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oil-fired steam boiler: replace burner or entire thing

snugglez
snugglez Member Posts: 16
Hi, I have a 2 family in somerville ma that has two oil-fired steam boilers. One of them is relatively new (84% Weil-McLain), and the other is very old--plate is discolored so it's hard to know how old, but definitely 60s-era. Again, Weil-McLain. Both are in great shape and the boiler tech that serviced them said the older one "would last forever." Ok, who knows if that's BS, but it sure is built like a tank, and I love how it looks.

Problem: these are rental units, and my tenants (especially the one's with the older boiler) 1) are concerned about the cost of heat, and 2) HATE having to sign up for oil delivery. The house is insulated, and I'm paying to have it air-sealed and put more insulation in the attic. I'm also in the process of insulating the steam pipes in the basement.

Objective: I'd like to improve the efficiency of the house heating by installing mini-split heat pumps in the units. Using the heatpumps to maintain a baseline of something like 62-64 degrees 24/7, and then supplementing that with the boilers to get to 68 or 70 with that nice radiant heat in the mornings/evenings/weekends. The idea is that the efficiency of the boilers would be less relevant given the time on would be a lot less than if they weren't supplemented by the heat pumps, and the tenants would have AC in the summers, too.

Problem: the older boiler has an extremely old tank that needs to be replaced. The cost of doing this is kind of high (3000+ for a high-quality double-walled tank, installed), and so I was thinking "why not take that 3k+ and just dump oil--which my tenants HATE--and put in a gas-fired burner in the existing boilers"? The reaction I've gotten from the heating guys has been unequivocally resistant, but it's hard to tell why; my feeling is a lot of them just want to put in something new, no matter what. I'm having trouble finding someone in the area that has done a lot of these burner swaps and is therefore comfortable giving me the pros and cons of doing this kind of swap, other than "yeah, I don't like it."

The complications with going with a new boiler are:
1. the cost is much higher, obviously. Also, it just seems wasteful to throw away working boilers
2. the existing boilers have tankless coils, meaning I don't have separate DHW tanks. So upgrading to new boilers means more than just installing new boilers, it means installing either indirect tanks or separate tanks--a not-insiginificant cost.
3. the chimney the boilers are going into is going away at some point. It's old and crumbling, unlined, and is in the middle of the living space of the units--I want to free up that room. When I convert to gas, I'll either install power vents, or install an external stainless chimney.

Basically, in order to afford and justify installing the heat-pumps for my tenants, I need to minimize the cost of what I spend to keep these boilers going. I could just replace the oil tank, but like I said, the tenants hate it, and if I have to deal with new tenants for the next 30 years griping about signing up for oil, I'm going to seriously... not want that.

Questions (finally!):
- aside from the efficiency difference between a new gas boiler and one of these gas burners in the older boiler, what is the downside of doing the swap? Are there legitimate reliability issues with these burners that aren't present with a new boiler?
- is there someone in the boston area that people can recommend that has done a lot of this kind of swap? I'd love to find an old-timer that really knows how to do it right.

Thank you SO MUCH for any feedback, I'm sorry for the long post. I will add any details you ask, or pictures if that is helpful.

Comments

  • ChrisJ
    ChrisJ Member Posts: 11,980
    Can you post pictures of the boilers and the piping around them?

    Also, where are you located? Approximate will be good enough.
    Single pipe quasi-vapor system. Typical operating pressure 0.14 - 0.43 oz. EcoSteam ES-20 Advanced Control for Residential Steam boilers. Rectorseal Steamaster water treatment
  • BobC
    BobC Member Posts: 5,231
    edited April 2016
    Contractors don't like converting old boilers because they just don't know how it will go. That said if you can get someone to put ez-gas burners in there you would be in better shape because the long term cost of natural gas will be cheaper than oil. BUT you have to get the chimney lined if you go to a gas fired boiler. Is this chimney in the middle of the house or is it exposed on the side of the house?

    Bob
    Smith G8-3 with EZ Gas @ 90,000 BTU, Single pipe steam
    Vaporstat with a 12oz cut-out and 4oz cut-in
    3PSI gauge
  • snugglez
    snugglez Member Posts: 16
    ChrisJ said:

    Can you post pictures of the boilers and the piping around them?

    Also, where are you located? Approximate will be good enough.

    I will post pics tomorrow, sorry I don't have them on hand at the moment. The house is located in Somerville MA--right outside of Boston.

    Thanks!
  • Steamhead
    Steamhead Member Posts: 14,863
    BobC said:

    Contractors don't like converting old boilers because they just don't know how it will go.

    With us, that would depend on the make and model of the boiler and what condition it's in. We've done a lot of conversions, most using the EZ-Gas. But the travel time from Baltimore would be a bit much.

    There are plenty of good contractors in your area. Try the Find a Contractor page of this site- go to Main Site, then Find a Contractor and follow the instructions.

