how to get heat upstairs

How to get Heat Upstairs: A Detailed Guide

How to get heat upstairs in an old house? This is often an issue when you rely on a wood stove. While one floor is perfectly heated, the upstairs floor remains ice-cold.

Here’s the short version: To get heat upstairs, you have to improve ventilation and insulation in your home. If you feel like your home still doesn’t feel warm upstairs, you should add other heat sources. For example, you can use space heaters. They will make a significant difference. However, that’s just half of the story. Keep reading to learn more.

I want this to be an in-depth guide that covers as many possible aspects of getting heat upstairs as possible. So, many points will be detailed. I hope, it will help you and be a full resource for you!

Why there’s no heat upstairs

I’m totally with you. Currently, your upstairs floor doesn’t heat at all. There’s no real heat source. Instead, you use a heat source that’s located on the bottom floor. Because the house is so old, I’m sure your ancestors or the previous owners figured that as long as you heat the wood stove on the first floor, the heat rises and will heat the upper floor as well.

However, that is NOT the case. But why?

Hot air rises – but somehow not upstairs

Hot air rises. That’s something everybody knows. And if there’s anyone who doesn’t know anything about physics, he still knows that hot air rises.

It’s just human everyday experience. A candle flame doesn’t heat sideways, but upward.

Even if that’s the case, for some reason heat stays only on the bottom floor in your case. I totally know how bothered you are.

And there are several reasons why your home doesn’t seem to heat. In this article, we’ll take a look at all of them.

Here’s why your upstairs floor doesn’t heat:

  • Energy Loss: First, heat loses energy while it rises. It’s similar to a candle flame. Hold your hand right above it and you’ll burn your fingers. But a few feet above, it is perfectly safe. This also has to do with the distribution of heat, but you get the point.
    And it’s very similar in your home. Even if you heat one floor, the heat will lose energy while it’s rising. On the way up, it cools down.
  • Lack of Ventilation: When the air in your house doesn’t move enough, heat exchange is pretty much impossible. There’s a reason that moving air is used for heat-exchange (for example with hairdryers or a central heating system), but stagnant air is used as an insulator (in winter jackets, where the wool traps air and insulates you from the cold).
    Without an effective heat exchange in the form of moving air, getting heat upstairs is really difficult.
  • Improper Insulation: Especially in old houses or cabins, there’s no real insulation. Because of the missing insulation, warm air leaks and cold air comes in. You don’t really notice it downstairs, because your heat source is there. But upstairs, cold air comes in. Especially through thin, one-pane windows or uninsulated walls.
    Improper insulation is one of the most important reasons for a cold upstairs floor. If your home was perfectly insulated, the heat would have no other option, but rising upstairs.

Where this can happen

Obviously, a lack of upstairs heat nearly always happens in old houses, especially when there’s no real heat source upstairs. Oftentimes, these types of houses have a wood stove on the first floor and pipes going upwards. These pipes carry some of the heat from the stove.

However, on cold nights, the pipes don’t really help a lot. They definitely keep temperature up a few degrees. But surely not on a comfortable level. Rather on an arctic survival level.

Similarly, the no-heat-upstairs issue occurs on other buildings where there’s no common heating technology used. For example in cabins, where you just have the bare minimum comfort. While it’s cozy and warm on the first floor, the upstairs floor remains cold and you have to sleep in a frosty bed.

Some old students dorms have the same issue. Oftentimes they don’t have their own heat source, but only a few pipes that run through each room. These pipes conduct the heat that is produced by the central heating unit. Oftentimes these central heating units run on an ECO power-mode and save energy leaving the students freezing in their dorms.

How to get Heat Upstairs

This section covers all about how to get heat upstairs. My suggestion is to read each of the topics and then decide what you want to implement in your home. Some of them are easy and affordable, while other methods cost more effort.

1. Distribute the heat using fans

The easiest thing you can do immediately is to place a fan downstairs to blow heat upstairs. I believe the best way to do it is to have the fan at the bottom of the stairs with the air stream blowing upward on full power. This way you push the warm air up.

However, some people might argue you should rather blow the cold air from the upstairs floor downstairs so the cold air can heat up and rise again. It seems like for some people doing it that way works better.

That’s why I suggest simply trying both fan orientations and then deciding it for yourself. Possibly, the layout of your home has an impact on which way works best.

From a scientist’s perspective, it doesn’t make a difference whether you do it this way or that way. So, it’s up to you to find out.

Keep in mind that you still need to have a practical placement of the fan. For example, don’t make the fan an obstacle by placing it right in a doorframe where someone can fall over it. This becomes an issue with kids or pets at home, especially at night, when it’s dark.

