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During the winter months, we often get calls from homeowners who are wondering why their two-story homes are noticeably colder downstairs than upstairs. This is a common complaint from people who have forced-air HVAC systems with a single thermostat located on the first floor. To understand why there might be a discrepancy in temperature, it helps to have a basic understanding of how a forced-air system works. Then you can try some useful tips that will help you distribute heat more evenly throughout your home.

How Does a Forced-Air HVAC System Work?

A forced-air HVAC system begins at the thermostat. You set the thermostat to your desired temperature, and when the temperature in the room falls below the setting, the furnace kicks on. Whenever your furnace is running, it is drawing air in through the return vents, warming the air, and then forcing the air out through the supply ducts and into the living space.  When the air in the living space reaches the set temperature, the thermostat responds by shutting the system down. Following the heating cycle, the warm air rises up through the house and the temperature in the living space around the thermostat falls, triggering the system to turn on again. This cycle of warming up and cooling down is one of the main reasons homes with forced-air heat never truly enjoy a consistent temperature, but there are some things you can do to minimize the upstairs/downstairs difference.

What Can You Do to More Evenly Heat Your Home?

Many homeowners are surprised by the number of do-it-yourself adjustments they can make around their homes that not only help even out inconsistent temperatures but also make their homes more energy efficient. Here’s a list of simple modifications you can make on your own, but if you’re not that handy or you just don’t feel comfortable, contact your local HVAC service provider. A qualified technician can easily show you how.

1. Adjust the dampers. If your vents have levers or dials, that means you can control the airflow by adjusting the dampers (the little louvers inside that move up and down to restrict or open airflow). If the first floor of your home is colder in the winter months, keep the dampers on the first-floor vents fully open and only partially open the vents on the second floor to force more of the warm air to enter the first-floor areas. (Hint: If your upstairs is hotter than your downstairs during the summer, restrict the airflow on the first floor and fully open the vents on the second floor to force more cool air upward).

2. Close top return vents. If you have a top/bottom return vent setup, close the top vents in the winter months. Closing the top vents will make your system draw in air from the bottom vents that are at the low point in the room where cold air settles. (Hint: In the summer months, open the top vents and close the bottom ones to draw out air from a higher point in the room where it’s hotter).

3. Use your ceiling fans effectively. If you have ceiling fans in your home, you should know they aren’t just for keeping you cool. Look for a switch on the base of your ceiling fan and set it so that the fan blades move in a clockwise direction. Then, set the fan on its lowest setting. During the heating months, this setting will allow the fan to draw up the warm air that collects near the ceiling and push off the ceiling and down the walls to keep the lower portion of the room warmer.


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If you’ve performed all of these adjustments and you’re still experiencing inconsistent temperatures, your heating system may be incorrectly sized for your home’s demand. Systems that are too small run longer and more often, and systems that are too large operate on short cycles, which is hard on the motor. Improper sizing results in higher energy bills and increased repairs due to wear and tear on mechanical parts. If you suspect your system is not sized correctly, contact a trusted HVAC contractor for an assessment. You should also have your HVAC system serviced annually. A routine tune-up will give you peace of mind that your system is ready for another year of heating and cooling, and it will ensure all components are functioning correctly and operating at peak efficiency.

To learn more, call HB Home Service Team at 717-232-HEAT or schedule an appointment online.