The problem with old buildings…

Sigh, the heating of this building is fraught with problems.  Non-insulated floors mean that all the heat rises to the top.  Our upstairs unit is lovely and comfortable at 70 degrees (and we are loving it since we usually choose 65 degrees), BUT we have the heat turned off!  The other upstairs tenant leaves her window open.  I need to talk to her about why and meet her needs (hopefully) another way.  It may be that she is burning up, it may be a ventilation issue.  I’ve been moving and haven’t had the chance.

The urgent issue is that the basement apartment is only getting to 60 to 65 with the thermostat cranked all the way up to 80 or so.  The current tenants moved in in May, so I don’t know if we can find out if this is a long-term problem.  The boiler was serviced before I closed, and at that point it was noted that the heat wasn’t working and some repairs were made (valves?  I can’t read the handwriting on the receipt).  When the plumber came Monday to fix the coin valve in the upstairs unit we had to get to the boiler in the basement and the tenant said the heat was not satisfactory again.  I checked and the baseboard seemed warm enough, but indeed the thermostat was set to 80 and the temperature in the room read about 65 (with sun blazing in through the south windows).  The plumber bled the line and we hoped that would do it.  I talked to the tenant yesterday (or two days ago now?) and he said it was better for a bit, and was better than before, but still wasn’t getting above 65.  Although I might be comfortable at that, I understand the need for perhaps as high as 68, and I think I have to provide up to 68 anyway.  So another call to the plumber I guess. $$.  Even if heat was escaping through poorly insulated walls and windows and rising upstairs, I would expect it to get warmer in there if the system was working right.  The entryway at ground level is plenty warm, and that is a little stick frame room with lots of windows – not a basement set snug in the relatively warm ground with small, closed windows.  By the way, it is 26 degrees outside now, it has been 10 to 15 most of this week.  Not toasty!  The building inspector had said that the boiler was perfectly well sized, in his opinion.  Sigh.  Hope I don’t spend all my money on repairs before I get to the efficiency improvements!


6 responses to “The problem with old buildings…

  1. The repairs are energy efficiency improvements too, to some degree anyway. Can you get someone to take a thermograph of the building to find the hot-spots? You said you’d had a blower test done already, didn’t you?

    Is the ground really “relatively warm” there? Is the annual average temperature not well below 68F? Probably the thermal contact between the basement living space and the surrounding ground is much better (worse… for comfort and energy) than the above-grade rooms, so even if the ground is warmer than the outside air temperature, it may still be stealing more heat. Especially if the basement apartment was a rough-in that wasn’t finished appropriately after initial (permitted) construction was completed.

    In the long run I’d guess good windows, airtightness, and as much insulation as you can possibly cram into the walls and ceilings will probably be the best energy investment you can make. None of that will be particularly cheap though up front.

    Have you looked at the Passive House (Passivhaus)/CEPHEUS standards from the EU? Something to strive toward, but not easy for retrofits:

  2. If you look into the Passive House/CEPHEUS stuff, make sure you search for information on the site at Goteborg, Sweden. It’s almost as far north as Anchorage (57N vs. 61N), and has a very similar climate (slightly warmer, but also wetter/cloudier). Also, several of the units constructed were 4-plexes. The take-home message being that, even where you live, with a little forethought, one can build homes that don’t need active heating for the same price as homes that do (but you probably already knew that!)

  3. Here’s the link for the CEPHEUS standards if you’re interested:

  4. Yikes… this sounds like something that you should not be having to sink money into… guess that’s what happens when you buy in winter. No way to make the previous guy liable for any of this?

    Then again, I lived in a building where I couldn’t really control the heat and that’s what happens– you get hot, you open the window, you get cold you crank it… Unless or until they have to pay utilities (which if they don’t, I think you should start going in that direction– goes back to the washing machine thing, you can encourage behavior via economics for many many people) they probably won’t think twice about it. Still stinks for you in the meantime though.

  5. Well, money-wise I’m not sucking it up too much yet. We’ll see…

    I have not had a blower test yet, I am signed up for the Home Energy Rebate program (see other posts) where I will eventually get a home energy specialist to come out and do a blower test, possibly a thermograph, then make recommendations. I will get the cost of this plus a certain amount of my upgrades from the list refunded. So there is, perhaps unfortunately, economic incentive for me to wait on the testing and expensive upgrades. The waitlist is into the spring at least. I am doing to easy, cheap things myself first.

    As to warm ground. The outside air temp in winter is, lately, hovering around 15 to 20 degrees. The ground is about 36. So a better starting point. The temp will get down to -20 or so this winter. Now, you may be right that the insulation in the interior of the basement is less than the upper walls. The upper walls are, I believe, 2×4 (standard now is 2×6 if I’m not mistaken) and I’m guessing they framed in the basement with 2×4 as well, so I’m guessing (not usually a good thing to do!) that the insulation is similar. Thus my assumption that the basement is in a better thermal state than the upper floors, except for the rising heat issue. The roof insulations is, luckily, up to current anchorage code. I could stand to throw on another 4″ batt of fiberglass, but much more is probably far into diminishing return territory. Especially since it is interior heat movement that is the biggest issue right now.

    I’m way into passive solar, and I will be doing various things in that direction. I will totally check out the website. It is difficult with a remodel, but that is part of the challenge I wanted. One early step I want to take is to dig around the basement and install perimeter rigid insulation, then remove the interior insulation so that the concrete block walls can work their magic as thermal mass.

    Can’t make em pay for their own heat – only one boiler. Will have to just give kickbacks when heat use is lower than normal, and to everyone.

  6. Wow, I’m amazed that 2×4’s were ever code in AK! But maybe that’s from back before there was really “code”. Most of the central European passive houses have almost a foot of insulation, allowing them to do without any active heating at all, which is the only way having all that insulation becomes cost effective. They also use heat-exchangers to prevent the active ventilation system from gushing heat into the outside world, and pre-heating/cooling by pulling fresh air in underground, and allowing it to equilibrate with the earth.

    That’s great if you can really retro-insulate the foundation. I didn’t know that was possible.

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