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convert to gas now, or wait until I learn more about steam?

I've just moved into a house with a 20yo Weil-McLain oil-fired steam boiler, a very rusty in-basement oil tank of unknown vintage that has clearly been patched before, and steam radiators.  This is my first experience with steam.  I'm tempted to switch to gas (already in the house) so I can get rid of the oil tank and bring in a newer, more efficient boiler.  I realize that I have a lot to learn  before I can assess if someone is going to do the job right.  With the heating season not far off (I'm in the NYC metro area), I need to decide quickly whether to:

1. keep the existing oil tank, have the current boiler serviced, cross my fingers that I don't have any tank or boiler failures during the winter, and study up about steam so I can make an informed upgrade/conversion next summer.   The heating system worked at the home inspection, but I don't know if the boiler is in good condition.  The house in general was not well-maintained by previous owners, so I'm guessing the heating system was neglected as well.  The oil tank is a scary sight, but it is not leaking at the moment.  I don't know how much sludge is in there.

OR

2.  replace the oil tank, service the existing boiler,  cross my fingers a little less tightly, and study up.

OR

3.  Take the plunge and switch to gas, hoping I find someone good to do the work.  Any recommendations for good steam heat folks in Westchester County, NY?



Regardless of which option I chose, I'll study up.  I just ordered Greening Steam, and will read the primers on this website. Should I also be reading the other steam heat books by Dan Holohan, or would that be redundant?



I've already learned so much from reading the posts of this terrific group.  Thank you!

JV
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Comments

  • Greg Maxwell
    Greg Maxwell Member Posts: 212
    Conversion

    Here's my 2 cents worth. First and formost, get yourself a competent contractor, one who is familiar with steam, oil and gas. Get him over there to access you system needs, and answer your questions. Make sure he is well qualified, and comes well recommended.

    Second, get rid of that old oil tank. If it has been patched before, there is no doubt in my mind that it will again.

    Third, check with your natural gas utility. There may be some incentives for changing to natural gas. A good burner such as a Carlin EZ gas burner can give you pretty good efficiency. I wouldnt necessarilly just change out that boiler just yet. There have not been a lot of  changes to steam equiptment in the past 20 yrs,(if it was a water boiler, there have been many). Then, have your system looked at, vents changed, maybe setback thermostats put in.
  • BobC
    BobC Member Posts: 5,185
    edited August 2011
    Know the true cost before you jump ship

    I just replied to an article in the Boston Globe about the pricing of oil vs natural gas in the Boston area; they said gas was about 50% the cost of oil and I told them that just ain't so -



    If you figure the total cost of natural

    gas (fuel, delivery, and fees you will see that amounted to $1.93 per

    therm (100,000 BTU's) in February of this last winter. Now since a

    gallon of oil contains 138,000 BTU's we can extrapolate the cost of

    natural gas to be $2.66 for an equivalent amount of oil (one

    gallon). I paid $3.18 per gallon in February for heating oil and that

    means oil cost about 20% more than natural gas not twice as much. My

    steam boiler was just cleaned last week and the efficiency was tested

    at 83%, there are very few natural gas steam boilers that can better

    that figure by anything substantial.




    Many people don't realize how efficient

    a properly installed and tuned steam system can be. The blowers and

    pumps for hot air and forced hot water use significant amounts of

    electricity. When the day comes that I have to replace my boiler I

    will probably switch to natural gas for the fuel savings but for me

    to switch now would not be cost effective. I would save about $115 a

    year (based on 400 gallons of oil a year). To install a new boiler is

    not cheap ($6-7,000) and that $115 yearly savings on fuel would take

    56 years to pay me back if I replaced the boiler just to save money

    on fuel.




    Listen to what Greg told you about ditching the tank if it is a problem and maybe converting to natural gas. Make sure you know what the are getting for natural gas in your area during the winter months and include all the costs (cost of fuel, delivery, taxes, and fees). The gas company lies through their **** about this stuff so be careful!



    My 15 year old Burham v75 oil boiler was just tuned last week and they claim 83% combustion efficiency. As i said above when the old girl dies I'll probably go gas but not till then.



    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
  • jv100
    jv100 Posts: 56
    edited August 2011
    Thanks, Greg!

    Do I understand you correctly that I can change from an oil burner to a gas burner without changing the boiler?  That option never occurred to me.  If that is what you meant, what issues do I need to be aware of (i.e that I need to make sure the contractor takes into account)?

    Con Edison is offering incentives; a few hundred dollars on a new boiler, I believe. 

    A qualified, competent contractor...yes, that's the biggest challenge!!
  • jv100
    jv100 Posts: 56
    edited August 2011
    Thanks, Bob!

