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Our house has hot water heat…, why is there duct work in the walls?

December 15, 2012

Calling all historic renovation buffs and geeks. I have a conudrum.

Let me set the scene:

  • Home built in 1932.
  • The house still has the historical coal shoot, from a previous (unknown) form of heating.
  • Our house is currently heated by hot water. We have Weil McClain cast iron radiators in every room.
  • There is an ancient Weil McLain boiler in the basement….not as scary as the one from Home Alone – thank goodness.

Clues that there is something more to the story:

  • There are old plug outlets behind some of the radiators – strange right? 1st clue that the radiators were not the original form of heating.
  • Some of the rooms have 12″x12″ air vents in the wall, along the baseboard, covered with a wooden lattice screen.
  • Nothing comes out of these vents – because the house is heated by radiators…..when were these installed?
  • Today I smashed a hole in a wall I want to remove (sorry Hubby!) to find that the wall is DRYWALL…what?? Our house is plaster and lathe.
  • I could see duct work running up from the basement to the 2nd floor….????


What is going on? Our house was heated by air, and then switched to hot water? When did this happen? The drywall around the duct work is confusing, because I would think that the drywall would be a remodel on the original plaster walls. If the duct work was original, then it would be behind plaster. Was there another unknown form of heating, then convection air, and now steam?

Ideas? Anyone?

I found this on the web….explains the duct work, but the order of events seems all wrong in my house:

By the end of the 19th century the invention of low cost cast iron radiators would bring central heating to America’s homes with a coal fired boiler in the basement delivering hot water or steam to radiators in every room. At about the same time, in 1885, Dave Lennox built and marketing the industry’s first riveted-steel coal furnace. Without electricity and fans to move air, these early furnaces transported heat by natural convection (warm heated air rising) through ducts from the basement furnace to the rooms above. These two methods would dominate home central heating until 1935, when the introduction of the first forced air furnace using coal as a heat source used the power of an electric fan to distribute the heated air through ductwork within the home.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. January 29, 2013 1:30 AM

    Oh, please update when you find out! This is fascinating!

  2. January 3, 2013 9:22 PM

    What about the possibility of someone installing duct work for air conditioning? might explain the more modern drywall?

    • January 3, 2013 10:11 PM

      Good thought, but not the answer. There is no AC, we use unit air conditioners in each room.

      My brother had a good thought about what it might be…this post needs an update!

  3. December 18, 2012 11:22 AM

    I don’t have an answer for you, other than wild suggestions: Maybe someone thought about switching to a gravity furnace at some point, but then never did? Maybe there was a gravity furnace and an early owner liked steam instead and had that installed? Or maybe the original plans called for gravity furnace duct work, but then one was never installed and a boiler was installed instead?

    I am curious though if you find out any good information. My house is 1934 (Pleasant Ridge, MI) with forced air. The forced air duct work looks original, but as you stated above, supposedly the forced air furnace didn’t exist until 1935. So I am confused myself. The size of the ducts definitely are not gravity furnace ducts that were converted later to forced air, and the 35% efficient furnace (which we recently replaced) looks to be original except that it was converted from burning oil, and the fan for the furnace is a separate piece in the ductwork. I guess I could see that maybe the house was started in 1934, and not finished until after the forced air furnace was available? But then I would think they would need to design the plans for the ductwork runs. Anyway, I am curious what you find out to see if it sheds any light on my situation.

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