Get Real — Get Hydronic Heat

Published: November 16, 2014 - by Dan Holohan

Categories: Case Study

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My daughter Erin — whose work appears in Plumbing Mechanical and other trade journals from time to time — along with her three sisters grew up listening to me talk nonstop about hydronic heating. Erin recently bought a house with a furnace.

This house is located in a hilly, wooded neighborhood near Silver Spring, Maryland. The house was a foreclosure and was even featured on one of those reality TV shows where they try to dress an old house up to make it look delicious to potential buyers. The husband on the show was a general contractor, and we got to see how lovely the place looked before he ripped out most of the kitchen cabinets and other worthwhile objects. He then stopped paying the mortgage and declared bankruptcy. Reality can be rough.

Erin and Drew, her husband, got the house at a very good price but had to buy it without turning on the plumbing systems. They did have an engineer look over the place, but there’s only so much an engineer can divulge about a winterized plumbing system. The closing was at bat; more reality was on deck.

They moved in and as they turned on the tub faucet in the bathroom that’s directly above the kitchen they heard the sound of a small waterfall downstairs, which is never pleasant. By the time they got to the kitchen, the water was pouring out of the ceiling.

Here’s another lesson in reality: An old, cast-iron pipe with the slightest amount of water in it for two winters can crack laterally and for quite a few feet. I’m still trying to fathom that. You’d think the little bit of water would freeze and rise within the pipe without breaking it, but it seems it would much rather go sideways and split the pipe like a dried log.

So, a local plumber got a nice job out of it and so did the handyman who replaced the ceiling. Erin and Drew got to put in a big claim on their home-insurance policy, which had just been born a few hours before the flood. There’s a dose of reality for the insurance agent in that.

This house has gone on to make my daughter and son-in-law older than they wished to be, as one thing after another showed up to snatch at their bank account, but I still think they got a great deal on the place.

The one item that continues to snarl, however, is that furnace. And I can’t blame just the furnace. That beast has an evil spouse: the ductwork, which is as twisted as arthritis and buried like a rotting corpse within the finished walls, floors, and ceilings. To get at those ducts is to rebuild the house, and that’s not in the current budget. And, so, we sit and ponder this miserable situation when the lovely Marianne and I visit.

I can’t blame the currently bankrupt contractor who grabbed up the cabinets and other good, screwed-down stuff. The furnace was here before he arrived and the ducts were there from the start. Both may have been fine at first, but this house had a few rooms added, and someone just tapped into existing ducts to add the new branches with no regard to what this may do to air balance.

In this business, that, too, is reality.

“Perhaps you should have bought a house with a boiler,” I suggested one day. Erin gave me a look that could curdle milk. I smiled, knowing I had done my best to raise her hydronically. “With a boiler, we could do something about the icehouse,” I said. Her look changed to one that could bend nails. I went dark.

The icehouse is the half-bath on the first floor. The elderly couple who lived here before the cabinet-grabbing contractor had it built. It sticks out of the side of the house like a red-brick wart. It’s a tiny room, containing just a sink and a toilet, but the floor, three of the four walls, and the ceiling are all exposed to Maryland’s winter. You could hang a side of beef in there.

The one heating register cowers at the bottom of an outside wall and whimpers cold air. Follow the ductwork from this register into the basement and you’ll see where the extension duct leaves the main duct. All that sniveling register is doing is robbing air from tiny Bridget’s bedroom, which is directly above. My precious granddaughter’s heating system is an oscillating electric toaster.

“A boiler would have been nice,” I repeat. “We could do things with a boiler that we can’t do now.” I say these things because I need some adventure in my life, and I just can’t help myself. Erin leaves the room, which keeps both of us out of the news.

So, if you’re a fan of furnaces, I’d love for you to explain this to me: Hot air rises and cold air sinks. Both the furnace and a/c unit share the same floor-level registers in this reality house. That means for the part of the year when it is Maryland-humid and stupid hot, the cold air has to be blown upward. You can feel that air roaring by all summer long.

But, come winter, we smack into the phenomenon of cold-70, when the air is 70°F, but the mean radiant temperature of the walls, floor, and ceiling in the icehouse is cold enough to Hoover the Btu out of our bodies and make us go running for Yoda robes.

That’s reality.

Murdering the furnace with a sledgehammer and installing hydronic heat throughout would be a good option, but not one in the young couple’s current budget. Insulating the place would be another grand idea, but also not in the budget. And, as I mentioned, Erin has three older sisters, and I’ve already anted-up for four colleges and four weddings, so leave me out of it.

In the end, we sit, shiver, and marvel at this system, which is the favored system of most Americans, and doesn’t that just make you wonder? I’ve had a dear friend who is one of the sharpest heating contractors I know look at this system, and he’s not able to balance it. It’s terminal.

They should insulate, right? I agree, and that would require rebuilding the entire icehouse. But it still wouldn’t get warm air to tiny Bridget’s bedroom.

We should put electric radiant mats under the tile floor of the icehouse, or behind the walls, or both. That might help, but tiny Bridget would still be sleeping with a toaster.

Or maybe we should go back on the reality TV show and call this most horrible of all American heating systems what it is: True Theater. It’s comedy and tragedy together, all under one roof.

Reality always shows. And when we don’t pay enough attention to engineering and design from the start and during renovations, we wind up with miserable people who pass their misery on to the next owner and to the next generation. And that’s how it is with the majority of American heating systems. It’s no wonder we’re so miserable.

If people really want to get real, they’ll get hydronic heat.