    I agree that the savings would not pay for the conversion in the short term.  Without a strong incentive, financial or otherwise, I'm usually in the "if it ain't broke..." camp.  My last house had a hot-water boiler built in 1928; we kept waiting for it to give out, but it didn't.  Then again, I drive a Prius, and the gas savings there will never pay for the inflated price of the car.  So much for consistency.



    If the oil tank in this new house wasn't in such lousy shape, I'd probably just stick with the current set-up until the boiler gives out.  But I'm not sure it makes sense to swap out the oil tank for a new one, only to get rid of the new one once the boiler goes and I'm ready to switch to gas.  Tanks cost something, as does disposing the remaining oil. 
  • TomM
    TomM Posts: 233
    welcome

    welcome jv.  I'd suggest sticking with your existing system (assuming the boiler and tank are safe) and hang out on the wall for at least one winter.  By that time, you'll know all the ins and outs of steam and you'll understand what a proper boiler install looks like, correct sizing, system balancing, proper venting, knucklehead repairs/contractors, etc.  I wouldn't make any major decisions until you hangout for awhile......
    beautiful Conshohocken PA
  • jv100
    jv100 Posts: 56
    Thanks, TomM!

    I certainly am tempted to stick with the current system and learn as much as I can about steam.  My main concern is that oil tank. I think I'll set up a tune-up call for the boiler, and chat with the service person about the tank. 
  • Rod
    Rod Posts: 2,067
    Welcome to the World of Steam Heating!

    Hi- Having been in a similar situation 5 years ago as you are now in, my advice would be to go with your option 1.  Take you time and learn about steam heating and learn how your present system works.   It summer here on the Wall, so conversation about steam heating is rather slow though in the winter it (pardon the pun) really "heats up" and you will be to learn a lot about steam through reading the discussion of other people's problems. With what you learn from Dan's excellent steam books and the discussion on the Wall, you will be well prepared to plan for possible boiler replacement next spring/summer.



    Books- All of Dan's steam books are great. When I started with steam, "Greening Steam" hadn't yet been written, so I can't judge it as how it relates to someone new to steam heating.

    When I started out I got the "Steamy Deal" which included 3 books: "We Got Steam Heat !" and "The Lost Art of Steam Heating" and "A Pocket full of Steam Problems"   I started reading "The Lost Art..." first and realized afterward that it would have been better to start with "We Got Steam Heat" as it contains all the definitions and terminology you need to know to better understand "The Lost Art...".   Don't get me wrong on this, All these books are written so the homeowner can understand them just that I think from my experience, starting with "We Got Steam Heat!"  might be better. The books are easy reading and humorous and crammed full of information. You'll find they are like a good novel and are hard to put down. The knowledge the books give you has easily saved me over the years at least 100 times their value.

    Pros- Look at the top of this page in the "Find a contractor " section as there are some very good guys listed there. Scroll down past the zip code section and use the "States section as it is more accurate. 



    Give us some more information about your boiler, model numbers etc. and post some pictures of the boiler and the radiators and any "odd ball items" on the steam piping and we can perhaps identify them for you.  Take pictures of the boiler from as far back as you reasonably can so we can trace the piping and also take the pictures from different angles so we can see where the piping leads to on the boiler. Don't worry about the pictures being taken from farther back as we can blow them up if we need to see detail.



    There is also a lot of information on steam heating  in the area known as "Off the Wall" in the Resource and Systems section at the top of this page.

    Welcome to the Wall!

    - Rod
  • jv100
    jv100 Posts: 56
    Thanks, Rod!

    I just ordered the "Steamy Deal".  I'm quite excited to learn about my steam system.  Once I get some of the terminology down, and I've started living with the system during the heating system, I'll definitely post my system on the Wall for comments.  What an amazing forum this is!  I hope I'll be able to help out other newbies one day.
  • jv100
    jv100 Posts: 56
    edited August 2011
    follow-up question: oil tank disaster?

    When an oil tank fails, does it typically just start to leak, or does it sometimes fail catastrophically?  Going down to a basement flooded with oil is a nightmare I would like to avoid.  If it just leaks, can I put a drip pan underneath while I hobble through the winter? The tank is rather corroded along a lower seam, so I doubt it could be patched. 

    (I posted this question at the Oil Heating group also).

    Thanks again!

    JV 
  • Rod
    Rod Posts: 2,067
    Weil McLain 68 Manual

    Hi- I noticed in the Oil section that you mentioned your boiler is a Weil McLain 68.

    Here is a link to where your can download a copy of the 68 manual and parts list if you need them.

