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Condo Board recommending we convert from central 1 pipe steam to private heating units

Dear heating experts,

I own a unit in a 113 unit, 6 story condominium in Northern Manhattan. The condo is made up of 2 separate buildings and is heated by 1 boiler (sorry, I don't have the plate info yet) that runs on #2 oil and delivers low pressure steam to the apartments in single pipe radiators. There were originally 2 boilers but some years ago, one boiler was abandoned because it was beyond repair and instead of replacing the boiler, it was decided to pipe from the 1 working boiler to the other building. The boiler has a host of problems and is approaching the end of its useful life and the building must decide how to heat the building. One recommendation that has been proposed and has the support of a few key owners who are active on the board, is to abandon the central plant and require unit owners to install electric heaters in their respective units to provide heat and hot water.

Supporters of this plan see the following benefits:
-avoid a major assessment that would be needed to fund a new boiler plant
-put the onus on individual owners to provide their own heat so other owners do not have to bear the burden of people's wasteful habits (i.e., open windows, and wasting hot water)
-eventual increase in oil prices

To paint a more complete picture, this building has had a very rocky history in terms of maintenance and responsible ownership. The building was in a state of disrepair for many years and many of the original occupants who became unit owners after the building converted from rental to condo stopped paying maintenance. Significant debt and years of deferred maintenance led to the boiler problems as well as a host of other capital needs that the current board is faced with. In the last 5 years, there has been an influx of new unit owners who are committed to seeing the building improve and want to invest in long term and efficient improvements that will protect their investment.

I have many serious reservations about the proposal to privatize the heat but I would really like to hear from those of you with experience in heating multifamily buildings. I hope you can tell me:
1) What are some of the pros and cons to decentralizing the heat?, and
2) If we consider a new central boiler plant, what would be the most efficient system?

I appreciate your time and I apologize I don't have a lot of technical information. If there is specific data you need, please let me know and I will gather the information to share.

Warmly,
Margaretnyc
«13

Comments

  • nicholas bonham-carter
    nicholas bonham-carter Member Posts: 8,507
    edited April 2016
    If the price of oil may go up, then so will the cost of electricity!
    Is the existing wiring to each apartment capable of supporting the additional load of electric heat?
    The cost of installing electric heat may exceed the cost of repairing the steam, even with a new boiler.
    I think your heating/hot water needs would be best served by restoring the steam. See if you can use the find a contractor button here to have a steam pro look at the system.when you talk to any pros, choose one who can talk clearly to the condo board about the choices in front of you, (repair/replace/ gas conversion, etc.). As you gather the names, you can read some of their postings here, to determine suitability of temperament as well as professional expertise. You can weed out anyone who seems unnecessarily argumentative, or whatever. There will be some cost for this estimate, but it will be money well spent which will prevent any expensive mistakes.
    You will also need a lawyer to advise how to make all the recalcitrant owners pay their fair share.
    If you can, post some pictures of the inside of your electrical panel, a radiator, and of the boiler now in use.--NBC
    margaretnycGregWeiss
  • KC_Jones
    KC_Jones Member Posts: 4,814
    To add to what has already been said, many times in these situations people ignore the ancillary costs associated with a change like this. Then when it's all said and done you could have done the steam repair and replacement for less. For example what is the cost of removing all the pipes and rads from the building? What is the cost of patching all the holes from the old pipes? What is the cost of a possible (and highly likely) electrical upgrade to the entire building? Since pipes and electrical typically will run through others units it would have to be absorbed by the building through an assessment not paid for on an individual basis. How much damage will be done and need repaired to run all the new wiring? That honestly can be a major undertaking. I assist with the condo board of a smaller complex and I can understand the difficulty. The most common problem, people throw out "great ideas", but don't have the knowledge to properly plan these ideas to realize the true cost. I say get a good "steam man" in there and give you an honest evaluation.
    2014 Weil Mclain EG-40
    EcoSteam ES-20 Advanced Boiler Control
    Boiler pictures updated 2/21/15
    margaretnyc
  • Jamie Hall
    Jamie Hall Member Posts: 17,011
    As has been said, but in more words: electric heat? in Manhattan? Surely you jest!

