How to keep cool upstairs this summer


As summer heats up, your upstairs temperature may jump by five to ten degrees compared to the main floor, even with central air conditioning. Then during the winter months, the temperature upstairs could drop by five to ten degrees compared to the main floor. If this sounds familiar, you’re not alone. We hear about upstairs comfort issues more than almost anything else in our Portland, Oregon office.

What’s with the temperature difference?

The first thing to say is that different areas of a home have different heating and cooling needs. In particular, the hottest part of a home is the roof, where the sun’s energy comes into direct contact with the home. The upper floor is that much closer to the hottest part of the home. If you live in a 1.5 level home with a sloped ceiling upstairs, the slopes are only about 4 short inches from the roof. So in the summer months, your upper floor is going to need much more cooling then the main floor to feel like it’s the same temperature.

If you have a central air system in perfect condition, it will deliver the same amount of conditioned air to all parts of your home. But if your upper floor needs much more cool air in the summer months, then it’s bound to feel hotter because it’s getting the same amount of air flow as the main floor. Compounding this issue is the fact that few central air systems are in perfect condition. Among other things, we often find ducts with leaks and poor connections that reduce the flow of conditioned air to the upper floor.

Here’s an overview of what we typically recommend in order of priority.

  1. Start by sealing air leaks and adding attic insulation. This is a critical step to make sure that you have a clear separation between your indoor living space and the outdoor environment.

  2. Install a mini-slit heat pump. These systems provide targeted heating and cooling so that your upper floor gets more cool air in the summer and more warm air in the winter.

It’s worth reflecting that every home is different. If you’d like to learn more about what matters most for your home, please give us a call at 503.223.8767 or schedule a free estimate with one of our consultants.

seal AIR leaks AND add INSULATION

Adding attic insulation to a home without insulation is typically the most cost effective thing a homeowner can do to reduce temperature variations. How do you know if you have enough insulation? Schedule an insulation estimate or grab a flashlight and look through your attic hatch.

Does your attic look more like the first image or the second image?


If your side attic looks like the first image, then you have an opportunity to make a big difference by adding insulation. You should see consistent coverage of cellulose or fiberglass insulation about a foot and a half deep on the attic floor. Your attic walls should be filled with insulation batts and covered with a continuous air barrier.

After you seal air leaks and insulate, your HVAC system has less work to do because more of the conditioned air stays inside your home. This allows you to downsize your HVAC equipment - often by two-thirds or more - which reduces the purchase price and leads to quieter, more consistent performance.

a heat pump is the perfect solution

Insulation is the first step, but typically it’s not enough to get the temperature just right upstairs. The next step is to reconsider your heating and cooling system. Here’s the skinny on two solutions that tend to work best for our clients in Portland.

Ductless mini-split heat pump: If you have one or two rooms upstairs that do not seem to heat or cool properly, consider adding a ductless heat pump to supplement your existing central air system. Each room gets a dedicated air handler that quietly and efficiently allows you to set the exact temperature in that room. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, ductless heat pumps save up to 75% on heating and cooling bills relative to conventional systems, while delivering the same level of space conditioning.


Ducted mini-split heat pump: This system is similar to the ductless version in that it provides quiet, efficient heating and cooling to part of your home. The main difference is that it uses ducts to expand the area that you can heat and cool. The system allows for a huge amount of design flexibility, either replacing an existing system or supplementing to deliver the heating and cooling you want.

As always, there’s more to say, and the particulars of your home could call for a different set of solutions. Feel free to call anytime 503.223.8767 to learn more about what makes the most sense for your home.

Bill Hoelzer