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Converting from forced hot air heat to baseboard or wall radiators

Updated on November 23, 2011
Pcunix profile image

I was born in 1948 and spent most of my career as a self employed computer trouble shooter for Unix systems.


I grew up in a home with large, old fashioned radiators. The house was built in 1900, in the typical style with a massive central fireplace. As radiators had only been invented a few decades earlier, the house may have originally depended on that fireplace for heat, but when our family moved in, ornate Victorian radiators were already there.

Those radiators crackled and gurgled and sometimes banged. An active young boy like me soon found that horseplay that led to crashing into one could really hurt. On the other hand, you could come in from a nasty winter day and put your gloves on top to dry. On a cold morning, you'd drape your clothes over a radiator to warm up while you showered.

The massive heat sink provided by several hundred pounds of cast iron radiated even and constan warmth throughout the house. I remember my father sometimes making mysterious adjustments to valves, but I don't remember ever feeling cold. Cast iron radiators are bulky and perhaps intrusive to some, but they do a wonderful job heating.

In the home where we live now, the hot air heat just kicked on. Its noisy roar told me that even before a draft of cold air blew across my lower legs as I typed this sentence. That cold air is another thing we never had with radiators.

Forced Hot air

When my wife and I married, we rented the ground floor apartment in another old house not far from my family home. This one had been built in 1880, with multiple fireplaces. It almost certainly did not have central heating originally, but a large forced hot air system had been added later. From my memory of it, I'd guess it was probably retrofitted in the 20's or 30's.

The behemoth furnace that produced the hot air took up an amazing amount of cellar space and we could hear it roar to life as our thermostat demanded heat. A rush of cold air would soon flow into our apartment. It would be followed by gradually warming air and accompanied by creaking and banging of the heating ducts as they warmed up. Finally, hot air would enter our rooms, valiantly trying to battle 10 foot ceilings and large, drafty Victorian windows.

We were always cold or waiting to be cold.

Our first home

In 1973, we bought a Cape style home that had been piece-mealed together around 1950 by someone who had worked on the railroad as a carpenter. Town lore had it that he had built the garage first and then spent several years working on the house. Apparently his construction techniques amused the neighbors; some of the old folks would smile and shake their heads ruefully when they mentioned him.

I soon learned why. Apparently railroad carpentry doesn't involve much measuring: I don't think a single two by four in that house was the same distance from its neighbors. Hanging pictures was an adventure; having located one stud, you might find another fourteen inches away or it might be twenty. It wasn't necessarily plumb, either - the top might be a quarter inch or more tipped from the bottom.

He had chosen forced hot air. Like at the apartment, the furnace was a hulking monster that consumed most of the cellar. It may not have been quite as large and the house did hold heat better, but the roar and drafts of cold air were still very much part of our lives. We decided very quickly that we would change that.

Baseboards

We never even thought about old style radiators. Nowadays, many people are realizing the charm and efficiency of those old clunkers, but back then, the usual reaction was to rip them out and put in finned baseboard as quickly as possible.

We contracted to tear out our hot air system and replace it with modern baseboard. The new furnace was so tiny - I would have space for a basement workshop and those large, ungainly ducts that filled the cellar would be replaced with gleaming copper pipe. No more would cold air blow dust up from those ducts! We were going modern!

A heating contractor quoted a price we could afford and one fine summer day they showed up to begin tearing out the old heater. My wife and I went off to work anticipating happier winters to come.

I don't remember which of us arrived home first that day. Whoever it was found the work progressing nicely. The old heater was gone, the new small furnace was in place, though not yet connected, and they had begun installing the baseboard in the living room. More than begun, in fact: it was installed in that room.

To our horror, they had installed it right on top of the existing baseboard molding. As the metal trim was higher than the molding, this meant that a very noticeable gap was present at the top. Not only was it unsightly, but it obviously would catch dust and be very hard to clean.

Why hadn't they ripped off the molding, we wanted to know? The workers shrugged. Not their job, they explained: they weren't carpenters.

We were astonished. We summoned the foreman. He had the same reaction. Taking off existing molding was not part of their contract.

I became angry. After all, ripping out molding is not hard work. I could have done it in fifteen minutes with a crowbar. If they weren't going to do it, why didn't they at least tell me to tear it out? More shrugs.

I lost that argument. I wanted it fixed, they said they'd have to charge me extra for taking out what they had done. Holes where pipes came through would have to be made larger, pipes rerouted. It would be expensive. We decided that we would cut long pieces of wood trim and put that in the open space. It wasn't the prettiest solution, but it would keep the dirt out.

So, that's what we did. We were happy that winter and for many decades after. We had quieter, far more even heat. A few groans from expanding pipes now and then, but no whoosh of frigid air at our feet. Forced hot water is a happy home.


