Tips for Making Your Basement Warmer

Humans have long been burrowing underground as protection against intruders and elements, and in the modern home, a cozy basement has an archetypal appeal to this very human instinct. But the major drawback to basement living is that this space can be cold and drafty, and not very appealing to anyone seeking a burrow on a cold winter's night. A basement that can be refreshingly cool on a hot summer day can chill you to the bone when the weather is cold. In many homes, a basement that is otherwise nicely finished remains largely unused unless it can be made warm and cozy enough to use.

But with living space in the modern home at a premium, the answer to expanding the practical living space in a home requires that you make use of every available space–including the basement. Considerable effort and money go into making basements warmer and less drafty, yet all too often these solutions don't entirely fix the problem.

The Standard Solutions

The solutions most commonly recommended for warming up a basement are to insulate the below-grade walls, installing a raised basement subfloor to insulate the concrete floor slab, or to add heating, either through installing radiant heat floors or making revisions to the main HVAC system to add ductwork.

To be useable, most basements will need to have some source of active heating. Radiant-heat floors are great, but they are also quite expensive to install. For electric radiant heat floors, you can expect to pay upwards of $12 per square foot to have it installed, and you shouldn't be surprised to see your annual electrical bill jump by several hundred dollars. For hydroponic systems that operate by circulating tubes of warmed water beneath the floor, annual operation costs are less expensive than an electrical radiant system, but installation can easily cost you $15,000 to $20,000. In most cases, the better solution to the heating issue will be to make modifications to your home's existing HVAC ductwork system to extend it to the basement areas. This isn't a cheap proposition, but it is considerably more affordable than most of the alternatives–provided your home's furnace has sufficient capacity to handle the extra heating load.

The second common approach to the cold basement issue is to insulate the walls and floors. On walls, this is normally done by furring out the concrete block walls with studs, filling the stud cavities with insulation, and then finishing off the walls. Floors are often treated in a similar fashion, adding a new subfloor above sleeper strips, onto which the finish flooring is laid.

Although these steps may be necessary to convert a basement to comfortable living space, many homeowners expect this insulation to do the trick, and are disappointed to find that it doesn't do the job as well as they hoped. Although insulating walls has a striking impact on reducing heat loss in upstairs walls, it doesn't seem to have the same impact on below-grade walls.

This is because the earth itself already does a good job of regulating basement temperatures. There is a reason why settlers on the prairie plains in the 1800s dug their homes down into the earth–because it offered good insulating value against the cold winds of the prairie.

In the modern residential basement, the primary source of cold is not heat loss through the below-grade walls and floor. Instead, the place to address your attention is up high–at the short section of the foundation walls that are exposed above the earth and overhead to the rooms and framed walls that are above-grade.

If you already have finished basement walls and ceilings, ripping them out to insulate them does not make sense from a cost/benefit point-of-view. Your energy cost savings will never overtake the cost to make these improvements. Have, there are some strategies you can take that will greatly help reduce draftiness and heat loss in your basement.

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