and other mental aberrations

By Fred Schroeder


First, let me give you some background on my qualifications. I was born in 1953 and have been involved in the building trade since I was old enough to carry a hammer complements of my late Father. By trade, I am a journeyman electrician. My Father worked in the building trades all of his life. However, his primary profession was that of fireman. I grew up with a healthy respect for fire safety. Coupled with my exposure to the building trade, I have a pretty fair idea of where I speak.

So, you want to own an old house! Are you absolutely, positively sure of this? Trust me, you have to be slightly nuts to put up with all of the hassles of old home ownership. "About half a bubble off plumb" to quote an old phrase. That, or be rich enough to pay someone to do it all for you. And, face it, if you were that well off you wouldn't be reading this! So I am operating under the quaint assumption that you plan to do it yourself. Before jumping into a project like this I suggest that you think about it. Long and hard! Not that I wish to sound arrogant but it takes more than watching a few TV shows or reading a few books. They make it sound so easy. And, due to time compression on TV, it should be done in a few months. Yeah, right! Remember, behind the cameras and smiling faces there are crews of trained professionals actually doing the work.

Many people think some paint and wallpaper is all that is needed to "restore" an old house. Believe me, nothing could be farther from the truth! There are a number of systems in the dark bowels of an old house just waiting to do you dirt, generally at the most inopportune time. Sunday night just after all of the stores have closed is a common favorite. The best way to prevent this is to do the mechanicals first. It is somewhat pointless to make it pretty and then have to tear it out to fix things. Not to mention the possible disasters that can occur. These range from annoying and expensive (plumbing) to dangerous (electrical, heating, and gas lines).

Don't get me wrong. I truly love old houses. Working on them actually constitutes therapy for me. But then, not everyone shares my somewhat skewed definition of the word fun. It is hard work and lots of it. It is often heavy, difficult, and dirty. When it comes to plumbing it gets downright disgusting at times. And, above all else, it is always expensive. VERY expensive! So, without further ado, let's take a look at the various systems that comprise your dream home.

Chapter 1


"They just don't build houses like they used to!" I won't even speculate on the number of times that I've heard that phrase. My response to it is "Thank God!!" Old houses are terribly built structures. Not because they didn't care or were driven by the Almighty Buck as they are today. It's just the way it was done. There were no organized standards of construction. It was basically at the whim of the builder. Instead of relying on known load capabilities or accepted standards they employed brute force. Lumber was cheap and used in rather copious amounts. The same house today could be built stronger with considerably less lumber. This aspect won't be of much concern unless you plan to make structural changes in or around the house. If you do, be prepared for what you will (or won't) find. Remember, there were no standards in those days. They weren't too particular about maintaining spacing on things like studs, joists, and rafters. It can (and most likely will) be anything. Even the lumber wasn't sized. It was used rough and the dimensions varied greatly. The outside walls were laid up so the outside edges of the studs lined up. This allowed the siding to be applied. Inside, they were hell, west, and crooked.

Lath (thin strips of wood) was nailed to the joists and studs. Plaster was then applied over these strips. First was the scratch coat, a light coat of brown plaster to form a base on the lath. Then came the brown coat. So called because it was made of sand and was brown. Early forms of this are referred to as 'horse hair' plaster. It contained a fibrous material to help hold things together, or so the theory went. This is where the walls and ceilings were leveled out. It might be 1/4 " thick in some places and 2" in others! You might now begin to see the problems of replacing plaster with sheetrock. The studs and ceiling joists must be plumbed and leveled using all custom cut shims. Tedious and time consuming does not begin to describe it. Finally the finish or white coat was applied. It was made of lime and was generally about 1/8" thick. Considering what is involved in replacing old plaster, I suggest that you thoroughly inspect the walls.

Get up close to the wall and look across the flat areas. Look for bumps or ridges in the paper. Walk around and run your fingers over the walls to feel for cracks and divots. Gently press against the walls with the palm of your hand. If you feel movement it indicates that the plaster has separated from the lath. It is disheartening, to say the least, to remove the old paper and have the plaster fall off on the floor.

Check the doors and windows for fit and function. Sticking doors and windows and/or misaligned jambs are a good sign of foundation problems, rot, and /or termites. Something has to be settling to make this happen. And, by the way, look closely at the doors. Look at the stiles and rails (sides and top/bottom) to see that they are even and square. If not, it shows that they have been cut or planed to function properly. The doors and windows and their respective jambs should be square and true.

