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Renovating: Keep Steam Sys., Update, or Replace

jmhold
jmhold Member Posts: 10
As the title suggests, I am getting ready to do a major renovation to my 1930s home and am curious to get your opinions on whether to keep the current steam radiator system, update it in some way (like change it to a hydronic sys. or maybe move pipes to be less in the way, etc?), or just remove it all together. See below for some facts that may inform your answer:
  • 1. Boiler is gas and relatively new (replaced in the 2000's I think)
  • 2. Boiler heats 1st and 2nd floor, but not the basement
  • 3. House also has a ~10 yr old gas forced air furnace that heats/cools the 1st floor and basement, but not the 2nd floor
  • 4. 2nd floor has a separate force air furnace for A/C
  • 5. Boiler and pipe locations in basement are not terrible, but do take up valuable space
Let me know you'd like any other details to help inform your thoughts.

Thanks!!!

Comments

  • Jamie Hall
    Jamie Hall Member Posts: 23,270
    Well... you certainly seem to have a variety of heat sources in there -- a steam system and two forced air furnaces (or are they just for air conditioning? Not really clear).

    Is there any reason to think that the steam system isn't working well? Reasonably quiet (although hammering is usually easily fixed)? Heats the place comfortably? If so, there's no reason to either update or "fix" it -- although there may be ways to make it even better.

    It is almost -- but not quite -- impossible to convert a steam system to hot water. Perhaps more to the point, it is unlikely, unless the house has had thoroughgoing upgrades like extensive insulation that the system converted to hot water -- if it can be done at all (some can't) -- will provide enough heat to keep the house warm. In any event, it's very expensive.

    Some pipe rerouting can be done, but it has to be done by someone who really knows and understands steam heat. It is remarkably easy for someone to make what looks like an innocent change to free up space which will cause the system to work poorly -- or not at all.

    Overall, I'd keep the steam and enjoy the comfort and convenience -- there's nothing else to equal it.
    Br. Jamie, osb
    Building superintendent/caretaker, 7200 sq. ft. historic house museum with dependencies in New England
    LS123
  • JUGHNE
    JUGHNE Member Posts: 11,055
    1 or 2 pipe steam heat? Could you show us the boiler piping and radiators showing both ends of them?
  • Steamhead
    Steamhead Member Posts: 16,821
    Also, where are you located?
    All Steamed Up, Inc.
    Towson, MD, USA
    Steam, Vapor & Hot-Water Heating Specialists
    Oil & Gas Burner Service
    Consulting
  • jumper
    jumper Member Posts: 2,245
    Depends on renovation. If house gets tightened up......
  • jmhold
    jmhold Member Posts: 10

    Well... you certainly seem to have a variety of heat sources in there -- a steam system and two forced air furnaces (or are they just for air conditioning? Not really clear).

    Basement: Heated/Cooled by Furnace A
    1st Floor: Heated by Furnace A and Boiler, Cooled by Furnace A
    2nd Floor: Heated by Boiler, Cooled by Furnace B
    So Furnace A does both heating and cooling, but Furnace B only cools. Apologies for the confusion. :smile:
    Steam system works pretty well. Radiators have a plug with an air valve built in that ring like an old rotary phone, but I can replace those.
    JUGHNE said:

    1 or 2 pipe steam heat? Could you show us the boiler piping and radiators showing both ends of them?

    It's a 1 pipe system with a dry return. Pics below.

    Thanks for the interest and help!









  • AdmiralYoda
    AdmiralYoda Member Posts: 627
    I'd say it comes down to a few things.

    1. Renovation Style. If you are renovating and keeping a period correct look where steam would look very much in place that's one thing. If you are going ultra modern or contemporary the steam radiators may not look right in the space.

    2. Too much radiation. If you will be insulating and air sealing and tightening up your house your existing system may be too much for the house. Your thermostat won't care and will maintain the temp but your boiler's heating cycles may be short.

    3. Budget. Depending on the budget now would be a good time to upgrade. Radiant in-floor heating is one way to go with a 95%+ efficiency on demand unit. Probably the most comfortable and efficient system you can get, but not the cheapest. A forced hot water would also be possible with one of these on demand units. You get to have multiple zones with either of these setups.

