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Home improvement heating system options

Have a question about heating system options for my home improvement project. We currently live in an approximately 1800 sf old two-story farmhouse (originally built in 1917, with several poorly constructed additions added later). A forced air propane furnace heats the first floor, but there are no ducts to the second floor. There are three upstairs rooms, currently one is heated with an in-wall electric heater with a thermostat. The other two rooms are heated with plug-in space heaters when in us – which is expensive so our living area tends to shrink significantly in the winter. We live in MN – winters get seriously COLD, and the price of propane is getting ridiculous.

We have done some things to improve efficiency – blow-in insulation in the walls, lining the foundation with rigid foam insulation, new windows - but the house would require fairly extensive renovation to get it up to ‘modern’ standards and, because it wasn’t well constructed in the first place, probably isn’t worth spending the money on. Initially we looked at building a new home, but cannot afford that much cost right now. We may still build a house in the future, but what we are looking at doing now is building a two-story garage with upstairs loft space for additional living area, attached to our current home by a heated breezeway. We want to install an efficient system to heat both the old house and the new garage, without having to do very much retro-fitting on the house.

One of the options we are looking at is an outdoor dual stage wood gasification boiler (we have 17 acres and plenty of wood available). I understand it can be adapted to a forced air furnace so we could use that as our primary fuel source, but have propane for back-up. Is there a way I can also use it to heat the upstairs rooms without installing duct work? What would I need to install in the garage to heat it with the boiler? I’d like to have the upstairs heated to living area temps, but the downstairs garage part can just be at 40 or 50 degrees.

I’m also interested in hearing any other suggestions for efficient heating systems that would meet our needs. We don’t know a lot about this stuff and want some independent opinions before talking to the sales people. Thank you for your time!


  • IronmanIronman Member Posts: 3,542
    Wood Boiler

    The wood boiler is a good option if you have access to free or cheap wood and are willing to work with it.

    I sell Heatmor OD wood boilers and also have one at my house.

    We can heat almost anything with hot water, including your domestic, a pool, garage, etc.

    Proper design and installation are critical and most OD wood boiler people usually range from being clueless to being real fountains of mis-information. I would highly recommend that you get a good, COMPETENT hydronics pro to design and install your system.

    A hot water coil and some controls can be added to your present furnace assuming it's below or on level with where you place the boiler (most OD wood boilers are unpressurized).

    Upper floors present another factor due to the pressurization issue. The simplest solution is adding a heat exchanger between the boiler and house piping and pressurizing the house side with normal boiler accessories. Then, you have choice of using baseboard, panel radiators, cast iron rads, fan coil or air handlers. Any thing that works with a regular boiler will work this way.
    Bob Boan

    You can choose to do what you want, but you cannot choose the consequences.
  • nicholas bonham-carternicholas bonham-carter Member Posts: 6,540
    17 acres of fuel+ chainsaw lady

    There is a big difference between looking out the window at your forest, and actually getting pieces of that forest into some sort of wood burning stove to heat you up.

    Maybe you could have a wood-fired boiler, with the wood being able to be put in from outside, so as not to make a mess. Certainly if the ashes could be taken out on the outside, that would be a benefit. The boiler could supply heat to some radiators located where you need them.--NBC
  • VictoriaEnergyVictoriaEnergy Member Posts: 126
    edited January 2014
    Have a look at an add-on wood furnace

    Sounds like cost is a big factor since you might want to build new in the future.

    Maybe have a look at a good furnace like the Blaze King Apex installed as an Add-on.  This unit has a catalytic system so it can burn clean, low and long.  Add-on means it is installed in line with your current furnace so you can still run the propane on that day you have the stomach flu...  You'd still have the same limitations you now have with the distribution.

    You could install some Rinnai wall furnaces for the areas unheated by the central furnace.

    Not near as good as a boiler and panel rads throughout the house, but waaay less cost.
    Home Owners Please Note:

    You are receiving advice from some very skilled pros completely free of charge. One of the reasons I participate is to sharpen my own troubleshooting skills. So; did we get it right? I would be grateful if you extend this courtesy back by posting the final outcome of the issue you are inquiring about. Thanks
  • icesailoricesailor Member Posts: 7,265
    Skilled, experienced installers:

    Skilled and experienced installers can heat the second floor with two runs of PEX, depending on the layout of the rooms. One up and one down. They could have done the same with copper tube. Try doing that with scorched air.

