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burning through oil and not producing enough heat!

My husband and I purchased a house built in 1900 3 years ago.  We have always had some issue with the steam radiators not completely heating up but, this year seems to be the worse.  I noticed I can sometimes smell oil in the basement when the furnace is running.  I have a guy coming to clean the furnance this week.  I also just got the oil tank filled 2 weeks ago and have already used 1/4 of the tank keeping my house at 63 degrees!  We inspected the radiators to see what was going on.  We noticed that almost all of the radiators only feel hot on the first couple loops and the rest is staying cold.  We read that they need to be pitched right and some are a little off which we plan on fixing and we have also been reading up on the air vents posibly being stuck which we are planning on replacing on all of them.  There seems to be adjustable ones or different sizes ones to buy?  How do you choose?  I read the piping should be insulated.  I checked last night and there is no isulation on any of the pipes.  We have 4 larger radiators downstairs and 2 smaller ones upstairs.  I only hear a quiet hiss from one of the upstairs one and I hear a quiet banging noise from one of the downstairs ones.  I have seen a lot of things talking about pressure being 2 psi or below.  I looked at the furnace and it seems to be set at 2.  I'm hoping the furnance cleaner coming can help us out or someone on here.  We are going to be paying a lot of money on oil this year without being warm if we can't correct this!  What are the steps to take on correcting this or how do you pinpoint the exact problem with out having a good knowledge of a steam heating system?  Thanks for any help!

Comments

  • Jamie HallJamie Hall Member Posts: 11,456
    A good place to begin...

    is right here!  Welcome aboard.



    I'm glad you are having someone to come and check the boiler (the proper name for the monster in the basement) -- particularly since you say you can smell oil from time to time when it is running.  They aren't supposed to do that -- and they are supposed to be cleaned and tuned up at least once a year.  So that is a very good start.



    You say that "almost all" of the radiators don't heat all the way across.  Do any of them?  There are a number of reasons why they might not.



    Unfortunately, we're going to be asking a lot of questions here, so hang on.



    First off, do the radiators have two pipes coming into them, or one?  If they have one, the system is referred to as a one pipe steam system (singular lack of originality there); otherwise, it could be either a vapour system or a two pipe system (again, none to original).  You do mention air vents -- so I'm going to guess for the moment that it is one pipe, as with one slightly wacky exception, air vents aren't found on radiators on two pipe systems (unless they have been "fixed" improperly, but that's another story).  The air vents are important, as they let the air out of the radiators -- and if the air can't get out, the steam can't get in and you get very poor heat if any.  Air vents are sized to control the rate at which air can get out, though.  There are a number of good ones, but without knowing more about how big the radiators are etc. one can't say how big they should be.



    Second comment: all the pipes (as much as possible anyway) which feed steam to the radiators need to be insulated; otherwise the steam just condenses in the pipes, which doesn't help heat the house.  So that's a good thing to think about doing.



    So.  One reason for radiators not getting hot is that the vents are stuck shut -- or painted shut.



    Another reason is the boiler itself.  Is it big enough?  It's not common to see a boiler which is too small, but they happen.  The boiler needs to be sized based on the number and size of the radiators, not the heat loss of the house.  If the boiler is too small, it can't make steam as fast as the radiators condense it, and you will have radiators which don't heat, or don't heat much (this is made worse by no insulation on the feed pipes).  A remarkably good way to tell, without doing a lot of arithmetic, is to pay attention to the way the boiler runs.  If you have an adequately sized boiler, and your thermostat is calling for heat for a long time at a whack (say an hour or so), the boiler should turn itself off briefly while the thermostat is calling for heat, and then turn back on.  It will repeat this cycle until the thermostat is happy -- but it may take a while for the cycle to start.  If this isn't happening, there are two possibilities: the boiler is too small (or really dirty) or the pressure switch on the boiler (called a pressuretrol) isn't operating.  Please give us a description of the pressure switch, though, as different ones are set up differently (from you description, it sounds as though it's a pressuretrol; if so, it's set too high -- but we need more information on it).



