Ductless Heating and Cooling Installation in Older Homes

Ductless heating and cooling systems can definitely be installed in older homes. Mike Cappuccio, owner of N.E.T.R., Inc., discusses how to properly install a ductless system into an older home without affecting the aesthetic.

John Maher: Hi, I’m John Maher, I’m here today with Mike Cappuccio, owner of N.E.T.R. Inc., a heating and cooling company in Massachusetts with a focus on Mitsubishi Ductless Heating and Cooling products. Today, we’re talking about ductless heating and cooling installation in older homes. Welcome, Mike.

Mike Cappuccio: Good morning John, how are you?

John: Good, so Mike is a ductless heating and cooling system a good idea for older homes?

Mike: It’s a great idea for older homes. We get into a lot of homes that are built in the early 1900s up to the — I’m going to say about 1950, but when you look at a lot of these older homes a lot of them had steam heat. No air conditioning existed at that point in time.

John: Those old radiators that you see, yes.

Mike: Yes, and in reality, when you look at an old radiator that’s a one zone room. That’s the zone, that’s where they had the heating unit for that room, so a lot of times what we do is we install the ductless air handler above that radiator in that room. The idea of going into these older homes — and we do it every day — and they’re superb for our product, they really are.

Potential Issues of Ductless Heating and Cooling Installation 

John: Right. What are some of the, maybe, issues that you encounter when you’re installing a ductless system in an older home?

Mike: Well, a lot of these older homes you’ve got to look at how the walls are made, how the ceilings are made because a lot of these older homes all the walls [have] a plaster they’re not just drywall, so when you cut the holes into the walls to make the holes to the outside of the home or if you’re cutting a hole to get into a closet of some sort, you’ve got to be very, very careful when you cut these holes, because you could have cracks in the walls after you’re done and things like that. So, there [is] very tedious work when you do that.

If you’re trying to cut the ceiling or get any type of piping up through the ceiling of a home — a lot of these ceilings and homes were lath and plaster, not so much lath and plaster, but they’re almost like a concrete ceiling. Some of these ceilings on your older homes they can be up to about an inch to an inch and a half thick with a metal lath in between the ceiling. Some of these holes that you’ve got to cut — you’re not cutting through wood, you’re actually cutting through concrete where you need carbide bits and stuff like that and you’ve got to be very, very careful. Make sure [you’re] using the right tools and the right bits so you don’t get big long cracks in the ceiling as well.

Ensuring Installation is Seamless 

John: Okay, so homeowners might be naturally concerned about affecting the visual aesthetics of their home especially in an older house and maybe has some nice architectural details things like that. What can you do to ensure that the installation doesn’t negatively affect the homes look?

Mike: Yes, you’ve got to really go out to the home, take a look at the home. Again this is where the engineering comes in, the engineering and the calculations and things like that to look at the home, but you’ve got to really look at how you’re going to do this job aesthetically to the outside of the home. First thing is, you don’t want to put any piping or line-height or anything like that on the fronts of the homes.

Typically, we’d want to stay in the back of the home or the back corners of the home with refrigerant piping coming down the side of the home. Typically, you try and stay near a gutter if you have a white gutter on the home you want to do that. That entails with the inside of the home, getting in the home, really looking at what needs to be done in there from an aesthetic standpoint.

Can I run piping over maybe the top of a closet, put a unit above the closet, put the piping into the closet, now just put a little two-inch pipe and a covering in a closet down into a basement and put your drains into the basement somewhere and then run your piping across the basement to the outside of the home where you don’t have all these lines running all over the side of the home. Vice versa upstairs, maybe running the piping up into an attic and then getting it out through a soffit or something or down through a wall to the outside of a home.

Older homes — they’re a challenge when you go out to look at them, but we do them every day and sometimes they’re not as hard as you think, but you’ve got to really know how to think about an old home when you’re out there and aesthetics, because aesthetics are a real key when you get in. Even sometimes you’re dealing with architectural boards and stuff like that in certain towns where you can’t have certain things. Historical commissions, Boston Gunn stones, a lot of historic commissions that you have to work with there — Lexington Concord — there’s a lot of historical places where you’ve —

John: — Those things you can’t even do.

Mike:  — These things you can’t do and you’re going to need to show them on paper, “Hey, this is what we’re doing to pull these permits,” because the first thing when they go to pull the permit they see it’s falling within the architectural committee for historical homes and you can’t just start changing historical homes so —

John: Right.

Mike: — You’ve got to get things approved through boards and things like that, so what we tell a lot of do-it-yourselfers “Don’t start playing with your historic home if you don’t know what you’re doing because some won’t be a good thing in the end.”

John: Right and so there’s a lot more to it than just you put one of these units on an outside wall and then just run the lines on the outside of the house down to the ground, like there’s a lot more to it like you said, like figuring out on the inside. Maybe you put the unit on an inside wall and you drop the lines down through a closet or something like that, so there’s a lot more thinking that goes into that.