Modern radiators

Nowadays, you have much more choice. Our daughter bought her first home and it also had hot air heating. Having grown up with baseboard, she was having none of that, thank you, so she and her husband soon set out to replace it.

Their new furnace is smaller than what we thought was such a wonderful improvement. Theirs doesn't even take up floor space; it mounts on a wall. The big difference is upstairs, though.

Today, you can buy extremely attractive wall radiators like these Runtal brand units (there are others; I just picked those because their pages show off the many different styles). Because they are available in almost any shape (even curved) and are quite good looking, you can meld them into almost any room and get as much heat as you need or want exactly where it needs to be. I don't remember the specific brand my daughter and her husband chose, but their days of noisy drafts are gone and their home is much more attractive also.

They are also saving money. That wasn't so important to us when we converted as heating oil was cheap, but it definitely matters today. According to "This Old House", radiant heating can be 30% more efficient.

Zoning

Another thing about forced hot water is zoning. We had three zones, which means three separate thermostats and three pumps at the furnace, We expanded that to four when we later converted the garage to an apartment for my mother.

Zoning lets you set different temperatures in different places. My mother's apartment needed more heat for her aging bones, my basement office needed less.

With hot air, you can get some zoning by closing registers to a greater or lesser amount, but that is guesswork and hardly as convenient as setting a thermostat.

Zoning also saves money. I'd turn my office thermostat way down when I left for the day and after my mother went to a nursing home we kept that unused apartment very low all the time.

Holes in the floor

When you take out forced hot air, you are left with the problem of the existing air vents. You could just leave them as they are, sealing them off underneath. That's simple, but not necessarily attractive and of course dust will drift in and never come out.

Sealing off the underside is easy enough: I just cut plywood squares and screwed them to the underfloor from the cellar. The exposed living side is a bit trickier.

Patching carpet is almost never satisfactory. Assuming you have a piece to patch with, that part is easy enough, but your existing carpet has almost certainly faded, which is likely to make the patches noticeable. Eventually it will blend in, but if you want perfection, you'll either be redying or replacing outright.

Wood floors present a different problem. You can make a subfloor in the hole and add short pieces of new wood. That's what I did. With a few artfully placed pieces of furniture, most of the vents were then out of sight or barely visible. However, perfectionists will require much more work and expense.

Another possibility is a simple brass plate. As it acquires a natural patina, it would blend well with wood floors.


Another conversion in our future?

As I mentioned at the beginning, we now again live in a hot air heated home. It's brand new and much better insulated than any other place we have ever lived, but heating that roar and feeling that draft is annoying.

The question in our minds is whether we want to go to the expense and mess of converting at this point in our lives. If money were no object, I suppose we probably would, but as "pretty much retired" people, we tend not to splash money around with carefree abandon. I expect we'll probably just put up with it, but we'd truly rather have radiators or at least finned baseboard.


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  • Deborah-Diane profile image

    Deborah-Diane 5 years ago from Orange County, California

    I love electric heat that is built into the walls, floors or ceilings. We have had radiant heat in the floors and in the ceiling. We have had radiators. I like this type of gentle, quiet heat much better than forced air heating systems. Great idea!

  • profile image

    Jen 5 years ago

    I read your post with very much interest. We are in the process of purchasing an 1900 home with - sadly - gas forced air. We are also considering converting to radiators but are uncertain whether this makes financial sense. You alluded to the cost. Could you share how much such an undertaking is?

  • Pcunix profile image
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    Tony Lawrence 5 years ago from SE MA

    Oh, gosh - ours was a long, long time ago. A lot of it is how much you spend on the radiators. That can be a whole lot.. The labor isn't a big part.

  • profile image

    adarc 4 years ago

    What kind of contractor would you even employ for this kind of job?

    We are also comtemplating buying an older home, with FHA and with our allergies, we really would need to change it to something else.

  • Pcunix profile image
    Author

    Tony Lawrence 4 years ago from SE MA

    Plumbing contractors can handle these things.

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    Peter L Collins 4 years ago

    Here, upside-down in New Zealand, we (like many others here) have opted for refrigerator-compressor-style heat pumps, which typically drag in 3 kw of extra heat from the outside, for every 1 kw you add in pumping load. 4kw of heat and you only pay for one.

    In our well-insulated home we have a 1kw heat pump at each end, and we keep the house fresh by sucking outside air in through a heat exchanger that recovers the warmth from the 'used' air that is expelled (in equal volumes, of course).

    In summer the units run in reverse, and provide air conditioning.

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    anonymous 3 years ago

    Each is quite efficient wihitn today's standards, I suppose. Although, I would concentrate on your home's ability to conceal its heat , once produced. Look for air-leaks , especially coming in through windows, doors, and electrical outlets (believe it or not)

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