Hot & Cold: HVAC and the radiators

When we purchased the house, there was no central air conditioning. The prior owners used AC window unit (very large and heavy ones). Before that, the house was cooled with good old-fashioned breeze and transoms. We knew we would be putting in central air, so we factored in the cost when we were deciding whether to purchase the house. We had no idea what air conditioning costs, so we sort of ballpark budgeted for $18k.

One of the first consultations we had was for central air. We met an HVAC guy at the house a couple days after we closed to talk options and pricing. This was late October, which turns out to be a great time to install AC because the weather cools down and so does demand for the work. Our original estimate was based on a single AC/furnace unit in the attic with duct work running down to the main floor. The plan was to run the ducts through closets so that they didn’t require big, ugly bulkheads. After the off-season discount, the quote came back just over $14k. We were pretty pumped that the estimate was lower than we expected, but we weren’t quite ready to pull the trigger.

In the following weeks, we met with a couple general contractors to discuss the other work we wanted done. The GCs basically freaked out when they learned we were considering hiring the HVAC work a la carte. This is when we learned the first rule of major renovation: bundle everything in one contract. Turns out, we were able to negotiate a much better price for the work through the GC when we bundled everything into one big job. Plus, the general contractor was able to provide us with all the bulkhead framing and wall repair, whereas the HVAC guy would just install the thing and leave us with the holes and exposed ducts. So that was that. We ended up negotiating the HVAC work into the larger renovation contract and our GC secured a subcontractor to do the installation.

We deviated pretty substantially from our initial plan of one unit in the attic. For a variety of annoying permit reasons, we changed our original scope of work from adding a master bath and powder room to finishing the basement. We were originally planning on leaving the basement unfinished and maybe getting to that later, but the DC permit office denied our application to add the extra bathrooms (without a boatload of other plumbing work), so we switched gears and decided to finish the basement in phase 1. In hindsight, I am so happy we decided to do this. I mean, I would love to get those extra bathrooms someday, but we are fine for now and I am thrilled with all the additional space the basement is giving us. The biggest drawback to finishing the basement is that we had to address the boiler problem.

Our house, until recently, was heated with radiators. Before now, I had never lived with functional radiant heat. I had a teensy apartment in law school with an insane radiator with no temperature control. It would heat the whole place like a crockpot and it banged continually when it was on. Not great. But, wow did I ever fall in love with the radiators in our new house. The heat is so cozy! They were quiet and big and I could toast my hands and toes on them when I came in from the cold. I am a radiator convert. The problem with the radiators in our house is that the boiler pipes in the basement were a mess. They were super low and obstructed the space and there was no way we could finish the basement without completely reworking the radiator pipes. Our contractor gave us a quote for moving the pipes–only about $7k. What?! No.

After a lot of consideration, we decided to take the radiators out. We are really bummed about losing the radiant heat, but it just didn’t make sense for us to spend so much money moving the pipes when the boiler is over 30 years old–still working, but it hit its life expectancy. Plus, it is not like we had beautiful, ornate radiators. They were plain, kind of ugly, and covered in layers of peeling paint. Not to mention, when we settled on the HVAC plan, we decided to add heating units as well because it was going to cost us less than $1k for the additional units. We already had a heat source ready to go. So the radiators are gone. Well, not gone. The pipes are gone, but the radiators are all still sitting in our house, useless and sad. At some point, the guys will remove them (those suckers are heavy!). Until then, they watch me and make me feel guilty.

Back to the HVAC! In the end, we decided to install two units and create duel zones. We have a heat pump in the attic to heat and cool the second floor. We installed an AC and furnace unit in a back crawl space in the basement with floor registers in the main floor and ceiling registers and ductwork in the basement. We have two zones that we can control separately, which is great because the house feels so big to us, and it is a lot more efficient to heat and cool the parts of the house we are using. This plan also lets us avoid running ugly ductwork through the ceilings and closets in the main floors of the house.

The HVAC work was mostly completed a few days ago, and so far so good. I had never heard of a heat pump, but apparently, it is a good option in these old row houses because it runs on electricity rather than gas. That has something to do with the pipes or venting or something technical, but bottom line, it is happy in the attic.

As for thermostats, we sprung for a nest unit for the main floor. The second floor still has the cheap thermostat from the HVAC guy. I would like to eventually upgrade that one to the Nest too, but everything costs so much money and it hurts my little frugal heart. I did save a little money on the Nest because I ordered the second generation, rather than the newer third generation. As far as I can tell from the reviews, there is no functional difference between the two models, and the second gen is $50 cheaper. I am really happy with the purchase. The Nest feels like “the future.” I am not that into gadgets, but this little thing makes me want to have a smart home.

We still have a ton of holes in the upstairs walls where the guys had to access the attic to run pipes. We also have a giant hole in the main level floor near the stairs. We are going to hide the basement unit return in the bottom of the stairs when they get reconfigured. It was a pretty good solution to avoid a huge return box elsewhere in the main floor. But that has not happened yet.

As for price, we ended up negotiating both units, installation, ductwork/wall repair, and boiler/radiator removal for about $15,500. Not bad considering the first estimate only included installation of one AC unit. And we stayed under our initial ballpark budget, which is great because we spent all the extra savings on other stuff.

As for the function, it’ll do. We have not used the AC yet, but it is warming up in DC so we will be kicking that on soon. The heat is aight. It does not compare to the radiant heat, but it keeps us warm. Phase 2 will include new windows, which will also help with the temperature control in the house. But we will save that for later. Onward!

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