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What to do in old 1676 house - currently one pipe steam

Alec_2Alec_2 Member Posts: 10
Now that my boiler seems to be back online (thanks for the help yesterday!), I have a question about its eventual replacement:

The system we have is a single zone, one pipe, gas-fired steam system. The boiler is the aforementioned Weil McLain EG-75, now sporting a new pilot burner assembly and ignition control module. The house consists of a main part with four rooms up and four rooms down, and an ell off the back. Because the house (from 1676) was originally heated by fireplaces, all the steam piping that goes from the first floor to the second is exposed in the first floor rooms (I guess they didn't want to open up the walls or drill through the post/beam timbers to install newfangled steam pipes!)

We even have a mini radiator inside the kitchen cabinets to keep the water pipes, also newfangled at some point in this house's history, from freezing. There is only one thermostat, but I did install the Ecobee that allows for remote sensors with occupancy detection in other rooms. This at least can average out the temperature in the occupied zones and control the boiler based on that average. Very helpful for when you make a fire in the fireplace right next to the main thermostat! I should also mention that there is almost no insulation anywhere in the house (except the roof of the main part) and that the windows are all old single pane wavy glass.

The situation is that we are planning to renovate the "ell" portion of the house and add central air to this part. The renovation plans also will require the relocation of many if not all of the existing steam radiators due to changes in the floor plan. So there will have to be major changes to the existing steam system, and the question is what the best bet will be for a new system configuration.

One idea would be for the renovated area, to remove all the steam system and install heat pumps that can provide the central air we are planning as well as heating. But if we remove that much of the load from the boiler (which is already oversized, as far as I am concerned), then we will have a half-baked orphan steam boiler with way too much capacity for the remaining radiators. And I'm also not sure if the hot air from the heat pump system will be sufficient or comfortable for our New England winters.

Another idea would be to convert the steam system to hot water. This would give us additional control zones (which would be nice!) and perhaps we could convert the one pipe radiators into two pipe hot water. Not sure if that is feasible. Then, the central air / heat pump setup could be backed up by hydronic - either by a separate hot water coil in the same unit, or by separate radiators or radiant in-floor. Another nice aspect of the hot water boiler would be the option to do an indirect storage tank for DHW. Right now, we have a very basic gas water heater that often can't keep up with the number of users and the length of their showers.

I don't think it is feasible (or in the budget) to convert the portion of the house we are not planning to renovate to something other than radiators (whether steam or hot water), but maybe that is a third option - get rid of all of the radiators and do forced air? The problem is that I really prefer the comfort of the radiators vs. forced air. Hydro air with variable fan speed is much better than forced hot air furnace in my experience, but....

I should also mention that the house has two separate basements that aren't connected, and that those basements are not really that well suited as mechanical spaces for air handling equipment due to the fact that the house is next to a pond and there is often running water in the basement when the pond level is higher than that of the basement floor! There are also two separate not-connected attics, which could be used for air-side equipment.

Anyway, what I'm hoping to get from the group here is suggestions on some overall system design that allows the central air in the renovated part of the house, provides sufficient capacity/comfort, and deals effectively with the orphaned part of the steam system. Any and all suggestions, no matter how "outside of the box" are much appreciated.

If all else fails, we will go back to the six fireplaces!



  • JUGHNEJUGHNE Member Posts: 6,932
    It is hard to use the words..... comfortable.....heat pump....New England..... in one sentence if you are used to steam heat.

    Post some pictures of your rads. A sample of perhaps 3-4 would answer the hot water conversion question.
  • Jamie HallJamie Hall Member Posts: 12,864
    Where, exactly, are you located? You mention "New England" and 1676, both of which suggest that you are southern New England.

    I suppose the first question I should ask is whether you are looking at a gut and rebuild or a restoration. The two are very different animals, with radically different approaches.

    First, the old main section of the house. I would very strongly recommend staying with the steam. If you decide to go to something else in the remodelled El, the boiler will be oversize, but worse things happen. I wouldn't even attempt to go to either forced air or hot water in that section.

    While I'm at it, don't lose those windows with the old wavy glass. You can use either inner or outer storm windows, or both, if you find the old ones a bit draughty after you work on them a bit.

    Adding insulation is very problematic in a house that age. You can probably add some in the attic spaces, which will help a lot. Insulation in the walls... ah, not so much.

