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to convert or not to convert

We just bought an old house with a one-pipe steam heat system.  The house needs a lot of work, and we are gutting a lot of the walls and ceilings (don't get mad; so far, it doesn't seem like is much original molding to preserve).  We also plan to insulate.

What we have removed so far reveals that there have been considerable leaks from the heating system over the years.  I am pretty sure that the steam heating system was not in the house as originally built, but was added later.



With the walls and ceilings opened up, now is the time -- if ever -- to convert to a hot-water baseboard or radiant system. 



Should we convert?  Or would it make more sense to repair and adjust the existing steam system?  What kinds of information should we be gathering about the existing systemt to make this decision?



Thanks.

Comments

  • Rod
    Rod Posts: 2,067
    Hard to Say

    Hi- Normally from an economical standpoint it would probably be best to just refurbish the steam system, but since you have the walls and ceiling open, as you mention, it maybe the time to consider all your options. The key to success is finding a heating professional who is competent with both steam and hot water. There are some really good guys out there and also a LOT of incompetent ones. The good guys will be happy to provide you with references and make sure you do your homework and check them out. Be suspicious of the "lowest bid" as you generally get what you pay for and with fuel prices high, a "cheapie" installation with probably cost you far more in the long run in both fuel and comfort.

          You might tell us where you are located and maybe we can recommend someone to you. Also you might want to take a look in the "Find a Contractor" section at the top of this page. Scroll down to the "states section" and see if there is someone located local to you.

    - Rod
  • jumper
    jumper Member Posts: 1,849
    steam doesn't leak

    Or at least it shouldn't. If you insulate & replace windows your radiation will be oversize so in this case I'd give up on steam unless you're a steamie enthisiast.
  • Steamhead
    Steamhead Member Posts: 15,350
    If your rads become oversized

    these might be a good way to go:



    www.steamradiators.com
    All Steamed Up, Inc.
    Towson, MD, USA
    Steam, Vapor & Hot-Water Heating Specialists
    Oil & Gas Burner Service
    Consulting
  • Hap_Hazzard
    Hap_Hazzard Member Posts: 2,756
    I've been looking at those.

    They look great, but the EDR of their biggest unit (24" x 6') is only about 22. That's about enough for a small bathroom, but where would you put one of those in a small bathroom? To adequately heat a house with those you'd practically need to hang them on every wall, and they wouldn't looks so great if you saw them everywhere. Also, I don't think the heat capacity could be anywhere near that of a cast iron radiator.
    Just another DIYer | King of Prussia, PA
    1983(?) Peerless G-561-W-S | 3" drop header, CG400-1090, VXT-24
  • Steamhead
    Steamhead Member Posts: 15,350
    I wonder

    if we asked them, would they make bigger ones?
    All Steamed Up, Inc.
    Towson, MD, USA
    Steam, Vapor & Hot-Water Heating Specialists
    Oil & Gas Burner Service
    Consulting
  • gerry gill
    gerry gill Member Posts: 3,034
    edited May 2012
    Depends.

    i dont advocate converting steam to hot water, but that doesn't sound like what you would do..what you are advocating i think, is a complete removal of the pipes, radiators, boiler etc. and a complete do over..if that is what your thoughts are i am much more open to the idea.. The answer is still it depends..i like floor radiant heat..i think its the best heat..but i dont really care for baseboard heat..its ugly and doesnt work as well as radiant or steam..if your doing a complete gut and do over and thinking radiant, i would be in your camp for that one..that said, there is alot to consider with radiant, such as upfront cost, carpeting desires, is there enough floor without supplemental heat etc.--hope that helps-
    gwgillplumbingandheating.com
    Serving Cleveland's eastern suburbs from Cleveland Heights down to Cuyahoga Falls.

  • 22 EDR?

