Many American homes have a basement; however, not everyone has the means or the motivation to finish their basement. Whether they have simply added electrical in order to see where they’ve stored their Christmas decorations, a lack of HVAC, flooring, or plumbing still deems it unfinished.
An unfinished basement is not necessarily unusable, but it can become uncomfortable quickly if the temperature is too low, especially in Winter. If you don’t visit your basement regularly, then you might be wondering whether it is worth it to heat your basement during this season. I have outlined exactly why you should consider this.
Heating unfinished basements can minimize heat loss from upstairs, make the basement usable, and help to control moisture-related issues. However, heating an unfinished basement can be expensive as heat is readily lost to the outside. Insulating the basement will make heating it easier and more efficient.
How Cold Does an Unfinished Basement Get?
An unfinished basement, whether it is being used recreationally, for storage, or not at all, can have a temperature that is up to 10 °F lower than the rest of the house.
While the actual temperature is really not likely to slip below 40 °F, your basement could actually feel much colder depending on a variety of factors.
For instance, your basement temperature is affected by the temperature outside of the house. Therefore, if you are experiencing extremely cold temperatures and even snow, then your basement will likely feel the same as if you were to step outside.
Since your basement is unfinished, there is no insulation creating a barrier between the outside and inside of the basement, making it easier for the cold to travel through.
Reasons to Heat Unfinished Basement in Winter
Minimize Heat and Energy Loss
One important reason to consider heating your unfinished basement in Winter is that doing so can actually reduce the amount of heat that is lost from the upstairs, and therefore reduce the amount of energy that is used to heat the above-ground portions of your home.
The cold from the outdoor winter air can travel easily inside the basement if your walls are not insulated. This cold air will obviously reduce the temperature in your basement, but it will also affect the rest of your house, decreasing the temperature there too.
Once this happens, it is common for people to increase the use of heaters or turn up their furnaces, which can quickly hike up your energy bill.
Similarly, any warm air that travels through your house can escape through the basement as there is not a thick enough barrier to prevent this.
By heating your basement, you are reducing the amount of cold air in your basement that can travel through your home. Consequently, you won’t feel the drop in temperature while you are in your bedroom or living room and won’t be tempted to turn up the heat.
This argument has a flip side, which we cover in more detail later. The energy you save by preventing heat loss from upstairs is not always likely to balance out the energy required to heat the basement.
Make the Basement Usable
If you decide to heat your basement, then you are increasing the possibilities for its use.
For example, if your basement doubles as a laundry room, then going down there and handling wet clothing is going to be extremely unpleasant for you and a task you will put off doing.
Dirty hampers will overflow and you will resort to reaching for that sweatshirt you haven’t used in over a decade just because it is the only clean thing in your closet.
Heating your basement will eliminate this dreaded chore (well, at least reduce the distaste for it) as you will be assured that you won’t be shivering as you fold your delicates or have to wrap a blanket, cape-like fashion, around you. You can get your laundry done quickly and regularly, without freezing your hands off.
Another example is if you have a walkout basement that you have converted into a garage then the cold can interfere with the functioning of your car. Heating your basement can help eliminate this stress altogether.
If you just use the cold, unheated basement as storage, then those board games or craft items that you take out will likely not be quickly returned (anything to avoid entering the igloo of a basement). This means that things start to pile up in the main living areas, which can affect the comfort of your home and your state of mind.
So, no matter what you use your basement for, heating it will only allow you to make more use of the space.
Control Moisture Damage (Wet Winters)
If you decide to heat your unfinished basement, not only will you be warm and toasty during winter, but you can also control any potential moisture damage that could occur if you live in a climate with wet winters.
Rainy winters are a huge contribution to the cold feeling you get in the basement during winter. Not only will the temperature feel even lower due to the colder air outside, but cold air holds less water that is suspended in it than warm air. So, if any warm air enters the basement, let’s say via the use of a portable heater or a draft traveling in from upstairs, then moisture will be released in the form of condensation as this air cools.
Once the water condenses, you can expect to find small puddles around your basement, or walls dripping with water. This standing water in a basement can be a major issue. Anything that you have stored in the basement (usually in cardboard boxes) can quickly become damaged and unusable.
We also know that excess water indoors can also lead to the growth of mold and mildew, which not only creates serious health hazards but can also affect the structural integrity of your home.
Major Concern in Heating Unfinished Basement
Now that I have outlined a variety of reasons that may be tugging you in the direction of heating your unfinished basement, it is time to get to the nitty-gritty of it all—the main argument against doing so.
Not only is the task of heating your basement a time-heavy process that will take substantial effort, but it will likely also cost you a pretty penny.
If you already have an existing HVAC system that runs through the entire house, then you will just need to extend it to the basement by adding a heating vent that feeds into the basement.
The cost of this is not cheap, coming in at a minimum of $1,500, depending on the material of your vents and how big your basement is.
However, if you need to install completely new ductwork you are looking at a much higher price of between $2,500 and $7,000, and a week of your life taken for installation. Luckily, this is usually not the case for most homeowners, as vents can be added, which will take less time to install.
I know it might be more appealing to just buy a space heater to save you money, but the HVAC extension is a great investment that will become cost-effective in the long run. Rather save for a few more months to fund the installation so that you don’t feel the huge brunt of the bill all at once.
Beyond the cost of providing a heating system is the money it takes to provide the actual heat. In an unfinished basement, when you heat the air, this heat is lost to the surroundings.
Depending on the nature of your basement and the ground surrounding it, this may happen slowly enough to result in overall energy savings as discussed previously, or it might be like pouring water into a sieve. Happily, there is a solution to the latter: insulation.
Better Option: Insulate Basement
Insulating your basement does not mean that you have to finish it completely, and by insulating at least the walls, there are two main heat-retaining benefits that help you to control the temperature of the basement.
Firstly, insulation will keep cold air out. While your basement may still be colder than the rest of the house, it won’t be “stealing” nearly as much heat as it was without the insulation.
Secondly, you get the benefit of heat staying in the basement. Any heat that enters from the rest of the house will not be lost through the exterior basement walls, but rather will stay in the basement, building until it matches the rest of the house, which then settles into a stable temperature.
Additionally, any heat actively provided to the basement through the HVAC system or with a pellet stove or portable heater (like those pictured below) will remain in the basement and you can heat it and be done (for a while, anyway), as opposed to having to continually heat it.
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Last update on 2023-03-24 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API
So, you can instantly reduce the cold in your basement by installing insulation. Whether it be just to your windows and walls, or if you want to do the whole basement and insulate the floors as well, you will definitely experience the difference in temperature.
If you are low on cash, though, and can only pick one, then I recommend insulating your walls as you will definitely be able to see a change in the temperature.
It is not necessarily the cheapest option as you can still pay around $1,000 to completely insulate the space, but it is a once-off cost and you won’t need to extend your monthly budget to accommodate the cost that comes with heating the basement.
Not only will the chill be reduced during the winter months, but you can be assured that your moisture issues will be reduced to a minimum once you’ve insulated effectively, which is always a win.