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Replace residential steam boiler or convert to VRF system?

WJK59WJK59 Member Posts: 10
OK, I will say that I have some hesitancy posting this topic on this site, since I know that most of you are "steam guys", but here goes - and apologies for the length:

I've been obtaining quotes for some pretty extensive plumbing work for our 144-year-old farmhouse (1876), non-air-conditioned NJ farmhouse, which currently includes replacement of the existing steam boiler with a hot water loop for some limited areas served by baseboards. On recommendation from this site, I've got a pretty comprehensive quote from Ezzy T. (thanks, guys).

In the interim, I've had a couple of conversations with some fellow architects and MEP consultants I work with, who are almost universally saying, "Why are you replacing your steam boiler? You should just replace the entire heating system with a VRF system. It's far more efficient, would give you both zone-able heating and cooling, is less fussy to maintain, you wouldn't need to certify and potentially re-line your chimney, etc.". I should add that I'm a LEED AP, so I know that from a standpoint of efficiency and sustainability, it's probably what I SHOULD do.

My wife and I LIKE the comfort of the steam heat, and I had always considered simply replacing the boiler, and maybe at some point, adding some mini-splits (certainly a more costly approach, and doesn't take full advantage of the heat pump capabilities). That said, I do have to agree that the VRF argument is fairly compelling, which now has me second-guessing my original approach. I have dropped gyp bd ceilings hung below the original ornate plaster ceilings in most 1st floor rooms, as well as accessible attic and basement spaces - so running refrigerant lines wouldn't need to be all that invasive. The exterior walls are NOT insulated (another major project) but I anticipate that I will address that at some future point.

Regardless of whether or not I replace the boiler, I've still got extensive plumbing work to do.

So, I guess the question I'm asking you steam experts is, if it was YOUR house, what would YOU do?

Thanks-

Comments

  • SuperTechSuperTech Member Posts: 1,344
    I would never rip out a boiler in a house of that age in favor of a VRF system. Besides the fact that the boiler provides superior comfort, I believe that it would lower the value of the house.
    A properly installed cast iron boiler will last much longer than a heat pump and will be much less expensive to maintain over its lifespan. Cast iron boilers use standardized parts that most good service companies will have in stock. When a mini split or VRF system break down they usually require model specific parts that may or not be available in the supply houses. This is a real problem when the system isn't working on the days when you need it most.

    Why not keep the boiler and use the VRF system for cooling and a secondary source of heat?
  • WJK59WJK59 Member Posts: 10
    Thanks for your feedback SuperTech. What you're suggesting sort of runs along the lines of my original thinking of replacing the boiler AND installing a VRF system. I think my potential hesitancy on that front comes from the understanding that I'm essentially installing 2 systems - 1 for heating and another for cooling (and potential supplemental heat). So there is the additional cost factor and the knowledge that 1 of the 2 systems could actually handle both heating and cooling.

    I honestly don't know about the impact on the valuation of keeping the radiators. I DO know that not having any central AC is considered a drawback.

    I think that with the VRF solution, I would realistically need to add in the cost of a generator into the equation. I'm not concerned about losing power/AC in the summer (don't have it now!), but it is nice that with the steam heat, we maintain heating through any winter storm outages.
  • Jamie HallJamie Hall Member Posts: 12,947
    First off, may I address efficiency. Unless the heat pump powering your VRF system has a COP greater than about 4, a fuel fired steam boiler will have equal or greater efficiency from heat source to heat in your house -- that is, assuming, as is the case in your area, that most of your electricity comes from fossil fuel fired power plants. So in terms of fuel efficiency and greenhouse gasses, you're not going to gain much, if anything, with a VRF heating system. Frankly, the LEEDS people and such have never figured out how to maintain a steam system, and regard them as something equivalent to a Model T, which they aren't. Those who claim otherwise are poorly informed.

    Second, as @SuperTech pointed out, a good cast iron boiler can last a long time, given relatively inexpensive, simple maintenance. A heat pump can't.

    Third, I can certainly see the desire for air-conditioning. However, for heat, you simply can't beat steam (or a very very good hot water system). Having it, particularly in an older -- possibly historic -- house is a plus, not a minus, for the informed buyer.

    Now a word about exterior walls. Be very cautious about insulation. If your interior walls are plaster on lathe, which is likely, there is a very real chance that some types of blown in insulation will break the keys on the plaster, and then you do have problem$. Second, it is very difficult to get an effective vaour barrier, and you may wind up having moisture problems. Again, $. So -- if you do decide to insulate them, get a guarantee from the insulation contractor that should there be any damage to the plaster, he well have it replaced in kind -- that is plaster on lathe -- and that there will not be a moisture problem. The historic buildings which I maintain are not insulated on the exterior walls, for those exact reasons (the rooves, which were accessible, are insulated). Yes, there is a hit on efficiency and fuel use. We consider it acceptable.

