Money No Concern? See These HVAC Recommendations for Your Older Home

Sep 25, 2007 |  by  |  Craftsman Archives  |  Share

My neighborly engineer whipped up something special for me after he read about my 30 year old furnace and how next summer I’m likely going to replace it along with my air conditioning unit that sounds like a small turbo engine tucked alongside our home. It’s the first part of a 2 or 3 part series that’ll cover the ins and outs of retrofitting an older home with a new HVAC system. He’ll be grouping his recommendations into three categories: 1) Money no concern, 2) middle of the road, and 3) penny pincher. I’m sure everyone knows what group they’re in so I don’t need to elaborate any further. Just check out what he has to say.


Considering a Heating Ventilation Air Condition (HVAC) retrofit of your older home? There are a million solutions but here are my recommendations for my neighbor’s 1926 Dutch Colonial.

First, a little background on my neighbor’s house. Built in 1926, it likely started with an “octopus” gravity style coal or fuel oil fired furnace, similar to this natural gas fired furnace below. octopus furnace Money No Concern? See These HVAC Recommendations for Your Older HomeAin’t she a beauty?

Notice the giant supply ducts coming from the top and the even larger return air ducts at the bottom. The ducts are so large because these furnaces don’t use fans to circulate the air. The heated air simply rises and the cooler air falls. These systems were simple, they always worked, and they used a lot of fuel. And, there is no way to add cooling to this type of system. When the home owner got tired of the high heating bills the furnace would be retrofitted with a natural gas fired 80% AFUE unit, and perhaps that is what is still heating the home today [craftsman note: I think the AFUE is much lower, maybe around 65 or 70%].

Another key bit of history: most homes of this era have been added onto and then added onto again. My neighbor’s house is no exception. What was once the attached garage became the family room, and years later, a second floor master bed and bath were added above that family room. You can bet that HVAC considerations were not primary in the design process. And as a result these rooms, even though well insulated as compared to the remainder of the house, do not heat or cool very well [craftsman note: That’s right. The whole house heats and cools very unevenly].

If Money Is No Object:
I’d recommend eliminating the furnace all together. Yep, rip it out of the basement and reclaim that space for a recreation room or an additional play room for your bratty kids. What do you heat your house with you ask? Radiant under floor heating installed in all areas of the first floor that have a basement underneath. And for those areas that radiant heat is not feasible, I would choose a high velocity, mini duct, multi-zone system fed by an air handler to be located in the attic [craftsman note: What the hell did he just say?]. This duct systemsmall ducts.thumbnail Money No Concern? See These HVAC Recommendations for Your Older Homewould feed all rooms in the house, even those with the radiant heating system; that way the same ducts can be used for cooling. Each zone would be individually controlled with its own thermostat [craftsman note: This mini duct system sounds pretty cool. Just to clarify, it delivers a high velocity stream of air quietly and seamlessly into whatever room you choose through little outlets or holes in the ceiling.]
heat recovery ventilator.thumbnail Money No Concern? See These HVAC Recommendations for Your Older Home
The duct system would also distribute ventilation air to each room. To provide the ventilation, the air handler would be fitted with an energy recovery ventilator. The energy recovery ventilator would bring in outside ventilation air and exhaust air at the same time [craftsman note: In other words the energy recovery ventilator brings fresh air in and take stale air out]. This would reduce energy costs, because you would not have to pay to heat the cold winter air as much. This is because the warm air being exhausted would be used to pre-heat the incoming cold air.
The duct system can be installed within the wall cavities of interior walls without the need to cut into the wall. Recall how large the ducts in my neighbor’s house are, this provides for the alternative: install the mini ducts inside the home’s existing ductwork. Why not just use the existing ducts? The existing ducts are not sealed air tight and are not sized by today’s standards, which will make climate control difficult.

Some older homes are not built “tight”, so ventilation is not an issue. However, this also means that they tend to be drafty and inefficient to heat and cool. This being the case, and because money is no object, I would recommend pouring a low expansion foam insulation (check out this spray foam data sheet) into the wall cavities that both insulates and seals out drafts. Spray foam is a superior product when compared to regular fiberglass batting. Spray foam has an insulation value that is approximately double that of fiberglass and it functions as an air and moisture barrier as well (read more about spray foam insulation) With the spray foam in place, the home will mimic today’s “tight” construction, which will be much less drafty and more efficient. But, it will now require mechanical ventilation.

