info online. Licensed Architect

Heating living room makes bedrooms too hot - gas fireplace?

December 2006

Does anyone have any recommendations for gas fireplace inserts? Did you recently install one? What model did you buy? Did you buy the unit on-line, or did you go to a store in the Bay Area? Are you happy with it? Is it worth the money? I have a fireplace in my living room, but I don't want to burn wood in it. (My daughter has asthma, and I don't want to add to the air pollution in the Bay Area.) My living room is always cold. The forced air furnace that I have heats the bedrooms, but can't heat the living room without making the bedrooms uncomfortably hot. As a result, I rarely sit in my living room in cool/cold weather. I went to a store today and looked at gas fireplace inserts, and it looks like I could have a warm living room if I invested in one, but the cost of the unit, plus the installation, will be thousands of dollars. I'd appreciate any advice or recommendations. Thanks! Janet

If your bedrooms are getting too hot, the simplest thing may be to close down the louvers in the registers in those rooms, although that may be create too much noise.

Another possiblity is to balance the system by putting baffles in the ducts to the bedrooms. A heating contractor can do this, and I suspect that it will be much cheaper than a fireplace insert and more effective. A baffle is just a flat piece of metal, shaped to fit the duct, which can be rotated to reduce air flow.

The third choice is to put in a fan in the heating duct to the living room to pull air in. Depending on your system, this may actually be easier than baffles. sunsol

Living in Albany without a heating system?

Oct 2005

We recently bought a fixer in Albany and in addition to remodeling the kitchen and bath, and replacing the roof, the home's heating system is kaput. Unfortunately, our savings is also kaput after the roof, bath, and kitchen. We are considering postponing the new heating system until 2006. Our question is whether the Albany winter will be bearable without forced heat. We have a pretty good DeLonghi oil heater that heats up the living room and we would also buy one for the bedroom. Our home is only 1000 sq ft. I'd love to hear your comments and advice as to whether we can bear the winter with just the two oil heaters in our cozy Albany abode. TIA. caroline

We also live in about a 1000 sq foot place with only a wall heater between the two bedrooms. We have gone several winters without using it. It's very possible around here. You use your space heaters judiciously and then wear sweaters and slippers and keep afghans on both ends of the couch. Getting up in the morning is the hardest part! I'm sure the experience will make you really appreciate your new system when you get it installed! But it's very doable. Sally

I've lived in my big, drafty Berkeley house for 5 years now and every year we think ''we should look into getting heating'' and every year we realize we can't afford it. We have space heaters in every room, which in the long run are probably more expensive, but it's definitely been manageable. Jill

A few years ago I lived in Berkeley in a small house with no heater - I spent three winters there (because the place was in the hills with a deck and affordable), and the last one was pretty horrible. We used the same heaters you're talking about, but the problem was that they take a little while to get we'd always have to come home from work to a freezing cold house, and then wait at least an hour to warm up. When we couldn't handle it anymore, we started just leaving the heater on all day while we were at work, but our electric bill was through the roof, and we were always concerned about the safety of leaving it on all day.

There are two main things to think about when considering this: 1) How well insulated your house is -- the house we were in was not well insulated, so the heat did not stay in very well once the heater was turned off. 2) How cold a winter we will have: I know nobody knows for sure how cold the winter will be, but that last winter we spent w/o a proper heating system was very cold - I think it was 2001 - it was in the 20s and 30s most nights - getting out of bed in the morning was hard. Anyway, not trying to freak you out, but I definitely didn't realize how much a good heater made a difference to my experience of winter until I didn't have one during a very cold (for the bay area) winter. I was renting, and chose to move out rather than taking legal action against my landlord, but if I'd owned the place I definitely would've found the money somehow for a heater. anon

I live in Berkeley and haven't had heating for 8 years. I have children and live in a drafty house. I now believe that we don't need central heating and that it is wasteful to heat empty rooms/houses. We wear warm sweaters and slippers. We warm up the living room which has been wonderful and cozy as the family gathers in one place every day instead of being dispersed. We have warm comforters on the beds. I have cloth bags with beans which I put in the microwave for 3 minutes and stick in our beds. Oh, felt sheets are essential-no more cold sheet feeling. On very cold days we use our bags of warm beans on our laps when sitting at the computer or watching a movie. We have a couple of afghans near the couch for extra warmth when we are sitting there and the stove is not on. We cozy up and sit together on the couch when we read or watch movies. For kid's baths we warm up the bathroom (oil heater). For babies, we warm up one room (diaper changes). When I work in the back room on the computer I wear gloves with the fingers cut off so I can type. I drink hot tea. The children generally walk around in long sleeve tees (because we make them). I used to have an exercise bike in the living room and when I got too cold (I'm really the only one who gets cold) I would ride it for 5 minutes and warm right up. Now I do jumping jacks, squats or dance. I am used to it now. When the kids were little I'd stick one of them in my bed. They're like little furnaces. They were always pleasantly surprised to wake up there. Warm and cozy.

