Why Are Old Houses Cold? (+17 Ways to Warm an Old House)

Old houses do not benefit from more efficient heating technologies that newer residences enjoy.

Older homes typically also suffer from physical deterioration, leading to a structure with subpar thermal performance over time.

When the cold of winter arrives, the indoor temperature drops, and you need to find ways to warm it without spiking your energy bills.

How do you make an old house warmer?

What is the best way to heat an existing house that is poorly insulated?

keeping an old house warm

Why Are Old Houses So Cold?

Poor insulation is the usual and general culprit, but many factors can lead to old dwellings struggling to keep their occupants comfortable indoors during winter.

The causes of a cold indoor temperature for old houses can be a combination of the following:

  • Gaps in walls and door and window frames – doors and windows are passageways for you, air, and sunlight. Repeated opening and closing over many years weakens hinges and detaches the frames from the wall in places.
  • Old windows – single-pane windows were typical before energy efficiency technologies came to the scene. These windows are defenseless against heat loss and thermal gain.
  • Poor or lack of insulation – wall and ceiling insulations can start to degrade 20 years after installation. Old houses may have insulation when constructed, but it is probably way past the designed lifespan. Degradation can also lead to sagging insulation and uneven and uninsulated spots in the wall.
  • Underperforming HVAC system – heating and cooling systems require periodic servicing to maintain their performance. Older systems may become harder and more expensive to service as the market moves towards newer and more efficient technologies.
  • Loss of heat through the attic, ceiling, and roof – the heat from the heater and your body travels upward, and if the top section of your house does a poor job containing it, you lose the heat.
  • Unsealed fireplaces – unused and opened fireplaces are a highway for cold air to enter your home. As your house loses heat upwards, cold air gets sucked in via the chimney.
  • Leaky basement and crawlspaces – spaces at or near the bottom naturally suffer more from the weight the house needs to carry. Over time, gaps between adjoining walls and between window frames and walls can form, creating a permanent entryway for cold air.

How Do Old Houses Get So Cold?

An enclosed living space gets heat from:

  • Heating systems – portable of central heating.
  • The human body – the clothes you wear determine how well you retain the heat your body generates.
  • Building parts – the floor, walls, and ceiling absorb heat when the ambient temperature is high and release it when the temperature drops.

Your house relies on its envelop to prevent heat from escaping when the outdoor air temperature falls in winter.

A compromised building envelope is like a leaking boat; the indoors can get as cold as the outdoor, depending on the building’s physical conditions and the rate of heat loss.

When the heater heats the inside of your house, warm air rises.

It means the warm air travels upwards and towards the ceiling or attic.

Heat leaks above the house create a lower pressure zone near the floor.

The difference in atmospheric pressure between the house’s interior and exterior creates a vacuum effect; cold air from the outside forces into the house via gaps in the walls, windows, and under the door.

Due to general wear and tear, old houses are more susceptible to the drafty home condition.

Why Are Old Houses Not Insulated?

Houses in the States built pre-WW2 did not contain insulation as insulation did not develop until after the period.

Changes to the building codes in the 1960s required new homes to have insulation in the wall – within drywall or brick walls with a cavity.

Developments soon saw insulation extended to the ceiling, and the market trend now aims for new builds to achieve an air seal for thermal efficiency.

How to Make an Old House Warmer in Winter?

Retail energy prices generally rise year on year.

You can expect to spend more on heating this winter than the preceding years if you remain on traditional energy sources such as propane or natural gas.

You may consider grid-tied or off-grid heating energy, but regardless of the source, you should aim to air-seal your old house.

You need to ensure the money you spend generating heat does not go to waste because your house’s aged structure performs poorly holding it inside.

How do you heat an old drafty house efficiently?

What is the best way to heat an old house?

The appropriate solutions you should apply depend on your old house design and if it has the ancillary spaces covered below.

First Things First

You need to self-audit the house to locate where and how severe the leaks are.

Inspect thoroughly; begin with:

  • The door frame, jam, and saddle threshold (if any) – most front and external doors are swing doors. Check if you can feel air coming through with your bare skin. Alternatively, hold a thin, light thread over vertical parts or put soapy bubbles along horizontal detection strips. If you have external sliding doors, check the weatherstripping for sags and detachment from the frame. Sliding door panels can be misaligned, creating gaps between them.
  • The window frame and pane – fasteners or anchors holding the window frame to the wall can loosen with use. Similarly, the weatherstrips can degrade over time. To determine if your window is single- or double-pane, see where the pane meets the frame. A single, clear pane is poor at preventing heat loss.
  • The inside face of external walls – is it icy cold to the touch?
  • The ceiling and attic (if any) – old houses typically have attics and ceilings that lack or have no insulation. These are your most significant source of heat loss.
  • The basement or crawlspaces – these spaces are less used, and potential air leaks often go undetected.
  • The fireplace (if any) – straightforward check for unsealed openings, including the chimney.

