Click here to Find a Contractor in your area.
In fairness to all, we don't discuss pricing on the Wall. Thanks for your cooperation.
Need to contact us? Visit

90 year old National coal-oil-gas boiler numerous problems

PhylPhyl Posts: 9Member
My National boiler was installed when this house was build in the 1920's. It has served us well over the 50 years we have lived here. Until recently. My water "suddenly" became scalding hot. I thought it was a simple case of adjusting some temperature gauge on the boiler which I think my past-husband used to do.
I called a plumber, not for the boiler, but to replace a leaking set tub in the basement a few weeks ago.. When he was here, I mentioned the scalding water and he looked at my boiler and said there were some piping issues that needed to be fixed. (My former HVAC man just told me not to call him unless I had a problem, such as the boiler not working.) Repair men are not easy for find for these old systems.

By word of mouth I located a Master plumber (and heating) man, who seems very, very knowledgeable about these old boilers. He is 78 years old with over 45 years' experience.

He came back and drained the boiler to do all the work, He repaired the section of the return and the steam pipe which is part of the return. He also replaced other rusty parts. When we was finished, he told me to watch for any leaks. I did not see any, until the second day and I noticed a tiny drop coming from the return line where it enters the bottom of the boiler. He had not touched this end of that return.

When I noticed the drip, he was away on vacation. I also noticed that the water in the sight glass went up very creepingly during the course of the day. I kept draining it when it went up too high. When I turned the temperature up one day on my thermostat, I heard loud hissing and went downstairs to see a cloud of steam coming from a vent near the ceiling. The pressure gauge(?) original with the boiler, went from 1 to 4. I had never see this happen before. The plumber told me not to worry about the gauge going up to 4 because it was not working anyway, but I still wondered why it moved up......

I shut off the boiler and was without heat for 5 days. It was not warm in MA last week. Today it is 90 degrees. in the meantime, I was emailing a brother who is a boiler engineer for huge boilers many stories high. He kept reassuring me and trying to explain what was going on.

My plumber came back yesterday and removed the return and the part he had previously replaced and it is all new. He changed the vent that was emitting steam. He changed the valve on the water intake line. He even removed the sight glass and cleaned it. He felt very confident about everything but said that if I saw any more leaks, it would have to be my Everhot All Copper #16 tankless water heater, which would probably need to be replaced.

I put a clothespin on the water gauge to mark the water mark. Sure enough in about 12 hours, it has gone up about 3/4". Also, there is condensation on the top part of the water gauge. I have not ever seen this before either.

I am watching the water line to see just how high the water will go. I have left a VM for the plumber.

I'm sorry, but I don't know the names of all of these parts. I don't know why the valve was emitting so much steam, and didn't understand what he was trying to explain to me. I've never noticed clouds of steam before.

From this long complicated email, what do you think is going on. I have spent about $1800 on it in the past two years (but before that, it was not problematic). Do you think it is the tankless water heater? Do you know why the water is creeping up or why there is condensation inside the glass?

I'm about as old as the boiler but I will have my brother check in and learn what you think.

Thank you so much!!!! Sorry for the long description but so many things have happened in the past two weeks.



  • Jamie HallJamie Hall Posts: 8,113Member
    I presume, since you mention a vent, that this is a steam heating system. There isn't that much that can go wrong with them -- but with a boiler that old, there are a few things.

    First, since the water level is rising -- albeit slowly -- water is getting into the boiler from somewhere. You mention a tankless coil; on a boiler that old, I would be very suspicious of a leak in the tankless coil, inside the boiler, allowing water in that way. The other possibility is that the valve on the water line used to fill the boiler is leaking.

    Can you or someone reliable (not saying, you aren't, but you might not want to!) close the valve leading from the cold water to the tankless coil? And then watch the water level? That would check that possibility.

    On pressure -- it shouldn't go over two pounds if the pressure control is working. It may not be -- it might be clogged.

