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$12k annual heat bill? Is something wrong? what can be done?

Jells
Jells Member Posts: 273
I'm in contract on a 4 unit woodframe "brownstone" type building, and it has a single pipe boiler burning oil at an alarming rate, $12k/yr according to the seller. Is this possibly normal for a partially attached and presumably uninsulated 100 year old 4 floor structure 20' x 60'? The boiler appeared to be a W-M not much older than a decade or so, definitely not one of those ancient beasts you hear about seeing in these old places sometimes. The expense of ripping it out and installing 4 hydronic boilers and baseboard heaters is daunting, but if after that I make the tenants pay their own heat it'll pay off rather quickly, with the alternative $12k/yr.



I've never owned a steam system before and this issue is intimidating me

greatly. Are there efficiency solutions out there? (short of gut renovation and rebuilding it with hot water and insulation) Do thermostatic radiator vent valves not work with these small systems?   I called my usual heat guy, but he said he'd need to see it to give good advice, but I need to decide whether to bail on this deal. The numbers are crazy, the monthly heat and taxes are more than the mortgage!



Any general or specific advice from people familiar with this kind of building would be appreciated.



Thanks.

Comments

  • Steamhead
    Steamhead Member Posts: 14,412
    edited August 2011
    There are probably a lot of things

    that can be done to make that system run better. You've come to the right place.



    First thing I'd check are the main vents. Mounted at or near the ends of the steam mains, these are supposed to vent the steam mains so they fill with steam in a minute or two after the boiler starts sending steam into the pipes. In many cases these vents are either not there or way too small. This jacks up the boiler's running time. Fuel suppliers are notorious for removing these vents and plugging their openings.



    Then I'd have an independent contractor clean and tune the boiler. Oil companies in general aren't very good at making boilers run efficiently, since their business model depends on selling a lot of oil. They don't want to pay a tech to reduce their sales.



    Thermostatic radiator vents work well in this type of building. When paired with an outdoor-sensing boiler control such as a Tekmar 279, they will help prevent overheating.



    Don't forget that if a tenant doesn't pay their utility bill, it can cause that apartment to freeze up, damaging the building. It's in your best interest to prevent this, and a central boiler is a good way to do so.



    Post some pictures of the boiler, the ends of the mains and some radiators- let's take a look at it.
    All Steamed Up, Inc.
    Steam, Vapor & Hot-Water Heating Specialists
    Oil & Gas Burner Service
    Consulting
  • GW
    GW Member Posts: 4,083
    edited August 2011
    infiltration

    Your building is more than likely leaking too much air. I was amazed what I learned at Comfort institute many years ago. It's mind blowing how we as heating contractors just look at the heating system and just the surface issues of the thermal envelope. I have actually noticed that if the building are really leaky, a new condensing boiler with constant circ and outdoor reset could actually aggravate this infiltration issue.   My training has saved my hide several times. Unless you have specific answers why heating bills aren't 'good', your hide is on the line every time.
    Gary Wilson
    Wilson Services, Inc
    Northampton, MA
    [email protected]
  • nicholas bonham-carter
    nicholas bonham-carter Member Posts: 8,449
    expensive "brownstone"

    why don't you speak to the tenants and see what their experiences have been with the comfort of the heating system? ironically, some of the most wasteful and inefficient systems are very uncomfortable [too hot, then too cold]. have the occupants ever opened the windows in winter to combat overheating?

     one of your courses of action could be to switch to gas; but don't plan on a  conversion to hot water unless you want to replace all the rads and piping along with the boiler. the pressure of a new hot-water system could be just too high for the old pipes.

    it's difficult in the summer to feel the effects of air infiltration, but can you look for obvious gaps, such as double hung windows which will not close properly?--nbc
  • Dave in QCA
    Dave in QCA Member Posts: 1,764
    edited August 2011
    Occupancy Cost of Apartment

    I have seen many examples where building owners went through enormous costs to remove a central steam system and install many small gas forced air furnaces as a cost saving measure.  The maintenance cost over time increases enormously, not to mention the capital outlay.