Inexpensive Solutions

Some fixes are cheaper and quicker to implement, and you can do it yourself to save money.

Others may need trial and error to see if the solution fits because you experience the result first-hand and can adjust and tweak as necessary.

1. Plug the Air Leaks

Caulk the edges between the door and window frames and the wall on the internal and external sides.

Plug the gaps on both sides to minimize cold air finding its way in through holes and cracks you could not see.

Apply or replace weatherstrips to the windows and sliding doors for best results.

Your options for weatherstripping drafty doors and windows include:

  • Foam tape – can be rubber, vinyl, or PVC. Apply the tape on the door jamb where the door leaf meets it.
  • V strip – can be vinyl, stainless steel, or aluminum. Apply on the frames at the right angle.
  • Door sweep or draft stopper – plastic and vinyl types are inexpensive and suitable to stop draft under the external doors. Many choices of draft stoppers are available – single or double-sided, bought or DIY.

Duct tapes are a poor alternative that does not stand up to the elements for long.

The fireplace is another place where heat escapes; plug the chimney with a chimney balloon or DIY cover when not in use.

2. Uncover Sunlight-Facing Windows

You want to maximize sunshine in the house where possible.

The windows that enjoy direct sun exposure can be on the north, south, east, or west part of your home, depending on the house’s facing.

Observe between 9-11 am or 1-3 pm to ascertain the ideal windows and keep the curtains and blinds open during the optimal sunlight hours.

Keep those windows clear of obstructions such as shrubbery and awnings.

Draw the curtains and blinds at sunset to prevent heat loss through the same windows.

3. Shield Windows Where the Sun Doesn’t Shine

Windows are a significant area where heat escapes, so you may need to sacrifice some aesthetics to keep the old house warm.

Cover the windows you do not use and those that do not get direct sunlight.

Your options include:

  • Thermal blinds – they effectively insulate and lock in heat. They are available as roller blinds, vertical blinds, and Venetian blinds.
  • Thick curtains – may be less effective than special-purpose thermal blinds, but they still help the interior retain heat. Blackout curtains typically perform better.
  • Plastic wrap with air pockets – the air pockets slow heat transfer, and their translucent nature allows natural lighting into the room.
  • Blankets – do not cost you extra. They may create a dark room, but they are a workable option for rooms you do not use.

Heavy drapery is less expensive if upgrading the windows to double-glazed is not viable.

4. Insulate the Ceiling and Attic Access

Warm air moves upwards, and uninsulated ceilings and attics can significantly increase your energy bills.

Foam insulation is effective, but proper installation can be costly when calling in the contractor.

The reflective foil material is a cost-effective alternative and easy to lay. The foil sheets keep heat in by reflecting it downwards.

Staple the foil sheets onto the ceiling board, attic hatch, or exposed roof rafters.

The attic access can use foam tape around the frame for weatherstripping.

5. Cover Bare Floors

A floor can be insulated or uninsulated, and different flooring materials have varying R-values.

The R-value measures how well a material restricts heat flow – the higher the number for the floor, the more comfortable you will feel in winter.

The comparative R-value of flooring materials:

  • Carpet (between 0.7 to 2.0) – wool carpet has an excellent R-value at around 2.0, but carpet floors are a nightmare to clean.
  • Wood (between 0.6 to 0.9) – hardwood floors typically have higher R-values than engineered or laminate floors, although floor thickness is a major factor.
  • Marble and ceramic tile floors (between 0.2 to 0.4) – marble floors have higher R-values because they are typically thicker than ceramic tiles.
  • Concrete – comparable to ceramic floors, but the R-value can range significantly, depending on slab thickness.

Old houses with basements or crawlspaces can become cold due to cold air entering through cracks in the basement windows and foundation.

If the floor feels cold to the feet, cover it with rugs or carpets to minimize the cold radiating from the floor.

If the ground floor sits above a drafty basement, indoor heat can dissipate through the floor.

6. Designate a Room for the Day

All solutions cost money – even the duct tape.

Minimize the amount of money and time spent warming a cold old house by assigning a common room for the family to spend most of their daytime.