    Depending on exactly where you are in Massachusetts, there are a few really good steam heat men around. I personally would recommend Charles Garrity, at 413.841.8726, who posts on here as @Charlie from wmass . He is one of the best in the business. He tends to be a bit busy -- no surprise -- but if you could get him to come and look things over you'd be in fine shape.

    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
  • PhylPhyl Posts: 9Member
    Thank you Jamie, I think I know where that valve is to turn off the cold water It has a new Valve RMV NSF 61G on it. He had me turn it off one night and I believe, if I remember, I had to check the water level which was ok in themorning. But I believe that same day is the day I raised the temperature in the house and had those problems and turned off the boiler for about 5-6 days.

    I will ask someone to double-check this. Should I turn it off for the night just to see if the water level in the sight glass remains at the same level? Then, should I raise the temperature in the house to fire the boiler and see what happens? : (

    The two relief valves I mentioned are on the top of the boiler. One (that went from 1 to 4) is the one Ed said was original and was not working. He said it was replaced by the Honeywell PA 404A 1033-1. Ed said this one is the one to pay attention to. It has those silver electric(?) cables going to another relief valve(?) that will turn automatically shut down the boiler if need be.

    I have two steam vents that point to the rafters -- the one that did some heavy hissing when the "original" pressure gauge went to 4.
    And another one that looks as it doesn't work at all. I think (not sure) that this is a cold water line for the house. Might be wrong.

    I will certainly call Mr. Garrity. I feel, though, that I need to have Ed come back and double-check everything; and see what he now says. He has been a good person.

    I am watching the water gauge. It is now at the top line - 2 1/2" from the top. Should I drain off some water? It has gone up about 1 3/4" from this morning (9:00) to now (4:00). Should I keep draining water off when it goes up like this?

    I'll get it, eventually; hopefully, before the boiler gives up.

    Thanks, again, for your help.

  • Jamie HallJamie Hall Posts: 8,113Member
    Phyl -- is the water still going up with that cold water valve closed? And does this valve turn off your hot water?

    The Honeywell PA404A is not really a valve. It is a pressure switch, and it should shut off the boiler when the pressure gets too high. However, it may not be sensing the boiler pressure properly, or it may be set improperly. It has a scale on it; the marker on that scale should be set just above "0.5" lettering. It can be adjusted by turning the screw on top.

    I wouldn't run the boiler if the water level is near or at the top of the sight glass -- if you need to (and you won't, today, if your temperature is anything like what it is here in northwestern Connecticut!) drain the water to about half way up the glass, and then run it.

    Do get Ed back to look. He knows the boiler, and I'm sure he is a good man. However, do also try to get Charles to come and go over the whole thing. There are oddities to steam which not all plumbers -- even the best -- are aware of, but Charles is one of the best steam men in this area.

    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
  • Danny ScullyDanny Scully Posts: 914Member
    edited May 2017
    1920s original coal boiler = time for new boiler :wink: Honestly though, I would really start taking this time to plan a replacement. It owes you nothing at this point. With the summer fast approaching, you have plenty of time to do your homework (although you might need to make a decision on the domestic water fairly soon).
  • IronmanIronman Posts: 4,178Member
    What other appliance would you expect to last almost 100 years?

    It's time to look at replacement. Otherwise, you're just throwing money down a hole.
    Bob Boan

    You can choose to do what you want, but you cannot choose the consequences.
  • BobCBobC Posts: 4,776Member
    edited May 2017
    If shutting the feed into the hot water coil stops the water level creep it means that coil has to be replaced, it may not be easy to find a replacement coil and even if one can be found it is not a cheap thing to replace because it's probably rusted in place.

    If no other issues exist with the boilers ability to heat the house perhaps the way to go is to cap off the domestic hot water coil and install a tank gas hot water heater. That will supply you with domestic hot water and it will save you the considerable labor it might take to remove the leaky coil and replace it.

    Then start planning what to replace the steam boiler with so the next time it gives you trouble you can just slide a new one in it's place. I can understand wanting to keep something that still works but you are already a couple of thousand dollars into it that could have been put into a new reliable cast iron boiler.