    I took a look and they go to 13,000 btu/hr
    The Steam Whisperer (Formerly Boilerpro)

    Chicago's Steam Heating Expert





    Noisy Radiators are a Cry for Help
  • Hap_Hazzard
    Hap_Hazzard Member Posts: 2,756
    Okay, 29ft² EDR

    I was looking at the biggest in their Steamview line. The 6' 24" Charleston Pro is rated at 13,962 BTU/H (about 29ft² EDR). That's not much of an improvement considering it has two columns. It's only 50% more EDR per foot than those tiny Baseray baseboards.
    Just another DIYer | King of Prussia, PA
    1983(?) Peerless G-561-W-S | 3" drop header, CG400-1090, VXT-24
  • I get about 58 EDR at 240btu/ edr

    .
    The Steam Whisperer (Formerly Boilerpro)

    Chicago's Steam Heating Expert





    Noisy Radiators are a Cry for Help
  • Hap_Hazzard
    Hap_Hazzard Member Posts: 2,756
    Thank you!

    I should've known something wasn't quite right there. For some reason I was using 480. I don't know where I got that. They say the memory is the first thing to go. I forgot what the second thing is. :-)



    That does make them look a little more appealing. Twice as appealing, in fact.



    Thanks for checking my math!
    Just another DIYer | King of Prussia, PA
    1983(?) Peerless G-561-W-S | 3" drop header, CG400-1090, VXT-24
  • NTL1991
    NTL1991 Member Posts: 103
    Good Question

    I had the same question about five years ago. I chose to convert. Sure, I could've bought myself a brand new Honda Civic instead, but it was money well spent, and I'll never look back, although I was in a different situation.



    My 3-family home, built in 1948, had a one-pipe steam system. There was a thermostat on each floor controlling a newer Weil-McLain oil boiler. Nobody was comfortable. One floor would be cold while another would be boiling. There's no feeling quite like driving up your driveway and seeing a

    quarter of your windows cracked open in the middle of January...



    I've battled with my share of piping leaks, bad vent valves, and steam hammer, and I had my oil guy on speed dial. But that's how it was and I lived with it for a while... I'm sure if I had kept the steam system, I would have eventually tracked down the performance issues, and worked them out, but I still would've had to deal with the main issue in my case, which was not having everything separately metered...



    Each month I had to split up the oil bill, which, of course, is unfair to tenants who like it colder, and makes for a difficult time renting out an apartment during the winter.



    In 2007, I was doing some renovations on the house. I gutted all three bathrooms, and partially gutted all three kitchens. I replaced all thirty-two windows, as well. The steam system was much too oversized for the home at that point, and there was no way around converting the system.



    I called around and got three bids to tear out the steam system and install 3 hot water baseboard systems. After the removal of the 14 radiators, and the installation of roughly 1000 feet of 3/4" hePEX tubing and 150 feet of Haydon baseboard, I still had three thermostats, but this time, each one was controlling it's own separately metered boiler.



    My situation was the perfect case for converting from steam to hot water... My tenants can keep their thermostats at whatever temperature they like, and they only pay for what they use. No longer do I have to check oil levels, or deal with the oil guy, nor am I under any legal obligation to provide a certain degree of heating during the winter months. That's all the tenant's responsibility...



    Currently, I am keeping my eyes open for a single-family home in my neighborhood, which are mostly 1925-1935-ish Colonials and Dutch Colonials. Most all are oil-fired, one-pipe steam. I would absolutely keep the one-pipe steam. Sure, steam has its disadvantages when it comes to efficiency ratings and zoning, but there just isn't heat like steam heat, especially once you get the kinks worked out. I don't mind removing radiator sections to account for insulation or new windows, or installing TRV's and computerized boiler controls to improve comfort and control.



    You can buy an old car, fix it up and be proud of the work you've done, and the craftsmanship of it's builders, or you can buy a new car, jump in, and enjoy the comfort of having the latest technology and the security of knowing it's new... It all depends on how you look at things...
    Nick, Cranston, RI
  • Steam is easy to zone.....