    You could also give us the make and model of the boiler, and the approximate size of the radiators.



    Last but not least (at least for right now -- I may think of other things later, and I'm sure other folks on here will have more questions)(and there are a number of other things we will ask you to check and possibly fix -- but that's for later) you might consider purchasing the little book "We Got Steam Heat", which is available from the store on this site.  It is an excellent way to get acquainted with your steam system, and it is completely non-technical (even amusing)!
    Br. Jamie, osb

    Building superintendent/caretaker, 7200 sq. ft. historic house museum with dependencies in New England.

    Hoffman Equipped System (all original except boiler), Weil-Mclain 580, 2.75 gph Carlin, Vapourstat 0.5 -- 6.0 ounces per square inch
  • BobCBobC Member Posts: 5,017
    Pictures?

    It helps us determine what has to addressed if we have some pictures of your boiler from a couple of different angles showing the pipes coming from it.



    Also the boiler feeds a large pipe that is called the steam main (there may be more that one); the radiators are fed off this main(s). Someplace along the main, usually towards the end of it, you should see a main steam vent. These are larger versions of the ones on the side of the radiators and can be chrome, copper or green in color (old ones might be rusty). If the main vent does not work your boiler is wasting it's fuel trying to squeeze all the air through the radiator vents which are too small to do the job. Also give us an idea of how long each steam main is and the circumference of the pipe so we can determine the volume of air you have to vent. See if you can find these main vents and post a picture of them.



    Then take a couple of pictures of your radiators that show the whole thing including the valve and air vent. Do the input valves on each radiator get hot or do some stay cold? All of the air valves should expel air as the sytem builds steam, the steam will push the air out of the vent unless it's blocked by crud. Hoffman and VentRite both make adjustable air vents that allow you to set the vent rate of each radiator according to it's size.



    With that information as well as the information Jamie asked for we should be able to get you on the path of a properly working steam system.



    Bob
    Smith G8-3 with EZ Gas @ 90,000 BTU, Single pipe steam
    Vaporstat with a 12oz cut-out and 4oz cut-in
    3PSI gauge
  • RodRod Posts: 2,067
    "We Got Steam Heat!"

    Hi- Jamie mentioned a book you need to get called "We Got Steam Heat!". It's a really good book for someone starting out learning about steam heating. Here is the link to it:

    http://www.heatinghelp.com/products/Books/5/61/We-Got-Steam-Heat-A-Homeowners-Guide-to-Peaceful-Coexistence

    It's writen for the homeowner new to steam and is easy, humorous reading. In an evening or two of reading you'll be light years ahead with your knowledge of steam heating. My copy has saved me at least 100 times its cost.

    - Rod
  • bacflip4bacflip4 Member Posts: 7
    home video

    Hi Jamie and Bob,

    I made a video to show you what's in the house.  I hope this answers your questions.  Let me know if you need to be shown anything else or need any more info.  Thanks for the help!

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cDw3xzIpXL4
  • acl10acl10 Member Posts: 344
    My take

    It looks like you dont have any main vents. The vents on your radiators are the cheap made in taiwan knid. You prbably have a venting problem. Get main vents installed and you will have to balance your system with good vents. Also make sure your water level isnt to high. It could be getting in the pipes and wont let the steam thru.Your returns mayneed cleaning and snaking. 
  • acl10acl10 Member Posts: 344
    My take

    It looks like you dont have any main vents. The vents on your radiators are the cheap made in taiwan knid. You prbably have a venting problem. Get main vents installed and you will have to balance your system with good vents. Also make sure your water level isnt to high. It could be getting in the pipes and wont let the steam thru.Your returns mayneed cleaning and snaking. 
  • acl10acl10 Member Posts: 344
    My take