We used to live in a small about 1000 SQF split level house in Berkeley that had a very old heating system with only one heating vent in the living room. It was cold but definitely bearable in the rest of the house. We bundled up at night and used a lot of blankets. I don't know how old your kids are (or if you have kids) but if they are little, I'd recommend buying two blanket sleepers of different sizes, one the correct size and the other one size up and put them in double sleepers at night. On winter mornings I used to get dressed next to the one vent we had. We live in an area that rarely gets below freezing. If you have some heat source, while you may not be toasty, you should be fine.

Good luck! madelyn

we have a brand new central heating system and I'm planning on doing the same thing (natural gas prices to triple this winter!) My plan is a few decent space heaters, warm slippers and our fleece jackets as house robes. wish I had spent the money on our kitchen, or better windows! ready for the freeze

A follow-up to the heating question - we have lived in our 100 year old, 2400 sf house with one floor furnace for 16 years. Like others we have used those fluid-filled electric space heaters for specfic rooms - nursery, etc. What we did was buy a timer (around $10) with two timing settings on it.

So we can set it to go on about 1/2 hour before we get up and then off about an hour later and then a similar setting in the evening. It works great. We also do the slippers, fleece, scarves routine. We have flannel sheets and down comforters on all the beds and the kids sometimes complain of being too hot!

I also weather stripped all of our windows to help stop the ''breezes''. Warm enough

Home Climate Consultant

Feb 2002

I am looking for someone who can advise us now on how to make the interior of our home as cool as possible on warm summer days (without air conditioning). I don't know what sort of contractor would do this, and, at this point, are essentially looking for an expert to give advice, not to do construction work. We imagine this would involve knowledge re the following possibilities: air flow patterns, exhaust and/or regular fans, extra venting under the roof, extra insulation under roof and some walls (i.e., would more that we already have really make a difference?), an awning on the back deck, selecting and positioning a tree in the back yard to shade the back of the house, etc. In other words, not just someone who, for example, sells and installs installation, fans, awnings, or insulated shades, but someone can look at our overall situation and prioritize what we can do for a reasonable sum of money. Thanks!

What you're looking for is called a Home Performance Contractor. This is someone with both practical experience in energy efficient design and construction (such as passive solar and passive ventilation techniques) as well as an understanding of building science (such as how to achieve consistent whole wall R-value in insulation and air balancing issues). Call Home Energy magazine at 524-5405, or go to their Web site at They may be able to refer you to a local Home Performance Contractor. Colleen

2000 Anybody can recommend a company/contractor who can install an exhaust system to take out the hot air and cool down a house? My house can get unbearably hot and we need SOMETHING. Thanks. A.P.

I highly recommend Jeff Brown at Ceridono Engineered Heating in Berkeley (although I believe he works throughout the East Bay). Ceridono's telephone number is 528-1622 and ask for Jeff. He is quite knowledgeable and very low key and easy to talk to. We live in Berkeley and found no need for air conditioning, but Jeff arranged for the heating system to have a fan only option that provides relief on those unbearably hot days.

We've got a pretty exposed house that can really heat up on hot days too. The biggest problem is the overheated attic space/roof. Is your ceiling insulated to at least R-19 level? If not, do that (if you can) before buying any kind of exhaust system -- it will make all the difference in the world. Drapes, insulated shades, venetian or mini blinds help tremendously as well -- a good part of the trick in the Bay Area is keeping the house livable during the day until the cool comes back in the evening (*almost* all the time). When I was a kid in Southern California, with no A/C, my father installed an attic blower that sucked hot air out of the attic to keep the heat level down to ambient; it sounded like the house was about to take off when it was on, but it was relatively effective. Around here, I've found that strategically placing a standard floor fan (~36 square) in an open window or two achieves much the same effect. I point them in or out depending on what I'm trying to accomplish. Works for me.

Uneven Heating in the House

I need someone to do some repair work on our heating system. The heat does not reach the baby's room effectively. Any recommendations? Lisa

Before you hire an expensive heating company to fix things, check that the vent in the room is open all the way. Also check that the valve (?) is open. It is a door inside the duct, usually near the furnace, that allows you to close or open (or partially do that) an individual duct. It may be identified by a wing nut. Ruth

I have used Walter Mork for air conditioning and would absolutely try them for heating. My husband has also used them commercially. They are in Berkeley at (510) 845-0992. Linda

We had a room built for our new baby last year, and it would have been great--except she was born in winter and the room was so cold only a reptile could have lived there comfortably. After opening the duct wider, enlarging the thing (whatever it is) behind the duct that ferries heat to the room, and having the heating guys say that houses almost always have heat imbalances, I asked them to cut another vent in this little room. They thought it was a crazy idea (the room is teeny) but I pushed for it, and now the room is comfortable enough for the baby. The heat is still uneven throughout the house--every room is it's own little microclimate, but after the Harry Clark folks (nice enough guys) tried three times to do heat balancing, we figured we had spent enough money on this little project and besides that, the winter had ended. My advice: get a couple of opinions. And also: learn what you can about how heat travels (or doesn't) through a house so you can know whether the heating folks you hire are working under the correct assumptions. Lisa