The move makes sense because daytime activities consume a considerable portion of your family’s waking hours before everyone retreats to their bedrooms at night.

If you want to maximize thermal comfort for one room, apply tip #16 (see below).

Focus your resources in one room by compartmentalizing it, leaving the rest untouched and less used during the day.

7. Add a Humidifier

Winter air and heated air from a furnace is dry, and dry air does not hold heat well and makes the air feel colder.

A humidifier adds water vapor to the air, increasing its ability to retain heat and reducing the stresses on your furnace or heater.

Setting the humidifier between 30% to 50% relative humidity for the living areas is ideal.

Humidifiers are available as whole-house or portable types.

The upfront cost of a portable humidifier is less than the money you save on heating bills. It is inexpensive, and you can store it when the cold season passes.

8. Watch the Ceiling Fan Direction

A ceiling fan can be beneficial beyond cooling down the room during summer.

Most old houses have high ceilings, and the vertical space means you may have more warm air concentrating near the ceiling.

Take advantage of the warm and cold air dynamics by switching your ceiling fan direction to address the winter cold.

Its effect may not rival that of a heater, but every little benefit helps.

9. Direct Heater Radiator Strategically

Where is your heater radiator facing?

Face the radiator towards the main workspace with minimal obstructions along the way.

Clear the space around the radiator or vent to avoid wasting heat on warming furniture and objects but you.

The warm air cools as it travels across the room, so reduce the distance between the radiator and you for maximum warmth.

Avoid suboptimal heater facing and placing due to convenience.

10. Get a Programmable Thermostat

An old house’s heating system may be dated and operate sub-optimally.

When you run it at maximum output at all times, hoping to stay warm, the system consumes more energy than necessary.

A programmable thermostat has many benefits:

  • One set of temperature for the day and another for the night.
  • Zoned temperature control.
  • Consistent performance.
  • Less stress on the heating system.
  • Lower energy bills.

Further, avoid rapid cycling, where the heater switches on and off when the system detects an air temperature change of less than 1 degree; set the cycle rate adjustment between 1 and 1.5 degrees.

11. Clean Vents and Filters for Heating Efficiency

Your heating and cooling system requires periodic maintenance for optimal performance and longevity.

Depending on their warranty and complexities, some systems require professional maintenance, but others are simple tasks you can carry out yourself.

Clean furnace filters and vent covers as often as needed to maintain a consistent and uninterrupted airflow from the system.

Dirty and partially blocked vent covers reduce heating efficiency and increase energy consumption.

12. Don’t Drain the Bathtub

Hot water is a heat source before the surrounding air cools it.

The next time you are done bathing in your bathtub, do not drain it.

Keep the bathroom open; let the heat fill the room, and enjoy some warm mists while they last.

The frigid winter air is dry, and the added moisture from the hot steam is only temporary.

13. Use a Heated Foot Warmer

Your feet do not only offer stability when standing; they play a vital role in stabilizing body temperature, especially in a cold environment.

The feet are similar to the palms, with many blood vessels over a large surface area.

These vessels can open up for increased blood flow to warm your feet, but heat can equally flow out of them, lowering your body temperature.

A heated foot warmer is a straightforward heating device for the crucial body part that matters when trying to stay warm.

It acts as a cozy sleeping bag for your feet as you work at your desk or lounge on the couch.

Alternatively, you can invest in some thermal socks.

14. Electrify Your Bed

A warm bed makes a world of difference in getting restorative sleep in the winter months.

Opt for one or both options below to stay warm while sleeping:

  • Heated mattress pad – a mattress topper that adds warmth to most mattresses, except on an adjustable bed frame. It goes between the top of the mattress and the fitted sheet. Settings are available to meet most needs.
  • Electric blanket – an over-blanket, but provides less consistent heat than a heated pad.

Follow the manufacturer’s safety precautions as they contain electrical wires.

Installations That Cost More

It may not make financial sense to gut and upgrade large parts of an old house, so adopt the localized and focused approach when warming your home.

15. Electric Heat Pump

A heat pump is an energy-efficient alternative to traditional gas furnaces.

It heats and cools, giving you a complete system for all seasons.

The initial outlay may be costly, but the pros outweigh the cons:

  • Higher efficiency and cheaper to run than gas furnaces and boilers.
  • Less maintenance and longer lifespan.
  • Safer.
  • Minimal noise.

An electric heat pump system can cost over $10,000 – avoid buying one at the beginning of winter when prices are highest due to demand.