    If it were me and the funds were available I'd tighten up the house as much as possible using closed cell foam for its very high R-value, install an in-floor radiant heat, and find a way to have a single AC unit. Could an air handler fit in the attic? You'll get plenty of space back with this approach.
  • Jamie Hall
    Jamie Hall Member Posts: 23,270
    @AdmiralYoda makes a very good point in his first item: renovation style. If the building has historic value inside -- original (or restorable) finishes, floors, trim, windows -- and you are interested in or value that, then that is what you want to do -- all the way -- and keeping the steam heat is part of that restoration. This may also affect the amount of insulating you can do, as some wall constructions don't take well to insulating (it does not affect the windows -- it is possible to restore original windows, and add interior or exterior storms, to obtain performance at least equal to if not better than all but the very most expensive replacement windows).

    On the other hand, if the interior has already been extensively modified and "upgraded", and any historic value is largely gone -- or of less interest to you -- then other approaches can be and should be considered.

    Restoration and renovation are really quite different things!
    Br. Jamie, osb
    Building superintendent/caretaker, 7200 sq. ft. historic house museum with dependencies in New England
  • Steamhead
    Steamhead Member Posts: 16,821
    Keep it simple- keep the steam.
    All Steamed Up, Inc.
    Towson, MD, USA
    Steam, Vapor & Hot-Water Heating Specialists
    Oil & Gas Burner Service
    Consulting
    jmholdluketheplumber
  • jmhold
    jmhold Member Posts: 10
    Steamhead said:

    Keep it simple- keep the steam.

    If that is a LOTR reference, then you might be my new best friend. :tongue:
  • jmhold
    jmhold Member Posts: 10

    Restoration and renovation are really quite different things!

    @AdmiralYoda @Jamie Hall
    That's a good point. I'd say our interior design goals most closely align with restoration, but as this is our full-time home, we are willing to compromise those ascetic goals to attain modern creature comforts (especially in the kitchen) and modernize the house's active/passive systems to ensure that it will last another 90+ years.

    It will be a balancing act for sure. A concrete example of how we are trying to thread the needle is with the kitchen cabinets. Our plan is to have an "unfit" kitchen which utilizes antique furniture (or at least antique looking furniture) and augments them in various ways for a modern kitchen. A simple example of this would be to remove the top of an antique dresser and replace it with countertop material.
  • Jamie Hall
    Jamie Hall Member Posts: 23,270
    Bravo! Restoration is well worth the extra research needed -- and usually no more expensive.

    The residential ones with which I have been involved take much the same approach as you are working as to the "essential" spaces -- the kitchen and baths. With the baths there is an amazing variety of old looking fittings to choose from which are actually modern designs. On line, take a look at Restoration Hardware and Van Dykes, for starters. In the kitchen with some care you can come up with a very fine quite up to date kitchen which looks like it has been there forever. These two sets of spaces add up to a residence which is comfortable and easy to live in.

    For the rest of the house, then, try to go with actual restoration as much as is feasible. I believe I mentioned windows, but I'll say it again -- restore the old ones and add interior or exterior storms. The result will last longer and work as well as anything you can buy in replacement windows.

    Interior walls... well, sometimes they do have to get changed. If, however, the originals are plaster over lathe, try to do that for the new ones. There are people who do that still, although it is more expensive -- and takes longer -- than drywall. However, drywall is a miserable substitute. OK, perhaps, in a new closet or something -- but in a room if you have three plaster walls and one drywall, that drywall will annoy you as long as you are in the building! Not only the look, but the acoustics are vastly inferior.

    Wooden floors. Another area where things can go awry. If the original flooring is in decent shape, but just needs sanding, perhaps, try to keep it. Then -- try to find out what the original finish was. Many floors in the late 1800s to perhaps 1920 and even later (I hit one from 1950) were not varnish -- they were shellac. If so, the very best approach is to sand, if needed, and use shellac again. Much easier to repair if damaged or scratched! The modern polyurethanes are simple enough, but if they get scratched or worn they can't be patched -- shellac can.

    And keep the steam!
    Br. Jamie, osb
    Building superintendent/caretaker, 7200 sq. ft. historic house museum with dependencies in New England
    bucksnort
  • veteransteamhvac
    veteransteamhvac Member Posts: 73
    My house mimics your setup nearly exactly with a few minor differences such as I have 2 pipe low pressure steam and I do not have the heater packs hooked up in my dual zone upstairs/downstairs AC air handlers. Although you may look at your total system as being unnecessarily complex and redundant (not to mention a space hog), there are a number of advantages to your build.