    More specifically. First, it is highly unlikely that you have anything approaching enough electrical power to the various units to provide for heating, unless the electrical system has been seriously upgraded recently -- which I doubt. Upgrading that would be a significant undertaking, both in terms of mess and in terms of expense.

    Second, the only moderately expensive part of the steam repair will likely be the new boiler and associated piping. There may be some expense to individual units for new vents and the like, but probably not that much. The suggestion to get a good steam man in there to give you some options and estimates is excellent. There are several in New York, and I dare say that @Steamhead might be persuaded to come and look at it, too. Individual control of temperature is quite feasible with one pipe steam, although individual billing is a bit more difficult.

    On fuel: the steam man will have his thoughts, and rightly, but I would suggest that you look at natural gas as well as oil. Most areas of Manhattan do have enough gas pressure and volume to service this sort of us; the gas company can advise on that.
    Br. Jamie, osb
    Building superintendent/caretaker, 7200 sq. ft. historic house museum with dependencies in New England
  • STEVEusaPA
    STEVEusaPA Member Posts: 5,292
    Everything the others have said, but I would also consider a dual fuel burner-gas and oil. You could fire whatever is cheaper, and in our area, the gas company gives you a lower rate for what they call 'interruptibles', with the agreement that they may have you switch over to oil during peak demands. Didn't happen this year in Philadelphia, but last year it happened twice for about a total of 10-14 days.
    steve
  • JUGHNE
    JUGHNE Member Posts: 8,924
    Are the 113 units each metered individually for electricity right now? If so, maybe with a 60 amp service each??
  • margaretnyc
    margaretnyc Member Posts: 14
    Each unit is metered separately as each unit is responsible for paying Con Ed (utility) directly for electricity. I have to check on the service to each unit. I am also gathering other data and pics I hope to post shortly. Thanks for all the great feedback, I hope it keeps coming. :blush:
    best,
    margaretnyc
  • JUGHNE
    JUGHNE Member Posts: 8,924
    Each unit would have its own electric panel, (circuit breaker..fuse box). A picture of it with its door open would help. Cover removed would be better, but you probably don't want to do that unless you have experience in that area.
  • jumper
    jumper Member Posts: 1,709
    Even if each unit's service is adequate there may not be enough electric capacity for the whole complex. Just when you need the most heat is when you can't have it. I'd go back to each building having its own boilers. Plural intended. Preferably natural gas.

    I'd also inquire if a lease including maintenance option is available.
  • Steamhead
    Steamhead Member Posts: 14,831
    Jamie said it best: "electric heat? in Manhattan? Surely you jest".

    Electric heat is by far the most expensive on a cost-per-BTU basis. I have heard of places where building or condo owners with electric heat could not afford the winter heating bills, and either froze or had to sell out.

    Keep the steam.

    Based on what I've seen in other such buildings, the original two-boiler setup was probably done so there would be a spare boiler to bring online if the one that was in use went down. We'd have to verify what the radiation load is to be sure.

    Once the radiation load is determined, we could then figure out the best boiler setup. If the exposures in the two buildings are different, a separate boiler for each building might be the best solution, with one spare boiler that could serve either building if needed.

    If natural gas is available in sufficient quantities, that would be the way to go. Dual-fuel burners are a good idea but I wouldn't settle on that unless I knew what the existing oil tank was and what condition it was in. If it's underground, I'd either replace it if the building were to stay on oil, or abandon it if switching it to gas.

