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What would you do? Keep steam, covert to hot water or go straight HVAC?

Newburgh70Newburgh70 Posts: 29Member
edited December 2018 in THE MAIN WALL
Hi all,
Good morning. I purchased a historic home recently that needs mechanical upgrades and a large renovation. The property is 4 units and I would like to keep it that way. It totals 5700SF with a large amount of historical details remaining which I am looking to keep in tact. The house had a fire (prior to me purchasing it) on the ground floor unit, which spread a bit to the 1st floor. Knob and tube wiring throughout. I just hired a electrician to upgrade the service as well as the entire house. We spent a lot of time together on this to be sure to keep the damage minimal. My dilemma is the heat.

The house currently has a huge boiler and a steam system. I have all but two of the radiators, the rest are there.
There are hot water heaters on every floor which I would like to remove and have them in the mechanical room. Majority of them are located in the kitchen of each unit. Ideally I would like to separate all of the utilities to be on the tenants expense. I have narrowed down a few of my options and open to further suggestions and input.

1. I keep the steam system and forget about separating it and zones. I either get the system working as best as it can or upgrade the boiler. I guess this would be my cheapest option but still leaves the house without air conditioning, and I still have all of the huge steam pipes in the bottom floor apartment I am looking to rebuild and finish. I also don't know what kind of shape the chimney is in and may need a liner which would be a large added expense.

2. I switch over to a hot water system with a condensing boiler. Since this is a historic home, I really do not want to put baseboards around the entire house. It would completely ruin the look. I would have to purchase all new radiators. I could either run them off of one large boiler or 4 separate but maintaining 4 boilers is certainly more expensive then one. I would look to run the new system in the exact spot as the steam was previously. This still leaves me without any air conditioning throughout the entire house but I believe I can get the ceiling height I need back on the ground floor.

3. Go straight HVAC with wall mounted hyper heat units in the ground floor apartments (they can't be on the floor) and install floor units everywhere else in the exact spots where the cast iron radiators are now. I have these hyper heat type of units on my own home and have no complaints but this house is much larger, much older, and it is much colder in that location. This would be a primary heat source and the most expensive I would imagine but it also gets me AC in every apartment and full ceiling height in the basement apartment.

Thoughts? Thank you!


  • clammyclammy Posts: 2,212Member
    Either way you will be dropping some money On the long run I would think maintaince wise the steam may be the cheapest in comparison to a complete re do. The hyper heat mini splits are nice but will require maintaince on a regular basis filter cleaning outdoor units ect also u will have indoor units l here n there. And of course there not cheap. Not to be anti steam but the bang for your buck would be separate hvac equipment n meters per unit. Small direct vent seal combustion hot air furnaces w a cooling coil. Some minimum duct work which could be hidden in a drop down soffit hid the unit in a closet set it on a drain pan for safety. Find yourself a real confident contractor that knows what there doing and has expierence in layout n design They are usually not cheap That be said to keep the steam will likely require a new properly sized boiler proper near boiler piping pretty sure chimney liner aside from any repairs to existing piping rads n venting and possible trap replacement not to sound negative that’s a decent amount to consider and to put it in yet another perspective are u sure that you have a decent steam guy who is compadent enough to handle it not some one who will bail when it get toughs if converting to hot water least intrusive would be buderus type panel rads w thermostatic radiator valves and a standard cast iron boiler I would stay away from mod cons for rentals they will require annual maintaince 100% but with these systems there’s no ac It’s a hard choice with loads of variables chose wisely. And a clammy quote the sweetness of a cheapened price is soon forgotten by the bitterness of poor quality peace n good luck clammy
    R.A. Calmbacher L.L.C. HVAC
    NJ Master HVAC Lic.
    Mahwah, NJ
    Specializing in steam and hydronic heating
  • GordyGordy Posts: 9,264Member
    edited December 2018
    Mod con with panel rads, and trvs, and minisplits for Ac.

    Biggest thing you need is a load calculation done.

    Is this a total gut job where insulation will be installed?

    About 1500 sf per unit?
  • EzzyTEzzyT Posts: 813Member
    @Gordy this is not a total gut job, the least amount of wall and ceiling openings will be done.
    I’ve been in contact with homeowner and hopefully we can set up a system analysis so we can keep the steam
  • ChrisJChrisJ Posts: 9,636Member
    If there's steam piping in the living space its been my experience that steam piping is far smaller than duct work.
    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
  • ChrisJChrisJ Posts: 9,636Member
    I just saw Ezzt's comment.