    The justification is always based on shifting the cost of the utilities to the occupants.  However, the occupancy cost of an apartment will only bear so much.  Any tenant will consider how much the rent is, and how much the utilities will run.  A heat-included apartment is worth more in rent than one where the tenant pays for his own heat.  The cost of the heat must be a pass-thorugh expense that is included in the rent.



    As a building owner of such a building, it is my advantage to make the spaces as comfortable as I possibly can, insulate, tighten windows, make sure storm windows get closed, etc.  I maintain all spaces at 71 + or - 1F.  It is also a great advantage to have one boiler to maintain instead of 7 forced air furnaces.  I enjoy the lower cost of natural gas in the midwest, and annual heating bill is about $6,000 for 8,400 gross sq ft of space.  I have a lot of room for improvement in my boiler system.  I have made many improvements to correct deferred maintenance and to even out the steam distribution.  I will proceed with more improvements over the next few years.



    My advice, if you decide to buy the building, is to have the system tuned by a good competent steam man.  Insulate the structure whereever it can reasonably be done.  Tighten and maintain windows and storms.  (Replacment windows are a waste of money.)  Once the heating costs are well-managed, make sure your tenants realize the value they are getting, i.e., the rent is $X, and it includes heat which would be about $X per month on average if they were paying for it directly.  Your rents may have room to be increased as well....

    Perhaps the present owner can't figure out how to control his heating costs and therefore is dumping the building.  If you do your homework and solve problems, the present lack system maintenance and utility managment could be to your advantage.



    I would also want to have the boiler very closely inspected, fire side and from above by removing the flue collector.  It could have a leak above the water line and blowing half the steam up the chimney.



    good luck as you proceed,

    Dave
    Dave in Quad Cities, America
    Weil-McLain 680 with Riello 2-stage burner, December 2012. Firing rate=375MBH Low, 690MBH Hi.
    System = Early Dunham 2-pipe Vacuo-Vapor (inlet and outlet both at bottom of radiators) Traps are Dunham #2 rebuilt w. Barnes-Jones Cage Units, Dunham-Bush 1E, Mepco 1E, and Armstrong TS-2. All valves haveTunstall orifices sized at 8 oz.
    Current connected load EDR= 1,259 sq ft, Original system EDR = 2,100 sq ft Vaporstat, 13 oz cutout, 4 oz cutin - Temp. control Tekmar 279.
    http://grandviewdavenport.com
  • Jells
    Jells Member Posts: 273
    sigh....

    Thanks for all the comments.  It still leaves me up in the air as whether the $12k is over the top for this structure. The efficiency aspects I can't really address, perhaps some of the setup of the boiler can be diagnosed by my heat guy. He suggested individual forced air as a replacement, saying it was lower maintenance!  But that's also a ton of interior work installing the ducts and building soffits around it. Probably more interior work than running zone lines up to each unit and installing baseboard, especially if pex can be fished up the chases.



    I have a 3 family with separate boilers, and it's been low maintenance for 7 years. My other building I've been replacing "gas on gas" in 450 ft units with baseboard running off the domestic water heater. Works like a charm, and is quiet and efficient enough given the small space.  My heat guy did the 1st conversion using a minitherm boiler and an indirect WH. It was a nightmare of noise and maintenance, and a big footprint in a small space.



    While the rents seem to be priced "no heat included", I don't think I can raise them $250! especially as one is a basement studio for $600. I guess I've just got to determine and decide if I can either replace the system, or ultimately increase it's efficiency and raise rents to meet in the middle.  Otherwise that 12K is a deal killer. What's insane is the owner has it mortgaged for $120k over our offer.
  • Paul Fredricks_3
    Paul Fredricks_3 Member Posts: 1,549
    where

    Where is this building located?
  • nicholas bonham-carter
    nicholas bonham-carter Member Posts: 8,449
    what can be done?

    you could even without firing the burner, verify whether the boiler is grossly over-sized. you would need to make a list of the radiators and their edr, and make sure that the total of the radiation therefore matches the output of the boiler. the burner may or may not be able to be down-fired.

    in addition, verify that the main [not rad] venting is adequate with big vents, like gorton #2's on the dry returns. if the venting is too small, then the fuel company has been paid to force the air out of the system.

    finally talk to the occupants about their experience.--nbc
  • Jells
    Jells Member Posts: 273
    I'm in Jersey

    I'm in New Jersey.
  • Jells
    Jells Member Posts: 273
    But is $12k way too much or not?