    Then work your way out into the distribution piping to optimize that part of the system. For an example of what's possible when you do that, go to our Find a Contractor ad here:

    https://heatinghelp.com/find-a-contractor/detail/all-steamed-up-inc
    All Steamed Up, Inc.
    Steam, Vapor & Hot-Water Heating Specialists
    Oil & Gas Burner Service
    Consulting
    margaretnyc
  • modconwannabe
    modconwannabe Member Posts: 49
    I would suggest you consider getting a heating consultant to put together a letter with a back of the envelope itemized estimate of both measures to present to your board, and mail it to everyone in the building. The cost of potentially upgrading your building's electric, potentially running new lines to each apt, adding multiple new heating units to each apt (even if you left the old ones) plus all the associated wiring required, the permits required to do all that, the patch/repair work for each apartment and then once that's all paid for, essentially taxing yourselves a monthly assessment for the high cost of electric vs centralized shared heating. All this versus simply replacing a boiler, or, if tenable, getting new gas too? The electric option must be manyfold more expensive—even $1,000 per apartment, which I bet is way way low, would cost $113,000! Getting a new gas line to a building in NYC might be terrible if they require you to test all the existing lines (in our 16 unit building every line had to be replaced due to failing pressure tests) but if you get a dual fuel boiler perhaps you can get it going with oil while a new gas line is installed?
    Also, you should check the owner documents of your condo before doing any of this--it may be set in stone that the building provides heat and hot water.
  • SWEI
    SWEI Member Posts: 7,356
    Like http://www.72fllc.com/ for example. John works in NYC and really knows his stuff.
    gpgp72margaretnycJohnNY
  • JUGHNE
    JUGHNE Member Posts: 8,924
    I favor the steam also. The questions about the electric service (and most likely lack of it) are to help to hit that idea in the head right away.
  • Steamhead
    Steamhead Member Posts: 14,831
    SWEI said:

    Like http://www.72fllc.com/ for example. John works in NYC and really knows his stuff.

    I'll second that. Call him.
    All Steamed Up, Inc.
    Steam, Vapor & Hot-Water Heating Specialists
    Oil & Gas Burner Service
    Consulting
    RJMCTAFOmargaretnycJohnNYHatterasguy
  • gpgp72
    gpgp72 Member Posts: 2
    Hello all. I am the husband of / co owner with the original poster.
    I would like to say first, what an excellent resource my wife has found here. Secondly, I am an electrician, but I work in theaters, not an electrical contractor. Most of your points about electricity had already been realized.
    As the OP said each unit is individually metered for electric, and I believe gas as well. Trust me I also think getting rid of steam is insane they are begging for an electrical fire. But if i may play devils advocate for a second, is there no gas heater option since gas is already metered per unit ? ( i mean besides the oven which we know people will do when they have no steam) I know there are gas on demand hotwater heaters and yes each unit would hve to change the plumbing a bit, but not a lot to implement those. Although I bet NYC building code requires heaters in bedrooms and common areas so it probably isn't fesable.
    I think if gas is an option it would not require an ifrastructure improvent to implement. Thoughts ?
    Thank you all again for your answers and help thus far.
    GPGP72
  • Robert O'Connor_12
    Robert O'Connor_12 Member Posts: 728
    Fix your system & stick with the steam.

    Robert O'Connor/NJ
  • SWEI
    SWEI Member Posts: 7,356
    Once the steam system is properly balanced and controlled, you can allocate costs on a per-square-foot basis and they'll come out nice and fair.

    Individual tankless water heaters might work for DHW, but venting all of them may not be doable in NYC. John can help you navigate all of that.
  • gpgp72
    gpgp72 Member Posts: 2
    The argument from those in the building proposing this idea is that there are units who do not pay, and yet recieve the service (steam heat). It does not matter how it is divided if they are not paying at all. And if the service came through an individually metered connection it is outside of the buildings responsibility to deal with them.
    GPGP72
  • JUGHNE
    JUGHNE Member Posts: 8,924
    edited April 2016
    The existing gas piping may be sized only for gas ranges in each unit.......this also probably means a smaller electrical requirement for each unit and the entire building. But as you say the electric heating is probably out.