    Installing Thermostatic Radiator Valves to provide room by room control is extremely easy, would of eliminated the open window issues and given much better temperature control than single zone thermostats for each unit.  Single zone thermostats for a whole living unit are not permitted in most of the developed world, individual room by room control is required.  Also, a competent steam heating specialist can usually easily take care of hammer issues.  Also, if one tenant likes it cool and turns down the heat, that unit steals a very large amount of heat from the other units.  I work with lots of condo assoc with steam and many have one unit on its own heating system.  They  eventually find out that if you turn off the individual unit's heat, the unit will still stay in the low to mid 60's from the heat it steals from adjacent units.  All the other owners end up paying for most of the heat for the "separately" heated unit, especially if the unit owner likes it cooler or uses setback when not home.  Also with separate gas metering for each unit, every unit pays about $250.00 per year for separate meters.  Central heating only requires a single meter, so unless there is no building meter for the domestic water heater, the overall heating cost of the building will be much higher for poorer comfort levels. 

    Not converting, but upgrading to room by room control, fixing the steam heat issues would probably have been cheaper both short and long term, and probably used much less fuel and electricity due to a lot better control and no need for pumps, etc.
    The Steam Whisperer (Formerly Boilerpro)

    Chicago's Steam Heating Expert





    Noisy Radiators are a Cry for Help
  • Henry
    Henry Member Posts: 995
    Controls

    You need to keep the pressure DOWN! Thermostatic vents will keep control the room temperature and reduce energy cost while increasing comfort for the tenants.



    If it is a large unit, conversion to hot water might be interesting. We are converting a large luxury apartment complex from two pipe steam to hot water this summer.



    It all depends on how much you consume per apartment!
  • NTL1991
    NTL1991 Member Posts: 103
    Confused...

    "Single zone thermostats for a whole living unit are not permitted in

    most of the developed world, individual room by room control is

    required." ?



    I've never head of such a thing... Room by Room control? Even most new homes don't have room by room control. And how would one possibly overcome this issue in 1948 when the house was originally built? I can't imagine that TRV's were available at the local supply house back then... My house was built like that, and a neighbor's home, which is the twin to mine, is exactly like that as well.



    It is true that warm air travels toward cool, and that would allow heat to migrate from one heated unit to another unheated unit, but eh, that seems negligible to me. Everyone uses their heat to warm their apartments to 64-72 degrees, and each floor benefits from the slight amount of heat rising from the floor below. Even I, in the 1st floor, benefit from the 65-68 degree basement in the winter... These aren't low rent or Section 8 apartments where it might be financially necessary for someone to turn their heat off and gain from the other apartments.



    The evenness of heating, and the fact that I now have properly sized radiation for the units in their current, renovated condition is a huge factor. The 3rd floor especially benefits due to the conversion of it's original 6'8" flat ceilings to 9.5' cathedrals, and installation of six skylights by the previous owner. A room on the 3rd floor, which was originally unheated, was converted to a legal bedroom with the addition of movable roof windows for egress. After converting to hot water, I am now able to actually list this room as a second bedroom because it is now heated. That alone has increased that apartment's rent by 25%. I'd hate to imagine what kind of work would have to have been done to get a supply riser up to that 3rd floor bedroom, passing through brick and mortar fire blocking at every floor level.



    If and when I choose to renovate more areas of the home, I can easily add or remove radiation to accurately supply the living areas. When the boilers eventually need to be replaced, I have the option of going with a boiler over 85 percent efficiency. If I choose to sell the home, I have a major advantage over other multifamily homes in the area. Every apartment has it's own separately metered heating, hot water and laundry. Not many can say that.



    Don't get me wrong, I would, without a doubt, keep steam in my own personal single-family home. I'd have all the access I needed to really take my time and dial in vent valves, remove sections, and repair cracks...  It just wasn't practical for my specific apartment house, especially after my renovations, and those done by the previous owner...