    NBC, once I'm out of attorney review and doing a full inspection, I guess there's lots of detective work that can be done. My problem is deciding, with little info,  if this property is too troubled to proceed with the purchase.
  • Steamhead
    Steamhead Member Posts: 14,412
    edited August 2011
    Without seeing what condition the system and building are in

    it's hard to judge. But since it's a steam system, there are probably lots of things that can be improved, for not much cost.



    Oh, and since your "heat guy... suggested individual forced air as a replacement, saying it was lower maintenance!" I'd say you need a new heat guy. He's undoubtedly salivating at the prospect of a huge tear-out, scrapping all that metal and running all that ductwork. Try the Find a Contractor page of this site, there are plenty of Steam Guys in Joisey.
    All Steamed Up, Inc.
    Steam, Vapor & Hot-Water Heating Specialists
    Oil & Gas Burner Service
    Consulting
  • Jells
    Jells Member Posts: 273
    edited August 2011
    Ah, the "can I trust the contractor" circle of hell!

    The issue of determining whether your contractor is both competent and honest haunts us all.  Even when the job was obviously a bad idea (like the boiler/indirect in a tiny apt) I think he honestly thought it was the best plan. He's said he wouldn't do that today. But I was pretty startled by the forced air suggestion. It seems another system appropriate for a larger space crammed into a small one. But I trust him more than anyone else I've ever used.



    I'm a pretty hands on guy, most work that I ever hire a mechanical

    contractor for is stuff I'm legally prohibited from doing by not being

    licensed.  I've gotten prices, particularly at the boom peak, that were insane, and you were luck they called you back. Some were double or triple other bids. Some were clearly the F-YOU price as in "I don't want to do the job, but this is the price I'll do it for".  I can go on about bad jobs. One plumber ran a gas line right in front of the shutoff valve so you couldn't get a wrench on it, you were lucky to sneak a vise-grip back there and barely close it. Another referred by a supplier did an emergency install of a boiler on a December weekend. It was backing up exhaust, and they couldn't solve the problem, blaming it on my WH sharing the flue. When I tore out their vent work, I saw they hadn't put the pipe all the way through the basement wall into the chimney, and some crap inside the brick wall had fallen and blocked it. Of course at that point I had already gotten an indirect WH to solve the problem.



    So tell me, why are contractors on this site more competent and honest than others? There's also only 1 within a 1/2 hr drive that not across the river, and NYC contractors usually hate to come to Jersey.



    Tech question: when I asked the heat guy about thermostatic vent valves, he said something about them only working on continuous pressure systems. True? Is there other "in the room" technology that can increase efficiency?
  • Steamhead
    Steamhead Member Posts: 14,412
    Because

    we've taken the time to learn these things!
    All Steamed Up, Inc.
    Steam, Vapor & Hot-Water Heating Specialists
    Oil & Gas Burner Service
    Consulting
  • Steamhead
    Steamhead Member Posts: 14,412
    Where

    have you seen this happen? How did you track it down? 
    All Steamed Up, Inc.
    Steam, Vapor & Hot-Water Heating Specialists
    Oil & Gas Burner Service
    Consulting
  • Jells
    Jells Member Posts: 273
    Versus

    my guy who's spent some 40 years as a heating specialist? I'm not saying that necessarily makes him a genius, but neither does listing yourself on a website!



    I'm a cynic. I wish I could have more faith. I have a small business, and there's plenty of people out there not nearly as competent as me, but way better at the hustle. It's just the way things go. If you're really good at what you do, I'm sure you know the same types. In my experience, when gifted people are as good at the hustle as they are at the craft, you read about them in the papers. Folks like Steve's Jobs & Spielberg.
  • Dave in QCA
    Dave in QCA Member Posts: 1,764
    thermostatic vent valves

    Regarding the statement that Thermostatic vent valves work only on conintuous pressure, quite the opposite is true.



    The way this device works is to slow or completely limiting the air from being vented from a radiator, thus preventing steam from entering, and preventing the radiator from heating during that heat cycle.  If the room cools, the vent will open and will allow venting to occur, and steam entering the radiator the next time steam comes up.