A marble is a good way to see how things lay. Place it on floors and cabinet tops and notice how it rolls. If it rolls toward the center of the room from all of the walls don't get too shook up. Old floors tend to sag in the middle a bit. If it rolls to one side or the other THEN get shook up. Again, something is settling.

While you are in the kitchen run some water into the sink with the stopper in place. Pull the stopper and observe how the water runs out. How fast does it drain? As it finishes draining does it burp or gurgle? This could indicate a clogged vent. Or, no vent at all for that matter! Vents are quite important to a drain system. It breaks the vacuum on the water column so the trap isn't sucked dry. Doing so will allow sewer gas back into the house. Do the same thing in the bathroom(s). Run water into the tub and lavatory at the same time and flush the toilet. Keep a close eye on the water flow into the tub and lavatory. If there is an excessive reduction in flow it indicates restricted pipes. Pay particular attention to any area where water is present. Sinks, lavatories, tubs, and toilets are prime areas for rot. Carefully examine areas under and around these items. If there are cracks or missing grout in the tub surround there is water going some place it shouldn't be. Try wiggling the toilet to see if it moves. A toilet that rocks is a guaranteed leak. If the floor isn't rotted yet it will be soon.

I suggest you take along a flashlight, folding ladder, and a pair of coveralls. These items are needed for going under the house and in the attic. Granted, most people won't do this. However, I recommend that you do so. Considering this is likely to be the most expensive investment of your life, it might be a good idea to see what you are investing in. Having said this, now would be an excellent time to nose around the attic. If you see sunlight anywhere other than windows or air vents something is seriously amiss. Look for signs of water especially in valleys, around masonry items, and around sewer vents.

Walk around the outside of the house. Get down and look along the foundation. The lines should be straight and true. Look for sagging or bulging walls. Do some gentle poking with a blunt knife. If there is rot present it will penetrate with little or no resistance.

Take a peek at the roof while you're at it. Dark streaks and patches indicate a loss of gravel from the shingles. The lines between the tabs should be sharp and well defined. Rough edges and wavy lines are signs of deterioration. Broken corners and missing tabs are bad news as well.

Now comes the real fun; time to crawl under the old girl and check a few things. Pay no attention to the dirt, spider webs, or any glowing beady eyes. Cast a critical eye around water pipes and sewer/drain lines. Floors and joists are open to rot in these areas. Water tends to run down and soak into the wood. Use your knife blade to check the joists, plates, and mud sills for rot and termite damage. These things should be checked during the termite inspection. Please note that I said should be checked. It never hurts to make sure.

Flues and fireplaces are another good place to take a peek at. Settling and separation will show up here as well.


One of the best ways I know to burn a house down is to use an old fireplace or flue. This is due to a variety of reasons. They didn't have firebrick and fire mortar in those days. It was just plain, soft clay bricks and lime mortar. Even when they had these items in later years, time and heat take their toll. Mortar loosens and falls out, bricks spald off and fracture. This allows heat to escape into places it doesn't belong such as walls, ceilings, and attics. In addition, building practices in those days added a little extra. They had a nasty habit of laying floor and ceiling joists into the masonry! When the bricks and/or mortar falls out, the ends of the joists are exposed to direct heat.

We had an old flue in our present home. It was removed when the foundation was replaced to facilitate leveling the house. Upon its removal I discovered that one of the floor joists had not merely been laid into it. It had actually been run through it! What a good idea!!! Granted, it was at the base of the flue. However it functioned as a vent for the wood stove in the kitchen back in the old days. Let's sprinkle some nice hot sparks on the floor joist and see what happens!

We also happen to have 4 fireplaces. The previous owners (a.k.a. "Those damned idiots!") actually used one of them. As if the above reasons weren't enough, these fireplaces were made for gas logs! They were not designed or intended for wood. (Yes, Virginia, they did have gas logs and space heaters 100 years ago. Can you spell a-s-b-e-s-t-o-s ?) These particular fireplaces are easy to spot, as they do not have a smoke shelf, smoke chamber, or damper. The flues are wide open to the outside. Not exactly a shining example of efficiency. If you really want to use an old fireplace, get it relined so that it is safe. This is a rather easy process to have done. Messy, dirty, and expensive as all hell, but relatively easy. Compared to burning ones house down, I consider it the only real alternative. The same admonitions apply to the use of wood stoves as well. Heat is heat regardless of its source. It will still cause a fire.