    You don't mention exterior windows. Unless some Happy Harry has already replaced them, don't. You can keep the historic windows and tighten them up and add interior storm panels and get equal or better performance with much longer life.
    Br. Jamie, osb

    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
  • WJK59WJK59 Member Posts: 10
    Thanks, Jamie. At the risk of going off-topic, given that I have aluminum siding on the house (and don't know the true condition of the original siding beneath), any insulating of exterior walls that I do may end up actually being done from the exterior. I'm painfully aware of plaster & lathe challenges. As mentioned, most rooms have dropped gyp. bd. ceilings, but I've been restoring one of the original plaster ceilings, tediously stripping paint from ornamental plaster cornice moldings while trying not to destroy them. The ceiling itself is crazed with cracks. I may re-adhere the ceiling (drilling/injecting to re-tooth), or may bite the bullet and go with 1/4" blueboard over the flat portion of the ceiling. I'd like to maintain the ceiling to the degree possible, but I'm not necessarily looking to live in a museum.

    I'm well of aware of the potential moisture issues that might come with insulating the exterior walls, and would likely look to go with something that would be vapor permeable. As for the windows - they're original, albeit with good quality exterior triple-track storm windows (yeah, a necessary evil, given the lack of AC). I've re-built a number of them myself - a very labor-intensive, but ultimate satisfying endeavor.
  • SteamheadSteamhead Member Posts: 13,867
    edited July 19
    SuperTech said:

    I would never rip out a boiler in a house of that age in favor of a VRF system. Besides the fact that the boiler provides superior comfort, I believe that it would lower the value of the house.

    A properly installed cast iron boiler will last much longer than a heat pump and will be much less expensive to maintain over its lifespan. Cast iron boilers use standardized parts that most good service companies will have in stock. When a mini split or VRF system break down they usually require model specific parts that may or not be available in the supply houses. This is a real problem when the system isn't working on the days when you need it most.



    Why not keep the boiler and use the VRF system for cooling and a secondary source of heat?

    This.............

    First off, may I address efficiency. Unless the heat pump powering your VRF system has a COP greater than about 4, a fuel fired steam boiler will have equal or greater efficiency from heat source to heat in your house -- that is, assuming, as is the case in your area, that most of your electricity comes from fossil fuel fired power plants. So in terms of fuel efficiency and greenhouse gasses, you're not going to gain much, if anything, with a VRF heating system. Frankly, the LEEDS people and such have never figured out how to maintain a steam system, and regard them as something equivalent to a Model T, which they aren't. Those who claim otherwise are poorly informed.

    Second, as @SuperTech pointed out, a good cast iron boiler can last a long time, given relatively inexpensive, simple maintenance. A heat pump can't.

    Third, I can certainly see the desire for air-conditioning. However, for heat, you simply can't beat steam (or a very very good hot water system). Having it, particularly in an older -- possibly historic -- house is a plus, not a minus, for the informed buyer.

    Now a word about exterior walls. Be very cautious about insulation. If your interior walls are plaster on lathe, which is likely, there is a very real chance that some types of blown in insulation will break the keys on the plaster, and then you do have problem$. Second, it is very difficult to get an effective vaour barrier, and you may wind up having moisture problems. Again, $. So -- if you do decide to insulate them, get a guarantee from the insulation contractor that should there be any damage to the plaster, he well have it replaced in kind -- that is plaster on lathe -- and that there will not be a moisture problem. The historic buildings which I maintain are not insulated on the exterior walls, for those exact reasons (the rooves, which were accessible, are insulated). Yes, there is a hit on efficiency and fuel use. We consider it acceptable.

    You don't mention exterior windows. Unless some Happy Harry has already replaced them, don't. You can keep the historic windows and tighten them up and add interior storm panels and get equal or better performance with much longer life.

    And this.
    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
    SuperTech
  • jumperjumper Member Posts: 1,464
    re: Frankly, the LEEDS people and such have never figured out how to maintain a steam system,

    A lot of LEEDS points remind me of fins on automobiles in the fifties.
  • ethicalpaulethicalpaul Member Posts: 1,623
    WJK59 said:

    it is nice that with the steam heat, we maintain heating through any winter storm outages.

    How do you do that?
    1 pipe Utica 112 in Cedar Grove, NJ, coal > oil > NG
  • pecmsgpecmsg Member Posts: 1,450

    WJK59 said:

    it is nice that with the steam heat, we maintain heating through any winter storm outages.

    How do you do that?
    A small generator can operate a boiler, Not heat pumps!
  • pecmsgpecmsg Member Posts: 1,450
    Were beginning to see the VRF savings as there getting replaced 15 - 20 years later. Any savings are replaced with down time, costly repairs and eventually replacement!