    Honestly, id go with his recommendations.

    You're going to get 20 different ones here and while they might all work, go with what the person doing the job recommends. Id trust his judgment.
    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
  • EzzyTEzzyT Posts: 813Member
    My approach would be if we where going to rip out the steam system we’d do hydronic heating and cooling with Ultra thin fan coils
  • HVACNUTHVACNUT Posts: 2,058Member
    I would think a properly sized steam boiler is definitely the way to go (stay).
    You cant have separate gas meters for each apartment though.
    Convert to fuel oil. Separate boilers and tanks. Ha!
    Can you obtain the last few years gas property usage to average into quarters?
    Or being the nice guy you are, you can eat the gas bill.

    I believe you can use ODR with a centrally located thermostat.
    I.E., a heated stairwell?
    Real steam guys can say if that's correct or not.

    I see why you'd want to retain the look. You should post some pics.
    I dont know what a hyper heat is. Ductless heat pump?
    That doesn't say craftsmanship.
    Is it feasible to do Unico or SpacePak A/C systems. You'll hardly notice its there.
    DHW. If you want separate heaters in the equipment room, are there home runs to each apartment?
    I've seen some tankless heaters installed in a false pantry or cabinet if you have outside walls to work with. I guess the top apartment can penetrate the roof.
  • EzzyTEzzyT Posts: 813Member
    So from what the homeowner told me yesterday that the household been vacant for a bunch of year and vandalized so there’s no water Electic or gas into the house since piping has been ripped out. My first approach would be to keep the steam system and rework it to bring up the overall system efficiency and comfortably.
  • Jamie HallJamie Hall Posts: 10,304Member
    I'd keep the steam, too, @EzzyT . I'm sure that things would require upgrading -- like the boiler -- but on the whole this will be the least intrusive option. In a situation where part of the objective seems to be leaning towards restoration, rather than gut or even partial renew, it's much superior in the living spaces.

    It may be that a clever chap, such as it might be @EzzyT , can figure out some ways to reduce -- though not eliminate completely -- the overhead clearance issues in the basement when putting in the new boiler.

    To @Newburgh70 -- it's nice to think of splitting the utilities, and it certainly should be done for the electrical and gas (both of which can vary widely depending on the tenant), but splitting the heat? Tenants don't vary that much...

    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
  • EBEBRATT-EdEBEBRATT-Ed Posts: 5,641Member
    Hot water with with fan coils will allow you to have ac and a few panel radiators if needed for high heat loss areas or perimeter heat, (bathrooms, entry ways etc). the piping will not be very large

    1 boiler will do it but if you want the tenants to pay there own heat and hot water you can do 4 boilers
    Definently seperate hydronic systems for each tenant. I am virtually the last person on this blessed earth to recomend removing a steam system. However, heating issues are far and away the biggest source of tenant related headaches. Give each tenant their own controls, their own heating bills and you will be a much happier man.
  • Jamie HallJamie Hall Posts: 10,304Member
    The problem with any air based heating (or cooling) system in a restoration project is the ductwork. Once in a while one runs across a structure in which the ductwork is original (one of the places I care for has that, from a gravity coal fired hot air furnace) but if it wasn't there in the beginning, there simply is no non-intrusive way to install it, other than the Unico type of very high velocity systems -- which do work very well indeed, no argument, but inevitably require opening at least some walls and ceilings -- which may or may not be acceptable. They also are not the least expensive solution, by a very long shot.

    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
  • GordyGordy Posts: 9,264Member
    ^ That’s why I say mini split for ac, and panel rads with trvs.
  • mikeg2015mikeg2015 Posts: 770Member
    Mini splits for heat and cool in mild weather.

    For very cold weather, use a setup where the boiler is auxiliary heat. A couple TRV’s in each unit will prevent overheating. Maybe be fair and write it into the lease that the gas bill is split 4 ways. Disable the boiler over maybe 35F outdoor temp. Use relays to accept calls for aulillary heat from any of the 4 unit.
  • GordyGordy Posts: 9,264Member
    It’s to bad they don’t make smaller combis. Then you could have dhw, and hydronic heat in each unit. Their own mini split. Each unit would then have their own utilities.

    You could go with one boiler, and btu meters also.
  • Newburgh70Newburgh70 Posts: 29Member
    edited December 2018
    Hi all,
    I hope everyone is having a nice night. Thank you all for your input and suggestions. I wanted to clarify a few things.

