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Converting to Hydronic

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DWilkes
DWilkes Member Posts: 11
edited March 2022 in Strictly Steam
So I bought a good sized house two years ago and replaced the ancient boiler. I kept the system as steam thinking that it would be beyond the scope of reasonable to re-pipe the whole system to convert to hydronic.

Two winters and a global fuel crisis and I'm seriously rethinking my decision. 

I have a two year old Utica Starfire SFE-5185ST. Can she be converted to hydronic? If so, how expensive a conversion is it? Just for scale, my estimated heat bill for next winter at today's prices is $9,600. So... I'm pretty desperate to not be on steam anymore. 

Help?

Thanks!!

Comments

  • JUGHNE
    JUGHNE Member Posts: 11,074
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    The efficiency of the boiler change very little if it is heating water or making steam.

    Perhaps your steam delivery system could be improved for less than converting the system to hot water...that usually creates problems.

    Could you post pictures of the boiler showing the piping floor to ceiling from several angles. Back up for a wide shot.
    Medium close ups of the controls.
    ethicalpaulDWilkes
  • Steamhead
    Steamhead Member Posts: 16,886
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    @DWilkes , several questions:

    1- Was the burner properly set up at installation, and has it been properly maintained?

    2- Is this a one-pipe or two-pipe system, i.e., how many pipes are connected to each radiator?

    3- Where are you located?
    All Steamed Up, Inc.
    Towson, MD, USA
    Steam, Vapor & Hot-Water Heating Specialists
    Oil & Gas Burner Service
    Consulting
  • pecmsg
    pecmsg Member Posts: 4,881
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    DWilkes said:
    So I bought a good sized house two years ago and replaced the ancient boiler. I kept the system as steam thinking that it would be beyond the scope of reasonable to re-pipe the whole system to convert to hydronic.

    Two winters and a global fuel crisis and I'm seriously rethinking my decision. 

    I have a two year old Utica Starfire SFE-5185ST. Can she be converted to hydronic? If so, how expensive a conversion is it? Just for scale, my estimated heat bill for next winter at today's prices is $9,600. So... I'm pretty desperate to not be on steam anymore. 

    Help?

    Thanks!!
    How do you get savings converting from steam to hot water?
    Get the steam system set up properly.

    post pictures of the near boiler piping about 5 or 6’ away. 


  • Jamie Hall
    Jamie Hall Member Posts: 23,419
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    Don't even think about it. The only way you can gain any efficiency over steam is if the hot water system can run at a low enough temperature to make use of the condensing feature of modulating/condensing boilers. Over the span of a heating season, it is reasonable to assume that if that is the case, you might gain about 5%.

    However, that assumes that the system is, in fact, convertible physically -- not all are -- and that the installed radiation is at least twice as big as is actually needed for steam heat to do the job, which it usually isn't.

    In principle any boiler can be converted to hot water use, but your Utica is rather poorly arranged for that. Further, it has no modulating capability at all, and no condensing capability -- so that even in principle you would gain nothing in efficiency and in practice you would almost certainly lose. Not to mention that it would be a fairly extensive (and expensive) custom project. Conversion of the remainder of the steam system might or might not be possible. Some two pipe steam systems can be converted without extensive repiping, although most need considerable repiping -- and that is assuming that all the existing piping and radiators can stand the additional pressure (10 to 20 times as much) without leaking. More likely would be a fairly extensive job of new piping; single pipe steam always will require very extensive new piping.

    For all of which effort you would spend considerably in excess of your annual heating bill -- and save exactly nothing on that bill.

    Now if you really do want to save some money on that bill -- and I wouldn't blame you -- invest in improving the insulation of the house where you can. Invest in reducing draughts where you can -- particularly places like sills in the basement or windows and doors which are less than about 60 to 70 years old (windows and doors older than that can best be improved by making sure they still fit properly and adding storm windows or storm doors -- that's cheaper, too).
    Br. Jamie, osb
    Building superintendent/caretaker, 7200 sq. ft. historic house museum with dependencies in New England
    EdTheHeaterMan
  • pecmsg
    pecmsg Member Posts: 4,881
    edited March 2022
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    A blower door test needs to be performed that will tell you where air is getting in / out. 
    Tighten the envelope and you can lower the BTU capacity of the boiler. That’s how you lower your fuel bill. 
    DWilkesEdTheHeaterManMaxMercy
  • JUGHNE
    JUGHNE Member Posts: 11,074
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    First easy fix is pressure.
    What pressure shows on the gauge and where is the control set to?
  • DWilkes
    DWilkes Member Posts: 11
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    This is why I ask these things. There's so much I don't know. 