    You have a well zoned system that can meet your needs more precisely. My house is a 1925, four-course brick bungalow in the midwest with cool to cold winters and hot, humid summers. Lots of options allows me to precisely control the environment that simpler set-ups would make more difficult to accomplish.

    You can expect an overall longer life expectancy from your heating and cooling appliances because they are not in use year round. Quite often when we go in to a house to replace a forced air system it's due to failure of one side of the system which renders the other side unusable (as in a clogged condensate line has rusted out the furnace burner assembly). AC only air handlers last much longer, mine is over 25 years old. Your boiler, properly attended to, should last many years.

    My guess the reason you also have a gas furnace for the 1st floor AC zone is that is what the installer had available at pretty much the same cost as an AC only air handler. In the shoulder season this flexibility can be useful. I will say that I have times early and late in the heating season when the full force of a steam system is too much for my needs, unlike my neighbors with hot water systems. But in the dead of winter, the steam is vastly superior.

    I don't know the construction of your house, but if it's anything like mine (brick and plaster) I can't imagine how forced air independently could keep the place as comfortable. In the dead of winter my steam system makes the whole house comfortably warm. If it's especially cold out, coming inside to the intense heat of a steam radiator is unmatched. I feel so bad for my neighbors whose radiators were removed at some point because the forced air just doesn't feel the same.

    Basement renovations for our era houses can be difficult no matter what systems are occupying space down there. My house's foundation is stacked stone with plaster stucco smoothing the walls. I don't have nice poured concrete or even concrete block to work with. The floor was originally dirt and only has about 1 inch of fairly uneven concrete over it. The ceilings are just about 7 feet with the obvious lower steam pipes and forced air ducts. Although possible, any basement improvement would return modest spaces at best.

    I'm biased as I have basically the same setup, but I wouldn't change it.
    jmhold
  • jmhold
    jmhold Member Posts: 10

    My house mimics your setup nearly exactly...

    Interesting perspective. I am also in the mid-west (St Louis area) and it definitely sounds like we have similar homes; brick exterior, air gap, block interior, wood frame, and plaster on lathe; 7ft basement; etc. I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on what types of updates are a must for this type of home.

    My guess the reason you also have a gas furnace for the 1st floor AC zone is that is what the installer had available at pretty much the same cost as an AC only air handler...

    Agreed. I had the same thought.

    In the dead of winter my steam system makes the whole house comfortably warm. If it's especially cold out, coming inside to the intense heat of a steam radiator is unmatched.

    My biggest issue with the steam is getting the house properly balanced. It always seems like if one floor is properly heated the other is either oppressively hot or freezing haha. While there are a lot of possible variables at play, I think some of the big ones are:
    1. Thermostat located in the center of 1st floor and near (10ft ish) the second largest radiator in the house
    2. There is an addition on the house, but the 1st floor addition doesn't have a radiator in it at all and the 2nd floor addition has a radiator that is likely too small for the room
    3. Air leaks from a mix of original windows and newer windows creating slight drafts throughout the house

    Basement renovations for our era houses can be difficult no matter what systems are occupying space down there.

    I'm still noodling on this, but...
    My parents had a basement dug under their house when I was in high school, and I figure if they can have a brand new basement created, then it shouldn't be too difficult to dig out the basement floor. Thoughts?
  • dabrakeman
    dabrakeman Member Posts: 551
    Please do not let balance of system sway your decision. There are lots of ways to get any balance you desire with steam and this forum can help with that. Fix the leaky windows you mention first with exterior (can have the hung wooden frame style made which look nice) or interior storms. If you have plaster walls and lots of wood molding replacing windows can be expensive and unnecessary. If then some rooms are still under radiated then there is plenty of radiators available out there on Craigslist or Ebay etc... I had an addition that has no steam radiator and just put a nice gas stove in it for heat. Looks and performed fantastic. There are thermostats with remote sensors that can help with proximity issues to radiators or cold walls etc...
    I can't say how dismayed I am to often see a nice home with vintage character from the outside just to go inside and see how completely "remuddled" it is (not to say same is not done exterior in many cases). Modern amenities and blended decor can and should be added thoughtfully into the original architecture vs the gut and restart approach. As far as steam heat most people who come over to my house in the winter always comment on how much they like the quiet "warm presence" of the steam radiators as opposed to their blowing dry air systems they have at home. Just nice to lean up against after coming in from the cold. The whispers of a properly running system are also reassuring. You can do much with painting of radiators to add appeal to your decor and even replace some if you like the look of something you see for sale better than what you have (of similar EDR).
    jmhold
  • AdmiralYoda
    AdmiralYoda Member Posts: 627
    I agree with @dabrakeman. My house was built in 1899 and was probably built with a "budget" mindset. Nothing fancy, no frills...but it had plenty of character! The simple crown moulding, trim and doors were all stained and there were hardwood floors on the first floor.

