HomeInsulationSurprisingly, Cold Hardwood Floors—and Toes—in the Winter Is an HVAC Problem
Surprisingly, Cold Hardwood Floors—and Toes—in the Winter Is an HVAC Problem
I know it’s been almost a decade since there was a sighting of Delta and Dawn, the humpback whales that swam from the San Francisco Bay up the Sacramento River. But I still think about their little trip every time I make a trip of my own over the Rio Vista Bridge. Thinking about those whales, and seeing all the wind turbines and waterways around Rio Vista, reminds me of our local Northern California environment.
As an HVAC professional, there are two distinct sorts of environments I think about—the global environment, because modern HVAC systems are getting more energy-efficient every day, and the environments in the homes of the folks I serve. And, this time of year, I think about ways to make those home environments warmer and more comfortable.
One of the complaints I hear every December is that hardwood floors in houses won’t get warm, no matter how high folks turn up the heat, but there are actually plenty of options for keeping the hardwood in every room of your house warm—well, at least warm enough to walk on in socks. Sure, you could cover your entire house in rugs, but you could also do something about your insulation, thermostat, or ductwork. Maybe it’s time for you to warm up hardwoods, and cool down your energy bills.
Insulation Is Always a Good Place to Start
No matter what your heating conundrum is, insulation is generally the best place to start. According to the National Energy Foundation, uninsulated wood floors may cause up to 10 percent of a home’s heat loss. Think of the air in your home as water in an aquarium—even the smallest leak can drain it. You simply don’t want the air in your home leaking, because it will ultimately be replaced with the colder air outside. This is particularly true for hardwood floors in the wintertime when the outside air is dry and lacking moisture because if the air inside your house becomes too dry, the heat from your HVAC system can actually warp hardwood floors, especially if they’re older.
I’ve talked before about the best types of insulation to use during a remodel or in an attic, but I’ve never talked about the factors homeowners should consider when picking out insulation for their hardwood floors. These factors include:
Crawlspace accessibility: If you don’t have access to your crawlspace, it changes your options when insulating your hardwood floor. Without a crawl space, you’ll only have 3 or 4 inches for insulation, which means you have to buy a more expensive type to get the best results. And, you’ll have to hire a professional to retrofit your current hardwoods. But, homeowners with a crawl space can see big heating improvements by installing better insulation on the walls of those crawl spaces, which is where the majority of air leaks are found.
Pre-existing pipes and ductwork: It’s possible that there are pipes and ducts beneath your hardwood floor, blocking the area you need to get to in order to install installation beneath your floor. But, depending on your crawlspace situation, you may not need to install the insulation directly on the floor.
Insulation material: For flooring, fiberglass insulation is almost always the right choice, because it’s noncombustible and permanent. However, there’s something to consider with flooring and crawlspace insulation that you don’t always have to consider when insulating walls in the house—it’s key to have the professional who is doing the job use polyethylene sheeting in order to create a vapor barrier that could potentially damage your floors.
Double Check Your Ducts
Ducts are like pipes for air, providing pathways for all the heat to go from the furnace to every last part of your house, including the floors. If they aren’t flowing properly, they can leave some of the hardwood floors in your house cold, while damaging others by making them too hot. The main culprit when it comes to ducts making your hardwood floors problematic is having unbalanced ones. Do you have a room in your house that is always way too hot, and another room that is always way too cold? Then you probably have unbalanced ducts.
Many ducts run directly beneath floor joists, often for as long as 10 to 12 feet. If the ducts are unbalanced, and that’s leading to a section of ductwork getting far hotter than some other sections, it won’t just leave parts of your hardwood floor disproportionately cold—it’s possible the increased heat will also make the hardwood buckle or crown, creating gaps between the floorboards that are directly above the ducts. This is an especially problematic issue if your floorboards are above a basement, since basements are notoriously moist, and moisture mingling with an increase in hot air is likely to warp the wood faster. I highly recommend having your ducts checked for these problems by a trained professional.
Consider Zoned Heating with a Smart Thermostat
Just because the hardwood floors in your living room are turning your toes into icy blocks, doesn’t mean you should push the thermostat up into the 90s. A smart thermostat with zoned heating functions is a great way for you to heat rooms in your house that have chilly hardwood floors without having to spend money heating the rooms that are already comfortable, or little used.
Zoned heating breaks your home into different areas, each of which is controlled by its own thermostat. It allows homeowners to raise the heat in the room with the chilly hardwoods a couple degrees higher than usual so that you can walk around in your socks without having to worry about losing a toe to frostbite.
Hardwood floors are so nice to have in a home—they’re good looking, stylish, and they give any room a sense of tradition. While, yes, they do tend to get a bit cold to the touch sometimes, especially in winter, there are many HVAC-related ways to warm them up. A trained professional can really help you figure out how new insulation, ductwork maintenance, and a smart thermostat with zoned heating can keep your floors from freezing your feet.