    1-it was not set up properly initially but it was supposedly fixed controls-wise. It wouldn't honestly surprise me if it's still not correct. Yes, I am aware (now) that the copper feed pipes are not correct. I've gone back to the idiot that installed it and am awaiting some kind of remediation. The low water cut off triggers once every cycle. So, something is probably still not right. 

    2-it has been maintained. Supposedly properly. I have a maintenance contract with my oil company. 

    3-I'm located between Allentown and Reading PA. 

    It is single pipe steam. 

    No idea what the pressure is. The gauge on the front reads zero. It was explained to me that is normal, as it should only read anything when it's over pressure. I think it's ****, but I can't exactly argue... I am guessing the control you are referring to is the cut in? It's set between the 2 and the next (unlabeled) mark above it. 

    From living with hydronic and paying for that to living with steam and paying for that, I have noticed huge differences in cost to run the systems, both were with fuel oil. If the controls are still messed up, that data then becomes meaningless. Also, just about everything I have read says it's more efficient for various reasons. 

    Not sure exactly what I should take a picture of for the controls. Sorry. 
  • DWilkes
    DWilkes Member Posts: 11
    edited March 2022
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    @Steamhead I am actually from Towson. Just living way up here for economic reasons. Nice to see the home town represented here. :)
  • Alan (California Radiant) Forbes
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    I'm no steam guy, bot those risers coming off the boiler should not be reduced and as you know, should be iron pipe, not copper.

    Some better lighting will help us see more. Go around to the right side of the boiler and take a picture of the equalizer where the single pipe returns to the boiler.
    8.33 lbs./gal. x 60 min./hr. x 20°ΔT = 10,000 BTU's/hour

    Two btu per sq ft for degree difference for a slab
  • DWilkes
    DWilkes Member Posts: 11
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  • Intplm.
    Intplm. Member Posts: 1,993
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    @DWilkes The picture that you have posted shows your near boiler piping is incorrect. Look for the owner's manual. If you don't have it in hand, it is probably tucked away in the ceiling or somewhere close to the boiler. The manual should show how the near boiler piping should be installed.

    If your pressure reads zero, that's a good thing, but your system needs some fine-tuning from a qualified steam heating specialist.

    Look on this site to find a professional?

    Also seriously consider what @Jamie Hall says above. It is very good advice.
    DWilkes
  • DWilkes
    DWilkes Member Posts: 11
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  • Intplm.
    Intplm. Member Posts: 1,993
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    These pics show a better near piping arrangement. Still, Have a steam boiler installation pro look this over.
    DWilkes
  • DWilkes
    DWilkes Member Posts: 11
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    Thanks everyone for your input. It's been educational. I have emailed the closest steam person listed on this site. I already have storm windows and doors, and I'm certain they help, but clearly not enough. Maybe I will drop the couple hundred per window (ouch! I have a million windows in this old Victorian) on removable acrylic inserts on the inside. 
    Intplm.
  • Jamie Hall
    Jamie Hall Member Posts: 23,419
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    I can certainly attest that those acrylic inner storms -- at least the better ones -- are worth the money.
    Br. Jamie, osb
    Building superintendent/caretaker, 7200 sq. ft. historic house museum with dependencies in New England
    ethicalpaulDWilkes
  • EdTheHeaterMan
    EdTheHeaterMan Member Posts: 8,037
    edited March 2022
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    Other than one of the system mains exiting between the boiler risers, there are a few other things to check out.


    Edward Young Retired

    After you make that expensive repair and you still have the same problem, What will you check next?

    ethicalpaulIntplm.DWilkes
  • BobC
    BobC Member Posts: 5,479
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    Old houses sometimes have balloon framing and no fire blocking in the walls. That means those stud bays are open raceways for air, the made the house cooler in the summer and colder in the winter. Go up in the attic and inspect for open stud bays on both exterior and interior walls, also check for penetrations for wiring, plumbing, and the chimney. All of that has to be sealed up so air won't just whistle through, any sealing around the chimney must be fireproof.

    Most insulation companies can do this if you don't want to do it yourself.

    Bob
    Smith G8-3 with EZ Gas @ 90,000 BTU, Single pipe steam
    Vaporstat with a 12oz cut-out and 4oz cut-in
    3PSI gauge
    EdTheHeaterManDWilkes
  • AdmiralYoda
    AdmiralYoda Member Posts: 632
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    Yeah that system can't easily be modified for hot water, it would be more cost effective to install an entirely new forced hot water baseboard system. But I don't think it would be worth it.

    Sure you would have a new system that perfectly matches your house if done properly, but it would require alot of $$$$. You'd save on your heating bill but would probably take forever to pay for itself.