For the best ventilation (and heat transfer) possible, it is best if you leave all doors open which connect the downstairs floor with the upstairs floor. The hot air should be able to freely move between stories.

an image of a fan ventilator

Even Better: Use two fans

If you have two fans at hand, it’s even more effective. Place the first fan right next to your heat source and face it toward the stairs. Then, place the second one at the stairs facing upward. This way you create a stream of hot air that moves to the upstairs floor.

Two fans are much more effective than using just one. So, make use of them if you have two at home.

However, using fans all the time is not really a sustainable solution to your upstairs heat problem. It may help to keep the temperature up, but it creates noise and consumes additional energy which you could also use for powering a heater instead.

2. Upgrade Stove or Fireplace

When your heat source is an open fireplace, you waste a LOT of heat. The efficiency of fireplaces is only about 12%. Meaning that you are getting just an eighth of the heat you would theoretically be able to get.

The reason is that fireplaces are the most inefficient way you can possibly heat. Most of your heat is going up the chimney. So, it’s lost forever. You burn lots of wood, but you don’t really get much out of it, except for the cozy crackling of the fire.

To upgrade your heating, add a wood stove insert. With an insert, the heat accumulates in your room instead of going up the chimney directly.

“Fireplace inserts have a sealed, airtight door system which generates more heat because the fire burns much slower and the heat isn’t wasted. The efficiency of fireplace inserts can be as much as 80%”

chimneyspecialistsinc.com

So, a wood stove insert takes the efficiency of your wood stove from 12% to 80%. You effectively sevenfold the heat you’re getting.

And with more heat downstairs, it becomes easier to get more heat upstairs.

3. Use a heat powered Stove Fan

A heat powered stove fan is a fan that you place on top of your stove to distribute the heat. But the difference to regular fans is that you don’t need to power it directly. A special metal construction powers the fan with the rising heat.

Stove fans help distribute the heat in your room. Especially for small homes, they make a difference. However, if you’re living in a bigger home, stove fans might be too weak.

4. Insulation

Insulation is another key part to heat your house efficiently. Also, it makes a HUGE impact on whether the heat disappears on the way up, or whether it goes up and actually heats your upstairs floor.

We’ll cover insulation in an extra section later on, so keep reading.

5. Add a heating unit upstairs

Instead of trying to get the heat to move up, why don’t you install a new heat source upstairs? By doing so, the heat you produce on the bottom floor is independent of the upstairs floor.

Also, you don’t attempt to heat a whole house with one heating unit, which is a waste of energy.

But which heat source is best to use? And which one can you install without too much effort? In the following sections, we’ll cover everything you need to know, so you can decide which heater suits you best.

Central heating vs Space Heaters

When you want to add a heating unit, you have two basic options: Either you choose to connect the upstairs floor to your central heating system somehow, or to use a portable space heater.

Which one you pick, depends on your personal preferences. Here are the most important pros and cons of each type of heater.

Pros of Central Heating

  • Reliability: Central heating is a reliable and long-lasting way to heat. Usually, a central heating will last you a lifetime. Especially, if you already have a proper central heating system in your home, connecting it to the upstairs floor would solve your problem immediately.
  • Long-term solution: Radiators that distribute the heat of a central heating system last for a very long time. 
  • Centralized heat: Because the heat is produced in a centralized way, you always know where to look, when something goes wrong.

Cons of Central Heating

  • High cost: If you don’t have central heating yet, adding it will cost a lot. But even if you want to extend an existing central heating system, to be able to heat the upstairs floor, you’ll need to have a few thousand dollars at hand.
  • Maintenance: Central heating needs maintenance regularly because almost always is there something that goes wrong. But not only that, but you’ll also need to order fuel deliveries and pay high bills for them.
  • Fuel consumption: Central heating needs to heat an entire water tank to distribute the heat in each room. Because of that, it’s not the most efficient way to heat. Especially when you’re not using all rooms regularly.

Pros of Space Heaters

  • Low cost: Everyone can afford to buy a space heater. Compared to extending a central heating system, space heater costs are neglectable.
  • Quick heat: Space heaters produce heat immediately. Especially infrared heaters. I have one and it reaches full heat within just a few seconds.
  • Strong: When you use the right model, you have a strong heat source that is equally effective as a radiator.
  • No maintenance: Space heaters don’t need maintenance at all.

Cons of Space Heaters

  • Safety: Space heaters are generally very safe to run. However, you can’t run them in your absence. At least you shouldn’t. Because there have been various accidents in the past. But as long as you have a basic awareness of safety, you don’t have to worry at all. Nearly all accidents happened because of misuse.
  • Electricity: Space heaters draw a lot of electricity. So, you shouldn’t power too many devices together with your space heater at the same time. A fuse could blow.

Generally, I recommend space heaters over adding or extending your central heating system. They are much more affordable for everyone and have basically the same heating power as central heating.

