My fiance' and I recently purchased a cute little 2-story 1930's brick bungalow that has steam heat--which we love the idea of because it seems so clean (we grew up with gas forced air--yuck!). We are currently in the midst of doing some renovations in the kitchen and upstairs bath, and while my plumber/HVAC guy was out to look at replacing a cracked cast iron sewer pipe he noted the 'unique' placement of our radiators that he had never seen before (they are tucked away in the wall). This of course prompted him to look at our heating system.
After looking things over, he planted the idea that the pipes on our steam system are at the end of their lifespan. He noted that sooner rather than later, all the pipes need to be replaced or else they would start causing problems and we would have to rip into the walls to fix them. Since we already have some plaster removed, he mentioned that now would be the time to replace our piping instead of doing it later (a very valid point). Options were discussed that included re-doing all the piping for the current system, switching to hot water, gas forced air, or under floor hot water heating. The inefficiency of steam heat was also mentioned--how the upstairs won't heat as well as the lower floors because by the time the steam reaches the upstairs it already has started to condense.
So, now the seed has been planted and it's gotten us to thinking WAYY too much about our system. We really like the idea of steam heat and don't want to spend the extra money if we don't have to. So I come here seeking answers from all of you who are much wiser than my fiance and I. We really need a second opinion--or opinions--because this is a huge chunk of change we could be talking about.
Here is what I discovered just in the first hour of research on this site:
1. Steam heat (if properly functioning) isn't as inefficient as the guy made it sound.
2. We probably have a two pipe steam system, as there is one pipe leading into our radiators and one pipe leaving them.
3. Our 'in wall' units don't really seem all too 'unique'. They look a lot like the Herman Nelson invisible radiators or the Trane units I found in the Museum section. I assume that they are unique to our area, however, since we live in a farming community and these in-wall units probably cost quite a deal more than most other radiators at the time.
4. We need to be concerned about our system in the sense that it used to be a coal-fired system (the family that sold us the house said it used to be a coal-powered boiler, and there is a coal room) and now it is being powered by a gas steam boiler. Need to make sure that our old pipes are angled correctly, have the right amount of fall for the return line, everything is in working order, etc.
5. We need to make sure its vented properly (and according to the literature on the Herman Nelson radiators, the vents won't be in the wall, they will be somewhere in the basement, though we have no idea where to look)
7. We need a contractor that knows steam! I have a feeling that our system has not been properly maintained, serviced, or installed correctly (in regards to the new boiler). We would feel more comfortable with someone who has experience in this type of thing. Not sure the current guy has much experience in this sector.
So here are my specific questions:
1. Are any of you near the thumb of Michigan or know a knowledgeable contractor who is? I did a search for a contractor on this site and it says there is no-one within 100 miles of us.
2. What IS the lifespan of our black iron/old galvanized pipes? Do we need to replace?
3. Where would be the best place to start looking for vents in our system? I only ask because I KNOW it isn't working right. The basement is ROASTING, the main floor is 'eh', and the upstairs doesn't seem to get much heat. I also noticed that a few of the radiators (both upstairs and down) aren't getting warm. Based on this site, it seems proper venting can help with this issue.
4. How involved is maintaining a properly working steam system? I thought I've read that folks are draining the boiler once a week or more...is that normal?
Other things that can help you answer my questions:
1. The boiler is new in 2004 and is powered by natural gas
2. The pipes are (almost 100%) wrapped in asbestos, and run in a loop all along the perimeter of the basement of the house. There are multiple branches off this loop to serve all the radiators.
3. We don't notice any hammering, however there is a slight 'hiss' when the system starts up
4. The radiator in the wall that we did uncover looks to be copper piping with aluminum fins (but I thought I read that copper was bad in a steam system?) We removed a steel heat shield covered in plaster to get to it--normally wouldn't have done this except we are putting tile on the walls in the bathroom and need to remove the plaster first.
5. The only two radiators that aren't in the wall were in the sleeping porch area. They were cast iron stand alone models. I say 'were' because one was removed before we purchased the home--the stains on the wood floor indicate it was leaking condensate. The other one is technically still there but has been capped off and is no longer functional.
I know this was a lot to read, but we definitely need your help! Any and all ideas, opinions, etc. would be greatly appreciated. When I get a moment, I'll be sure to attach some more pictures of our system for your viewing pleasure.
ps. Excuse the terrible bathroom..it was the best one I currently have that shows the radiator vents in the walls and it was taken when we first saw the house.