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Desperate soul needs help regarding converting from oil to gas (1920s radiators)

For the last two months, our heating oil bill was $600 (for 27 days). House is as tight as an old house can be, boiler has been tuned up and cleaned, and we've done everything we can think to do.

I write about old houses and I've written countless articles on how to tighten up an old home, and yet stay sensitive to the time period. So, trust me, insulation and weather-stripping is not an issue here.

My question is, I'm thinking about going from oil to gas, and I'd like to just pull out the old oil burner and stick in a gas burner. Is that something that can be done, and does it make sense to do so?

I had a nice guy come out and quote me $7,500 to go with a tankless high-efficiency 200,000 BTU boiler, but that's out of my budget right now.

If I were your sister, how would you advise me? These $600 bills are outrageous. The house is about 2,000 square feet.

Rose in Norfolk


  • James Day_2
    James Day_2 Member Posts: 191
    Heat Loss

    Do you have steam heat or hot water?  200,000 btu seems alot, especially if you have improved on the house's insulation.  A proper heat loss should be done before the boiler would be replaced. Replacing it off of the old sticker on the boiler is not acceptable.  Where are you located?  If you are looking for a contractor who will do the job right, use the find a contractor link off this website. 
  • RosemaryThornton
    it's not steam

    It's a hot-water system (not steam).

    The existing boiler is 200,000 BTU.

    Aside from the BTUs, is it possible to just remove the oil-fired burner and stick in a gas-fired burner, without replacing the whole boiler?
  • James Day_2
    James Day_2 Member Posts: 191

    It depends on your boiler, but just changing from oil to natural gas isn't going to save you money.  If you really want to save money on fuel,  A proper heat loss should be done on your residence.  Your boiler is 200,000 btu.  I have seen homes with 2000 sqft only needing boilers around 40,000 to 60,000.   Like I said a proper heat loss should be done.  I would not just try and switch to gas.  Your home with cast iron radiators would be perfect for a mod/con boiler.  You could really save some money in fuel with the proper set up.
  • j a_2
    j a_2 Member Posts: 1,801
    mod con

    Hello    Forget, the gas conversion burner, it is a terrible way to convert.....You need to get a proper heat loss done and then make a decision on what type of equipment you want......I can tell you a mod con is made for your type of system, installed properly you will be nice and comfortable and have gone green....You can also install a conventional up the chimney category 1 boiler and  installed with a required by pass and an added outdoor reset you will definitely save on fuel bills.....Mr Dan does not want to discuss pricing so please don't ask.....Find a good contractor in your area, I suggest go to the BBB web site or Angies list.......Stay away from the friend of a friend or the moonlighters...Its a very straight fwd job, done correctly    ja
  • Brad White
    Brad White Member Posts: 2,398
    edited February 2011
    Norfolk, MASS?

    Hi Rosemary,

    Are you in Norfolk, MA? Curious. I am in Auburndale (Newton), by point of reference.

    Might this be a case of cost over consumption? Not to minimize the obvious expense, but your consumption may be "normal" but the cost per gallon hits everyone burning oil. Same end result, just a perspective.

    I took your $600 figure and divided it by a presumed $3.25 per gallon and get about 185 gallons usage. How does that square with what you have used, in quantity?

    I used actual Norfolk, MA Heating Degree Day (HDD) data for January, (1256 HDD by the way).  I also assumed a 70% system efficiency and that you keep the place on the coldest day at 70 degrees inside when it is 5 degrees outside. How does that sound, compared to your actual conditions?

    From the above, I calculated a heat loss for your home of about 65,000 BTUH which works out to about 32.5 BTUH per SF as a benchmark number. This is respectable for an older house with retrofitted improvements in that size.

    (A typical range in the Boston area for homes built between 1875 and 1950, with blown-in insulation, storm windows and insulated attics might fall between 30 and 45 BTUH per SF, so if this "snapshot" proves in range of being accurate, you are better than average.)

    So, back to your questions, what can you do to improve this?