Chapter 2


(Water pipes, sewer lines, and other neat things that go drip in the night.)

While not dangerous to you health (other than the mental variety) it can certainly be hard on your bank account. The same cannot be said about gas lines, but they will be covered later.

Unlike fine wine, plumbing does not improve with age. And the worst thing is that you often get no warning. By the time you discover that you have a problem, you REALLY have a problem.

Some time back, I was peacefully snoozing one morning only to be awakened by the hysterical shrieking of my wife. After stumbling down stairs, I discovered that the bathtub had drained itself into the dining room. While I am not the most astute person upon waking, it didn't take long to ascertain that something was seriously amiss. At this point, the only option was to rip up the floor and see what was happening. A few minutes with my trusty circular hand saw and all was made clear. The drain line from the tub and lavatory (2" cast iron) had a split in the top of one section about three feet long. It seems that the drain was not functioning so Leslie applied a plunger to it. Apparently, a hairball (I assume) broke loose and lodged down stream of the split. This allowed the water to back up through said crack ending its journey in the dining room below. At this point I was faced with two options: patch the drain or rip out the entire room and start from scratch. As this was the original 'bathroom from hell' we opted for the latter.

Cast iron pipe used in old sewer lines is a very robust material. However, it does have a finite life. As the years roll by the interior surface rusts and flakes off. The problems caused by this are twofold. The first, and most obvious, is the loss of wall thickness. It will eventually rust completely through. This allows not only the sewage to escape its confines but sewer gas as well. Beyond the stench, it is quite dangerous. It is comprised of methane gas, the same substance we burn for our creature comforts and cooking food. Allowing sewer gas to leak into your home is no different that having a gas leak behind the kitchen range. The degree to which one or the other is more malodorous I'll leave to your discretion. The second problem manifests itself in a different manner. Ever wonder why old houses seem to have an inordinate number of drain problems? The rusting and flaking causes the surface to become rough. Everything of a solid nature will hang up on this rough and flaking surface. Hair, toilet paper, and... Well, you get the idea. It all balls up and results in a plug. The only thing that really works is to snake out the line. However, this is really treating the symptom and not the disease. It is only a matter of time before it returns. The various "plumber-in-a-jug" products are worthless. In many cases, it will actually make it worse. It can dissolve hair into a solid plug that is VERY difficult to remove.

Snaking a drain in an old house can get interesting. They used to use a device call a 'drum trap'. It is basically a vertical cylinder with a pipe attached to the top on one side and bottom on the other. This allowed water to stand in the cylinder sealing out the sewer gas. It simply is not possible to get a snake through it. It is, however, quite possible to get a snake hung up in one. The end of the snake balls up in the drum making it quite impossible to remove. Said snake then becomes a permanent part of your sewer system. A drum trap has a top that unscrews. Well, at one time it would. Lead is too soft to take threads, so threaded cast iron rings were molded into the drum and the top. After 50 or 60 years you have a much better chance of winning the lottery than of getting the top loose. Speaking of lead, the drain lines, too, were often made of this substance. It is quite soft. Snakes can easily punch holes through it so take it easy.

Another interesting idea of years gone by was the way they installed toilets. They would take a shallow, pan-like device (made of our good friend, lead) and pound the flange flat to the floor. The toilet was set over it and screwed into place. All well and good but for one problem: they leaked! The wax seal would allow water to seep out and rot the floor. The screws pull loose and the toilet becomes a rocking chair thus allowing even more water to escape. As if this wasn't bad enough, you can't replace an old toilet with a new one. The old toilets flushed like Niagara Falls. And used nearly as much water. Not much would impede its journey to the sewer. Now we have the new, water conserving toilets. They require a minimum of a 9-inch straight drop from the closet flange. Instead, we have a 3-inch drop onto a nearly flat surface. Without a large amount of water to push things along, they have a bad tendency to stop short of their destination, namely that of the sewer. Wax seals are not made to take pressure so the application of a plunger will push water into places where it doesn't belong. This, in turn, causes more rot in the vicinity of the toilet. You can't win. In fact, you can't break even. The only cure is to replace the offending pieces of your sewer system.