    Smith G8-3 with EZ Gas @ 90,000 BTU, Single pipe steam
    Vaporstat with a 12oz cut-out and 4oz cut-in
    3PSI gauge
  • FredFred Posts: 6,428Member
    In addition to what @BobC said, have your repair person take the pigtail (looped pipe) that the Pressuretrol is mounted on and clean it. It may well be clogged with gunk, causing the pressure to rise higher than it should. Also, as to the condensation on the top part of your sight glass, anytime new piping is added/changed on a steam system, the oils used to manufacture and thread that new pipe will contaminate the boiler water and lay on the surface of the water in the boiler. The only way to clean it out is to have someone skim the boiler, very, very slowly. Skimming is a simple process, if you have a skim port (a valve or pipe above the boiler water line). Skimming, as I said is simple but it is time consuming. Ask your service person to do that or show you how to do it, after you get the tankless hot water coil replaced or a seperate hot water heater installed.
  • PhylPhyl Posts: 9Member
    Thank you all. I had the water shut off all night and there was no change in the level of the water in the sight glass, so that's that. I now have decisions to make. (I've seen pictures of other old boilers and next to them, mine looks pretty good.) Especially now with new, shiny parts. I've left a VM for Garrity. He is about a 10 minute drive from my house.
    You are a great bunch of guys. I will let you know what the next step is going to be. I think the boiler is probably operating under a DNR order at this point. She has been a very reliable part of my household.

    Thanks, again.
  • HVACNUTHVACNUT Posts: 1,104Member
    The DNR is a wise choice. She has done her duty tenfold. Maybe take a family pic with her and hang it in the utility room. The new system will have "Big Mama" watching over to make sure he stays in line. Being a young whipper snapper, he'll need the shrewd eye of the Matriarch always bearing down.
  • PhylPhyl Posts: 9Member
    Thanks HVACNUT:

    I might take a picture as you suggest. She was a real member of this family and was taken care of as if she WAS a real member. If she HAS to do, I will be very sorry to lose her.

    I am waiting for Mr. Garrity to come here and check out Old Faithful. She does look good and she is a very quiet worker.

    JAMIE: I have kept a log of what she has been doing --

    Thursday Night: I turned off the hot water at 8 p.m.
    Friday morning, at 6:30 a.m, the water in the sight glass had not moved at all. During the entire day it went up very, very minimally.
    Saturday, at 11:30 a.m. the level had gone up 1".
    At 4:30 it had gone up 1 1/4" so I drained one full pitcher of water to bring the level back down to the clothes pin.

    The next morning (Sunday) at 8:00: I checked the water level and it had gone up about 1/4" since 4:30 the day before.

    At 5 p.m. the water level was up about 1"

    Monday, today, the water level at 6:30 a.m. was up about 1 1/2" (in 13 plus hours).

    At noon today, the level had gone up about 2".

    So I drained one pitcher of water back to the top of the clothespin.

    (The clothespin is clipped onto the metal rod beside the sight glass.)

    We'll see what happens.

    Today and last night, I kept hearing little soft beeps every so often. I kept checking around Old Faithful - could not locate the sound. Later, I heard it again, almost inaudible. It turned out to be my smoke alarm.
    I guess it needs a new battery but that's a weak alarm to notify me.
    I'm glad it wasn't the boiler, anyway.
  • PhylPhyl Posts: 9Member
    Ok, decision made. Charles came over last night and we determined I need to replace my Old Faithful because of small leak in tankless hot water coil.

    MassSave is coming here July 6th to advise about chimney liner, removal of asbestos (ugh) and rebate ($3,000 for 30 year or older boiler). So I have to prepare to say goodbye to her.

    It would have been nice if the second HVAC man had called me when I let him know the water was creeping up AFTER he repaired (for the second time) the return line. I'm sure he knew what the issue was but didn't want to deal with it. Not good. I was disappointed. He could have called and should have told me he didn't want to do it. I have been dealing with him since beginning of April. My bad luck.

    Thanks for steering me to Charles.


Sign In or Register to comment.


It looks like you're new here. If you want to get involved, click one of these buttons!