I’ve been into the space heater topics for several months now. And during all that research I found the most reliable, durable and most affordable space heater models for you. If you are curious, here are the best space heater models you can find: Recommended Products (click to see my favorite heaters).

an infrared space heater on the floor stairs

Space Heaters: Electric vs Propane for Heating Upstairs

When it comes to space heaters, there are two types you can use for heating upstairs. Either you choose to use regular electric heaters or propane heaters. Both are very reliable and indoor friendly.

You can also find them on my recommended products page

Here’s when to use which kind of heater:

  • Electric heater: I recommend to use an electric heater when you have access to electricity. If you want to know more about the monthly cost to run such an electric heater, here’s a lookup infographic of average electricity cost and how to calculate your personal space heater costs. Electric space heaters are also the better choice if you are a rather lazy person (like me) who doesn’t want to go and buy new propane all the time.
  • Propane heater: Propane heaters are unbeatable if you want to heat, but you have no access to electricity. Also, you don’t face all the issues that electric heaters can cause. There’s no power cord that can catch flames and no transformer making noise.

Add Insulation to your Home

If you still don’t get any heat upstairs, I’m 100% sure that insulation is the reason your upstairs floor is cold.

Insulation can make a tremendous impact on how efficiently your home heating works. It makes all the difference. All heat that would normally go up vanishes somewhere, most likely because it escapes through thin, uninsulated walls that allow heat exchange with the cold outdoor air.

You can insulate many different spots in your home. From floors to walls and the attic. But what should you insulate first?

Insulate your attic

If your attic is not insulated, you effectively have a big heat sink. Because heat rises, an uninsulated attic is nearly the same as having no roof above your head. Sure, your roof protects you from rain and snow. But it does not really keep the cold away.

Luckily, insulating your attic is way easier than it sounds.

If you have no idea, where to start, I recommend to go to YouTube and search for “how to insulate an attic” and you will find dozens of helpful videos. From experts who show you their best tips to laymen who show you how they did it.

Mostly, insulating an attic involves installing some kind of glass fiber insulation or styrofoam insulation. And it’s not expensive at all. You can insulate your attic with just a few tools and an insulation kit you can find online.

Just look for an attic insulation kit and you will find exactly what you need.

When you’re not a passionate craftsman, you may worry about doing something wrong. But actually, there are no traps to fall into as long as you stick to the tutorials and the manual. I suggest to take a weekend off and make insulating your attic a weekend project.

Replace single-pane windows

Old houses and cabins oftentimes have single-pane windows, which lose a lot of heat. Because they are so thin and consist of just one layer of glass, they don’t help much with retaining the heat indoors.

Double-pane windows are a must-get if you don’t have them yet. Not only are they significantly thicker and more durable, but the thin layer of air in between the glass panes adds another layer of insulation.

It’s very similar to wearing layered clothing, which is usually more effective than wearing a single thick layer.

What to do if you still feel cold

Let’s assume that you’ve done EVERYTHING we covered in this tutorial. For some reason, it seems that your upstairs floor still doesn’t get any heat.

What can you do to keep warm upstairs?

Generally, I recommend getting a mattress pad together with an electric blanket for sleeping. An electric blanket is just like a regular blanket, but it is able to heat up. This way, you have a heat source that helps to keep you warm. Also, electric blankets use just a tenth of the power a space heater requires to run. So, they’re incredibly efficient to use.

The mattress pad will help to cover your body while you sleep and limit the cold airflow. And on top of that, as a side effect, it will protect your mattress from wearing off.

I suggest getting an extra fluffy mattress pad that will keep you warm even more. You’ll be thankful for having the mattress pad and the electric blanket for cold nights.

Conclusion

To summarize everything, here’s a small hit list of what you need to do to get more heat upstairs.

  1. Insulate the attic: Insulation will prevent the heat from cooling down on the way up.
  2. Add fans to distribute the heat: When fans push the heat upward, the heat distributes much quicker. Moving air is a heat conductor, while stagnant air is an insulator.
  3. Space Heaters: Use a space heater to add a new heat source upstairs. Using fans all the time is not a sustainable way to heat. Space heaters will add a lot of comfort to living on the upstairs floor.
  4. Electric Blankets: An electric blanket is the last resort. If all the other methods don’t work for you, use an electric blanket. It will keep you warm and doesn’t even require much power to run.

I hope you could cherry-pick a few helpful tips from this article and you’re now prepared to heat your cold upstairs floor!

If you want to know more about heating efficiently, here are the 21 Cheapest ways to heat a home.

This article also contains lots of ways that you can use to improve your heating efficiency at home. Also, you’ll find a few unusual tips that you would not intuitively think of.

It’s definitely worth a read!

About the Author

Daniel Hirsch

Daniel is an electrical engineer, blogger, and author. He studied electrical engineering and information technology and decided to blog about heaters after working in the temperature sensing industry.