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Why Is My Upstairs So Hot? Solutions for Your Second Floor

We look at the problems associated with poorly heated and cooled upper levels of homes, and discuss solutions to the problem.

Why Is My Upstairs So Hot? Solutions for Your Second Floor

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Joshua Rodriguez


December 22nd, 2020

“Do you experience a difference in temperature upstairs compared to your main floor? How bad is it?”

I ask that question a lot. I feel like a doctor sometimes, because I’m helping to diagnose and treat a problem. But rather than it being a problem with the human body, it’s with your home.

It’s almost a given that your upstairs will be noticeably hotter in the summer and noticeably colder in the winter. Most homes deal with some variation of this problem.

But is the problem inevitable? And what causes it? And most importantly, can it be solved?

Respectively, the answers to those questions are no, it varies, and yes, it can be solved. But the solution won’t be the same for every home. That’s where we come in. We’ve been solving this problem for as long as we’ve been in business.

Are you ready to solve it in your home? Good. Keep reading.

Part I. The Problem: Sleep, Utility Costs & Home Comfort

We know what the problem is in a basic sense, but it’s worth recounting the different ways it can negatively affect you and your home.

Temperature and Sleep

Study after study on sleep shows that temperature matters when it comes to being able to sleep. Additionally, temperature affects the quality of your sleep as well. So even if you’re able to fall asleep, you won’t be as well-rested in the morning.

Sleep quality, in turn, affects your health, mood, and productivity. So if you’re sleeping in an uncomfortable room, it can be a LOT worse than just having to deal with some discomfort.

The biggest culprit here is warm weather. It’s easier to sleep in a colder climate with blankets and warm clothing than it is to sleep in an environment that is too hot.

Utility Costs

Let’s say you have the problem above, of an upstairs that is too hot in the summers. It will likely force you to crank up your thermostat in the evenings to compensate for this fact.

This can dramatically increase your utility costs, especially considering how often most homeowners spend in second-story bedrooms.

Comfort in Your Home

As you might imagine, comfort is the other big negative. Many homes have to settle for a main floor that is never quite comfortable because they have to account for upper levels.

Think about how much time you spend in your home. Even if you’re not working from home, it can be over half of your time. That’s thousands of hours every year! It should be worth it to you to ensure that your home environment is comfortable.

Next we’re going to look at what causes this discrepancy between floors, which will then lead us into ways to solve the problem.

Part II. The Culprits: A/C, Ductwork, Insulation & Home Construction

You probably know that warm air rises, so it makes sense that your upstairs floor is warmer throughout most of the year. However, it’s not just the laws of thermodynamics that contribute to your discomfort.

We’re going to look at why many HVAC systems and homes aren’t well-equipped to create a temperature-controlled environment. The number of potential reasons might surprise you.

Your Equipment isn’t Powerful Enough

This one is going to be the most intuitive. Maybe your air conditioner or furnace is old, or maybe it isn’t sized properly (“sizing” refers to the heating and cooling power of an A/C or furnace unit).

If your equipment is only adequate for a 2,000 square foot home, and you have a 3,000 square foot home, you’re going to have large, room-sized pockets of stagnant air that is too hot or too cold.

ALSO READ: Sizing Your Air Conditioner, Heat Pump and Furnace

Your Equipment is Too Powerful

Wait a minute, how is being too powerful a bad thing for an HVAC system? It relates to the concept of airflow and creates a problem called short cycling.

If your thermostat is set to 72 degrees, your A/C or furnace isn’t pumping 72-degree air through your vents. In the summer, it’s pumping colder air into your home, which mixes with the warmer air in the home. In the winter, it’s the reverse.

The air coming from your vents needs time to mix evenly with the air in your home in order to create a 72-degree environment throughout. The problem with equipment that’s too powerful is that it will likely create a 72-degree environment in some areas more quickly, but before the air has had a chance to mix throughout your home.