    Boiler manual

    http://www.weil-mclain.com/en/multimedia-library/pdf/weil-mclain-pdf/products/discontinued/discontinued-boilers/68-boiler/68manual.pdf



    Parts List

    http://www.weil-mclain.com/en/multimedia-library/pdf/weil-mclain-pdf/products/discontinued/discontinued-boilers/68-boiler/68.pdf



    I found it was very beneficial to get a 3 ring binder and some clear plastic sheet pockets to keep steam and boiler related "stuff" like manuals, part numbers, maintenance logs and comments and sources from the Wall.

    - Rod
  • jv100
    jv100 Posts: 56
    great idea about the binder, Rod

    I'll definitely do that.  I was just scolding myself for jotting down some info about the boiler on a scrap of paper that is now buried in one of the piles next to my desk.  Thanks also for the links to those manuals.  Very useful.
  • TomM
    TomM Posts: 233
    pics

    post some pics of the tank if you're worried.  do you see any seepage on the tank itself or the floor?
    beautiful Conshohocken PA
  • jv100
    jv100 Posts: 56
    no, no seepage.

    I'll try to get pix up tomorrow.  Thanks for the suggestion.
  • Greg Maxwell
    Greg Maxwell Member Posts: 212
    Oil to Nat Gas

    We are doing quite a few natural gas conversions. Your contractor should remove that oil tank, (it probably will just start seeping), but still make a mess. Your contractor can then contact his wholesaler, and the wholesaler can contact Carlin. They will have the specs for a burner that will fit your boiler perfectly. Then as I said, take a hard look at the system. Are your pipes insulated? If not that is a huge savings. All that residual heat in your basement is heat that you have paid for, but is not being delivered to your living space. Next, look at your main vents. They probably need to be changed. Then your radiator vents. Getting steam to its final destination quickly is the name of the game. You may even want to install thermostatic radiator valves or vents. They can deliver more comfort, as they can be dialed down for individual room comfort. Then look at installing some good set back thermostats. No sense heating that space to 70-72 when you are not home.

    Remember, there a lot of steam boilers that are a lot older than yours, that run great. I was on one where the customer has an old Utica boiler, but someone had put a new Riello burner on it. The system was beautiful. A contractor had told him that his boiler needed to be replaced, so he was ready to do so, but after evaluating the system, I told him that 1. his system was one of the best I had seen in a long time, 2. he already had a Riello on it, and 3. he should spend the money on new windows, or more cap insulation. I probably talked us out of a sure sale, but right is right. I go to sleep at night with a clear consience.

    Good luck
  • jv100
    jv100 Posts: 56
    Sounds like a great plan

    Swapping out the oil burner for a gas burner is definitely an attractive option.  I assume it would make sense to first hire someone to assess if the boiler is still in decent shape.  I'll put some pix in a following post, but I know photos won't get to the heart of the boiler's function.

    Thanks for laying out the order of how I should be analyzing my system.  I can't wait until I receive my just-ordered set of Dan's books, so I'll know what I'm looking at!

    Great story about Utica/Riello setup.  You don't by any chance work in the NY metro area, do you...?
  • jv100
    jv100 Posts: 56
    edited August 2011
    my system: the big pictures

    details next
  • Greg Maxwell
    Greg Maxwell Member Posts: 212
    Oil to gas

    No, I work for a wholesaler in southern Maine called Bell / Simons. We do a lot of evals for our customers helping them with new systems, as well as retro-fits.
  • jv100
    jv100 Posts: 56
    my system: the details

    any and all comments appreciated!
  • jv100
    jv100 Posts: 56
    oh well

    lucky for the folks in Maine.
  • Greg Maxwell
    Greg Maxwell Member Posts: 212
    Oil to gas

    Thanks for the compliment
  • AlexR
    AlexR Member Posts: 61
    run it first

    If you haven't already, I'd suggest running the system for a few hours (pick a cool night) before bringing someone in to deal with the tank.  You might find other issues that need correcting at the same time.  Dan's books will give you more to think about, but you should check that



    1) all the radiators heat.  They should all heat within a few minutes of when the steam main (the big horizontal pipe near the basement ceiling) gets hot.  The main gets hot once the boiler's making steam, and that shouldn't take more than ~10min of when the boiler starts running (I think; I'm a homeowner so a pro may have a better idea of how long different systems may take).



    2) your pressure gauge works.  You probably have a 30psi gauge, which is pretty useless for measuring pressure at or below 2psi.  You might want to add (or have added) a second gauge that does 0-3psi.