    The pro's on this site will provide some great support, when I bought my house 15 years ago I learned a great deal from them. I've probably cut my gas bill in half since we first moved in. My house is a 140 year old colonial, 1600 sq.ft. and I pay less than $1k yearly in gas for heat in the coldest of winters. Thermostat is set at 68 degrees all winter long.
    DWilkes
  • MaxMercy
    MaxMercy Member Posts: 514
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    Certainly listen to the steam pros here. There shouldn't be any discernible difference between a proper steam installation and a hot water one with regard to energy costs.

    The envelope issue is where most of your heating cost goes. I have a 2800sq (give or take) two story house and I'll burn about 600 gallons of heating oil this year, so you're burning 3X what I am. But my house was built in 1993 and has 2X6 walls with fiberglass insulation and double glazed windows.

    If your big Victorian has uninsulated walls, I'd consider addressing that and upgrading windows and maybe consider encapsulating your attic. Even if oil prices drop more where it should be, tightening the envelope will still pay off sooner rather than later.

    DWilkes
  • The Steam Whisperer
    The Steam Whisperer Member Posts: 1,218
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    If you look up the gross output ratings of boilers made for both steam and hot water, you'll find only a 1 to 1.5% difference in efficiency. Get someone good with oil and steam in there to check out the whole system. Spending on basic system upgrades is low hanging fruit. It's very likely that the boiler is about 60% oversized as that is the norm. That doesn't help efficiency. It may be able to be down fired. Pipe insulation is also a good thing.
    Old fashioned windows with Low e storms typically perform about as well as new" high efficiency" windows, but last forever. The payback for new windows was about 42 years about 15 years ago, its probably down to about 30 now..... if the new windows even last that long.
    Definitely look into the potential balloon framing issue. Also if you are plaster furred out over brick there is typically a 3/4 inch gap that allows heat from the walls to flow into the attic. Sealing this gap and any others such as ceiling light boxes, plumbing runs etc makes a huge difference in HVAC needs. I was heating a 3200 sq ft 1903 insulated wood frame home for about $1000 per year in northern Illinois about 10 years ago.
    To learn more about this professional, click here to visit their ad in Find A Contractor.
    MaxMercyDWilkes
  • STEAM DOCTOR
    STEAM DOCTOR Member Posts: 2,000
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    The near boiler piping is bad. Undersized and wrong orientation. 
    MaxMercyDWilkes
  • DWilkes
    DWilkes Member Posts: 11
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    @EdTheHeaterMan how much would the reduced copper there mess me up? I had no idea until semi recently that the copper was even wrong. The reduction didn't even occur to me until an earlier comment here. The piping to the right there seems to be lower return. I guess that's a Hartford loop? It is left over from the old boiler setup, yes. The control there could maintain it for hot water. I was told it was shut off. But I don't know how to check that. 
  • DWilkes
    DWilkes Member Posts: 11
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    @MaxMercy I expect to burn more than a modern house, but not as much as I am!! 3x is a lot more and you have 400 sqft more than I do. Thank you for the advice. 
    MaxMercy
  • leonz
    leonz Member Posts: 1,154
    edited March 2022
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    DWilkes said:

    So I bought a good sized house two years ago and replaced the ancient boiler. I kept the system as steam thinking that it would be beyond the scope of reasonable to re-pipe the whole system to convert to hydronic.

    Two winters and a global fuel crisis and I'm seriously rethinking my decision. 

    I have a two year old Utica Starfire SFE-5185ST. Can she be converted to hydronic? If so, how expensive a conversion is it? Just for scale, my estimated heat bill for next winter at today's prices is $9,600. So... I'm pretty desperate to not be on steam anymore. 

    Help?

    Thanks!!

    =================================================================

    This is coming from a novice; please keep your steam heat.

    They did not install the new boiler correctly.

    The damper also looks to be slightly tapered down. It should be level.
    If it were me; I would also permanently install a Dwyer Mark II manometer near or on the boiler with a Dwyer probe and tubing in the flue to check the draft.

    You need to have the copper pipe removed and have a double drop header with the proper sized threaded pipe (the pipe should be the same size as the threaded tapping's in the steam chest) installed to take advantage of the twin tapping's in the steam chest to make more heat at a faster rate with the same volume of fuel.

    If I remember the sequence correctly:

    You come out of the twin tapping's with the correct size nipples and unions and the twin riser piping is tall enough to reach the ceiling joists where you create the first drop header with one or two sizes larger pipe using nipples and unions and then the Tee in the center feeds the drop header that is one size larger than the first one and you have next Tee in the center so it can be connected to the header pipe with pipe nipples and unions and probably several 30 or 45 degree elbows and an elbow at one end for a condensate drain back to the boilers water level.

    Keep in mind that one drop of water will expand 1,700 times to make steam and if you have a double drop header the steam will expand that much more at a faster rate to reach the header pipe and your radiators will stay hotter longer and you will have dry steam heat.

    The way they have done this installation the steam cannot expand very quickly once it leaves the twin tapping's in the steam chest and enters the header pipe.