    1) Your 200 MBH current boiler (MBH is short-hand for "thousands of BTUs per hour) is, well, a bit over-sized. This contributes to lower efficiency due to cycle losses and being oil in that size, would be on-off control, not "modulating" which is far preferred.

    You will see the term "ModCon" used in this forum and it is shorthand for MODulating CONdensing. Modulation is the key here, condensing is a bonus. Think of simmering versus a rolling boil on a gas cooktop. Modulation makes that happen but in a boiler it is automatic.

    2) ANY house can stand some improvement in heat loss. Air sealing has proven to be cost-effective and increase comfort in the bargain. If the attic has already been insulated, there is a challenge. You have to pull back the insulation to inject foam into piping and wiring penetrations. Best bet is a flash coat of spray foam, an inch or two, over the floor (if your attic floor is the thermal boundary), followed by a foot to a foot and a half of open-blown cellulose. Made a huge difference in my former old house.

    3) To replace the system- it may be time. Normally I do not recommend replacing a working piece of equipment for the sake of energy savings alone. But if the decision point is putting more money into re-piping an existing boiler to get more efficiency or another season out of it, it may be time to plan for a replacement. By "plan", I mean, "have a plan in place" so that if you have a sudden emergency, loss of your boiler in a cold snap, you do not have to make rash decisions and repent at leisure. Make sense?

    4) Let's get a better handle on your actual heat loss and get a properly sized boiler in there. I would also suggest putting thermostatic radiator valves on your radiators to tame them, along with outdoor reset control. (Outdoor reset control is inherent in most modern ModCon boilers or is readily added. Recommended regardless). That your radiators date from the 1920's is good- especially if the early 1920's when over-sizing was the rule. (Think "The Great Influenza" and the notion of heating with a window open here and there for higher ventilation.) This means you can heat with lower water temperatures than your neighbors with older or younger systems.

    There is more, always. But the above should get you started.

    EDIT: You mentioned that you wrote about old houses, so I checked on Google and I have your Sears Kit House book, by coincidence! Our last house, 1922 gambrel, we had thought was one, but no. Anyway, a great resource!
    "If you do not know the answer, say, "I do not know the answer", and you will be correct!"

    -Ernie White, my Dad
  • CMadatMe
    CMadatMe Member Posts: 3,086
    To My Sister

    Heating season is just about over and you should plan on doing the replacement in August, early September. I would suggest you begin the planning today. This will give you some time to do some research and begin putting away some money towards the project.

    Our utility company offers us substantial utility rebates on high efficiency equipment and may also take care of some of the cost for converting from oil to gas. I would start interviewing local contractors and continue to use heatinghelp.com to provide unbiased advise and recommendations based on what the contractors are offering you. Some areas where you could look for quality contractors are through the local building department or goggle for local plumbing and heating trade organizations in our community. But always my dear sister ask for references. Make sure those references are for similar installations to what you need for your home. Makes no sense to get a reference concerning a job that isn't the same or has no bearing on a contractors experience with high efficiency systems.

    No matter the contractor that knocks on your door he should be performing a heat loss calculation the house. It is a mandatory and a necessity to sizing the replacement boiler correctly. He should also be measuring those beautiful 1920 love of a condensing boiler radiators capable btu output to select the proper heating curve for your new boiler. He should be able to give you options on the install. There are many products out there other than just the boiler that can assist in energy savings. You want to know about those options because even if you can't afford them today you can at least have the knowledge of knowing you can increase some fuel and possibly electrical savings in the future. You would also know the cost of these upgrades to put away some pennies for the future.

    Lastly, please do not be intimidated due to lack of knowledge. Begin educating yourself, ask questions and the best way to protect yourself and your dead presidents is to ask at heatinghelp.com

    There was an error rendering this rich post.

  • RosemaryThornton
    RosemaryThornton Member Posts: 4
    edited February 2011

    Thanks for the replies! And what a delight to find so many long-lost brothers right here at heatinghelp.com.  ;)

    The existing boiler is 200,000 BTU and it's a Utica boiler, with a manufacture date of 2002.  In 2002, this grand old house was used as a boarding house (bad time for the 'hood), and the homeowner did lots of super-low rent repairs. I wouldn't be surprised if the job was done by "three guys and a rusty chain-saw" kinda company.