    Regardless of how much wood you have on the property. If you ever want to go away for a period during the winter, you will need someone to live in your house and "tend the fires". 50+ years of working in a New England isolated vacation community and fixing broken pipes showed me that it isn't always effective. I once fixed a house that had frozen up. The person that was living there rent free to watch the place and take care of the owner's 3 valuable dogs (she lived at the Dakota in NYC when John and Yoko lived there). He went somewhere at Christmas to visit someone. He asked someone to feed the dogs. That person also went away and asked someone else to look after the place. The last person found the place frozen up. So they called someone who worked for a plumber to look at it. That "plumber" person drained the house as best as he could. He filled the toilets with automobile anti-freeze so they wouldn't freeze and break. The dogs drank the sweet and tasty water out of the toilets. All three dogs died. The house sitter showed up a week later and called around to find out where the dogs were.

    I don't make this stuff up. It happened. I was the one who fixed it after everything settled down.

    If you want to burn wood, put in a dual fuel boiler so you don't have to have someone feeding the fires.

    As far as the price of Propane, the Natural Gas Companies have over sold their product and can't supply the demand. So they are adding Propane (LPG) to their gas systems to keep the pressures and BTU's up when they pump air and LP into their systems. They are happy to create shortages so they can charge you more for a product that cost them very little.
  • Melissa473Melissa473 Member Posts: 3
    If I'm understanding correctly

    We are not able to use an outdoor wood gasification boiler as part of a dual system, similar to the add on indoor wood furnace? So if we go away for a week, we aren't able to shut off the boiler and use the propane furnace instead?

    I think the add on furnace would be an option, but I am concerned about the wood smoke smell in my home, and the home owner's insurance repercussions. Any thoughts on that?
  • IronmanIronman Member Posts: 3,542

    You could still use you're propane furnace to heat the house. In fact, when setup properly, the system will automatically revert to the gas furnace if the wood boiler is not fired.
    Bob Boan

    You can choose to do what you want, but you cannot choose the consequences.
  • VictoriaEnergyVictoriaEnergy Member Posts: 126
    Smoke & Insurrance issues

    Whether or not a wood stove or wood furnace will have issues with smoking back into the house has a lot to do with the chimney installation and the air dynamics of the house.

    Generally; if a chimney is installed inside the house as opposed to an exterior chimney will make a big difference to the draft, especially when you first light the furnace.  The other issue that sometimes comes up is when the lower part of the house has had extensive draft proofing measures done but the upper floors have not.  This will result in the area of the furnace being under a slight negative air pressure.  So the installation needs a source of combustion air AND make up  air to compensate for air leaking out elsewhere.

    Insurance.  Typically if you have a wood stove or furnace as the sole source of heat in your house you will have to pay higher premiums for insurance.  If you have a functioning alternate heat source and can claim the wood is a supplemental heat source, there will be little or no difference in premiums.  This is due to the difference in risk the insurance companies see due to people operating a stove installations they shouldn't be, but have no alternative during cold weather.  I'm a heating guy, so you need ask your insurance broker to see if the above info applies to you.   
    Home Owners Please Note:

    You are receiving advice from some very skilled pros completely free of charge. One of the reasons I participate is to sharpen my own troubleshooting skills. So; did we get it right? I would be grateful if you extend this courtesy back by posting the final outcome of the issue you are inquiring about. Thanks
  • EastmanEastman Member Posts: 783
    17 acres

    Is 17 acres enough?

    Also, this project seems pretty complicated even before considering dual fuel issues. Perhaps, there is an old flue that could be lined and brought back into service for a modern wood stove with outside air?
  • EastmanEastman Member Posts: 783
    other options

    Minisplits could handle the upstairs bedrooms. You would have precise ac and heat control for each room independently. Perhaps that would be enough to dissuade you from adding more conditioned space above a possible garage?
  • Melissa473Melissa473 Member Posts: 3
    edited February 2014
    Reason for extra living space

    We have only one bathroom in our old farmhouse, and no way to add a second without tearing things apart. This makes it less than ideal with a soon to be teenage daughter, and any time we have guests. But because of the issues with the house, we want to avoid major renovations to it. Since we can't afford to build a new house right now, our compromise is to build a garage (which we don't have now) with extra living space, including a bathroom.

    It isn't a huge deal if we aren't able to heat the upstairs. We primarily use that space for sleeping and aren't up there a whole lot otherwise. It would be nice to use one of the small rooms upstairs as an office, but we can get by without that.

    We do have an old flue and space for a wood stove in the living room. There is also a vent in the ceiling between the living room and one of the unheated bedrooms upstairs.
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