    The same family, 3 generations owned the house until I got it in 2007. The trim now has multiple coats of oil and then latex paint and the hardwood floor in the kitchen had (probably asbestos) tile flooring installed over the hardwood, then some linoleum....then they put a layer of plywood over that...then another layer of linoleum...then another layer of plywood and now 2-3 layers of more linoleum.

    There is a 1.5" step between the dining room and the kitchen due to all the flooring they added. The kitchen floor is about 3.5" thick!

    Someone must have had stock in a plywood company as they added a layer of plywood to every room on the 1st floor and secured it with spiral shanked nails and then installed carpet.

    Sorry..had to rant a bit. My point is....it is unfortunate that some houses lose their vintage character over time. I have been sloooooowly bringing mine back to life but its been a long process.
    jmhold
  • The Steam Whisperer
    The Steam Whisperer Member Posts: 1,215
    While not necessarily relevant to your renovation, steam systems aren't just for restoration. Radiators can be had that are just as modern as any hot water system found in the rest of the world...
    https://steamradiators.com/cust-gallery.html
    To learn more about this professional, click here to visit their ad in Find A Contractor.
    jmhold
  • Jamie Hall
    Jamie Hall Member Posts: 23,270
    You do have a job, @AdmiralYoda ! I'm not sure I envy you the work -- and yet, I envy the challenge. I have been fortunate in that the places I have worked on have not had such extensive "improvements" -- as much, however, for a want of money to do them as foresight. And yet, the quality of the original materials and the workmanlike -- if sometimes not quire fine craftsmanship -- makes it possible to recover, if slowly. Hang in there!
    Br. Jamie, osb
    Building superintendent/caretaker, 7200 sq. ft. historic house museum with dependencies in New England
    jmhold
  • jmhold
    jmhold Member Posts: 10
    I love everybody's passion on this subject and it's definitely having an effect. A few things that I wasn't aware of before this thread are:
    1. Adding storm windows instead of replacement windows
    2. The preference of plaster over drywall (I'd like to hear more on this subject. What attributes of plaster make it better than drywall?)

    On another note, one of the factors that is making balancing the steam system difficult is the outside temperature. With the exception of the last week, it's been a pretty mild winter in St Louis with temps around 35F-50F. The milder days usually lead to over hot 2nd floor bedrooms in the evenings. So, I changed the thermostat settings to make it more comfortable. Now that we are in a cold snap, I have the exact opposite issue...too cold on living spaces during the day. ARG!!! lol

    Any suggestions?
  • Jamie Hall
    Jamie Hall Member Posts: 23,270
    There are a number of advantages to plaster -- most of them related to being much heavier. But the one most people notice if they are paying attention is the quality and "character" of the surface. Unless the drywall has a good skim coat of plaster on it (which may or may not peel off... !) you are trying to make a sheet of rough paper look good. Enough primer and paint and you can do pretty well -- but it never has the surface quality and character of plaster.

    The other factor is that plaster reduces transmission between rooms -- of both sound and air. Drywall is a big sounding board. Sound goes right through. Plaster? no. Very little. Drywall is hard to seal completely -- plaster is inherently sealed.

    On the other hand, it is more work -- and more expensive.

    Balancing a system between relatively warmer and colder weather can be difficult; One thing which can help a lot, though, is longer overall cycles. With longer cycles, the radiators will fill as much as they are set for by the venting or valves; shorter ones the slower radiators may not have a chance to do what they are set for. The situation is much worse for one pipe steam than two pipe, I might add.
    Br. Jamie, osb
    Building superintendent/caretaker, 7200 sq. ft. historic house museum with dependencies in New England
  • dabrakeman
    dabrakeman Member Posts: 551
    Many of us use adjustable vents on the radiators which can help with the balancing particularly if you want to change the balance depending upon factors like weather or occupants or the mother in law coming to visit... Generally one refers to a balanced system as meaning all your radiators are getting steam at the same time and fill at the same rate, i.e 50% full on this large radiator same time as 50% full on that small radiator etc... However, depending upon what rooms you personally want warmer or cooler and the drafts in your house, effects of remodeling or the outside temperature etc... balanced really is what you want it to be. I for instance like my bedrooms upstairs cooler than the average room and my kitchen and family room warmer. That is balance for me. The West side of my house also just seems a little under radiated. As long as you are avoiding building pressure in your system you can adjust venting to create whatever balance you want. 1st step though is making sure your main venting is adequate. I put little marks on my adjustable vents so I can remember what "normal" is and therefore as the situation demands I can go around and adjust some up up or down relative to my baseline. For adjustable vents I use Hoffman 1a's but the Ventrite #1many consider the best adjustable vent. The scales of the two are such that the Hoffman allows higher vent rates at the high end but the Ventrite allows slower vent rates at the low end.