    3) your pressuretrol/vaporstat works reliably and lets you run the system at low pressure (definitely not above 2psi, under 1 psi is even better)



    4) no banging or other noises



    5) no leaking radiators or pipes
  • lchmb
    lchmb Member Posts: 2,997
    just curious

    How is the venting done for the water heater? That oil vent looks awful close to the top of that unit...
  • jv100
    jv100 Posts: 56
    Thanks, AlexR!

    Being totally new to steam, I didn't know what to look for, so I really appreciate your list of things to assess.  The home inspector I used before purchasing the house did note that one of the radiators didn't heat up completely, but he was otherwise satisfied with the performance of the system.  Of course, he doesn't have to live with it.  With the cooler autumn days approaching, I'll be more inclined to fire up the system and go through your check list before winter hits full on.
  • jv100
    jv100 Posts: 56
    Thanks for looking closely, lchmb!

    I just had someone in to give me a quote on a boiler, and he also questioned the venting of the boiler and the water heater.  I'll definitely investigate.  I thought I just had 2 flues in the chimney, but if the fireplace uses one, then that just leaves one for the gas water heater and the oil-fired boiler.  I don't think the home inspector mentioned anything about it, but I'll have to go back and look at the report again.  And I clearly need to educate myself more on how all these systems work.
  • lchmb
    lchmb Member Posts: 2,997
    you can

    You can vent oil and gas into the same chimney as long as the water heater vent enters above the oil vent. I would suggest you check for references to steam with any contractor who offers a quote and make sure they offer black iron and wrapping the pipes as part of the job..:) I would also read Dans book prior to making any decisions about the boiler. As far as oil, I'm not sure how the pricing is in NYC. 
  • jv100
    jv100 Posts: 56
    to my untrained eye...

    ...the oil and gas vents look pratically side-by-side, with the gas vent maybe a smidgen higher.  I've got another company coming today to give me a quote; I'll ask them what they think. 

    What's "black iron"? I'm now wishing I had ordered my books from Dan by overnight delivery!

    Thanks for the great advice.
  • crash2009
    crash2009 Member Posts: 1,484
    Safety Valve

    You might want to get the safety valve checked/replaced.  I just noticed that the extension to floor, pipe is missing.  Your inspector likely mentioned that in his report.  Here in Michigan we are required to have the extension pipe run to within a few inches of the floor.  The safety valve is your last line of defense in the unlikely event that other safety devices fail.  When we replaced mine, I was surprised that a 15 psi valve was a special order at the place we shopped. 
  • TomM
    TomM Posts: 233
    slow down bro!

    yo i strongly strongly very strongly (did i say strongly?) suggest that you read Dan's books and hang out for awhile before entertaining any quotes for a boiler replacement.  You'll thank us later.  Some people hang out on here for a little while, figure out what you need to do, and do it,  OR some people get their boiler replaced with little or no knowledge of the situation, then find their way to the wall, and realize it was done wrong, and end up needing to get the piping redone or whatever.  Sit tight and read the books.  It is, by the way, still August. 
    beautiful Conshohocken PA
  • Techman
    Techman Member Posts: 2,144
    edited August 2011
    Steam

    Is that a copper riser and header?
  • jv100
    jv100 Posts: 56
    Good call, crash2009!

    My home inspector did catch that also, and it is definitely something I'll address.  Thanks for pointing it out.
  • Steamhead
    Steamhead Member Posts: 14,429
    Not only that

    but it looks undersized, and there is a concentric reduction where it turns down to the equalizer. It needs to be redone. I'd make the header at least 2-1/2". 
    All Steamed Up, Inc.
    Steam, Vapor & Hot-Water Heating Specialists
    Oil & Gas Burner Service
    Consulting
  • jv100
    jv100 Posts: 56
    I hear you, TomM...

    ...and I wish I could wait.  But closer inspection of my oil tank *does* reveal seepage, and an oil company rep said no way would his company fill that tank.  So I must either replace that tank even though I eventually want to switch to gas plus address other issues like the safety value, or take the plunge and convert to gas now and upgrade everything.  And, yes, it is still August, but gas conversions in my area are apparently running 2-3 months right now because Con Edison is swamped with requests and they need to check out my gas line.  And I will likely need to have my chimney lined too.



    But, I may have found someone good.  The rep I talked to today was very thorough and caught a lot of the issues that have been brought up by you terrific folks who have contributed to this thread, all without my prompting him.  He also mentioned that when he first started as a tech, he was handed a book authored by someone he called "the guru of steam heat" and was told to study it.   Yes, Dan Holohan's book. The rep said that he has attended a seminar by Dan as well, and he had nothing but good things to say about him.  He also encouraged me to learn as much about my system as I can, told me I could easily replace vents on the radiators myself if I wanted, etc.  His proposal is on the high end, but I'm a believer in paying for quality.  Of course, he's a sales rep now and won't actually do the work, so I'll have study quickly and watch carefully as the work gets done. 