    If the Thermostatic vent valve is in the open position, steam comes up, and the radiator heats, a downward adjustment of the dial to close the vent, or excessing room temperature causing the vent to close will not reduce the heating in the radiator once steam has fully heated the radiator.. Boiler has to shut off, and the system become filled with air before the thermosatic vent valve can prevent heating.
    Dave in Quad Cities, America
    Weil-McLain 680 with Riello 2-stage burner, December 2012. Firing rate=375MBH Low, 690MBH Hi.
    System = Early Dunham 2-pipe Vacuo-Vapor (inlet and outlet both at bottom of radiators) Traps are Dunham #2 rebuilt w. Barnes-Jones Cage Units, Dunham-Bush 1E, Mepco 1E, and Armstrong TS-2. All valves haveTunstall orifices sized at 8 oz.
    Current connected load EDR= 1,259 sq ft, Original system EDR = 2,100 sq ft Vaporstat, 13 oz cutout, 4 oz cutin - Temp. control Tekmar 279.
    http://grandviewdavenport.com
  • Jells
    Jells Member Posts: 273
    Thanks Dave.

     So, in a small building situation like this under 4k ft & a single pipe boiler,there's no circumstance where they wouldn't be a good idea? It looked like they were ~$50 each, seems like a no brainer to do them, and it's a DIY install. Am I missing something?
  • Dave in QCA
    Dave in QCA Member Posts: 1,764
    all depends...

    If the building is very evenly heated and well controlled, they would be a waste of money.  Where they are especially nice is when you have areas that overheat, or overheat some of the time, such as the south face of the building that may have huge solar gain on a sunny day.  Also nice in areas where tenants may want the space cooler, such as a bedroom. 



    The specific area where the thermostat or sensor is located that runs the boiler, should NOT have a thermostatic vent valve.



    Since they are relatively inexpensive, and do not require a skilled tech to put them in, probably a good bet.
    Dave in Quad Cities, America
    Weil-McLain 680 with Riello 2-stage burner, December 2012. Firing rate=375MBH Low, 690MBH Hi.
    System = Early Dunham 2-pipe Vacuo-Vapor (inlet and outlet both at bottom of radiators) Traps are Dunham #2 rebuilt w. Barnes-Jones Cage Units, Dunham-Bush 1E, Mepco 1E, and Armstrong TS-2. All valves haveTunstall orifices sized at 8 oz.
    Current connected load EDR= 1,259 sq ft, Original system EDR = 2,100 sq ft Vaporstat, 13 oz cutout, 4 oz cutin - Temp. control Tekmar 279.
    http://grandviewdavenport.com
  • Rod
    Rod Posts: 2,067
    edited August 2011
    Tekmar 279 & TRVs

    Since you are new to steam you might want to look at the steam books that are available in the “Shop” section at the top of this page. I would start with “We Got Steam Heat!” as it is a good introduction to residential steam heating.

    http://www.heatinghelp.com/products/Steam-Heating-Books/25/61/We-Got-Steam-Heat-A-Homeowners-Guide-to-Peaceful-Coexistence

    It’s easy, humorous reading, is crammed full of facts, pictures and illustrations and is written for someone, pro or homeowner, who is new to steam. A couple of evenings of reading will put you light years ahead in your knowledge of steam heating. One of the book’s biggest advantages is that it helps you recognize and separate the “heating specialists”, who really understand steam from the “heating specialists” who are “knuckleheads” who think they do.

         TRVs (Thermostatic Radiator Valves) - I’ve attached some info which maybe of help to you. Note that some units are “tamper proof” and allow an apartment owner to limit the adjustability of the settings.



