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Rebuild Steam or Go Hot water?

spacecowspacecow Posts: 14Member
We’ve learned too late the joys of radiant heating. We grew up in the south which meant no personal experience with radiators. We now live near Asheville, NC and were led astray by a “family friend” HVAC installer who told us we’d hate the two-pipe steam radiator system in our new-to-us historic home claiming they’d only heat 12 sq ft and even with upgrading the boiler we’d “still have old Pipes and old radiators, etc. Things that can break and flood.” We removed much of the steam piping in the basement to make room for the HVAC ducts. (Arg!!) He installed forced air: combo Heat Pump/NG Furnace in basement for first floor; Heat Pump in attic for second floor.

This has nearly doubled the heating costs (electricity plus NG for furnace) over what the 1981 Burnham boiler was costing to run on kerosene and the heat isn’t even keeping up (perimeter of the house stays cold which is unfortunately where the bathrooms are and drafty everywhere.)

We’ll be insulating the attic roof soon (most likely open-cell spray foam) which will help tremendously but even if it cuts heating costs in half we’ll just be back to where we started if we’d done nothing except turn on the lovely, toasty radiators. Needless to say we’re horrified, chilly, and now know that steam pipes couldn’t have broken and “flooded” the house!

I’ve spent the last few weeks reading extensively on heatinghelp.com and lamenting the pointless loss of our steam system and painful expense of installing an unneeded forced air system.

Some of the steam system is still here, including half the radiators, the 1981 Burnham Boiler with hot water appendage, and the risers to the second floor radiator locations. We’re looking in to what it would take to put the steam back together or convert what is left to hot water (since much of the piping has to be redone anyways) at some point in the future.

We have natural gas piped to the house and have a dedicated, relined chimney from the basement (it was relined for potential use with a wood stove). The radiators aren’t on-site but I’m going to check them for compatibility with hot water (based on the excellent info here on these forums!)

There’s such great information here about both steam and hot water systems. It seems like much of it is geared towards much colder climates. I’d really appreciate anyone’s thoughts on which option might be best for the climate here in the mountains near Asheville NC.

I’ve included a few photos of the parts of the system that are left.




Comments

  • JUGHNEJUGHNE Posts: 4,313Member
    "Can only heat 12 sq feet"..........quite a statement.

    We are sorry for your loss.

    Would point out that converting to water could be a water flood event.....but you know that from reading here.
  • spacecowspacecow Posts: 14Member
    I greatly appreciate the sympathy. Its near killing me.

    And in the greatest of ironies, we had to turn off the steam humidifier installed in the attic because it started pouring water out of two vents...

    Still waiting on an explanation and repairs from the flood.
  • SteamheadSteamhead Posts: 11,884Member
    What happened to the rest of the radiators?
    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.
    https://heatinghelp.com/find-a-contractor/detail/all-steamed-up-inc
  • spacecowspacecow Posts: 14Member
    The plumber hauled off 7 or 8 of them. He said the nicer of those went to a renovation project in Asheville. The lesser ones went to metal recycling. The only reason we still have half is because a friend who is a welder/metal artist decided to keep 8 of them in case a neat art project came up. He’s very kindly said we are more than welcome to have them back. Also our plumber said he kept one small one that we’re welcome to have back as well. (So really we have a bit more than half)

    I’ve called the scrap yards. They said radiators do come in from time to time but when they’re tossed off the truck they break.
  • jumperjumper Posts: 1,165Member
    I love steam but that won't likely happen. First thing is to check ducts that they're insulated and not leaking.Unless you want to heat attic and basement. If you really want radiant I'd go hot water with modern pipes and panels. You may be able to repurpose boiler. Your guy butchered your steam system beyond resurrection.






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  • spacecowspacecow Posts: 14Member
    edited February 7
    @jumper you're right, "rebuilding steam" is probably the wrong title. It's more like building from scratch with some parts laying around:). if you have a chance would you let me know the reasons you'd go for hot water over steam.

    The house is on the national historic register so there isn't much we can do about the numerous, drafty single-pane windows (they already have storm windows - I'm working on re-caulking around the frames). Also the interior walls are mostly plaster and insulating them isn't practical. So the main insulation we'll be doing is in the attic and the bandboard in the basement. It seems like radiant heat is our best hope of ever actually being comfortable. The ductwork in the attic and basement is all insulated R7 and seems well taped. (I'll try taking some thermal measurements at the joints). Also the benefits relating to allergies would be significant for our family.