    If you get a thermostat with some remote sensors you can also utilize them to add flexibility to your control.
  • LS123
    LS123 Member Posts: 466
    @jmhold ... I also have old house from 40s. I was going to convert to hot water or forced air with central AC. I have single pipe steam system works really well, and considerably energy efficient. I would have made a 23K mistake had I gone with the salesman... Unfortunately, there main steam pipes run in the basement and as some mentioned pipes can be moved and must be done by a pro with steam heat experience... If you do not have to spend too much to maintain steam heating system... I also highly recommend keeping the Steam / Rad heaters....
    best
    Thank you!
    @LS123
  • veteransteamhvac
    veteransteamhvac Member Posts: 73
    jmhold said:


    Interesting perspective. I am also in the mid-west (St Louis area) and it definitely sounds like we have similar homes; brick exterior, air gap, block interior, wood frame, and plaster on lathe; 7ft basement; etc. I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on what types of updates are a must for this type of home.

    I don't know what the best returns are for renovations. I would say do what pleases you and that you can afford as you have to live there. Most people will never see the inside of your home so front, exterior work has gotten me the most ooohs and ahhs (I still have the original red Ludowici french tile roof and stained beadboard porch ceiling).
    jmhold said:


    My biggest issue with the steam is getting the house properly balanced. It always seems like if one floor is properly heated the other is either oppressively hot or freezing haha. While there are a lot of possible variables at play, I think some of the big ones are:
    1. Thermostat located in the center of 1st floor and near (10ft ish) the second largest radiator in the house
    2. There is an addition on the house, but the 1st floor addition doesn't have a radiator in it at all and the 2nd floor addition has a radiator that is likely too small for the room
    3. Air leaks from a mix of original windows and newer windows creating slight drafts throughout the house

    As Brother Jamie mentions above you might benefit from longer cycles. We don't have much information from you regarding the actual boiler sizing and operation but it might help. You do mention that the system generally works okay, so sometimes it's best to leave things as they are, but I'm not a big fan of your near boiler piping that I can see in the pictures. You have 2 (seeemingly undersized) return/drip lines and no equalizer loop. You may be pushing boiler water into the dry returns and this is affecting cycle times. Shorter cycle times will exacerbate radiator distance balancing issues. Where are the main vents?

    Some of the newfangled thermostats are tricky to get to work properly with steam boilers.
    jmhold said:


    My parents had a basement dug under their house when I was in high school, and I figure if they can have a brand new basement created, then it shouldn't be too difficult to dig out the basement floor. Thoughts?

    I think it's an expensive way to add square footage to any home, but if your footprint is limited then maybe it makes sense.
  • jmhold
    jmhold Member Posts: 10
    @veteransteamhvac I only showed the line that had the most radiators on it. There are two other smaller lines that split off at the boiler. It's those two smaller lines that use the second drip line. You asked about the main vent location, but I don't think my system has one. I am becoming increasingly convinced that I should have someone out to fix at least that issue.
  • dabrakeman
    dabrakeman Member Posts: 551
    I can't see in your second picture very well but is it possibly a main vent on the main extension after the end of the main where I have the arrow. Would be at the end of a main where it should be.


  • veteransteamhvac
    veteransteamhvac Member Posts: 73
    jmhold said:

    @veteransteamhvac I only showed the line that had the most radiators on it. There are two other smaller lines that split off at the boiler. It's those two smaller lines that use the second drip line. You asked about the main vent location, but I don't think my system has one. I am becoming increasingly convinced that I should have someone out to fix at least that issue.

    As I said above if it is generally working to desire then don't do too much. However, if some renovations are involved then that would be a great time to make the system more functional. The idea is to get the steam equally to each radiator, the main vents and radiator vents help create the best conditions for that to happen.