       Tekmar 279-  Frank, “Steamhead”, who is a top notch steam pro, mentioned in a post above the Tekmar 279 . Here is a link to info on it.

    http://tekmarcontrols.com/hvacsystems/279.html

     Read through the manual and you will soon see the benefit of this unit. It has outdoor reset and multi indoor temperature sensors to control building heat and system efficiency which would probably make a big difference in the fuel bill

    - Rod
  • nicholas bonham-carter
    nicholas bonham-carter Member Posts: 8,449
    lower fuel bills

    don't forget that the desire for lower heating costs is not a new one, and that when first installed, the steam system was regarded as one of the most efficient, and comfortable methods of heating available at that time [when properly maintained].

    over the years of deferred maintenance, the venting has probably been allowed to plug up, the burner to get out of adjustment, and the building envelope to leak air. this is like any fixer-upper property. you are very lucky that you can do most of these things yourself, but so far have been unlucky in your choice of contractors [why is that?].

    you will have to get the condition of the building closer to it's original mechanical/weather-stripping condition, and thus lower the cost of renting out the apartments. in addition, the level of comfort experienced by your tenants can be improved so that the rents can be raised.

    we can help you get the steam system running as well as day one, and you can plug the air-leaks.

    when you get along further, post some pictures of the boiler, and piping.--nbc
  • Jells
    Jells Member Posts: 273
    Looking at data on the TRV, I saw this:

    Note: For proper valve operation, the steam supply

    must be cycled by a boiler control. Do not install

    the 1PS thermostatic radiator valve assembly in a

    zone where the boiler is cycled by an existing space

    thermostat.



    Could this be what my contractor was referring to by "constant pressure"?  It seems to contradict the comment that all I had to do was avoid  installing one of these where the main boiler thermostat is.
  • Rod
    Rod Posts: 2,067
    edited August 2011
    1 Pipe TRV

    In this "note" there are two pieces of information.

    The phrase "Do not install the 1PS thermostatic radiator valve assembly in a zone where the boiler is cycled by an existing space thermostat"  means  "avoid installing one of these where the main boiler thermostat is".



    The other  phrase, "For proper valve operation, the steam supply must be cycled by a boiler control" refers to the need to have the system shut off from time to time so that air can reenter the radiator by way of the vacuum breaker valve. The TRV having reached the set temperature is closed which then stops the air from escaping (and the steam from entering ) the radiator when the burner turns on again.

    If the building has its own boiler, it will cycle (or can be made to cycle) by the pressuretrol (pressure controller) and/ or by the thermostat.

     "Constant pressure" refers to those buildings that are on municipal steam systems where steam pressure is always available/constant and you don't have control of the boiler's operation

    - Rod
  • Dave in QCA
    Dave in QCA Member Posts: 1,764
    edited August 2011
    Your contractor is wrong.

    The information that you posted is in complete agreement with my posts above, and Rod's post immediately above.



    Let me cut and dissect this.....

    Looking at data on the TRV, I saw this:

    Note: For proper valve operation, the steam supply must be cycled by a boiler control.

         

    This means that the steam supply must not be constant.



    Do not install the 1PS thermostatic radiator valve assembly in a zone where the boiler is cycled by an existing space thermostat.



    This means, do not install a TRV on a radiator that is the same room as the thermostat that controls the boiler  (if there is one).  The obvious problem would be that the TRV could be set lower than the thermostat, preventing steam from entering the radiator, while the thermostat is not satisfied, and keeps calling for more steam.





    Could this be what my contractor was referring to by "constant pressure"?

     

    NO.



    It seems to contradict the comment that all I had to do was avoid installing one of these where the main boiler thermostat is. 



    No, it is completely consistent.  2 points...   Do not install a TRV in the room where the thermostat or sensor that controls the boiler is located.  Do NOT install a TRV on a radiator that has a constant and uninterrupted supply of steam.  The steam must come up, and go down, so that the piping fills with air.  Without that, a TRV will not have any effect.
    Dave in Quad Cities, America
    Weil-McLain 680 with Riello 2-stage burner, December 2012. Firing rate=375MBH Low, 690MBH Hi.
    System = Early Dunham 2-pipe Vacuo-Vapor (inlet and outlet both at bottom of radiators) Traps are Dunham #2 rebuilt w. Barnes-Jones Cage Units, Dunham-Bush 1E, Mepco 1E, and Armstrong TS-2. All valves haveTunstall orifices sized at 8 oz.
    Current connected load EDR= 1,259 sq ft, Original system EDR = 2,100 sq ft Vaporstat, 13 oz cutout, 4 oz cutin - Temp. control Tekmar 279.
    http://grandviewdavenport.com
  • Jells
    Jells Member Posts: 273
    Thank again all.