    Keep the steam

    Install a few independent Mini Splits systems for cooling and shoulder season heating.

    If your sealing that house then Outside air requirement's need to be addressed
  • WJK59WJK59 Member Posts: 10
    pecmsg - yes, if I replace the steam boiler, independent or multi-splits are probably in the cards at some point. The house used to be more tolerable in the summer before we lost a few large shade trees. Now, it just bakes in the sun - and working from home in a south-facing sunroom during the COVID shutdown, instead of in my air-conditioned office, has brought that point to the forefront. I'm not really sure of the need for a VRF system for cooling and supplemental heating, in lieu of just going with split-system cooling, if I replace the steam boiler, assuming the boiler is properly sized. Opinions on that point are also appreciated.
  • WJK59WJK59 Member Posts: 10
    On the VRF vs mini/multisplit issue, steam heating / mini-split cooling sounds relatively straight-forward. Two separate systems - one for heating and the other for cooling.

    While I understand the concept of a steam system with supplemental VRF, I do have some concerns about the need for a more complex integrated control system to optimize the coordination and performance of the two system(s) while in heating mode.

    Anyone have any experience with "hybrid" systems like this - and am I just asking for trouble by making things more complicated than they need to be?
  • Jamie HallJamie Hall Member Posts: 12,947
    "Anyone have any experience with "hybrid" systems like this - and am I just asking for trouble by making things more complicated than they need to be?"

    Basically it boils down to just how automated do you want it to be? There are folks here on the Wall who would cheerfully throw in half a dozen sensors, a few A to D converters, a Raspbetry Pi or two, and some solid state relays and status lights and sit back and watch it do its thing. There are others of us who would have two thermostats, one for each system, and decide for ourselves which one we wanted to run and when...
    Br. Jamie, osb

    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
    Grallert
  • ethicalpaulethicalpaul Member Posts: 1,623
    edited July 20
    pecmsg said:

    WJK59 said:

    it is nice that with the steam heat, we maintain heating through any winter storm outages.

    How do you do that?
    A small generator can operate a boiler, Not heat pumps!
    I know, but I wondered how the OP was going to do it. I want to set mine up with a UPS but there are code issues.
    1 pipe Utica 112 in Cedar Grove, NJ, coal > oil > NG
  • WJK59WJK59 Member Posts: 10
    Jamie -
    My first car was a VW Bug. You could fix 80% of went wrong with it with a screwdriver. I think there's something to be said for simplicity - and hand-in-hand with that, reliability.
  • ratioratio Member Posts: 2,489
    WJK59 said:

    Jamie -
    My first car was a VW Bug. You could fix 80% of went wrong with it with a screwdriver. I think there's something to be said for simplicity - and hand-in-hand with that, reliability.

    Amen brother! It's my opinion that all we've done with regards to 'efficiency' is push the cost somewhere else, i.e. maintenance, parts, etc. It's my secret belief (untried, to be sure) that the TCO of comfort-based environmental control is based almost entirely on the delta between indoor & outdoor conditions.
  • Jamie HallJamie Hall Member Posts: 12,947
    WJK59 said:

    Jamie -
    My first car was a VW Bug. You could fix 80% of went wrong with it with a screwdriver. I think there's something to be said for simplicity - and hand-in-hand with that, reliability.

    My family had a 1955 VW bug convertible. Which the family bought new. That wasn't my first car to drive, though (that was a Model A Ford pickup)... As I recall, there was a toolkit provided with the bug, with which one could just about take the whole thing apart if you needed to.
    Br. Jamie, osb

    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
  • The Steam WhispererThe Steam Whisperer Member Posts: 520
    I've spoken with some facilities that put in VRF systems about 15 years ago to replace the hot water heat system in the complex and add AC. The compressors are beginning to fail and probably the terminal units in the spaces. Essentially they will need to be putting in a whole new system again since it it coming to the end of its life. This is some huge dollars. With a VRF, you have to replace the complete system every 15 years, not just the heat maker. If you think about it, VRF really makes no sense. Compressors were designed to operate only part of the year and now they are asked to work probably 10 times as much. They are bound to wear out much sooner and certainly sooner than virtually any other heating alternative. As to fuel savings or being green..... that highly questionable, just like Jamie said. You need a COP of 4 or better in typical winter weather ( not at some pie in the sky design temp) to match the efficiency and environmental impact of a simple steam system. How much energy is being wasted for the extensive repairs on the system through the years?\

    For the most part LEED is a crock, IMHO. Just go back and look at the article that that Henry Gifford wrote nearly 10 years ago. There is clear evidence of deceptive practices being used byUSGBC.
    To learn more about this professional, click here to visit their ad in Find A Contractor.
  • WJK59WJK59 Member Posts: 10
    For the most part LEED is a crock, IMHO.