    Here are the pros and cons for Steam and Hot Water I've assembled from my HeatingHelp.com reading. And being a complete novice I'm sure there's much more that I don't even have a grasp on yet (I might not even have these quite right):

    Benefits of Steam:
    Won’t freeze and flood
    Easy to zone with TRVs
    Fewer moving parts than Hot Water
    Still works during power outage as long as NG is still flowing (but might need a small backup power source?)
    Could reuse the radiators we have
    Smaller radiators relative to BTU output

    Drawbacks of Steam:
    Can't use modulating boiler (maybe vacuum system is different?)

    Benefits of Hot Water:
    Modulating condensing boiler with outdoor reset might save on fuel costs
    Possibly DIY-friendlier for a handy homeowner with a friendly plumber (not including boiler installation)

    Possible Drawbacks of Hot Water:
    Modulating boiler replacement parts are proprietary and expensive
    Modulating boilers may not save as much of fuel as expected because efficiency drops as they fire at lower and lower temps (article by Ray Wohlfarth)
    Possibility pipe/radiator break or freezing = flood

    Points where Two-Pipe Steam and Hot Water are similar:
    Similar amount of piping
    Cost prohibitive
  • jumperjumper Posts: 1,165Member
    Not so cost prohibitive if you can use your existing boiler and you're renovating anyhow. Steam can be balanced optimally with two pipe TRVs. Problem with steam is that there are only a few people who competently do houses. So homeowner has to be proactive regarding water level.

    HHW if done well can work with no attention for decades. Especially if you can sneak in a low efficiency boiler.

    If money is no object I've heard of using HHW to produce steam. Then you can have the best of both worlds.
  • KC_JonesKC_Jones Posts: 3,463Member
    Being on the historic register I'm shocked you were allowed to take the steam system out. That's part of the history of the building no different than the windows or siding. Not to mention all the holes that had to be punched in the plaster for ductwork.

    Out of curiosity, why isn't the contractor who gave you a poorly working system, getting it working properly? Is it that in addition to not knowing steam, they don't know FHA either?

    I would look at the skill set of your available contractors and leverage that heavily in your decision. On thing you already know who isn't welcome in your house anymore.

    Most likely steam isn't in your future, you could still use cast iron rads with water.
    2014 Weil Mclain EG-40
    EcoSteam ES-20 Advanced Boiler Control
    Boiler pictures updated 2/21/15
    https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10202744301871904.1073741828.1330391881&type=1&l=c34ad6ee78
  • Jamie HallJamie Hall Posts: 8,117Member
    Oddly enough, @KC_Jones , being on the National Register doesn't prevent that kind of sacrilege. It would be nice if it did, but... it doesn't.

    That said, taking care of National Register properties is what we (I and my daughter) do these days -- we have four now we are caretakers for -- so permit me a few comments for @spacecow .

    Windows. There are a number of outfits which make what are referred to as inside storm windows. They are extremely effective and easy to place and remove with the seasons. If you find yourself a decent carpenter (or learn to do it yourself, it's not hard) you can tighten up the "drafty single-pane windows" to the point where they aren't draughty, and add the inner storms, and you will be in just as good shape as brand new replacement double hungs -- with the distinct advantage that they will last another century or so, which the new ones won't.

    Plaster walls. Do not let someone tempt you into trying to blow insulation, or worse foam, into them. There is a real risk that the plaster keys will break -- and then you are in very expensive trouble. Live with them. They have an R value of around 5, which isn't great but isn't horrible either.

    Insulation. On the other hand, insulate the roof and the sills as best you can. Many benefits to that.

    On hot water vs. steam. There are things to be said for both. Also problems with both. The biggest single problem that I can think of for steam in your area is, honestly, finding a capable person to do the work...
    Jamie



    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
  • spacecowspacecow Posts: 14Member
    @KC_Jones - I agree, if that were part of the historic preservation requirements it would have saved us a great deal of frustration and heartache (not to mention a wonderful old steam system). We didn't know what we didn't know. Somewhere on HH.com there was a comment about historic heating systems not being afforded the same respect as other historic elements. Now we know but that's cold comfort.

    We're still working with the HVAC contractor and hope there will be improvement with the forced air issues. Insulating (and perhaps interior storms!) should make a difference in the overall comfort. The biggest frustration is that the change wasn't needed in the first place and the steam was much more effective (so all this insulating would have been icing on the cake rather than a desperate attempt to salvage a horrible situation).

    Fortunately there weren't drastic disturbances to the house to accommodate ductwork. There are two completely separate systems with ductwork for the first floor in the basement (vents in floor) and for the second floor in the attic (vents in ceiling).
  • spacecowspacecow Posts: 14Member
    @Jamie Hall , this is wonderful information, thank you.