    Again, I will never look back. I am completely satisfied with my decision. Just my $0.02
    Nick, Cranston, RI
  • Steamhead
    Steamhead Member Posts: 15,350
    In Germany

    and some other places, any room over a certain size must have a TRV. This is a legal requirement. The boiler is controlled by an outdoor-reset unit.
    All Steamed Up, Inc.
    Towson, MD, USA
    Steam, Vapor & Hot-Water Heating Specialists
    Oil & Gas Burner Service
    Consulting
  • I can see why you're confused.....

    Most homes in the US are built with only multi room thermostats, but not worldwide.  Thermostats, as we know them, are increasingly rare on the world wide market...replaced by TRV's.   We in the US are decades behind most of the rest of the world when it comes to heating technology application.  We have it, we just don't use it.

    TRV's were probably available when your home was built..the technology is from the early 1900's.  They have been available for many decades at least.  However, their widespread use on the world wide market appears to be more recent...the past couple of decades.  I have even seen them used in buildings in the US that were built in the early 80's. 

    To give an example:  While recently working on a multi-unit condo  building in Chicago with a single one pipe steam system, a new owner moved in from Spain and could not believe there was not room by room control over his radiators.  He immediately went out and bought TRV's for his unit.  He is the only one comfortable in the building.

    TRV's largely or completely overcome over radiation issues so heating is far more even than can be provided with a single control trying to regulate multiple rooms.  TRV's allow the heating system to compensate for room by room heat gains or losses such as cooking in the kitchen, solar gains (which are constantly changing), the family all together entertaining, a dining room full of people, bright sunny days that warm southern exposure rooms, while the cold winds cause northern rooms to get cold. 

    I have no doubt that the separate zones improved the comfort situation over an out of balance and poorly maintained steam system. The balance problems can be extreme... with some areas hitting the 90's (F) while others are in the 50's or 60's . However, tweaking the steam system and installing properly designed/installed TRV"S would have likely yielded overall better heating balance,allowed for better match of the temperature of each room for its use, and probably reduce overall heating needs.....For a small fraction of the cost.  You should be applauded for not going the El cheapo route usually taken...installing forced air. 

    As to boilers over 85% efficient, take a look at the thread on AFUE's...."High Efficiency" equipment is not as efficient as you may think.....even hot water boilers. The big gain for this equipment is in the modulation ability and outdoor reset, not so much in the condensing ability.    And 90%+ combustion efficiency steam boilers appear to be becoming increasingly available.  Whether the increased electrical usage ( and complexity) to gain condensing efficiency is worth it, still needs to be determined.  However, the increased electrical usage usually necessary to gain burner modulation sure appears to be, and that can easily be done right now.

    The US heating market is an anomaly when compared to the world wide market.  It is dominated by forced air heating (the rest of the world is hot water) and is almost completely forced air ducted cooling... the rest of the world uses a variety of cooling alternatives.  There are alot more alternatives than most people think when it comes to providing comfort in thier homes...or any building.
    The Steam Whisperer (Formerly Boilerpro)

    Chicago's Steam Heating Expert





    Noisy Radiators are a Cry for Help
  • jumper
    jumper Member Posts: 1,849
    depends

    The original question in this post is a single house that is being gutted. If it's in the country, or for some other reason heat will be off sometimes, steam is safer than hot water. But hot water is simpler. Especially if you're going to add on to the house later.



    When the buildings are rentals, like Henry writes about, there are financial considerations that over-ride technical details. Stuff like rent control rules & special tax preferences come into play. For example we'd do major modifications to an apartment building's heating & "lease" the equipment to the building owner. He'd be allowed rent increases to pay the lease. After several years he'd buy out our lease.
  • NTL1991
    NTL1991 Member Posts: 103
    TRV Stuff

    I've read up a bit on TRVs, and it appears that the installation manuals state that they require an outdoor reset control to function properly. Is this true with most all the manufacturers?



    If a TRV is installed at each radiator in a newly renovated and insulated home, wouldn't the existing boiler (sized for the amount of radiation required to heat the original pre-renovated home) then become terribly oversized because the TRV is now controlling how much steam is admitted into the radiators?
    Nick, Cranston, RI
This discussion has been closed.