The result is that it will kick on, hit the desired temperature, and shut off. But very shortly after that, the air will fully mix and it will nudge the temperature up or down. Then the unit will kick on again.

It’s better to have one longer runtime than many short runtimes for your HVAC equipment. The latter creates wear and tear on your equipment and will leave pockets or too-hot or too-cold air in your home.

Keeping your house warm

Lack of Return Air Drops in the Ductwork

Remember how we talked about airflow? It’s important here again.

The air in your home has to cycle through the HVAC system to truly be steady. Proper heating and air conditioning isn’t just about adding air, but recycling air that’s already in your house.

The items that do this are return air drops. They’re part of your ductwork and allow stagnant air to cycle through your air filter to be treated by an A/C, heat pump, or furnace.

How does this problem occur in houses?

  1. Many older homes don’t have return drops on the second floor.
  2. Even some modern homes don’t have sufficient return air drops.
  3. And in some homes, the drops vents are closed or blocked by furniture or other items.

Blocked vents are an easier fix, but if your home doesn’t have enough of them, it’s going to be time for some longer discussions with an HVAC professional.

Buy Your Filter

Insulation and Attic Construction

We’re HVAC experts, but it would be wrong of us to assume that the problem is only about heating and cooling. Often, it is. But sometimes, other factors are involved.

How old is the insulation in your home? Does your attic have an exhaust fan that circulates air on warm days? These things matter.

For example, attics can get up to 150 degrees on hot summer days! Now imagine that attic pressed against the top of your home. You’re essentially keeping an oven warmed which is the width and length of a house and pressing it against an area that you’re trying to keep cool.

That might be an extreme example, but it’s also not imaginary. I’ve been in houses with this problem, and when you place your hand along the walls nearest to the ceiling on the second floor, it’s 10-15 warmer than the rest of the room.

The moral of the story is that HVAC solutions are able to help a lot, but they might not always be the only problem.

Proximity to the Garage

This is a similar concept to the attic example above. Where is the most frequent location of a master bedroom in a two-story house? Above the garage.

Garages, by default, aren’t temperature-controlled. This means that a lot of master bedrooms have three separate problems:

  1. Warm air is rising to the second floor from the main level.
  2. An extra uncontrolled air pocket is pressing against the room from the garage.
  3. The roof and/or attic is providing another point for air to escape through.

Construction matters. It matters for ductwork, but it also matters for how various rooms will be subjected to temperature extremes.

Part III. HVAC Solutions For Hot Upstairs Rooms

The good news is that each of the problems and culprits above have solutions.

The more accurate news is that it’s sometimes difficult to determine which is the main culprit in your home. Let’s look at each.

Check Your Dampeners

Let’s get the easy stuff out of the way first. Your ductwork may have dampers that can allow or restrict airflow throughout the home. They can be easily toggled by a homeowner.

Having someone at an air vent to check to make sure air is circulating to it, and having someone else toggle it in either direction is the easiest way to confirm that they’re open.  If you have any trouble identifying the dampers, contact your local HVAC partner.

I’m not lying when I say that I’ve been in houses where this was the only major problem, and once they were flipped to allow airflow to the upstairs vents, the heating & cooling problems went away.

This is probably the best-case scenario, since it doesn’t involve any of the options below, each of which come with some level of cost.

Ductwork Modification

If your second floor lacks return air drops, that’s when this will become an option.

Ductwork modification can be invasive and sometimes involves removing drywall and ceiling/floor panels in order to run a new ductwork line to the appropriate room.

However, depending on how extensive the work is, it can still be less expensive than a brand new air conditioner or furnace.

RELATED: HVAC Ductwork: Best Practices for Cleaning, Modifying and Care

As we’ll discuss in a moment, this isn’t the only solution to a lack of air returns. But it’s one that may be worth looking into.