    The first thing to do is find out what grants and low interest loans are available for an upgrade of your homes insulation and windows in your state.

    The next thing is to have a blower test done to see where all the heat and cooling leaks are to give you a better idea of what has to be done BUT getting rid of that mess and having it fixed with a double drop header and condensate drain back to the water level in the steam chest will save you a lot of fuel.

    Checking the header pipe for the proper pitch and radiators for the proper drain back pitch is also essential and a small part in fixing this.

    Once you have the little things taken care of you will be heating the home with more dry steam much more quickly and the radiators will stay hotter longer.

    I think I have everything in the right sequence, please feel free to edit/correct my mistakes if needed.

    There are a lot of photo images of correctly installed drop headers and double drop headers here and on the web to look at to see how they work to make dry steam faster with the same amount of fuel.

    DWilkes
  • DWilkes
    DWilkes Member Posts: 11
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    Anyone know why my low water switch triggers once every cycle? It originally triggered two and three times, and the installer couldn't figure it out. My oil company tech swapped out the nozzle? and it only triggers once each cycle now. 
  • KC_Jones
    KC_Jones Member Posts: 5,741
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    DWilkes said:

    Anyone know why my low water switch triggers once every cycle? It originally triggered two and three times, and the installer couldn't figure it out. My oil company tech swapped out the nozzle? and it only triggers once each cycle now. 

    Is it adding needed water, or is it overfilling? If the first one, you have leaks in the system that need addressed. If it's the second one, it's probably due to the poor piping sucking all the water out on each cycle and triggering before that water can return.

    If you had a competent contractor they would know all this, and they would have piped the boiler properly.
    2014 Weil Mclain EG-40
    EcoSteam ES-20 Advanced Boiler Control
    Boiler pictures updated 2/21/15
    DWilkesethicalpaul
  • DWilkes
    DWilkes Member Posts: 11
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    @KC_Jones usually neither. The auto feeder is set on a delay. The system kicks back on almost always before the feeder triggers. After looking up what a Hartford loop is supposed to do, I think maybe that particular relationship screw up is what's causing this particular issue? It's not functioning to keep the condensate return water in the boiler and that's why the water level is dropping temporarily? Just guessing here...  
  • KC_Jones
    KC_Jones Member Posts: 5,741
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    The original function of the Hartford loop was to keep water in the boiler in the event the wet return got a hole in it. During normal operation it basically serves no purpose.

    There are several problems with the boiler piping, the hartford loop, for me, is the least concerning.

    You have what appears to be undersized risers on the boiler, and a colliding header. I am attaching a graphic for a visual as to what can happen with a colliding header. Boiler fires, water gets sucked out, triggers LWCO or feeder, boiler water returns before the feed delay is over, then the LWCO goes off, lather, rinse, repeat.


    2014 Weil Mclain EG-40
    EcoSteam ES-20 Advanced Boiler Control
    Boiler pictures updated 2/21/15
    DWilkesethicalpaulIntplm.
  • DWilkes
    DWilkes Member Posts: 11
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    @KC_Jones gotcha! That sounds exactly like what's happening. HA!! (installer flat told me I was wrong about this) I was right about the boiler emptying and water returning. I was just completely wrong about why. I thought the multiple cycles was it boiling off and then condensing and returning. I thought they had under sized it. Thank you so much for this explanation!! I knew it wasn't supposed to multiple cycle! The installer and the tech from my oil company both missed this. This thread has been very educational! 

    Yes, as of the first or second post in this thread I am aware that the risers are too small. 

    Thank you everyone for all of this wonderful information!
  • KC_Jones
    KC_Jones Member Posts: 5,741
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    DWilkes said:

    @KC_Jones gotcha! That sounds exactly like what's happening. HA!! (installer flat told me I was wrong about this) I was right about the boiler emptying and water returning. I was just completely wrong about why. I thought the multiple cycles was it boiling off and then condensing and returning. I thought they had under sized it. Thank you so much for this explanation!! I knew it wasn't supposed to multiple cycle! The installer and the tech from my oil company both missed this. This thread has been very educational! 

    Yes, as of the first or second post in this thread I am aware that the risers are too small. 

    Thank you everyone for all of this wonderful information!

    If I was a betting man I'd bet it was oversized, I'm not sure when the last time we saw someone come here with problems that had a properly sized boiler....maybe never.
    2014 Weil Mclain EG-40
    EcoSteam ES-20 Advanced Boiler Control
    Boiler pictures updated 2/21/15
    ethicalpaulDWilkesleonz
  • The Steam Whisperer
    The Steam Whisperer Member Posts: 1,218
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    The correct piping is right in the install manual. The installers need to learn to look at pictures!
    To learn more about this professional, click here to visit their ad in Find A Contractor.