    So trying to heat each unit with gas you may face the same dilemma of undersized gas piping supply.

    Do you get billed for NG by a gas company or the building manager?
    How is domestic hot water heated for the building?

    So having NG to the building, a new steam boiler is becoming the more obvious solution.

    My guess that up grading the NG service (if needed) would be more practical than doubling or tripling the electric service capacity. It would only need upgraded to the basement boiler room rather than the entire building.
  • JUGHNE
    JUGHNE Member Posts: 8,924
    With tenants that don't pay, there are probably plenty of lawyers in that area who can help with that.
  • Brewbeer
    Brewbeer Member Posts: 616
    One issue I see with individually heated units is that some units will need more heat and some less depending on where they are in the building. A unit in a middle floor with heated apartments below, above, and on both sides is going to need less heat than a corner unit on the bottom or top floors.
    Hydronics inspired homeowner with self-designed high efficiency low temperature baseboard system and professionally installed mod-con boiler with indirect DHW. My system design thread: http://forum.heatinghelp.com/discussion/154385
    System Photo: https://us.v-cdn.net/5021738/uploads/FileUpload/79/451e1f19a1e5b345e0951fbe1ff6ca.jpg
  • JUGHNE
    JUGHNE Member Posts: 8,924
    Brewbeer, are you referring to metering individually units or dividing up the entire single boiler heating bill.

    If the single heat source is retained and a unit heat loss was done then the billing could be figured out proportionally per unit. There would be common areas that would be the responsibly of the management board, their bill could be calculated the same way. If you are in the top floor corner you would pay the most....that is probably the most desirable location.....(a corner office is for the top dogs ;) ).
  • Jamie Hall
    Jamie Hall Member Posts: 17,011
    One major problem with individual gas heaters: venting. You can get away with a gas stove without venting, although in a tight building it's not really such a good idea, but gas space heating absolutely requires venting. How would you go about venting every unit?

    Also, both gas on-demand water heaters and, even more, space heaters take bigger gas piping than minor uses such as storage water heaters or stoves or driers. It is very likely that all the gas piping would have to be enlarged to accomodate -- including the main meter and the street lateral.

    @JUGHNE suggested a good way to go about splitting up the heating cost from a common boiler. His approach has the virtue of being inexpensive. There are other ways; if each unit has its own thermostatically controlled valve -- quite feasible -- it would probably also be feasible to log how long each unit's valve was open. That times the EDR in the unit will give you a very exact measure of how much steam (money!) the unit used.
    Br. Jamie, osb
    Building superintendent/caretaker, 7200 sq. ft. historic house museum with dependencies in New England
  • JUGHNE
    JUGHNE Member Posts: 8,924
    But did the rad heat all the way across to the full EDR? And people don't want management snooping into their space.