    * The house is 4 floors. Each a floor through apartment.
    * All walls are plaster and completely in tact other than a 3x3 area on the first floor where the fire came through from the basement apartment.
    * The basement apartment is a gut reno and total blank canvas. Any new mechanicals can be ran in between those joist.
    *There is a mechanical room in the basement where I planned to put the hot water heaters as opposed to keeping them on each floor. They are currently in the kitchen of each apartment.

    If I did end up going the steam route, I know there are many steam pros on this site I would trust to get it up and running the right way, and certainly EzzyT. My thoughts of the post were to get the conversation going and really look at this from a process of elimination perspective.

    What I don’t like about the steam is the pipes in the way in the basement and no AC. I’d probably need a new boiler, maybe several, and most likely a new chimney liner.
    I asked my hvac guy the cost of the system without hyper heat and just AC and there is such a marginal difference that I can not justify the cost to get two different systems running. Tenants would then be putting window air conditioning units on and banging up the windows in the summer. Don’t love the idea but it’s clearly an option.

    To be clear on my plan of a layout, I would not be adding any soffits or doing any damage to the walls so I consider a forced air system with a gas fired furnace with ductwork out of the equation.

    I haven’t priced out a hydronic swap yet and working in these fan coils EzzyT was referencing but I would imagine this would be a big job. I am not knowledgeable about them whatsoever. I need to do some homework on that.

    I’m well aware money needs to be spent here to do full mechanical upgrades. I have all new electric going in and lots of plumbing being worked on. Picking a heating and possible AC system is where I have been stumped for a while. It’s really a tough call. I have the Mitsubishi hyper heat units on my primary and I must say, I do love them. They work great.

    If I did go with hot water or hvac, I would rip out the steam system but use the exact layout that was already there. For example, where the risers come up for the steam, I would just have my hvac guy run the lines there so none were on the outside of the house and replace the cast iron steam radiators with the split system floor mount units. This would require zero damage to the walls. I can have my contractor box them out for esthetic reasons. Same would apply if I went with hot water.

    I would have to agree that the best bang for my buck would possibly be the hvac but will continue to explore all options, get pricing and make a decision. Certainly a tough call!
    Thank you all once again.
  • EBEBRATT-EdEBEBRATT-Ed Posts: 5,641Member

    You have a lot of obstacles to consider and you need to prioritize which ones are the most important. Only you can decide. Work on putting this list in order from most important to least important. That may help you decide.

    Installed Cost
    Equipment longevity
    Tenant comfort= less headaches for you
    Easier service, less problematic
    Air Conditioning
    Cutting and patching floors, walls, plaster etc
    tenant paying for their own utilities
  • brandonfbrandonf Posts: 163Member
    Steam gives you the greatest comfort. I'd stick with one boiler. Include heat in the rent for the worst case winter month, and add some TRVs so the tenants can fine-tune. Since the whole house is being rewired it would now be safe to insulate all the outside walls and attic which would help cut down on your heat loss. For a/c you could get away with window A/Cs in the bedrooms and maybe one mini split in the open areas of each unit. Just a thought.
    Homeowner, Entrepreneur, Mechanic, Electrician,

    "The toes you step on today are connected to the butt you'll have to kiss tomorrow". ---Vincent "Buddy" Cianci
  • Solid_Fuel_ManSolid_Fuel_Man Posts: 1,462Member
    Every multi-unit place I service with tenant paid utilities has electric water heaters. One per unit. Silent, and no venting needed.
    Master electrician specialising in boiler and burner controls, multiple fuel systems, radiant system controls, building controls, and universal refrigeration tech.
  • EastmanEastman Posts: 927Member
    Why isn't the heating system considered to be part of the historical significance of the building?
  • SeanBeansSeanBeans Posts: 292Member
    I agree with @Eastman. What good is an awesome historical building without the historical steam heat? And with Ezzy T tuning the system and installing the boiler it will work the way it was intended to!
  • Jamie HallJamie Hall Posts: 10,304Member
    Eastman said:

    Why isn't the heating system considered to be part of the historical significance of the building?

    It is, or should be. All too often this little point gets overlooked... there is a whole range of options in the historical preservation game, but in a true restoration the heating system -- at least in the "visible" spaces -- should be restored, not renovated or replaced. This is not to say that an antique boiler shouldn't be replaced -- it probably should. Nor should obvious health and safety hazards -- such as knob and tube wiring or lead pipes -- be kept. Chimneys should be lined. Sometimes even structural reinforcement may be required (eighteenth century floors can be dismayingly springy!) So there are compromises which do need to be made. But usually the heating system itself -- as opposed to just the heat source (the boiler) -- isn't an area where compromise is often necessary (although if it has been seriously knuckleheaded, it may be rather difficult to fully restore).