16. Radiant Floor Heating

Radiant floor heating consists of a network of pipes or wires buried underneath the floor.

There are two types to choose from:

  • Electric wires – cheaper and quicker to install than the water-based system and requires no maintenance.
  • Water pipes – delivers more heat at a lower operating cost than the electric counterpart, but the system is more expensive to install and requires maintenance.

It provides a similar feel to a warm stovetop, but heat is consistent across the room.

Installation involves removing or replacing the floor, so for an old house with existing floors, the costs of a whole-house installation will be prohibitive.

Choose one main space where the family spends the most time for this installation – the living room would be ideal.

17. Wall & Ceiling Insulation

Structures and building materials age and deteriorate.

Insulation materials have a lifespan of 20 to 30 years, and old houses beyond 50 years old likely have no insulation, to begin with.

Consider installing insulation to the walls, ceilings, and attic space as they help reduce your energy bills in the long run and provide you comfort in many winters to come.

Types of insulation materials include:

  • Fiberglass – the most common type, but fiberglass is a skin and lung irritant and requires protective clothing when handling. The low, medium, and high-density types have R-values between 2.9 to 4.3.
  • Mineral wool – also known as rock wool. It is similar to fiberglass but more expensive and does not carry the same health risks.
  • Spray foam – seals gaps and leaks inside existing walls by spraying into the cavity where it expands and hardens. It can be open-cell (R-value 3.5) or closed-cell (R-value 7.0).
  • Foam board – polyurethane (R-value 3.5 to 6.0), polystyrene (R-value 3.5 to 5.0), or polyisocyanurate (R-value 7.0 to 8.0). Suitable for insulating floors, roofs, and unfinished walls (foundation and basement).
  • Cellulose – organic, loose-fill material that is an environmentally-friendly choice; typically treated with chemicals to ensure resistance against moisture and pests.

R-value measures per inch of thickness; higher R-value = better insulation.

What About Heating a Large Old House?

A large house can render some solutions impractical and expensive.

Strategize and create your comfort zones, but some compromises may be necessary:

  • Seal gaps in the walls and drafty doors and windows.
  • Insulate the ceiling and attic as they are the biggest source of heat loss.
  • Rather than air-sealing the entire house, consider air-sealing only the room(s) you need to use.
  • Consider installing radiant floor heating for the room(s) you air-seal.
  • Install a heat pump to benefit the whole house and save on heating costs in the long run.
  • Allow sunlight through the windows to heat the rooms, and use heavy drapes on windows that don’t get the sun and in the rooms you don’t use regularly.
  • Clean and maintain your heating system to ensure efficiency.

How to Get Heat Upstairs in an Old House?

Old houses may not have a complete heating system that heats an entire home, so the upper floor and some rooms can suffer from extreme cold during winter.

Plug the air leaks around the house before trying to direct heat upstairs.

Choose from the options below that suit your house’s layout.

Option 1

Warm air naturally travels upward, so if you want to heat the upper floor of the house, ensure that the heat does not escape through the ceiling and the roof:

  • Insulate the ceiling at the highest floor – insulating your house’s entire ceiling areas is ideal, but if to save costs, you can skip the unused rooms, closed and compartmentalized from the rest, so heat does not enter them.
  • Weatherstrip the attic hatch – doors and windows can get drafty and leak; the attic access is the opening near the roof where heat can escape.
  • Insulate the attic – if you want the attic space to enjoy the heat.

This option works if the heat source is near the staircase.

Option 2

If the room with heating on the ground floor is far from the staircase, you need an installation that directs the heat upstairs:

  • Install ductwork – design the network to run and at heights where it does not obstruct circulation space.
  • Install an intake (and exhaust) fan – the intake fan draws in warm air. An exhaust fan at the end of the ductwork is beneficial for optimal warm air transfer.
  • Insulate the ductwork – insulation for the entire ducting run is necessary. Warm air loses heat the longer it has to travel.

You will still need to insulate the ceiling in the heated space to prevent heat loss.

For either option, you can opt for a portable heater to supplement heat.

The Need for an Energy Audit

There are many options for warming an old house, but it can be challenging to ascertain the problem areas and an effective fix for the average person.

Your house may have specific issues that need addressing, and a trial-and-error approach can be costly without the proper knowledge.

You can start by trying the least expensive suggestions.

The concept is the same for all houses – new or old – plug the leaks and air-seal the house’s outer structure for heating efficiency.

Alternatively, invest in a professional energy audit for a comprehensive study of the house’s conditions and an effective solution to heating and cooling your home in the long run.