    Doing the heat loss on each unit based on original construction would maybe make reluctant tenants allow a site visit for a survey of radiators and their own thermal envelope improvements. From what I understand of the Condo situation is that the "Castle Law" is seemingly in effect and they would be reserved to allow anyone from management inside. If they want a lower heating bill because of their private improvements then they would have to present the evidence to management.
  • nicholas bonham-carter
    nicholas bonham-carter Member Posts: 8,507
    The condo rules should have spelled out what percentage each unit is responsible for with regard to common expenses, such as roof, structure, etc. The heating system repairs/replacement should follow the same formula. The only question would be: will the radiators inside every apartment be part of the common area (as they should be), or is it within the owners responsibility?
    If there are bad traps, then those must be repaired at the same time everywhere, even though they are within the individual units.
    Considering how badly maintained the system has been, then with a replacement, gas conversion, and repair, the heating cost will probably be reduced 30-50%. That should appeal to all the residents.--NBC
  • margaretnyc
    margaretnyc Member Posts: 14
    Each unit pays common charges which goes towards building expenses such as heat and hot water, elevator repairs, maintenance, etc. Electricity and cooking gas are metered for each apartment and are paid directly by each unit owner.
    No doubt there are bad traps but the onus is on the individual unit owner to repair the traps and there is no guarantee that they will. I do think, however, targeted education and perhaps an initial tune up of all the radiators that the whole building pays for would be well worth it.
    The efficiency argument is by far the best one but there is a small but vocal group of facilities committee members who are sold on the individual electric heating units for each apartment. They would rather have every man/woman fend for themselves, than to bite the bullet and invest in a central heating plant that will be at least 50% more efficient.
    All the advice so far has been worth its weight in gold. I will no doubt be reaching out to some of the recommended experts to get a more firm proposal once I get a green light from the board who I am actively engaging in these conversations/arguments.
    @JUGHNE- thanks for the TRV suggestion. I suggested the same thing at a recent meeting when they complained of people's open windows but was shot down by a pro-electric heat committee member who claimed they could not be installed on low pressure single pipe systems. I have already forwarded the tech sheet of the Danfoss RA2000 1PS to the committee.
    Regarding unit owners who are in arrears, our management company is working diligently with a legal team to force them to pay. Unfortunately the history between some of the original owners and management has been very contentious.
    Big thanks to all!
  • SteamCoffee
    SteamCoffee Member Posts: 100
    I bet you have ConEd steam available, might be something to consider...
    EzzyT
  • nicholas bonham-carter
    nicholas bonham-carter Member Posts: 8,507
    One thing the board must understand is that when the building was first built, the heating system would have been quiet, even, comfortable, and economical to operate. Through the intervening years, the system has had improper and minimal maintenance, which now must be corrected. Open windows in the winter are a certain sign of an unbalanced system with some areas being very overheated, and others under heated.
    Tell them not to forget the asbestos removal which will certainly be necessary with abandoned pipes, maybe even inside the walls of all the units.
    I presume that the board must have the right to place liens on the units whose owners have not paid, and maybe those owners could be persuaded to pay now, or never be able to sell, or refinance their units again.--NBC
  • jumper
    jumper Member Posts: 1,709
    Single pipe steam heat in NYC is a bargain. Forget individual fuel apportionments. Some of your current problems are from using one boiler to run two buildings contrary to original installation. With multiple boilers (or staged burners) for each building energy cost will be peanuts compared to other bills NYC condo owners pay.
  • Bio
    Bio Member Posts: 278
  • nicholas bonham-carter
    nicholas bonham-carter Member Posts: 8,507
    Both John and Grenady are excellent choices
    Now who knows a good lawyer?.--NBC
    margaretnyc
  • ChicagoCooperator
    ChicagoCooperator Member Posts: 313
    I'm going to play devil's advocate for a moment. Having each owner pay for and be responsible for all their own heating would be a huge savings for the building. Lower assessments might mean higher sales prices as well.

    That said there are a lot of disadvantages to doing that. Obviously the cost of installing what I assume would be electric baseboards, which I would think would also lower the value of the units substantially (though you can do a search on the Columbia Floor Plan Archive and find a building apparently renovated in the 60's with all electric heating as a ConEd demonstration project).

    One could install small individual gas boilers for a hot water system, as seems to be commonly done in the UK for apartments, which would also cover each units hot water needs.

    Or gas fired forced air (the air handlers could be hung from the ceiling in a hallway) with central air added, which would be a huge sales advantage and make your building unique. This is commonly done in Chicago (our conversion process is a bit different than yours, we don't have renters from before the conversion, everyone is booted out and generally the buildings are usually gutted and GFA units installed, without improving the building envelope very much).

