Brownstone Boys: Heating and Cooling Options to Consider When Renovating

The main parlor floor easily heats up and cools off with the heat and air produced from the single mini split unit

Editor’s note: Welcome to the 61st installment of Brownstone Boys Reno, a reader renovation diary about renovating a brownstone in Bed Stuy. See the first one here. They also blog at www.thebrownstoneboys.com.

We grew up in Las Vegas and New Orleans (Happy Mardi Gras!). Although we’ve both been in Brooklyn for decades now, we were raised with very different types of heating and cooling systems from what is typical here — ones that usually focus more on cooling a space rather than heating it. Here in New York it’s often the opposite but they are both important. Traditionally these old buildings focused on heating, and they relied on the masonry walls, tree-lined streets, and tall windows to cool it. But today you’d be pressed to find someone renovating one and not putting in an AC system. The question that has come up for us: Does putting in a cooling system change the thought process on how to heat your home?

radiator bathroom

While it wasn’t necessary to add a unit to our guest bathroom, we did add new heat and a baby radiator to the room. Probably the cutest thing in the whole renovation!

If your place hasn’t been renovated in a while you likely have steam or water radiators or forced air to heat your home. All three are tried, tested and effective for heat even in very low temps. New-construction or older buildings that have been gut renovated may have a central HVAC system delivering both heating and cooling through ducts. In our case we had a boiler delivering hydronic heat through baseboard radiators. We didn’t like the look of them and wanted more traditional exposed radiators. So we changed all of the radiators and piping that delivered hot water to them. But that didn’t help us cool the place! For that we installed a mini split system throughout the house. We didn’t want to run the ducts necessary for central AC or a Unico system.

We went with an LG mini split system that also has a heat pump for heating. We have the radiator system running to heat the place regularly, but occasionally if we want to speed up the process or just make it even cozier we’ll turn on the mini split in heat mode. In not a very long time at all it is so warm that we forget it’s even winter outside.

bedroom

Our split units were positioned in the early stages of planning our renovation. We wanted them to be as discreet as possible

It raises the question: Could we just heat our home with the mini split units? Many people have asked and the consensus has been that you could use a mini split system to supplement but not necessarily as a primary heat source with the low temperatures we can get in the northeast. Our mini split system specs say that it has 100 percent heating capacity to 5 degrees and “continuous heating operation down to 13 degrees” below zero. That leads us to believe that our mini split system will not effectively heat when it is 13 below or colder. Nevertheless, some people are doing it. And we have heard no complaints from those who we know who have only a mini split system to heat their home. Apparently the technology is getting better for heating so that in the near future, if not now, heating with a mini split system will be a safe choice.

How much does a mini split system cost to install? It can vary depending on what brand you go with and some installation details but a four to five unit system might run you $4,000 to $7,000 and installation could run $12,000 to $18,000. Keep in mind costs for additional electrical work and drywall/plaster repair where the lines are run.

AC condenser

We went with one LG Condenser, which is all we need with four units in the house

We’ve also seen a lot of places with a ducted forced air heating system. You may have seen the old grates on walls and floors that carry the warm air to each room. For AC, rather than install a mini split system you can just add an AC coil to use the existing ducts for cool air. That option is likely a lot cheaper than installing mini split units which will need electricity and drainage run to them with a lot of drywall and plaster repair once they are installed. To add an AC coil to a forced air heating system can run $10,000 to $12,000.

The last option that we have seen recently is installing hydronic radiant floor heat with a mini split system for AC. It seems like a combination that will deliver a comfortable feel but not necessarily be a budget saver to install.

closet

Another unit hides next to our closet in the master bedroom. We put the heat on for a couple minutes and the room is fully heated

Anyone have any experience with heating exclusively with a mini split system? Or do you have any other ideas on the best way to configure an HVAC system?

[Photos by Brownstone Boys unless noted otherwise]

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