Just as an aside, ever wonder where the term 'closet flange' came from? Most of our modern plumbing amenities are of British origin. The Brits had indoor plumbing when we Colonials were still using outhouses. Their term for a bathroom is 'water closet' or 'w.c.' for short. Hence the name 'closet flange'. The inventor of the modern flush toilet was an Englishman by the name of Thomas Crapper. (No folks, I'm not kidding!) This handy device is over 100 years old and has remained virtually unchanged since its inception. Actually, there is some debate on this. Crapper was a plumber in London around 100 years ago. Some claim that he invented it while some claim that he made improvements on it.

At one time they made water lines from lead. It is nice stuff to work with. It is quite soft so it can be easily worked into position. It solders easily and is impervious to practically everything known to man. It does, however, have one minor drawback: lead poisoning! It is low level and cumulative. It won't make you sick right away like eating paint flakes. It rots your brain over a period of years. They claim that this is a contributing factor to the decline of the ancient aristocracies. Seems that the rich folks had lead plumbing in their homes. Hmmm... I wonder if the White House still has lead plumbing? This could explain some of the strange things that come from Washington. Sorry, back to the task at hand. While it is unlikely that a home would still have lead plumbing, it is something to check on. I found remnants of it in our house. It had long since been disconnected, but it was in use at one time.

The next item to come on the scene was galvanized pipe. Iron or steel pipe is coated with zinc to keep it from rusting. While this is a fairly reliable process it does have limits. After being exposed to water for many years it finally starts to rust on the inside. The bad thing is that you don't see it happening. Just like automobiles it rusts from the inside out. You won't know a thing until it starts to leak.

The down stairs bath had been gutted in preparation for its much needed rebuild. While sitting quietly in the living room one evening, I heard the familiar sound of dripping water. (You will discover that old home owners spend a good deal of time sitting quietly. Generally we are contemplating suicide! Since arson is illegal, it becomes a choice between prison and death. Sort of like marriage only with monthly payments.) Resigning myself to the inevitable, I boldly opened the door and walked in. I promptly slipped in the puddle of water and fell on my butt. As I lay on the floor, again contemplating suicide, I felt water dripping on my forehead. I looked up in an effort to locate the source of my present torture. There was a leak in the middle of a pipe. It looked great on the outside. I have had pipes that looked to be in perfect condition disintegrate with the application of a pipe wrench. The worst area is around the threads. Pipes are threaded on a taper so it is thinner at the threads. Threading also removes the galvanize coating which allows it to rust much more quickly. This is one reason old nipples are nearly impossible to remove in one piece.

Another handy thing about galvanized pipe; the inside diameter gets smaller with age. Due to rust and the accumulation of dirt and crud in the water, it gets smaller,
and smaller, and smaller..... The resulting reduction in water flow is gradual. Somewhat like getting fat: suddenly you realize that something is wrong but failed to see it coming. The only cure is replacement.

Considering all of the above named problems (along with a few others) were present in the "bathroom from hell", it was time to take the plunge.


As a rule, gas lines give little trouble. They were/are made of common black pipe. About the only real problem will be a bit of rusting on the inside. This can cause blockages in the orifices on occasion. A simple drop leg at the appliance will take care of this. It is nothing more than a short piece of straight vertical pipe with a cap on the bottom. It allows any junk in the line to settle out instead of being pulled into the appliance. In years gone by cities used to generate their own gas. It was called, oddly enough, "city gas". It was made by coking coal. This is basically a process whereby coal is baked until the volatile substances are cooked out of it. The resulting gas was collected and pumped throughout the town. In addition to methane it contained a considerable amount of hydrogen, a fair amount of moisture, and a host of impurities. Some of which are corrosive. Hence a bit of rust on the inside of the gas pipes. Considering the number of years since this process has been used, I sincerely doubt that you will encounter any problems.

One thing that I would recommend is the elimination of all exposed gas jets not in use. That is, remove the valve and put a cap on it. It is all too easy to bump into one with a dust mop or vacuum cleaner. If you aren't using it then get rid of it.