    But then, take what I say with a grain of salt -- historical preservation and restoration is my game, and I can sometimes be a bit of a nut on the subject.

    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
  • KC_JonesKC_Jones Posts: 4,100Member
    It seems like AC is a major factor in the OP's decision. As I see it the OP needs to rank these items in the order they want then execute based on this order, knowing that #1 will take precedent over the rest.

    Historic nature of building
    Air conditioning
    Income of property
    Heating comfort

    Rank those in order, knowing that the items lower on the list will have to suffer in some way due to the other items "trumping" them (that is not a reference to our current leader).

    Of course they could all be number 1 if you win the lottery, but since this will be an income property I doubt that will be the case.

    Here is a question for the OP, are you factoring in the yearly cleaning cost of all those hyper heat heads? Or is your plan to let the tenants maintain them? IMHO that would be very risky.
    2014 Weil Mclain EG-40
    EcoSteam ES-20 Advanced Boiler Control
    Boiler pictures updated 2/21/15
  • HVACNUTHVACNUT Posts: 2,058Member
    How is the plumbing and all new electric getting done without opening walls?
    With the water heaters moved to the equipment room, how do you plan to supply DHW back to each apartment?
    Like @Solid_Fuel_Man said, keep the electric water heaters where they are.
  • Newburgh70Newburgh70 Posts: 29Member
    edited December 2018
    @HVACNUT I am familiar with Unico/SPacepak high velocity systems. Not a big fan, although they would work in my application. Very expensive to install and can be loud, plus this is a rental. I did consider it though.
    Mitsubishi was the 1st to come out with hyper heat and the rest of the industry followed. They work very well. You bring up a good point about the homeruns to each apartment. I am not quite sure just yet. The plumbing is a bit of a mystery over there right now.
    Tankless was another thought of mine but baseboards are not, nor is damaging any plaster or ceilings.

    @Steamdoctor This is how my Brooklyn place is set up and I love it. Just not with hydronic, with only HVAC

    @Jamie Hall l I am all about the restoration work and preserving the integrity of older homes. We did a gut renovation to our Brownstone and put it all back together. Plaster moldings and all. Modern kitchens, bathrooms and mechanicals.

    @Mikeg2015 This was also a thought but an eyesore plus id still have the steam pipes in the basement I am trying to refinish. Other then how ugly it would look with all this equipment over the house, this is a good idea.

    @Gordy Agreed

    @brandonf Agreed but at what cost?

    @Solid_Fuel_Man I will look further into this


    Lets assume I fire up the steam boiler as @Clammy said. I cant see this being that cheap and I would think when all is said and done, It will be close to switching to Hot water.
    I would need a new boiler, piping, chimney liner, etc. All that you said- I agree.

    I know we aren’t supposed to discuss pricing on here but I do have some ballpark numbers in my head I expect this all to cost. I would think fixing the steam is the cheapest way but not by much.
    @Clammy & @KC_Jones You bring up a good point about the maintenance. I am spoiled with our amazing tenants in Brooklyn who take real good care of them. I really wouldn’t know what the maintenance would cost me. I have had them in BK for 4 years with zero issues whatsoever.

    @HVACNUT Very carefully 😊 I believe most of it is okay, just stolen copper here and there. Stolen water meter, etc. All utilities are off, so we shall see but certainly not expecting to have to rip everything out. Patch here and there. The house was well taken care of. Other than the minor fire damage, its in excellent shape.
  • mikeg2015mikeg2015 Posts: 770Member
    If your still not sure, lay out the ROI and you might find that any major rennovations cause your ROI to go out the door. Almost always cheaper to keep whats there.
  • GWGW Posts: 3,393Member
    Did i see the word "tenants"?? Time for separate utility bills, or, stuff your bitter feelings when they abuse your heating bill. Separate bills all the way, an it will add value to the property too.
    Gary Wilson
    Wilson Services, Inc
    Northampton, MA
    [email protected]
  • EBEBRATT-EdEBEBRATT-Ed Posts: 5,641Member
    Agree with @GW . Including heat and HW in their rent is a huge headache.

    Always trying to get more $$ when fuel prices increase?? Not Me.

    Do you think they will care how much DHW they use??

    Do you think they will care what the thermostat is set at??

    I would be thinking this over carefully.