Mike: Yes, there’s a lot of ingenuity when you’re out in that home to really looking at how you’re going do that home. I can’t tell you how many homes I’ve been to in the past … in my 30 years of my career when I go out and I look at home and just — I look at how people have run piping on the outside of someone’s home and I’m just like, “Why didn’t they do it this way?” and it’s just …

Sometimes, I just don’t think they understand or they just don’t think like that, how to do that, but you’ve got to be very, very careful at how you do those things. There’s different color plastic that you can put on the outside of a home and some of the plastics can be painted, so you want to look at how you could possibly paint it the color of the home and where it’s going to look as inconspicuous to what you’re trying to do so it looks neat.

How to Camouflage a Ductless System 

John: Right, like you said, maybe going down a corner where I already have a gutter drain pipe or something like that, so that if it hides it.

Mike: Try to get to the back of the house or the back corners of the house. Try to follow a drain pipe of some sort. Look, if you have a white gutter and I put another white gutter next to it, it’s not going to look as bad.

John: Right.

Mike: That’s what we really try and do when we get into these older homes.

Zoning an Older Home for Energy Efficiency 

John: Yes, talk a little bit more about older homes and older heating systems and then the difference that it makes when you install a ductless heating and cooling system, in terms of being able to zone out different areas of the house.

Mike: Yes, like in an older home example if you have radiators on the first floor of the home and let’s say you had four radiators on that first floor of the home, those are your four zones, but typically that’s running off of one thermostat somewhere in the middle of the home. We can put four ductless units in there above those radiators and put those on their own zone and heat and cool that room. We could pretty much turn those radiators off probably 90% of the time during the year and zone off those rooms and have different temperatures, so your energy savings and that can be okay.

The other three zones, I’m not living in those three zones right now. What I mean by that is let’s say you had one in your living room, your kitchen and your dining room, well, when you go to bed at night you can have those on a programmable thermostat to set back to 55 degrees at night and you can keep your bedroom at 70 – 72 degrees, picking up the energy savings, so you turn off the spaces where you’re not living for that particular moment and turn on the spaces where you are living in that moment. That’s how you gain the energy savings from our system and in the zoning.

Where with that radiator, you’ve got the thing on 70, 72 degrees and you’re heating and cooling all these spaces during the night and you’re not even in those spaces and you’re paying for that usage that you’re using at that point in time, whether that’s oil or gas or however you’re using that to heat and heat the home.

John: Right.

Mike: Now and vice versa with the window air conditioners you turn off the other ones. You can turn them off the same way, but from an efficiency standpoint window unit versus our system is 50% savings, easy.

John: Do you tell homeowners to try to like close doors and to try to close off the different zones, so that if you do want to have that your dining room that you’re not using or something like that and you want to make it not have to use the heat. Do I close it off; do I close the doors things like that?

Mike: Not really, because most of those are zones where you might set back and a lot of dining rooms don’t have doors or that you can actually close off, so you pretty much set those back in the temperature mode when you have to, but if you design the system properly and have even airflow throughout the home, you really don’t have to get into those situations. The bedroom at night? Yes, you can close the bedroom door that will keep that heat in that particular space to keep that cooling in that particular space. From a bedroom perspective most bedrooms have a door that you can close off.

John: Most people close their door at night anyway.

Mike: Yes, exactly.

John: Yes, yes. When you install a ductless heating and cooling system in an older home that has an existing system, can the homeowner then remove the older heater or AC after they installed the ductless system?

Mike: That’s a good question, John. Yes, it can be done, but you really and truly have to really study that home and look at that home from an insulation standpoint. You have to do the proper heat low calculation on that. A lot of these older homes with the Latin plaster built in the early 1900’s they didn’t even have insulation in them. Insulation didn’t even exist back then.

Most times you’re seeing that people are adding insulation to the home in those Bay’s where they weren’t insulated, putting insulation in the attic. If the home is insulated properly, yes we can remove the heating and cooling system that is there now and use our duck. We’ve done it in homes, it just needs you need to pay special attention to what you’re doing. You just don’t want to remove something without knowing that the system that we’re installing is going to work.

Then a lot of times people do leave the system, they just leave it in there and it’s a backup source. Sometimes they never use it, but they just leave it there. Now, I’ve seen people pull the radiators out.

John: But [it’s] good to have in case you need it?

Mike: Yes and I’ve had people actually vice versa take the radiators out, take the baseboard out, if you need to do some preference at that point.

John: Right. All right, well, that’s really great information. Thanks again for speaking with me today Mike.

Mike: You’re welcome.

John: For more information visit the N.E.T.R. website at www.netrinc.com or call 781-933-NETR, that’s 781-933-6387.

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