The Difficulties In Heating Ranch Style Houses

by Erik North on December 13, 2011

The Difficulties In Heating Ranch Style Houses


I don’t have many energy audits with ranch style houses despite their popularity. I suspect it has to do with their compact size and correspondingly reasonable heating bills. If it isn’t costing a bundle to heat, where’s the pressure to have an audit?

However I find that owners of ranch style houses call about the same concerns. There are always ice dams and icicles, random cold spots in the house and cold kitchen cabinets and bathrooms. And for fun, there’s the periodic condensation and mold problems around the perimeter. Joy! As a side note, I’ll cover split ranches and raised ranches in a few future posts.

Ranch Style Houses – A Boring Wiki Style Definition

Ranches are typically a single floor layout with a wide profile and a long shallow-pitched roof. The roof line can have either end gables or hip roofs. The roof eaves usually extend far past the building foot print, providing essential shade from the Southwest summer sun. The floor plans are open, simple and spacious, often including an attached garage, bay windows and french doors.

Ranch Style Houses – Advantages

Ranches do have a few advantages over other house styles. They’re reasonably priced and work well as starter homes. Because the framing is so simple, it’s quite easy to insulate and air seal (hey, insulation advantage).

The open layout of ranches are often incorporated into landscaping and views, creating pleasant and aesthetic environments. Ranches are one of the most obvious choices for elderly couples looking for single level living.

Ranch Style Houses – Disadvantages, Ice Dam edition

Do ranch style houses have intrinsic problems with heating and cooling (yeah, I wouldn’t have used the word ‘intrinsic’ if they didn’t). Partly it is a result of originating in the Southwest. Building features like the low pitch roof and extended eaves make great sense in a predominantly sunny climate. They provide extra shade during the long, much hotter summers. In a cold climate, this is a formula for ice dams.

Ice dams are formed when an upper portion of the roof is over the freezing point and a lower portion is below it. The snow melts at the top and refreezes on the lower edge.

Roofs in northern climates usually have sharp pitches, enabling them to shed snow. The ranch’s shallow pitched roof allows snow to accumulate more easily. More snow means more snow to melt and the extended eaves are just more roof for the water to refreeze. Tada. 8″ ice dams.

ice dam

Now, THAT'S an Ice Dam

Ranch Style Houses – Cold Spots

Another issue is cold spots. Random cold spots crop up in ranch-style houses. There are many thermal bypasses common to all house designs. Holes through the frame like the chimney, plumbing chases, recessed lighting and interior wall seams all whisk heat out of the house.

This aggressive heat loss wouldn’t be as noticeable in a 3 floor colonial. It wouldn’t be any less but just not as noticeable. The single level living of ranch style houses means cold drafts can be unavoidable. If the plumbing chase makes the bathroom in a big Colonial unbearably cold … go to another (warm) bathroom. With a ranch, the cold bathroom may be the only one.

Ranch Style Houses – Excessive Foundation Heat Loss

The extended footprint of a ranch means more exposed basement concrete. The most aggressive heat loss in a house is usually through the above grade foundation.

The foundation concrete has almost no insulating value (about R-1 per 8 inches) and 12-24 inches of it protrudes out from ground level.

Take two 1500 square foot houses, one a 2-story colonial, the other a ranch. The colonial will have a foundation perimeter around 160 linear feet while the colonial would have one around 110 linear feet (very ballparky, of course). In this example, the ranch house would have 45% more exposed foundation concrete than a colonial of the same size.

Lastly, ranch style houses are often built on slabs. These concrete slabs are very rarely insulated since the era of ranch construction (post-World War II through the 70s) pre-dates slab insulation as a best practice. In extreme cases, the cold edge of an uninsulated slab can be a moisture condensation point. An uninsulated concrete slab is a massive heat sink though the majority of heat loss can be addressed by trenching out around the perimeter and installing edge insulation.

Ranch style houses gained popularity in the Baby Boom generation. They were well suited to expansion in the Southwest but were not ideal for cold weather climates. Keep in mind those heating challenges of the ranch design and you can make your home warmer and more comfortable.

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