With this recommendation there is one more add-on that is worth considering based on the climate my neighbor lives in. Michigan has cold, dry winters, and to combat the low winter humidity a whole house humidifier coupled with the air handler is a good idea. Another thought: I would skip the whole house air filter/purifier. With the energy recovery ventilator in place, I just don’t think it is necessary unless you suffer from allergies, asthma, or other respiratory issues.

That’s all for my “money is no object” recommendation. Although there are more expensive systems available, this one is tailored to your Dutch Colonial.


Well, I don’t know about all that jive engineer talk, but man, I’ve got a HVAC consultant working for me pro bono. How sweet it is. Now I just gotta find me a money tree.

Coming soon – part 2 of the HVAC retrofit series, for those “middle of the road” kind of folks.

pixel Money No Concern? See These HVAC Recommendations for Your Older Home


  1. Len Zimmerman

    I have a Rybolt gravity-style furnace that’s been converted to natural gas, complete with asbestos-wrapped ductwork. My house was built in 1900. I would like to remove & replace the ancient “octopus” with a modern, forced-air gas furnace. We can install the new furnace & ductwork ourselves, but we are concerned about removing the old dinosaur. Any advice? The inside of the original combustion chamber looks to be multiple pieces that might slide together, but even if we disassemble everything possible, some of the parts could weigh hundreds of pounds. I’m also concerned about the asbestos. Should I hire a hazardous-waste approved contractor to remove the ductwork?

  2. thecraftsman

    Len, I don’t envy your situation by any means! My neighborly engineer should be responding to your question soon. Stay tuned.

  3. thecraftsman

    The HVAC guy’s response:

    Removing a beast such as an octopus style furnace can be a challenge but is sounds as if you are up to it. If you suspect that there is asbestos insulation on the ductwork, then I suggest that you have a sample tested. It is not possible to be 100% sure if a substance is asbestos simply by looking at it with the naked eye. If you don’t have a contractor or lab in your area that is qualified to perform testing for you; it is possible for you to gather a sample and sent it to a lab for testing. According to the US EPA, here is one method of safely collecting a sample:

    * Shut down any heating or cooling systems to minimize the spread of any released fibers.

    * Do not disturb the material any more than is needed to take a small sample.

    * Wet the material using a fine mist of water containing a few drops of detergent before taking the sample. The water/detergent mist will reduce the possibility of releasing asbestos fibers.

    * Carefully cut a piece from the entire depth of the material using, for example, a small knife, corer, or other sharp object.

    * Cut only a small piece of the material. All materials can be grouped into two categories: friable, i.e. the material can be crushed into powder by hand, and nonfriable. These amounts are adequate for testing:

    Friable: 1 teaspoon

    Non-friable: 1 square inch

    * Place the small piece into a clean container (for example, a ZipLock bag). Tightly seal the container after the sample is in it.

    * Use a damp paper towel to clean up any material on the outside of the container or around the area sampled.

    * Label the container with an ID number (for example, Sample #1)

    * Submit the sample(s) for testing

    If it turns out that your samples are asbestos containing material (ACM) you should have a qualified contractor remove the ACM for you. Next comes the heavy work for you and hopefully a friend. I suggest disconnecting the electrical and gas utilities and then cutting up the unit with a demolition saw (saws-all). If it’s heavy steel or iron you may be able to recycle it for cash. Maybe that cash will offset some of the heavy lifting you have ahead of you.

  4. Nice post and your are correct in most of what you said. Could you however care to elaborate more on the last point you made? I’ll be bookmarking your site and coming back later.

  5. We did the same exact thing. It was a Rybolt octopus with an oil burner. We did not have asbestos covering though. Only the top was covered with sand – I was told this was for insulation. One day I decided to demolish it to install a 95% gas furnace. To this day, I am not regretting this upgrade. We saved a bundle switching from oil to gas. The furnace looks bigger than it actually is. You can take tin shears and cut away all of the outside tin and ductwork. Then the heavy stuff comes to play. The Rybolt core is only pieces of iron stacked up. Probably four or five big pieces. The worst part was cleaning up the leftover soot and lifting the pieces up out of the outside basement stairs. I took it to the recycler yard and was paid cash. I think it was near 700 pounds with the burner and some other junk around the house. My wife an I bought an applicance dolly from harbor freight to get it out to my truck. The base of the furnace had to be more than 200 pounds alone. It would also look nice as a planter in your yard if you run out of brute force.

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