Any that are still in use should be checked with soap and water. Due to age, they will seep a bit sometimes. They usually consisted of a tapered plug with a gasket and nut on the bottom. The grease on the plug served as both a lubricant and a seal. It will dry out over time as will the gasket on the bottom. Your best choice is to replace them. You might also check behind the light fixtures. Sconce and overhead light fixtures both could have been gas at one time. If there is a capped gas line behind them you might want to pull the cap and reseal them. Gas lighting was common before electricity took over. It was also used in conjunction with electricity in the early days. Electricity was not all that reliable in the beginning so gas was used as a backup. Many of the early lighting fixtures were set up for both gas and electric. If you are lucky enough to have these original fixtures by all means keep them!

Chapter 2


(Sparks, fires, and other natural phenomenon.)

It truly amazes me that more old houses don't burn to the ground. The electrical systems in most of them are a disaster waiting to happen. And it really isn't the fault of the system. It is a matter of changing times and needs. Virtually all systems prior to the 1940's are known as knob and tube. Porcelain knobs were nailed to the edges of joists and studs with tubes placed through holes. Wire was then strung across the knobs and through the tubes. In theory it was the safest wiring method ever devised. The conductors were separated by several inches. The problem arises from the size of wire that was used. The main runners are often as small as #14. Modern #14 wire is rated for 15amps. The feeders to receptacles and lights are generally #16. Technically, #16 is good for 10 to 14 amps depending upon the type of insulation used. However, it is no longer legal for use in residential wiring. 100 years ago, electrical requirements for a home didn't amount to much. A few lights were about all there was. Even through the '30's it hadn't changed much. Well off families had a radio, refrigerator, and an electric iron. Toasters had been around for a number of years as well. As the years passed the demands kept growing. 10 or 15 amp fuses were replaced with 20 or 30 amp fuses or breakers. Kitchens were equipped with multiple outlet strips so all of the goodies could be used. Now you have a piece of wire capable of passing 10 amps (on the very outside) with toasters, electric skillets, toaster ovens, grills, and God knows what else connected through it. Not to mention all types of space heaters, blow dryers, home entertainment centers, and the list goes on. It can easily cost up to 10 grand to have an entire house rewired. This is no small task. I speak from experience.

One day I decided to try out my new electric hedge clippers. As have many neophyte gardeners, I promptly cut into the cord. IDIOT!! It was not, however, completely severed. It was shorted through the steel cutters on the trimmer. When the plug was pulled, a resounding arc followed it. For the several seconds it took me to pull the plug, the wiring in the house was turned into a giant electric heater! The 20 amp breaker that was "protecting" the circuit failed to trip even with a direct short.

There is a bright side to all of this doom and gloom. The basic demands of an average home haven't really changed all that much. TV's, stereo's, and lights don't draw all that much power. The main problems are the kitchen, bathroom(s), and laundry room. Most houses will already have a new main service. Electric ranges, cloths dryers, and air conditioners generally made them necessary years ago. Running new branches to these rooms will take all of the heavy loads off of the old system. It can then be left to power the rest of the house. The cost will be considerably less than a total rewire.

I personally prefer a total rewire to make sure everything is up to snuff. But then, I have the luxury of being able to perform this task myself. For those who are unable to have this done, a partial rewire (along with down sizing the circuit protectors for the old stuff) should prove adequate.

If you are the adventurous type (some might say masochistic) don't be afraid to try it yourself. Get hold of a qualified electrician and work out a deal with him. He can guide you through most aspects of rewiring. Cutting holes and pulling wire doesn't require an engineering degree! It does, however, require a great deal of time and work. Then, have him do the actual hookups and connections. This will be considerably cheaper, you will have the satisfaction of doing most of the work yourself, and you will have a completely rewired home. Just don't try it on your own unless you really, truly know what you are doing. Messing with electricity is one of the better ways I know to get killed. I have worked with serious, high power, poly-phase industrial electrical systems most of my working life. Nothing scares me more than to hear someone say, "It's only 110 volts." More people are killed by 110-volt home electrical power than all other forms combined. It can be quite deadly!

And, while you're at it, take any electric space heaters you may have and throw the damned things in the trash. Comfort and safety are the reasons for central heating systems.

Chapter 3


(Attempting to keep heat and cold where it belongs.)

The following represents my opinion regarding weather proofing an old house:

HA, HA, HA, HA, HA, HA, HA, HA, HA!!!!!