    I haven't made a final decision, but this is the best option I've had yet.  I hope I won't have to come back to The Wall with a disaster story, but I'm between a rock and a hard place at the moment and need to make a choice.
  • jv100
    jv100 Posts: 56
    edited August 2011
    Thanks for responding, Techman!

    If you are referring to the pipes that come up right over the boiler (my books by Dan haven't arrived yet!), then yes, they are copper.  The rep I talked to today pointed that out too, and said they would replace the header with black pipe.
  • jv100
    jv100 Posts: 56
    Thanks for the assessment, Steamhead!

    I'm definitely not up to speed enough to address your comment, but it something I'll keep in mind as I study up and talk to reps. 
  • crash2009
    crash2009 Member Posts: 1,484
    I thought

    you might enjoy this video.  http://www.heatinghelp.com/article/107/Steam-Heating/118/Steam-boiler-near-boiler-piping  King valves sure come in handy.



    Has anyone mentioned a dropheader yet?  http://www.heatinghelp.com/search/results/drop-header/1



    Have you considered breaking up the T in the ceiling to form two separate mains?



    If you are going with a new boiler.  Did anyone measure the EDR of the radiators yet?  It is the best way to determine the correct size of the new boiler.
  • JohnNY
    JohnNY Member Posts: 2,651
    edited August 2011
    If you keep that old boiler, you're nuts.

    Don't listen to people who want to sell you a conversion burner. It's a cheap and easy version of doing the right job.

    Some manufacturers, Burnham for one, explicitly advise against it because of the properties of the flame and their effect on the flue among other things.

    The boiler in your pictures needs EVERYTHING.

    You've got an undersized copper header. A bull-fed tee. Rust everywhere. Heat discoloration, etc.

    You're on the right track: read the books and educate yourself then you'll understand some of the better comments being made in this thread.



    These are two of our recent installations an this is what your boiler should look like:
    Contact John "JohnNY" Cataneo, Master Plumber
    in New York
    in New Jersey
    for Consulting Work
    or take his class.
  • JohnNY
    JohnNY Member Posts: 2,651
    edited August 2011
    Pic 2...

    ...
    Contact John "JohnNY" Cataneo, Master Plumber
    in New York
    in New Jersey
    for Consulting Work
    or take his class.
  • Hoog23
    Hoog23 Member Posts: 19
    edited August 2011
    Westchester

    I live in Westchester too and was in a similar situation (80 yr old oil tank and boiler).  I have been in my house about 10 yrs.  My system had been doing a good job heating (although I am sure it was not very efficient) so I was hesitant to move forward with the project. 



    I have learned a lot from reviewing old posts and asking questions and

    am converting from oil to gas and replacing my old boiler with a Smith G8 and Carlin EZ-Pro burner. 



    When they removed my tank (in basement) it was rusted on the inside.  I freed up some room with the tank gone and my boiler is exponentially smaller than the old one.



    Things take a long time with oil tank removal, con ed, plumbing and electrical inspections.  My plumber had never seen an EZ-Pro before so it has been a learning experience for him.



    My project started in June and I am almost finished and will post some pics when

    done.
  • Steamhead
    Steamhead Member Posts: 14,429
    While other manufacturers

    have approved gas burners in their wet-base oil-fired boilers. Smith and Slant/Fin are two that have.



    Not sure why Burnham is being so stubborn. It can't make sense from a business perspective, since AFAIK 60-70% or so of all residential boilers being installed are gas-fired. Why should a manufacturer develop a superior product like the MegaSteam, give it the best warranty in the business, and then restrict it to such a small percentage of sales opportunities?



    This may be a political situation where some key player at Burnham just doesn't want to do it.
    All Steamed Up, Inc.
    Steam, Vapor & Hot-Water Heating Specialists
    Oil & Gas Burner Service
    Consulting
  • jv100
    jv100 Posts: 56
    Thanks for the pointers, crash2009!

    I hadn't yet stumbled across the vidoes on this site, so thanks for providing the link.  Very informative.

    I just received my order of Dan's books; so far I know what a header is, but not a drop header.  More study is in order...

    Of the 3 contractors who have looked at my system so far, only 2 have counted the number and size of the radiator.  The other said they would use the same size boiler as the old one...they are no longer in the running for my job!

    Sorry to be slow to respond...was away from internet.
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