    I doubt it was properly sized.

    Plus, in 2002, the house was not very well insulated and the windows were a train wreck (several cracked and several not even shutting all the way), and there were no storm doors and very few storm windows.

    Since then, we've added all of the above, replaced a few windows (don't tell anyone about that though because architectural historians are opposed to new windows), and in short - we've done 101 things to tighten up the house.

    The boiler guy who recommended the new High Efficiency tankless gas-fired boiler based his estimate on the existing equipment.

    As to geography, I'm in Norfolk, Virginia and the weather here ain't nothing like Massachusetts! We have mild winters and it's the summertime that knocks us for a loop.

    Thanks again for the replies. I'm still trying to read and learn and figure out what to do. I like the idea of waiting 'til Fall 2011, because I'm thoroughly stressed out over this. Thoroughly.

    BTW, I love my radiators. I'd love to hang onto them, too.  We paid about $13 trillion to have this one in the bathroom redone.


    Thanks for the help. Keep those ideas coming.  :)
  • Eric_32
    Eric_32 Member Posts: 267
    edited February 2011
    Just want to add a little....

    bit to Brad's comment above. He mentioned thermostatic radiator valves. Not sure if you know what they are. They get installed in place of the existing valves to your radiators, and are basically an adjustable thermostat for each radiator.

     Each can be set to a certain temperature independant of each other, and will open and close the radiator valve to maintain that temp. They do not turn on the boiler, that would be done by the existing thermostat in the house. but will provide more comfort for rooms that are "away" from that thermostat.  

    I would avoid the conversion burner and lean towards the Mod Con. if money allows sized properly.

    If money is tight and that is not feasable, outdoor reset could be added to your oil boiler and would also provide a good savings.
  • Charlie from wmass
    Charlie from wmass Member Posts: 4,322
    With a cast iron system like yours

    a mod con boiler can work really well. The large size of the radiators allows for a nice low return temp to the boiler which helps it wring out the extra savings from your fuel. A proper heat loss to size the boiler will also help. With you being In Norfolk The boiler should work out quite small compared to your old unit. 
    Cost is what you spend , value is what you get.

    cell # 413-841-6726
  • RosemaryThornton
    RosemaryThornton Member Posts: 4
    edited March 2011

    Well, I got two more estimates from two more companies, both of whom I trust. And I talked to neighbors who've had this work done. Bottom line is, the high efficiency gas-fired tankless "modulating" boiler seems to win the day.

    The bid from the first guy was the best and that's what we're going with. They came highly recommended by my neighbors, who also yanked out old oil-fired boilers. One of them was only SIX years old!  (Mine is nine years old.)

    It pains me to dump so much money into something like a boiler, especially in these uncertain economic times, but I can't continue to donate $600 a month to the oil company - and that was based on prices SIX weeks ago!!!

    Besides, I guess we were debt free long enough. Sigh.

    We are going to go ahead and do it *now* because of the $500 rebate that won't be around much longer (local utility) and we are OUT of oil, and I don't want to buy more. And prices on everything are shooting up.

    Thanks so much for the help. I am profoundly grateful.

    And if anyone wants to give "Sis" a little pat on the hand of encouragement and explain that sometimes you have to spend *TONS* of money on things like this, that'd be okay too. I've really been stressed about the dollars.

    I'm that person who drives a 2003 Camry with 155,000 miles because I'm too cheap to buy a new car when my old one (purchased brand new) "runs so darn good."  :)

    In closing, here are a couple pictures of my pretty, pretty Sears Houses, When I freak out (like I've been doing the last few days over money), looking at pictures of Sears Homes is a hit of valium.  :)  Pictured is the Sears Alhambra, one of the 370 designs that Sears offered  during their 32 years in the kit home business.

    Is it legal to add links? If someone wants to see more pretty pretty pictures, I have a website dedicated to the topic with more than 1,000 such pictures.  ;)
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