    We absolutely love the historic qualities of the house (drafty windows and all). That makes the misinformation we received about the steam system exponentially more galling. We left the steam risers in place to preserve the historic look because we hated to lose it. The radiators themselves weren’t even an inconvenience (which seems to be a common reason for wanting the remove them).

    Usually we’re extremely proactive and do a great deal of research. In this instance we had a huge blind spot and completely trusted someone who was BS-ing us. He even quoted us for a boiler replacement (thus implying he actually knew about radiator systems). It was in that quote he said we’d still have old pipes and radiators that could break and flood.

    I’ll start looking in to the interior storms. I did a quick search and see there are a multitude of systems. Would it be ok to PM you about your experience with particular styles? Or I could start a new discussion in a more appropriate category? (Since I’m new to the HH forum I’m not sure if this is too off topic for the Radiant Heating category).

    Thanks for taking the time to share so much from your experience.
  • Mike CascioMike Cascio Posts: 115Member
    You might also want to consider a period correct wodden storm with double glazing. They make models where the lower pane can be swapped out from the inside to a screen.

    Replacement windows are called replaement windows because they will need to be replaced again!
  • Jamie HallJamie Hall Posts: 8,117Member
    @spacecow -- I've sent you a PM.
    Jamie



    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
  • LanceLance Posts: 91Member
    OUCH. It seems you were the only friend in this friendship and unfortunately the best of intentions are not best when they fail. Hope you have a friends guaranty to at least make it work as good as before. Old buildings, especially historic have the biggest heat loss by infiltration. An open door easily out wastes any attic insulation. Blower test comes to mind. But to be helpful if I can, a qualified recommendation will depend on your budget, and proper appraisal of your situation of which you are attempting to do here. There is a lot of good advice to be had, but my opinion is to choose wisely a good appraiser who is on site and has a great reputation they wish to keep and a love for their customer to do the right thing. Radiators can be found, many abound. Piping can be run even better again. The boiler may work but it is old, it used to run a summer winter coil, but that is now cold. The house is a great part of the heat comfort system. The proper system that melds with it works best. There is no doubt based on your own statements, the other worked better. If the entire first floor joists are open in the basement, radiant is an option and can eliminate radiators on the first level. Start with a J heat loss/ gain calculation. Know before you go, get it right on paper first. The absolute worst place to put any heat or cool system is in a typical attic outside the building envelope. You might as well run the duct around the outside of the house for each room. We stopped doing this 17 years ago. Foam any and all wire and pipe and duct penetrations into the attic plane and first floor planes. Even high-hat lights should not be in the attic plane unless boxed and sealed. I was trained in building analysis for certification as well as my many other master licenses in my trades of heating cooling, gas, etc. Find people who have this training. Even if you have to put it in the house mortgage, when done right it will be a smaller payment over the life of the house. Hope the cooling works. Heat pump in the attic is a shortcut for the contractor and a higher cost with less comfort to the occupants. I see many people sell and move rather than deal with it, and than the new owner calls me and sometimes it gets fixed once and for all. Ps. I used to build subdivisions with new residential houses. My budget for this unseen is 30,000.00 to do it right again. $ Up or down depends on all involved.
  • jumperjumper Posts: 1,165Member
    KC_Jones said:

    Being on the historic register I'm shocked you were allowed to take the steam system out. That's part of the history of the building no different than the windows or siding. Not to mention all the holes that had to be punched in the plaster for ductwork.



    Out of curiosity, why isn't the contractor who gave you a poorly working system, getting it working properly? Is it that in addition to not knowing steam, they don't know FHA either?



    I would look at the skill set of your available contractors and leverage that heavily in your decision. On thing you already know who isn't welcome in your house anymore.



    Most likely steam isn't in your future, you could still use cast iron rads with water.

    As much as I like old stuff,especially steam heat, preservation idea is a hoax. Eventually everything wears out,so what are we preserving? For example,do we leave in non functioning radiators to preserve the "look" of a room?

  • Jamie HallJamie Hall Posts: 8,117Member
    edited February 11
    Oh come now, @jumper . There are a number of houses in my area which are well over a century; some -- such as the centre section of the main place I care for -- over two centuries. They are in much the same condition as they were when they were new -- except with a few changes over time (such as running water and central heating). I also have a cousin on the eastern side of the pond who is very comfortable, thank you, in her house -- which was built, at a good estimate, around 1540 (that is not a typo: The year of our Lord one thousand five hundred and forty, being the 27th year of the reign of His late Majesty James V).

    Historic preservation is hardly a hoax. It is, however, an art and a craft. Proper and careful preservation and restoration is no more expensive than new construction -- often less, for the same or equivalent quality. It is not, however, for someone who doesn't know what they are doing.