    It looks like you dont have any main vents. The vents on your radiators are the cheap made in taiwan knid. You prbably have a venting problem. Get main vents installed and you will have to balance your system with good vents. Also make sure your water level isnt to high. It could be getting in the pipes and wont let the steam thru.Your returns mayneed cleaning and snaking. 
  • acl10acl10 Member Posts: 344
    edited December 2010
    My take

    It looks like you dont have any main vents. The vents on your radiators are the cheap made in taiwan knid. You probably have a venting problem. Get main vents installed and you will have to balance your system with good vents. Also make sure your water level isnt to high. It could be getting in the pipes and wont let the steam thru.Your returns may need cleaning and snaking. 
  • RodRod Posts: 2,067
    Questions

    Hi- I looked over your video and it's very helpful. I took some screen shots of parts of your video and have a few questions:

    1. What is the make and model of the vent in the attached  picture "Pic 03" ? 

    2. In the photo boiler pic 01 could you post some pictures of where Pipe "A" and Pipe "B" come from and where they go to?

    3.In Pic 02 , "Note "T" shows that the water level seems above normal level. If the water level is too high this menas that you will use more heat (fuel) to bring the larger amount of water to a boil.

    4.What is the model of your boiler ? (This should be on a plate attached to the boiler)

    5. In pic 02 - "Note "W" the pigtail is the wrong type for this configuration location. Water that gets in the pipe/pigtail should drain back away from the gauge and Pressuretrol. With this configuration it drains into the gauge and Pressuretrol.

    6. In Pic 04 shows the steam main and the radiator laterals going from the steam main to the individual radiators. Starting above boiler could you trace out the steam mains and any branches of the steam main and make a quick sketch of your steam system. Mark where the radiator lateral branch off. You can tell a radiator lateral from a steam main in that they are a smaller pipe size and usually branch off at a 45 degree angle from the upper hemisphere of the main. A rough sketch will really helps as it will help us better under stand you system and also we can reference you to certain points. Sorry about all the questions it's jsut that we have to form a mental picture of your system in our heads and then figure out what needs to be changed. From the video, which is a great help, the original steam piping was well done and it's just a matter of figuring out how to put it back in working order.  Some of the people of worked on the system over the years obviously didn't know what they were doing. As was mentioned one of the first things we need to do is improve ( install) the main vent (s) and having a sketch will help decide where they should go.

    - Rod
  • SteamheadSteamhead Member Posts: 13,359
    That looks like

    a Weil-McLain 68-series boiler. If this thing is not tuned up just so, enough soot will accumulate in the heat exchanger that most of the heat will just go up the chimney. This could be part of your problem.



    Where are you located?
    All Steamed Up, Inc.
    "Reducing our country's energy consumption, one system at a time"
    Steam, Vapor & Hot-Water Heating Specialists
    Oil & Gas Burner Service
    Baltimore, MD (USA) and consulting anywhere.
    https://heatinghelp.com/find-a-contractor/detail/all-steamed-up-inc
  • bacflip4bacflip4 Member Posts: 7
    homework

    Thanks for all your input.  I will work on answering your questions and getting more pics/video later tonight when I get back home.  I am located in central MA.
  • BobCBobC Member Posts: 5,017
    edited December 2010
    First steps

    I looked at your video and i agree with Rod's comments and questions.



    I believe the vent in question is a Chinese watts adjustable valve. It should have USAV884 stamped into the casting. They are adjustable and can be cleaned by boiling in vinegar to remove calcium deposits that can seal them shut or cause them not to close all the way; when you boil them the stick on label will come off so make sure you have one you can refer to with an intact label. These are not very good valves but if they are expelling air, leave them be till we sort out the other issues.



    With that pigtail configuration your pressuretrol may be damaged by direct contact with steam or steam hot water. The pressuretrol and gauge (assuming its not an internal syphon type) has to be above the pigtail loop so it is isolated from the steam. Also a prperly setup steam boiler only runs around 1.5PSI and often the 0-30 gauge does not register this.