    However, all of these would be extremely intrusive to the point of owners needing to temporarily move out, expensive, especially for the unit owners and less energy efficient or "green" than restoring the steam system. I assume though, that heating is the largest line item in your budget (gas is our biggest single recurring item). Since you have one pipe, replacing the vents is relatively easy and cheap. I would suggest, that once you convince the board to restore (or take over the board through a palace revolt or coup) that you make sure the heating system is treated as a common element to ensure proper maintenance.
    margaretnycLouisFournier
  • nicholas bonham-carter
    nicholas bonham-carter Member Posts: 8,507
    Remember that any venting of a gas appliance must terminate away from any Windows or balconies, by some distance.
    Who knows but that the original boiler may be repairable.--NBC
  • ChicagoCooperator
    ChicagoCooperator Member Posts: 313

    Remember that any venting of a gas appliance must terminate away from any Windows or balconies, by some distance.

    Typically around here they stack the furnaces up above each other (obviously in the unit) and run the flues up through the roof side by side. Huge, huge expense, since there would be gas to run, walls opened, flues, etc.

    Fix the boiler! Are there any utility or tax credits for repairing or upgrading it?
  • margaretnyc
    margaretnyc Member Posts: 14
    There are many incentives available, although the most lucrative have to do with converting to NG. We would ideally work directly with the chosen heating specialist to secure as many tax credits and rebates as possible.

    ChicagoCooperator - thanks for your comments. Our PM program for our aging boiler has already improved dramatically in the last year and a new system will definitely require very regular maintenance and service.
  • ChicagoCooperator
    ChicagoCooperator Member Posts: 313
    I feel your pain - we had to fire the service company who had supposedly done our annual service when it turned out they did nothing at all and collected a check (probably exacerbated by inept management company, now also fired and gone). Our saving grace is the 1920's boiler is in good shape overall and our janitor blows it down weekly, etc.
  • Paul48
    Paul48 Member Posts: 4,470
    @nicholas bonham-carter

    "A good lawyer".........Is there such a thing? :wink:
  • nicholas bonham-carter
    nicholas bonham-carter Member Posts: 8,507
    A competent lawyer, i should have said!--NBC
  • Brewbeer
    Brewbeer Member Posts: 616
    @JUGHNE I was thinking about everyone being converted to electric heat. Some units will be cheap to heat, some much more costly to heat, depending on where they are in the building.
    Hydronics inspired homeowner with self-designed high efficiency low temperature baseboard system and professionally installed mod-con boiler with indirect DHW. My system design thread: http://forum.heatinghelp.com/discussion/154385
    System Photo: https://us.v-cdn.net/5021738/uploads/FileUpload/79/451e1f19a1e5b345e0951fbe1ff6ca.jpg
  • Brewbeer
    Brewbeer Member Posts: 616
    "A good lawyer"......Is there such a thing?

    Not until you need one.
    Hydronics inspired homeowner with self-designed high efficiency low temperature baseboard system and professionally installed mod-con boiler with indirect DHW. My system design thread: http://forum.heatinghelp.com/discussion/154385
    System Photo: https://us.v-cdn.net/5021738/uploads/FileUpload/79/451e1f19a1e5b345e0951fbe1ff6ca.jpg
  • JUGHNE
    JUGHNE Member Posts: 8,924
    Brewbeer, that is what I thought you meant....but since I had the floor I thought I would expound on my theory. There are times when an idea pops into the head and then a Senior Moment hides it somewhere else ;) .... so sometimes it is best to write things down.

    If all paid their own heating bill, I could envision hallway conversions comparing bills and concern why the guys in the middle pay less for heat than corner people. Actually the way to save on your heating bill if you are in the middle of the building is to keep your heat off.....just tough it out for awhile and your neighbors heat loss will increase as they heat your cold walls, floors, and ceilings.
    In younger days I was in an apartment with 2 other guys, we were on top floor and the stairwell had a good sized fan forced electric heater. We would turn it up and leave our door open if we were home. This kept our furnace from running. >:)