Sunday, October 3, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Ask the Expert / Darrell Hay

How to heat a cold daylight basement

Q: Like many of us here in the Northwest, I have a split-level house. You enter the front door and are confronted by two sets of stairs, one going up and one going down. The daylight basement has many windows and a sliding glass door going out to the back yard.

It is so cold down there that it is nearly uninhabitable during the winter. It has a concrete slab floor (with carpeting), and two of the walls are concrete about 3 feet up. There is a family room, bedroom, bathroom, laundry room, small storage room and a "bonus room."

One of my favorite memories of how cold it can be, even when the temperature outside is comfortable, is coming in and finding my father-in-law sitting watching TV with a throw blanket on his head! We keep several throws on the sofas and have a wood-burning stove there. The stove is not practical unless you are watching something that goes on forever, like the Super Bowl.

What is the most economical way to heat this area? Put in a second gas heater? Baseboard heaters? Family will be coming this Christmas, including a new grandson who was just born yesterday. It is too cold for him to sleep down there!

A: Congratulations on becoming a grandparent. This question was undoubtedly prompted by that "nesting" urge that makes women go all wacko, cleaning and decorating right before giving birth. Who would have guessed it applied to grandparents also? Your question was not clear on whether you presently have a heating system in the basement. If so, manipulate the upper-floor registers toward the closed position to divert more air downstairs. If that results in no apparent change, an adjustment in your plenum scoops and dampers can be accomplished fairly simply by a heating contractor.

Lacking visible heat registers, you may need to have some vents cut into the ceiling. Every split level I've walked into (with forced-air heat) has ducts in the basement ceiling to heat the upper floor. This is again a simple alteration to cut vents into the existing plenums.

Assuming you have heat now, but maybe more heat is still needed, you can add heat to the entire basement or each room individually. Your cheapest option is to buy portable radiant or resistance heaters and place them where and when needed. This may not be permanent, and is not the safest option, but it will help take the edge off. Baseboard or forced-air electric wall heaters are reasonable to purchase, but adding electrical power will be challenging and potentially spendy (and cost more to run the heaters).

Adding a gas or propane fireplace in place of, or in addition to, the wood-burning unit you have now is a very popular option. If adding it to the room, remember that these fireplaces can vent out a sidewall and do not require a chimney. A single gas fireplace can be outfitted with a thermostat, but does best when heating one specific area, or areas, making for temperature differentials between individual rooms.

Q: I recently replaced my hot-water tank, which is inconveniently located in the attic. When we tried to get the old tank out, we realized that the trap door to the attic must have been finished and the fold-out ladder added after the original tank was installed. The opening was too small to get the new tank in and the old tank out.

At first we figured we could take a sledgehammer to the old tank and reduce its girth by a couple of inches (by "we," I mean my boyfriend). After some attempts at taking pent-up frustration out on the tank, he realized that he literally wasn't making much of a dent in it.

Can "we" rent some kind of saw or something and just cut it up in slices and remove it that way? Are there any dangers to doing this? (The gas furnace is up in the attic, too.) I readily admit that I am not the "handy" sort, and he is a stone mason, not a plumber, electrician or carpenter, as he likes to point out repeatedly.

A: Just for giggles, I tried cutting up a tank last year with a Sawzall (large reciprocating saw). "Tried" being the operative word. In the end, all I had was a mess of foam insulation and metal casing, not doing much damage to the liner itself. Had I spent another hour, or ahem, used a sharper blade, I may have been able to do a bit more damage. But ultimately it would have taken a cutting torch to get it into the size needed to get down a folding stairway.

Those tanks are like battleship boilers. An open-flame cutting torch is not something that would be especially wise in an attic. But this is all moot, since you need to get a new tank up there, no matter the success of the demolition activities. Drain it and leave it in the attic if you must.

Did you consider removing the folding stairway for the tank swap? How feasible would it be to move the tank permanently into a closet in the main living area or garage? Another possibility, if you have a gable-type roof, is to cut a hatch into the sidewall for extraction and removal.

Keep in mind, you are not stuck with the exact tank measurements you have now; manufacturers make skinny and taller water tanks that just might fit up your stairs (if you have available head-height in the attic). And finally, an instantaneous on-demand water heater may just be the ticket for your dilemma.

Darrell Hay answers readers' questions. Call 206-464-8514 to record your question, or e-mail Sorry, no personal replies. More columns at

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company


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