    While examining your main can you give us a rough idea of its overall length and the outside circumference, that information will let us calculate the pipes volume and the amount of venting you need. Also the main looks like it slopes up away from the boiler, am I correct?



    So right now there are a few things that should be done -



    1.Get a pigtail installed so the pressuretrol/gauge are above the loop so it can do it's job. Adjust the pressuretrol so it's running between 0.5 and 1.5PSI, then a low pressure gauge (0-3PSI) may have to be added so you can be sure that pressuretrol is working right.



    2.Drain water from the boiler till it is about half way up the glass.



    3.Figure out where the main vents should be installed.



    The next issues that probably have to be done include draining and flushing the boiler to clean up the boiler water, the boiler may also have to be skimmed. All of the basement piping should have 1" pipe insulation on it. That will make your basement cold but it will place all that heat upstairs where you live.



    Bob
    Smith G8-3 with EZ Gas @ 90,000 BTU, Single pipe steam
    Vaporstat with a 12oz cut-out and 4oz cut-in
    3PSI gauge
  • Jamie HallJamie Hall Member Posts: 11,456
    edited December 2010
    If you want an expert look...

    at this system by one of the best in the business, try Charles Garrity & Son.  Charles is also in central Mass... he can be found on the find a contractor tab on this site (look under Massachusetts) or contacted directly at [email protected] (and a disclaimer -- I am not related to, nor paid anything by, Charles!).  He'll scope out the system and will also clean and adjust the boiler.
    Br. Jamie, osb

    Building superintendent/caretaker, 7200 sq. ft. historic house museum with dependencies in New England.

    Hoffman Equipped System (all original except boiler), Weil-Mclain 580, 2.75 gph Carlin, Vapourstat 0.5 -- 6.0 ounces per square inch
  • RodRod Posts: 2,067
    I agree with Jamie

    Hi - I'll second what Jamie said. Charlie Garrity is a very good steam pro. I was going to recommend him to you in my next post. If it hasn't been done in a while.as Steamhead, who is another very experienced steampro, suggested you may need a boiler cleaning and the burner settings checked. This should normally be done yearly anyway. Checking the burner functions is something that needs to be done by a pro who has the proper instrumentation. While he was there he would also be able to tell you what needs to be done to fix your system and then you can decide what items you would like him to do and which ones you want to do yourself. That would be the fastest way to get you good comfortable heat and stop the excessive fuel usage situation.

    - Rod
  • bacflip4bacflip4 Member Posts: 7
    half done

    Rod- I have some answers for you but, will have more time to work on the rest tomorrow night.

    1. Bob is correct.  The vent is the made in Tawain USAV-884

    2. will work on tomorrow

    3.  I lowered the water level.  That was prob my fault.

    4.  Steamhead is correct.  The boiler is Weil-McLain P-368-S

    5. wow!  I'd love to know who did that.  I will leave that to the professionals to fix.

    6. will work on tomorrow 

    I have someone from the oil company coming to clean the boiler on Friday afternoon.  I do not know his knowledge of this system.  I would rather pay one expert person to clean and check out the entire system.  I sent Garrity an email but, no response yet.  I will try calling tomorrow morning.  It looks like they are located in Lee, MA (western), which is about 1.5 hrs from me.  I will def need a professional for the cleaning, main vents, pigtail, and who knows what else!  I am glad to be learning so much, I just wish it wasn't under these circumstances!  Thanks for making this process so educational!
  • SteamheadSteamhead Member Posts: 13,359
    I'll third that

    "Charlie from Wmass" is one of the best. 
    All Steamed Up, Inc.
    "Reducing our country's energy consumption, one system at a time"
    Steam, Vapor & Hot-Water Heating Specialists
    Oil & Gas Burner Service
    Baltimore, MD (USA) and consulting anywhere.
    https://heatinghelp.com/find-a-contractor/detail/all-steamed-up-inc
  • RodRod Posts: 2,067
    edited December 2010
    Boiler Manual

    Hi-  Just a word of caution. While there are exceptions, I generally would shy away from using  oil company techs as service is a sideline to the oil companies and they pay cheap so they don’t get the best people. Unwary homeowners are attracted to oil companies for tech services as the oil companies generally charge less than a good pro. as they know they can make it up by charging you more on your fuel bill.  There is also a built in conflict of interest as the oil company sells oil and it is very much against their best interest to make your system run efficiently.