Old houses were made to be loose and open. 100 years of wear and tear does nothing to help the situation. Heat was cheap and plentiful so it was not a real priority. Staying cool was another matter. Home air conditioning was far in the future. So, they did what they could to alleviate the problem. Loose, open construction with high ceilings and tall windows. The heat rises to the ceiling. By opening the top and bottom sashes, hot air would exit the top and pull (hopefully) cooler air through the bottom. Natural convection cooling at its best. The bad thing about loose construction and high ceilings is trying to keep it warm. Our house has 9 tons of A/C and 250,000 b.t.u.'s of heat. As we live in North Texas, winter isn't our biggest concern. However, our house is a licensed S.O.B. to heat. Heating costs (gas) far outweigh our cooling costs (electric). Trying to "tighten up" an old house is really an exercise in futility. Proper weather stripping, attic insulation, and storm windows will certainly have an impact. But, due to the way old houses were built, these are only a part of the problem. Walk around with a candle on a windy day. You will discover air flowing from places you never imagined possible. It's a shame that the injected foam didn't work out. Not only is it an excellent insulator it closes up all of the cracks and openings making an old building virtually airtight. It did wonders for fire proofing as well. After all, what's a little formaldehyde between friends? Otherwise, there are serious limits regarding what can be done with old houses. Plus, it depends upon where you live. Construction methods varied widely in different parts of the country. Homes built in cold weather country were built considerably tighter than those in warm areas.

One thing that will help is to close up the crawlspace under the house. Close or block the vents during the winter months. Make very sure that you open them up in the spring. Otherwise, moisture will collect and cause some very serious rotting to take place. In some cases it will actually collect like dew and run down the joists and sills. Trust me, this is highly ungood. Do not, hear me people, DO NOT block your attic vents! In spite of the claims made by some this will cause serious problems. The moisture in the house will follow the heat and rise to the ceiling. It has to go somewhere and that somewhere is the attic. And yes, Virginia, moisture will most certainly pass through sheetrock and plaster. Both are quite permeable. Said moisture then ends up in the attic. What? You say that you have no moisture in your house? Wanna bet?! Do you take baths? Do you wash clothes and dishes? Do you breathe? Then you have moisture in your house. Lots of it! This presents no problem as long as the attic vents are open. It is simply vented to the outside. Close up the vents and the moisture is trapped in the attic. This will cause degradation of your insulation, rot, and those funny looking dark stripes you see on the ceiling. The stripes are caused from moisture collecting between the joists and the ceiling. Not to mention the formation of ice dams on the roof. The attic is warmer than it should be. When the snow falls it melts and refreezes. When the weather warms up the ice starts melting. As the roof is warmer toward the comb it will start melting there first. Remember, heat rises. However, the eves are still frozen. The water from higher up on the roof runs down and backs up behind the still frozen eves. The water then runs back under the shingles causing the roof to rot. If the roof is a uniform temperature it will all start melting at the same time. No ice dams, no rot. What really infuriates me is the idiots at the utility companies actually encourage this lunacy! If you are loosing too much heat through the attic then you need more insulation. Closing the attic vents will cause far more problems that it will solve.

Chapter 4


There are basically four types of heating systems: steam, forced air, hot water, and radiant. They will be operated on gas, oil, or electric. Each system has it pros and cons.


(Bumps, thumps, and clanks)

No you don't have ghosts in your house. It is simply steam heat. Steam was in wide spread use in years gone by, depending upon the area of the country. It is a very nice system when it is working correctly. You won't even know it's there other than the occasional hiss from the radiator. Any problems encountered in this area should be left to the professionals. Steam heat is a highly specialized world all onto its own. Check around with others in the area regarding service personnel. Not everyone is qualified to perform this work regardless of what is printed in the phone book.

Generally you will have what is known as a single pipe system. It is really quite an ingenious design. Steam flows up the pipe into the radiator. As it cools it condenses back into water. The water flows back through the inlet valve and flows down the same pipe to the boiler. Just like ships passing in the night.

There are a few things that you can take care of yourself. First of all, make sure that all of the radiator valves are wide open. Contrary to popular belief temperature is not regulated by the valve. If it is partially closed the return water flow will be restricted. The radiator then becomes waterlogged (filled with water) leaving no place for the steam. The temperature is controlled by the vent. It is a small bullet shaped device on the end of the radiator. Ever wonder why radiators hiss every now and then? It is the vent making room for the steam. If a radiator is cold but the rest of the system is working chances are the vent is bad.