A much smaller percentage of the time, there are other issues with the ductwork that can contribute to overall airflow, such as widening the main air return line that flows back into your furnace. These issues can also be inspected and recommended by an HVAC professional.

Get a Variable-Speed HVAC System

Variable-speed HVAC systems do a lot of great things. But for our purposes in this article, the thing they do well is operate at lower power levels when it’s needed.

Why is this a good thing? Because as we discussed earlier, a lower power level with a longer runtime will facilitate air mixing better. As a result, it will keep a steadier, more comfortable temperature on ALL levels of your house.

By comparison, a single-stage unit that can only be 100% on or 0% won’t have the same ability to consistently heat and cool your home, and you may run into short cycling issues.

Ductless Mini-Split Solutions

So you have a room that you want to use, but it’s massively uncomfortable. In the case of something like a finished attic, patio, or garage, it also won’t have ductwork run to it.

This is when it’s time to consider a ductless mini-split. Mini-splits are hyper-efficient solutions for individual rooms or areas. They run whisper-quiet, don’t require ductwork, and are less invasive than running new ductwork into a room.

ALSO READ: Ductless Mini-Splits 101: What They Do & How You Benefit

Is there a downside? In terms of comfort and efficiency, no. In fact, they’re often the best comfort solution for these issues. The flip side of that is pricing. The cost of a ductless unit can meet or approach that of a full air conditioner or furnace. But if it’s a room you use consistently, it can be worth the investment.

Zoning a Home

Zoning a home involves either separate HVAC systems that heat and cool different parts of the home, or it involves partitioning your ducts so that some areas of the home can easily be heated or cooled while others aren’t. This is all controlled from your thermostat, and can often be programmed by day and time.

If your home wasn’t zoned to begin with, converting it into a zoned home can be costly. If you’re only using one or two rooms at a time, though, and it’s usually on a set pattern (e.g. bedroom at night, living room and kitchen during the day, etc.), you can save thousands on utility costs long-term.

Remote Thermostat Sensors

Ideally, your thermostat is centralized in an area that is representative of the main level of your house. However, it will never be able to measure multiple locations on its own. Multiple thermostat sensors can be installed to help with whole-home heating and cooling.

This one can be a little bit tricky, because you want to make sure you have a thermostat that is able to take multiple readings from throughout your house and average them. Some thermostats will be able to read more than one but will base your system’s operation on only one sensor. This is the same problem as without separate sensors.

RELATED: HVAC Thermostats 101: Installation, Features & Controls

Hybrid solutions also exist, of sensors that can detect movement. So for example, as you go upstairs in the evening, the sensors will detect this and will begin to heat or cool with the upstairs in mind instead of the main level.

Communicating equipment like this can be very handy, but proper setup is key.

Budget Options: Fans, Space Heaters and Window Units

Fans help. So do window air conditioners. So do space heaters. The question isn’t whether or not they do anything, but whether or not they do enough, and if it’s worth the cost.

A ductless mini-split will cost more than a window unit or space heater, for example. But it will also run much quieter, will use far less energy (i.e. lower utility bills) and will cool the entire space more evenly.

If you’re truly on a budget, these solutions are better than nothing. But if you’re looking for year-round comfort that will run reliably and efficiently for years and years, professional solutions will always be better than portable DIY options.

Part IV: Picking the Right Solution

That’s a lot of options, isn’t it? You have up to about half a dozen viable options to consider depending on what your home’s problem is.

At the end of the day, though, it’s a problem that’s worth fixing, because it can be fixed on a budget that will work for you.

Don’t say “I’ll just deal with it.” I’ve done that with problems in my life, and I’m guessing most of us have. It never makes things any better. You owe it to yourself and your family to at least have a conversation about what options are available to you.

That’s why we offer free estimates, and never use pressure tactics to try to get a sale. Much like these articles, we educate you on your options, then let you decide what will be the right fit.

If that sounds like a great way to turn this information into action, click the button below to get started. I promise you won’t regret it!

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