    The installed cost of the HVAC is only part of the issue
  • GWGW Posts: 3,393Member
    Ok i read the initial post---Hello Newburg, Ductless heat for a rental: you would have to be brave to do this. The tenants won't keep the ductless filters clean, and, when they stop working the hvac contractors will be less than thrilled if it's super cold outside. My little company- we don;'t install ductless for 'primary heating', and I would double that sentiment for a rental situation.

    Plus your bathrooms would be freezing, need to install some elec heat.

    I think heat is step one. Once you roll in some dough then do round two and add a couple of ductless units per unit. If the tenants are hot they can do the window unit thing.

    Just my two cents as a fellow landlord myself.
    Gary Wilson
    Wilson Services, Inc
    Northampton, MA
    [email protected]
  • GordyGordy Posts: 9,264Member
    edited December 2018
    This also comes down to what you expect, and or need to get for rent. Then what tenants expect, and are willing to pay for that much rent.

    Something to think about when deciding if AC is second priority. Me I would just want to get it all done and over with in the initial phase, and be on my way collecting rent with out sight of further future improvement expenditures.

    Ex landlord.
  • Jamie HallJamie Hall Posts: 10,304Member
    Some merit up there -- if your tenants can control their heat individually, but you are paying the bill, that's a problem. So... my own solution would be to use the steam heating system, but control it either with four averaging remote sensors in the apartments -- with the actual thermostat locked away in the boiler room -- or use a single remote sensor in a common area, but again with the thermostat locked away. And then set the thing for the legal minimum. If they want more heat, so be it -- you've given them individual electric meters, and they can make them spin as much as they like (there might be some merit to locking the breaker boxes away in the boiler room as well, so if they try to overload a circuit the lights just go out...).

    Will you have a building super handy by?

    If I were really thinking belt and braces (I'm not, thank God, a landlord and have no desire to be) you might consider adding mist type residential sprinklers while you are playing with the plumbing. They won't damage things much if they go off, and they aren't that intrusive -- but they will get the tenant's attention if said tenant does something stupid.

    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
  • Newburgh70Newburgh70 Posts: 29Member
    edited December 2018
    Hi @GW, Thanks for your contribution. I would put electric radiators in the bathrooms if I went full HVAC as well as one in the foyer. We have a multi family in Brooklyn that we occupy and have the mitsubishi hyper heat units in our tenants apartments as well and never have a problem. We set automatic reminders to them that go out via email to clean the filters.

    @Gordy I am with you. There is something to be said for a one and done.

    I could always have a maintenance person come in every so often and change the filters. Breaker boxes are going to be installed on every floor.

    I played around with some numbers I made up and I just can't see how switching to hydronic would make any sense and to incorporate two separate systems either now, or down the road. The numbers just don't work. The cost of adding heat to the mini splits is not half of what they cost and the hyper heat models go down to -15%. The labor would be the same, equipment a little less. They work! To be able to control the temp of each room really can't be beat but maintenance is a legitimate point and concern.

    @Jamie Hall I am the furthest thing from a slumlord. Actually, just the opposite. I make really nice apartments. Apartments I would live in myself. I attract good people, I treat them right, and expect the same in return. Its worked out so far. I do have a maintenance person near by. Sprinklers are without a doubt, out of the question. :smile:

    @EBEBRATT-Ed Im thinking, I'm thinking. Time to make a decision now.

    I think fix the steam or go straight HVAC are my only two real options.
  • GordyGordy Posts: 9,264Member
    edited December 2018
    Well I guess the next thing would be the value of ditching the boiler, and steam piping for the added space.

    Keeping the steam still leaves two systems.

    Okay let me have it.......

  • Newburgh70Newburgh70 Posts: 29Member
    @Gordy, that space already has steam and radiators. It’s not an addition, it’s just a remodel.
  • GordyGordy Posts: 9,264Member
    edited December 2018
    Oh I thought you said early on the exposed steam piping was a like to see go away.
  • Newburgh70Newburgh70 Posts: 29Member
    @Gordy, I did. Well see if @EzzyT can come up with a clever way to move them. If not, I’ll have my contractor get creative and box them out. This is where the fire started. It’s a wreak but also a blank canvas to do whatever we want. This pic was before I cleared it out.
  • GordyGordy Posts: 9,264Member
    Not terrible.
  • EastmanEastman Posts: 927Member
    What caused the fire?
  • Newburgh70Newburgh70 Posts: 29Member
    @Eastman I purchased it that way. I believe one of the stove inserts, like this.
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