Forced Air

Perhaps the most common form of heat is forced air. It is a cabinet with a burner and a blower. The burner heats the heat exchanger from the inside. The blower blows air around the outside of the heat exchanger. This allows the air to be heated while the combustion gases are vented to the outside. Make sure that the filters are cleaned/changed often and you should have many years of trouble free service. Having the furnace cleaned and the burner thoroughly checked each year is a good idea as well.

Forced air also includes heat pumps. It is basically an air conditioner that can be reversed. Effectively, an air conditioner amounts a to nothing more than a pump. It absorbs heat inside the structure and dumps it on the outside. A heat pump is just the opposite. It absorbs heat from the outside and dumps it on the inside.

There really isn't much to maintaining heat pumps and A/C units. Make sure that there is plenty of open space around the condenser (that big honkin' fan thing outside). Plants, weeds, and grass will impede the flow of air and drastically reduce its efficiency. This will cost you dearly in both operating and repair expenses. Keep the coils clean (both the condenser and the evaporator) and the filters changed and you should have many years of trouble free service. BTW, the evaporator is the coil inside the house. A garden sprayer filled with water and a wet/dry vac does a good job on the evaporator. A garden hose will take care of the condenser. Make sure that you turn off the power before hosing it down.

The leftovers

Few older homes will have hot water or radiant heat. If you do then there have been some serious up grades done. Radiant heat comes from electric cables embedded in the floors or ceilings. Hot water heat uses small baseboard radiators or hot water tubes in the floor (another form of radiant heat). There really isn't much that needs done with these systems.


Gas is a marvelous way to heat a home. It is clean, efficient, and far and away the cheapest. The only problem is it is only available in town. Unless you are lucky enough to have a gas line running across your property gas service in the country is not an option. Propane will give you basically the same advantages except for cost. It is a bit on the pricey side.

Electricity can be utilized two different ways; heat pump or direct. Direct (or resistance) heating is the most wasteful and expensive method known. Heat pumps are VERY efficient. On the order of 98% or better. However, due to the high cost of electricity, it is still one of the most expensive ways there are to heat a home. If a new home is built for electric heat it isn't too bad. The house is sealed and insulated 'til hell won't have it. It is patently impossible to achieve this while retrofitting an old house. Therefore, any form of electric heat in an old house is going to be a very expensive proposition.

Oil is popular in many parts of the country. It can take the form of forced air, steam, or hot water. It is quite a good source of heat albeit expensive in this day and age. The furnace (or boiler as the case may be) tends to be maintenance intensive. I would recommend that it be checked thoroughly before the heating season begins. They require cleaning as well. Oil is not the cleanest way to heat. The burner assembly (often referred to as the 'gun') should be cleaned and adjusted carefully each year.


(Space heaters, floor furnaces, and other incendiary devices)

If one were to judge by the title of this section it might appear that I don't like space heaters and floor furnaces. I don't! They both represent prime examples of fire hazards. If you don't believe me just ask your insurance carrier. Floor furnaces are inefficient and dangerous as well. Walk across one in your bare feet sometime and tell me what you think. The heat comes out in one large column. By the time the adjacent areas are warm the central area around the furnace will feel like the tropics. If it happens to overheat everything surrounding it is wood. Not a great combination.

I can sum up my opinion of space heaters in two words; they suck! Why anyone would want to have a large open flame in each room is beyond me. The stench is sickening. The moisture produced causes rot and promotes the growth of fungus. And the CO2 (carbon dioxide) produced makes the place so stuffy I can hardly breath. In spite of the arguments of some, natural gas puts off CO2 NOT CO (carbon monoxide). Provided, of course, that the burner is properly adjusted. The combustion of natural gas is represented by the following formula:

CH4 + (2)02 = CO2 + (2) H2O + heat

Basically this states that one part natural gas plus 2 parts oxygen yields one part carbon dioxide plus two parts water plus heat. Not to mention the variety of impurities that are contained in the gas. Not something I want in my house but to each his/her own. If you have them insure that the burners are checked before the start of the heating season WITHOUT FAIL!! Improperly adjusted burners can put off carbon monoxide, a deadly poison. As open space heaters are not vented to the outside the products of combustion go directly into the house. If properly adjusted they put off carbon dioxide, a harmless gas. It will not support life if too concentrated but it is not poisonous. While you are at it I would suggest that you invest in smoke and carbon monoxide detectors.

© Fred Schroeder, 2002 - 2006