One of the many things on my long list of needs to address in my old house has been the heating and cooling system.
My grandmother had central air and heat installed, bless her heart. Iím very grateful for that. Sometimes, though, itís hard to get a really efficient central system installed into an old house, especially a smaller one. One built in the 1840s. By Indians, too. I mean, poor Indians, at that. And still occupied by same.
When I moved in a decade ago, I noticed some severe deficiencies in the distribution of heating and cooling. The center of the house stayed comfy, but the front and back were either too hot or too cold, depending on the season. A good cleaning of the coils greatly increased the air flow through the system, and I later removed a large portion of the wall between the kitchen and living room to allow more air flow. I installed a bar where the wall had been, as lagniappe so I would have a place to entertain guests with tales of my adventures and forays in life over a nip.
But the back of the house never really equalized. You could put your hand over the vents and barely feel any flow. In hard winters, thereíd be a 15 degree temperature difference between the front of the house and the back. Every year I intended to try to figure out the cause of this, but invariably went fishing instead.
Well, after our last spat of temperatures in the 20s, I made up my mind that Iíd go up in the attic and try to figure out what my flow problems are. So when I got home Friday afternoon I changed into some work clothes and with all the fanfare of Hemingway going on a safari in deepest Africa, headed out. I swear, if I had one of those really cool old safari hard-hats that doubled as a soup bowl and shaving basin, Iíd have donned it along with my trusty elephant rifle, machete and knee-high safari boots, pants legs neatly tucked into them, of course, in true British explorer style.
The second story is one big room, basically, with access to the attic under the roof on either side. This is also, of course, where I have been battling my minions of invasive species over the years. You can walk maybe a dozen feet toward the back of the house before you have to get down and crawl. Thereís more junk up there than you can believe, storage space for relatives over the many years before me.
That first dozen feet you have to walk on the ceiling joists, because youíll go through the ceiling otherwise. I did that once, years ago, in the living room. Learned my lesson while patching the hole. Farther to the back, luckily, the ceiling still has one-inch cypress nailed to the undersides of the joists, and the newer ceiling over that, so you can take a few more chances, even at my generous girth.
Now, headroom is low in there, as I mentioned. About three-quarters of the attic is full of that old blown-in insulation, and the other quarter contains fiberglass insulation that Iíve installed as Iíve been remodeling. So first I have to walk over the joists and the boards placed across them for stepping on, to the rear section, and find a position to sit which does not hurt my knees, back, elbows, neck or ankles. Even then, I usually only last two or three minutes before some muscle or another starts cramping up and I waste another five minutes shifting positions, perched as I am there precariously between joist and roof. I admit with shame that this is often accompanied by a steady steam of less than gentlemanly phrases.
So I checked the connections between ducts and vents at every juncture, and found none of them askew. Hmm. I had the fan on the system running, and I did find several places where my furry invasive denizens of hell had gnawed into the flexible ducts. I fixed these with aluminum duct tape. I saw many places where the little demons could possibly be getting into the house that I was unaware of, and reminded myself to seal those later.
I checked the flow downstairs, and it had not improved. Odd. So I went back up again, did the catwalk, and checked all the connections again. All still good. The only thing I could figure was that somehow they were blocked at the handling unit, the big sheet metal case that the ducts attach to. I couldnít imagine how that could happen, but knowing this old beloved house of mine, anything was possible.
Well, boy, was I right and wrong about that one.
Yeah, they were blocked all right. In fact, every duct leading to the back of the house was intentionally shut off at the handling unit!
There are baffles inside that flip open and closed to control the air flow. All three heading to the back of the house were closed. Must have been that way since the system was installed, probably 15, 20 years ago. This led to another monologue composed almost exclusively of less than genteel expressions.
I opened them all up, put the ducts back on, and went downstairs.
Mister, we got flow now! All the vents are distributing air nicely, thank you very much, and the house heats evenly at long last, front to back. Itís a small miracle, believe me.
Figured while I was up there, Iíd clean up a little. Hereís what I removed from the rear side of the attic Saturday:
Ė Six table legs. I have no idea where the tables got off too, but theyíre nice round and profiled legs.
Ė Two or three desk drawers full of junk: Screws, nuts, bolts, lighters, pencils, you name it. Nothing outstanding, nothing valuable, monetary or historical. Go figure.
Ė A lamp shade
Ė A dozen or more curtain rods, none alike.
Ė A kerosene stove.
Ė Two bedside commodes, and a walker.
Ė A piece of corrugated tin, five empty cardboard boxes and a pair of scissors I had been missing for a couple years. No clue how they got up there.
Ė The lid off an old sewing machine case, filled with electrical wiring parts.
Ė A headboard for a childís bed, badly dry-rotted.
Ė A beautiful, inlaid wooden serving tray. The bottom is shot, but I think I can restore the frame and Iím thinking of turning it into a picture frame or something.
Thereís more up there that I havenít gotten to yet, including some odds and ends poking out of the blown-in insulation that are intriguing and frightening all at once. The plan is to eventually either replace all the blown-in insulation with roll fiberglass, or in the more difficult spots to access at least level the former and cover it with the latter to increase the insulation factor.
Iím going to start filling all those varmit access ways soon as I can, probably with that expanding spray foam in a can stuff.
Itís an undoing, really, more than a redoing. Iím undoing decades of accumulations and compounded problems. Itís satisfying, too, when something actually works the way I intend it to, or I solve a puzzle like the air distribution mystery.
Well, Iíll get there, and get it like I want it, eventually. Iíve actually accomplished more in the last six months than in the three or four years preceding. Iíve mentioned before, I tend to work on it at white-hot heat for a few months, burn myself out, then go fishing for a few years before I come back to it.
Oh, and let me tell you something else. I did nothing on Sunday. That was because every muscle in my body hurt, including some I didnít even know existed, from crawling around up there and wedging myself between joists and posts and trusses. I must have gone up and down the stairs three dozen times. So I spent most of the day on the sofa moaning about getting old.