    All Steamed Up, Inc.
    Steam, Vapor & Hot-Water Heating Specialists
    Oil & Gas Burner Service
    Consulting
  • snugglez
    snugglez Member Posts: 16
    BobC said:

    Contractors don't like converting old boilers because they just don't know how it will go. That said if you can get someone to put ez-gas burners in there you would be in better shape because the long term cost of natural gas will be cheaper than oil. BUT you have to get the chimney lined if you go to a gas fired boiler. Is this chimney in the middle of the house or is it exposed on the side of the house?

    Bob

    Yeeeeup, that's what I'm picking up. But come on, I KNOW there are guys out there that have done hundreds of these conversions--thousands! I'm just having trouble finding one of those guys. The bonus to using an old-timer is that they'll likely also know how to get the most out of steam. A lot of the guys I've been talking to basically think that steam is "old/bad" and FHW is "new/good." Frustrating.

    I'm definitely going to knock down the chimney--it's in the middle of the house and it's taking up a lot of room in the unfinished attic that I want to finish into living space. It's also in disrepair and unlined. I think I'll either go stainless double-walled external chimney or power vent the boilers. I'd prefer the stainless chimney, but I think that's fairly pricey. Actually, the power vents aren't cheap, either, once you have to replace them in the middle of winter, ha-ha. But in any case, I understand that this is an unavoidable additional cost to converting. But this would be present if I got new boilers or kept the old and just converted them, therefore I'm not "counting" that cost when I'm weighing my choices. Does that make sense?
  • snugglez
    snugglez Member Posts: 16
    Steamhead said:

    BobC said:

    Contractors don't like converting old boilers because they just don't know how it will go.

    With us, that would depend on the make and model of the boiler and what condition it's in. We've done a lot of conversions, most using the EZ-Gas. But the travel time from Baltimore would be a bit much.

    There are plenty of good contractors in your area. Try the Find a Contractor page of this site- go to Main Site, then Find a Contractor and follow the instructions.

    Hah! I'll put you up if you want to come up--got an in-law apartment that I'll gladly kick my in-laws out of :)

    Derp, I somehow missed the 'Find a Contractor' link, I think I was not seeing the Main Site, somehow (I swear I looked!). Thanks, I'll check that out.
  • Steamhead
    Steamhead Member Posts: 14,863
    snugglez said:

    I'm definitely going to knock down the chimney--

    I'd think twice about that. Power-venting adds moving parts which will always break down at the worst possible time. Also, when venting a combustion appliance thru the sidewall you have to maintain certain clearances from ground level, windows etc. You may not have these clearances.

    All Steamed Up, Inc.
    Steam, Vapor & Hot-Water Heating Specialists
    Oil & Gas Burner Service
    Consulting
  • snugglez
    snugglez Member Posts: 16
    Steamhead said:


    I'd think twice about that. Power-venting adds moving parts which will always break down at the worst possible time. Also, when venting a combustion appliance thru the sidewall you have to maintain certain clearances from ground level, windows etc. You may not have these clearances.

    Yeah, I've had some heating guys come out to measure--there's definitely room for the PV. I agree that it's not ideal, which is why I'm also considering the stainless external chimney. The cost is likely to be similar when all is accounted for, and the bonus is that I get to free up significant space inside the house. Does that make sense or am I fooling myself here? Definitely looking for input on that.
  • KC_Jones
    KC_Jones Member Posts: 4,841
    Not sure of the vintage of your house, but be VERY careful if you remove that chimney. The one in my house is holding up joists so you should be very cautious about just tearing it out. It could turn into a much bigger project than you think. They did some "interesting" things when they built some of these old houses.
    2014 Weil Mclain EG-40
    EcoSteam ES-20 Advanced Boiler Control
    Boiler pictures updated 2/21/15
    rick in Alaska
  • snugglez
    snugglez Member Posts: 16
    KC_Jones said:

    Not sure of the vintage of your house, but be VERY careful if you remove that chimney. The one in my house is holding up joists so you should be very cautious about just tearing it out. It could turn into a much bigger project than you think. They did some "interesting" things when they built some of these old houses.

    Yeah, it's definitely structural for at least two first floor, but I mostly just need to take it down in the attic, where it's completely exposed and I can see it's not supporting anything up there.

    But thanks for the heads-up, definitely appreciated. I'll be careful! :)
  • JeffM
    JeffM Member Posts: 175
    If the find a contractor link here doesn't find you anyone around Boston willing to install a conversion burner, you might try looking up Tim McElwain on this site and sending him a message. I had an oil-to-gas conversion done in my house in Manchester, NH done a few years ago, and after some trouble similar to your experience Tim located someone to do the job for me. Tim runs a gas training school in RI and has lots of connections through contractors who have attended his classes and such.
    SWEI
  • nicholas bonham-carter
    nicholas bonham-carter Member Posts: 8,512
    Very good advice!--NBC