    While I'm a LEED AP, I'll say this - It has its place, particularly for organizations (e.g. - schools) that want to set examples for their stakeholders (and financial supporters), and the theory behind it is well-intended. That said, I can tell you that I've never had a client that we completed a LEED-certified project with ask to certify any follow-up projects, and I've done presentations highlighting the case both for and against LEED certification. Personally, I prefer to decide for myself where my construction dollars are allocated, rather than having to chase points in order to meet someone else's target.
  • jumperjumper Member Posts: 1,464
    Way before USGBC California already had an Energy Commission to improve energy consumption. At the beginning it coded in the low hang fruit. But after that designers need to specify more bells and wills for required points. Will Commission ever state enough and make itself redundant?
    WJK59 said:


    For the most part LEED is a crock, IMHO.
    While I'm a LEED AP, I'll say this - It has its place, particularly for organizations (e.g. - schools) that want to set examples for their stakeholders (and financial supporters), and the theory behind it is well-intended. That said, I can tell you that I've never had a client that we completed a LEED-certified project with ask to certify any follow-up projects, and I've done presentations highlighting the case both for and against LEED certification. Personally, I prefer to decide for myself where my construction dollars are allocated, rather than having to chase points in order to meet someone else's target.

  • MotorapidoMotorapido Member Posts: 176


    You don't mention exterior windows. Unless some Happy Harry has already replaced them, don't. You can keep the historic windows and tighten them up and add interior storm panels and get equal or better performance with much longer life.

    I heartily agree about keeping your original windows. The lies told about efficiency improvements of replacement windows are as bad as those told by the unregulated vitamin supplement quacks. In my 90+ year old house, I have built interior storm windows that, according to what I have studied, render my windows equally efficient to the highest quality replacement windows. Replacement windows will yield at best a 40-year return on investment, and all the loopholes in the warranties will result in an even worse return on investment as seals between the panes fail, etc. Plus, they look ugly. I built my interior storms of 1x2 wood, with simple mitered corners, joined with glue and pocket screws, with a sheet of high quality plexiglass screwed to the backs of the interior storms, with the perimeter of the plexi sealed to the wood with silicone. Around the perimeter of the interior storms, I applied closed cell foam weather stripping. I sized the storms to be a moderate sliding interference fit so that the weather stripping compresses somewhat when I slide the storms into position, creating a 100% air-tight seal. My original windows have zinc strip along the sills with a raised strip that fits into a kerf cut into the bottom of the lower sash, and spring bronze around the perimeter. They are virtually air tight. My materials cost for the interior storms -- wood, plexiglass, stainless screws -- is 1/5 the cost of the custom-made interior storms I researched from online sellers. We cannot discuss price here, but I can tell you that cost of each of my interior storms equates to about a case and a half of Bud Light. Well worth it. They look great -- you can't tell they are there unless you really look for them -- and they perform wonderfully.
  • ChrisJChrisJ Member Posts: 11,060
    Not all old windows are created equal either.
    Most of mine are from the 1860s and they're terrible, always have been, that's how they were built. I have 2 or 3 from the late 1800s with weights that are absolutely beautiful.

    That being the case, I would love to swap out most if not all of them for Anderson 400 Woodwright windows, but it's simply not in the budget and it would never pay for it self even in my case.

    I have aluminum siding over clap board and no sheathing. Most walls do not have insulation.

    In my situation I have steam with cast iron radiators and I added ductwork and central air for A/C. The ductwork is in the attic and two closets on the second floor to get to the first floor. The house stays cool in the summer and the steam keeps it nice all winter.


    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
  • The Steam WhispererThe Steam Whisperer Member Posts: 520
    Most terrible old double hung windows can be upgraded significantly with bronze weather stripping and/or new parting strips that have weatherstripping built in. I tried the jamb liners and they sealed well, but the windows get stuck from the paint bonding to the liner... so not a good idea.
    To learn more about this professional, click here to visit their ad in Find A Contractor.
  • WJK59WJK59 Member Posts: 10
    On the topic of repairing old windows, I'd recommend reading Terence Meany's "Working Windows - A Guide to the Repair and Restoration of Wood Windows". It's a quick, informative read, and written in a occasionally humorous manner, not unlike Dan Holahan's "We Got Steam Heat" book. I've got 16 exterior wood storm windows in my brutally hot (and cold) sunroom to repair this summer; the French casements and all the exterior trim will probably have to wait till next year. Not enough time in the day...
  • ChrisJChrisJ Member Posts: 11,060

    Most terrible old double hung windows can be upgraded significantly with bronze weather stripping and/or new parting strips that have weatherstripping built in. I tried the jamb liners and they sealed well, but the windows get stuck from the paint bonding to the liner... so not a good idea.

    Mine can be upgraded with a hammer and pry bar.

    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
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