    I've been doing more research. How come no one has said "convert to gas, dummy!?"  Never having owned an oil system, I had no idea oil was so much more expensive, it sounds like I could cut at least $4-5K/yr off the bill. And isn't it likely that the W-M boiler is easy to convert?



    Who knows what gas combined with TRV's will save (presuming this sale goes through!)
  • Steamhead
    Steamhead Member Posts: 14,412
    Which W-M boiler

    do you have?



    And don't forget, while gas is cheaper per BTU now, it was more expensive five years ago. There's nothing wrong with oil in and of itself, as long as the equipment gets proper care.
    All Steamed Up, Inc.
    Steam, Vapor & Hot-Water Heating Specialists
    Oil & Gas Burner Service
    Consulting
  • BobC
    BobC Member Posts: 5,184
    Look at what you have

    Before tearing everything out and replacing it with forced hot air you should get someone who knows steam to look over that system. The boiler, the piping and the radiators all have to be examined to see what might be causing such high fuel bills. Most contractors don't know steam so the first thing they suggest is to tear it all out. Your contractor sounds like he is not comfortable with steam so I would look for a second opinion. They just retrofitted the Empire State building a few years ago to cut energy use and they left the steam heating pretty much intact because it was so cheap to operate. They  added reflectors behind the steam radiant panels so the heat would not go into the walls and updated the control system.  It's running at 3-4 PSI and that is for a 100 story building! They are using district steam so they do not have a steam boiler onsite.



    Find out what issues the system has and see what it will cost to correct them. Converting to gas would help (gas will probably be cheaper than oil because it is coming from domestic sources), but make sure everything else is working right before doing that. I have a 90+ year old house (1150 sq ft) that has attic insulation but none in the walls (it does have tight windows and doors) one block from the coast in Massachusetts and I only burned 295.1 gallons of oil last year. I keep the house at 64 for 16 hours and 60 for 8 hours a day. Steam heat can be quite efficient if it is tuned and maintained; it also scales up pretty well so size should not change things if EVERYTHING is working correctly..



    What pressure is the system operating at? It should be less than 2 PSI and lower is better, my system runs at 12 oz max. Is the water in the boiler clean and does the water in the sight glass bounce up and down like crazy when it is making steam?. the water has to be clean and the sight glass should not bounce up and down by more than 1/4" or so.



    Venting. How long and what size are the steam mains? The volume of each main should be calculated and enough venting should be added to purge all the air in a minute or two. Why burn oil to squeeze air out of a bound system? Make sure all the radiator vents are working and properly sized. radiators should be checked with a level to make sure they pitch back towards the boiler.



     Over the years the building may have settled and some of the pipes may not have the pitch the need so condensing steam can find it's way back to the boiler. This can cause banging and it can stop the steam from getting to some of the radiators. All the piping in the basement should be insulated so your not heating

    the basement. If there is any banging going on, find out why and fix it.



    As to the building itself, it should be tightened up to eliminate as much air infiltration as possible. The top floor ceilings have to be well insulated, wall insulation would be great but I think most gains are made in the ceiling insulation.



    Once the mechanical systems are working right you can look into using TRV's to control the heat in areas that tend to overheat.



    I bought some of the books that are for sale on this site and I've trimmed my fuel use by about 40% by putting the knowledge to use. Post some pictures of the boiler and the piping that comes off it so we can see what your dealing with. Take pictures of the main vents and a couple of representative radiators and their vents.



    It may well cost thousands to get that system working correctly but that is a lot less than installing a different type of system and all the construction costs that will go with it.



    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
  • nicholas bonham-carter
    nicholas bonham-carter Member Posts: 8,449
    in your favor

    you are lucky that the fuel costs have been so high, because all the "fixer-upper house-flippers" will offer much less of a purchase price, because they will have been erroneously told by your "regular heat guy" that the only solution is "replace with hot air".

    you however, armed with knowledge from this site, and assisted by a real steam pro, will have the system working as it once did for much less. instead of spending 4 times the annual fuel cost on a replacement, you will probably spend a quarter of the annual cost-most on correction of deferred maintenance. when you get the project underway, post some pictures of the boiler piping, so you can get some advice on where to start.--nbc
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