    Jamie



    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
  • jumperjumper Posts: 1,165Member
    Jamie,when I read about homes in the NationalRegister,they've all been modified repeatedly. In England where there are houses centuries older than ours,they're preserving modifications. Those French chateux may be as built,but nobody lives there. In effect museum pieces.
  • Jamie HallJamie Hall Posts: 8,117Member
    edited February 12
    jumper said:

    Jamie,when I read about homes in the NationalRegister,they've all been modified repeatedly. In England where there are houses centuries older than ours,they're preserving modifications. Those French chateux may be as built,but nobody lives there. In effect museum pieces.

    Quite true. The four places we are currently caring for are all on the National Register, and they all have been modified or added to at one time or another -- or several times. One of the more intriguing aspects of caring for them is determining to what they should be restored to be most representative -- that's one of the places where the art comes in. That depends somewhat on just what the National Register nomination and approval was emphasizing, as well -- very often it is not necessarily some architectural aspect, or the architectural aspect is just one part of it. The other trick -- which this thread has emphasized -- is figuring out how -- and how much -- restoration is needed or feasible, while still maintaining a usable house or whatever (one of our places is an active church). That can get really interesting! And one aspect of it may well be -- as it was in the main place we care for -- restoring the heating system, even though it wasn't original (hardly original -- 1930).

    The French chateaux are a very sad situation -- after the French Revolution, so many of them were left to deteriorate (if they weren't actually pillaged). But the place my cousin lives is hardly a chateaux -- it's a four room croft on Orkney.
    Jamie



    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
  • spacecowspacecow Posts: 14Member
    What's sad to me is that historic heating systems don't seem to be part of the preservation discussion in the way that woodwork, paint colors, etc, are. It would certainly have been helpful for us.
  • SuperTechSuperTech Posts: 369Member
    Wow. Besides butchering your steam boiler, one thing that proves your "friend" doesn't have a clue is the fact that he put a steam humidifier in The ATTIC!

    Seriously I would consider taking legal action against this hack since he unwilling and lacking the necessary skills to make things right at your house.

    I'm in NY State and here it's common to find a gas furnace or air handler in the attic. But anyone with any sense knows better than to install a humidifier, with water supply pipes and drain lines subject to freezing temperatures, in an attic.

    I'm sorry you were taken advantage of like this.
  • spacecowspacecow Posts: 14Member
    All the radiators we have left seem to be of the same ilk. They appear to have connections at the top of the sections as well as the bottom so its possible they're both hot water and steam compatible (??). I'm posting photos in hopes that someone might confirm or deny. Any thoughts??






  • SuperTechSuperTech Posts: 369Member
    They appear like they would be compatible with a hydronic boiler. Those look like really nice radiators. It's a shame that some went to the scrap yard.
    You should demand that the radiators he took for the renovation project be returned immediately for the renovation project that he caused you to start!
  • spacecowspacecow Posts: 14Member
    The ones that went to the other project were taken by our very helpful plumber, not the HVAC guy. I'm glad they at least got a good home. I think only a few ultimately ended up getting scrapped (at least that's what I tell myself so I can cringe a little less).

    Glad to know these could work with hot water! I was hoping we could reuse them.
  • KC_JonesKC_Jones Posts: 3,463Member
    It's not just a question of compatibility, it's a question of output. On hot water the rads have a reduced output. You will need to do a full room by room heat loss calculation and determine how much you need in each room. There is a possibility the steam rads were over sized and you can do it, but without the calculations it's a guessing game.

    You should have those calculations because your friend couldn't have designed the forced air system without them. ;)
    2014 Weil Mclain EG-40
    EcoSteam ES-20 Advanced Boiler Control
    Boiler pictures updated 2/21/15
    https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10202744301871904.1073741828.1330391881&type=1&l=c34ad6ee78
  • SteamheadSteamhead Posts: 11,884Member
    KC_Jones said:

    You should have those calculations because your friend couldn't have designed the forced air system without them. ;)

    Well, you never know.................
    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.
    https://heatinghelp.com/find-a-contractor/detail/all-steamed-up-inc
  • spacecowspacecow Posts: 14Member
    Evening all, just wanted to say thank you for all the feedback (and sympathy). I've checked out a copy of Pumping Away from the library. I requested Lost Art of Steam Heating but there's not one available in our system or ILL. I'll track one down sooner or later:) Doing lots of research to evaluation possibilities for reinstallation. Its not looking hopeful for steam due to the cost of threading all that pipe, but I'm not writing it off totally. Thanks again!
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