    Boiler Water Line-  I’ve attached the I& O (Installation & Operation) manual for your boiler in case you don’t have one. If you look on Page 11, Figure 17 you will see that the measurement from the base of the boiler to the waterline is 26 7/8 inches. You might want to check this and see if you have the correct marking on your sight glass.

     It’s a good idea to get a loose leaf binder with some plastic page holders to keep tech information in and also it really helps to keep a log of when maintenance was done, things like burner adjustment, boiler cleaning etc. I also keep parts numbers and sources where I got the parts as it is hard to remember that several years later when you need to get a replacement.



    Charlie Garrity might be a little hard to get hold of as the good  pros are very busy this time of year. I know he does travel sometimes a fair distance as other homeoweners on the Wall have used him and they were closer to Boston than you are.



    When you are looking at your piping, check the steam mains and see if you can determine which way they slope - Towards or away from the boiler.  Also check for any piping at the far ends of the main away from the boiler that may lead back to boiler. This is usually a smaller sized pipe than the mains. This pipe may or may not be present. What I’m trying to determine is what type of one pipe system you have. 



    In a one pipe system if the steam and the condensate (water) travel in the same direction (parallel) away from the boiler (the steam  main has to be  sloped away from the boiler to make the condensate flow this way) it is called a “Parallel System”  

    If the steam main is sloped towards the boiler, the steam travels up the slope and the condensate (water) travels back to the boiler in the opposite direction. This is called a “Counterflow System”. Each type has different piping requirements.

    I’ve attached a drawing that illustrates this. If you shoot more video, it might be a good idea to take a close up of the boiler’s water line in the sight glass when the burner was going just to see how much the waterline bounced over say a fifteen second period. This gives us an indication as to the condition of your boiler water.

    - Rod
  • bacflip4bacflip4 Member Posts: 7
    Thanks Rod

    I agree.  I canceled the cleaning guy.  I want someone who knows what they are doing.  Thank you very much.  There are too many horror stories out there!  I talked to Garrity Plumbing who will be calling me back!  I'm excited to have an expert in the area!  I will take some more video tonight for you guys.
  • bacflip4bacflip4 Member Posts: 7
    more video

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rlrygLm6jDI

    I believe we have the counterflow system. I measured the glass water mark and it seems right.  I have Charlie coming on the 7th.  I might cry when I get the bill but, I'll be smiling when everythings working right! :)
  • RodRod Posts: 2,067
    edited December 2010
    Heating System

    Hi- I looked at your second video and you are correct, you have a 1 pipe counterflow steam system.  Pipes "A" and "B" are what are called "drip lines" . Their job is to collect the returning condensate (water) that is running back down the main from the radiators and return it to the boiler. If you didn't have these drip lines the water would continue flowing down the steam line and collide and mix with the steam coming out of the boiler. This would produce what is know as "Wet Steam" which isn't very efficient.



    Your system's original piping looks good. Back in those days they didn't need main vents, the boiler water was heated by a coal fire. When the fire was lit, it took an hour or so to heat and make steam. This allowed the air to slowly escape through the radiator vents. The fire was continuous and they just kept adding a little more coal to keep the water in the boiler simmering and producing steam. When the boiler was changed over to an oil burner, they should have added main vents at that  time. Those burners and the ones today are of the "on and off" type rather than the steady heat of a coal fire.. When modern burner turns on, they provide instant high heat and the boiler produces steam almost  immediately and so the air in the mains needs to be cleared out as quickly as possible to allow the steam to get to the radiators.