    I would also keep the steam in the el. Yes, you will have to put in some new piping. That isn't hard to do. You can put straight central air conditioning of one kind or another in as well, but unless you are right on the coast mini-splits or heat pumps just aren't going to do a decent job, at least in comparison to the steam.

    I might mention -- I don't advertise -- but a quick look at my signature line will show that restoring old houses is what I do... please feel free to send me a PM if you like.
    Br. Jamie, osb

    Building superintendent/caretaker, 7200 sq. ft. historic house museum with dependencies in New England.

    Hoffman Equipped System (all original except boiler), Weil-Mclain 580, 2.75 gph Carlin, Vapourstat 0.5 -- 6.0 ounces per square inch
  • SteamheadSteamhead Member Posts: 13,825
    edited December 2015
    Agreed. Keep the steam. We have also put steam into additions- it's not hard IF you know what you're doing.

    And unless you like living dangerously, don't convert the steam to hot-water. That's always a can of worms.
    All Steamed Up, Inc.
    "Reducing our country's energy consumption, one system at a time"
    Steam, Vapor & Hot-Water Heating Specialists
    Oil & Gas Burner Service
    Baltimore, MD (USA) and consulting anywhere.
  • jumperjumper Member Posts: 1,453
    I just read about some Swedes who simply enclosed their wooden house in a greenhouse. If you want to insulate and maintain original look think about salvaging existing exterior to re- install outside of new insulated exterior.
  • KC_JonesKC_Jones Member Posts: 4,410
    I will add another vote for keeping the steam. I live in southern PA and they install heat pumps around here all the time and even in this climate I don't quite get it. Don't want to start a whole heat pump debate, I just don't think they work well when it gets cold (for comfort). Basically from what I see they just turn into electric resistance heaters once it get's cold. If you are thinking of using them in shoulder seasons when it's say 40 and above there could be some energy savings (so I am told), but when it gets really cold you will want the steam. If you are used to steam or hydronics, forced hot air isn't going to cut it for comfort. If you get a good steam person in there they could go over all your options. I would even say doing some kind of hot water system would be better than the heat pumps. I think this statement really says it all:
    JUGHNE said:

    It is hard to use the words..... comfortable.....heat pump....New England..... in one sentence if you are used to steam heat.

    2014 Weil Mclain EG-40
    EcoSteam ES-20 Advanced Boiler Control
    Boiler pictures updated 2/21/15
  • Alec_2Alec_2 Member Posts: 10
    Hi all,
    Thanks for the feedback and the votes to keep the steam!

    Regarding the radiators, this is a sampling of what I have. Most of the others fall into one of those three types.

    Regarding the location, yes, it is southern New England, southeastern Massachusetts to be more precise. We do have a combination of inner and outer storms, the outer ones being the big wood frame ones that hook onto brackets at the top. They do some good, but not a whole lot.

    Curious to hear more thoughts on adding or not adding wall insulation. The plan was to gut the ell down to the studs. I've been worried that retrofitted closed cell foam (applied when walls are gutted) might cause problems with moisture and rot, where the existing walls, poor as insulators, at least can dry out if they get wet. But assuming we have a building permit, I'm not sure the inspector will allow us to not insulate at all...

    Thanks again,
  • hvacfreak2hvacfreak2 Member Posts: 479
    You can't beat the steam no way no how. As far as the heat pump / ac , if your budget allows for it consider the single phase vrf systems. One of those brands , I believe it is Daikin has some really nice floor standing units that look and perform outstanding. All of the brands have floor units but one of them stood out to me , I believe it was Daikin or Samsung. They all seem to work well and those would compliment the steam rads that hopefully will be in place.

    Mechanical Enthusiast

    Burnham MST 396 , 60 oz gauge , Tigerloop , Firomatic Check Valve , Mcdonnell Miller 67 lwco , Danfoss RA2k TRV's

    Easyio FG20 Controller

  • KC_JonesKC_Jones Member Posts: 4,410
    Looking at those rads the first one is steam only, pretty sure the second one is also and the third one I am not sure. Any rads that are steam only can't be used if you do a conversion to hot water, so then you have to add in that cost. That is sort of an indirect vote to keep the steam, even the house is talking to you on that one. lol
    2014 Weil Mclain EG-40
    EcoSteam ES-20 Advanced Boiler Control
    Boiler pictures updated 2/21/15
  • Paul48Paul48 Member Posts: 4,492
    The house could have been built by a child of one of the Pilgrims.....Amazing
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