    Adding water to your boiler- I thought about this when I saw your video and just thought I would mention it.  When you add any fresh water to you boiler, make sure you then immediately turn your burner on and heat  the boiler water to a boil. This drives off the excess dissolved oxygen in the water. The dissolved oxygen can be very corrosive and drastically shorten the life of your boiler.



    Insulation- You don’t have any! You need insulation! Your pipes most likely originally had insulation which would have been asbestos and then this was probably removed somewhere along the line and never replaced. Insulation really makes a big difference to your comfort and your fuel bill as it gets the heat to where you need it. Here’s a link to a good article on insulation:

    http://www.heatinghelp.com/article/11/Hot-Tech-Tips/300/Why-you-should-insulate-steam-pipes

    Insulating your piping isn’t cheap but it is something you can do yourself. Ask Charlie and he can probably tell you what the best local source would be for you. Insulation is competitive so shop around. Also rather than doing the whole job at once, you can do a bit at a time. A friend of mine who has a old large house just bought a box of insulation every couple of week when he could afford it  and put it on a little at a time. Every piece of insulation you add to your piping makes a difference. Start at the boiler and work up the  piping and along the mains. Only the pipes carrying steam need to be insulated.

    Happy New Year to you!

    - Rod
  • bacflip4bacflip4 Member Posts: 7
    Happy New Year!

    I'll let you know how everything turns out!
  • billtwocasebilltwocase Member Posts: 2,385
    Rod

    At least you threw in there are some exceptions in your post, so I'm not too offended. Not all oil companies with their own servicemen pay poorly and don't care if you save oil or not. I don't know where most are from , but we must be licensed by the state here. That is not a guaranty that all know what they are doing, but it is a start. I run a service dept for a full service oil company. We have been around nearly 50 years. I have seen the results of non oil techs servicing, and can be done just a poorly. I don't personally take offense to that statement, just would rather that not be considered an across the board practice that would discourage customers from finding or staying with a full service oil company.
  • Jamie HallJamie Hall Member Posts: 11,456
    Agreed, Bill...

    The building I supervise has been with the same oil company since the original heat was put in -- 80 years.  Most of the techs they send out for service are very good; there is always the ringer in the deck, but most of them are very good.  Perhaps more important, since we have a service contract, they show up very very fast when burner service is needed -- like no heat at oh dark hundred hours and 5 below.
    Br. Jamie, osb

    Building superintendent/caretaker, 7200 sq. ft. historic house museum with dependencies in New England.

    Hoffman Equipped System (all original except boiler), Weil-Mclain 580, 2.75 gph Carlin, Vapourstat 0.5 -- 6.0 ounces per square inch
  • RodRod Posts: 2,067
    Oil Company Services.

    Bill - I agree with what you say and I apologize to you and any one who might have taken offense to my remarks. No offense was meant. My experience with oil company service techs. is that they are good at what they do when it is connected to oil burners and related controls.

    I have a service contract with my oil company and their service department has always responded promptly if I needed them, no matter what time or weather.

    A Happy Prosperous New Year to you!

    - Rod
  • billtwocasebilltwocase Member Posts: 2,385
    no offense taken

    There are some questionable characters out there for sure. A lot of people frequent this site, and should get as much non bias info as possible. I also believe that each man to his trade, and commend those who know what I don't.  Happy and prosperous New Year to all.
  • Charlie from wmassCharlie from wmass Member Posts: 4,098
    Was here today

    cleaned, adjusted, and vented. We will see how it goes. Thanks guys for the words of recommendation. Really nice couple to work for. It is piped in copper but that is not for today to fix.
    Cost is what you spend , value is what you get.

    cell # 413-841-6726
    https://heatinghelp.com/find-a-contractor/detail/charles-garrity-plumbing-and-heating
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