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Options? 5500 Sq Ft Victorian Mansion w/50+ year old system

JDBrooklyn
JDBrooklyn Member Posts: 5
Hey people - I have a unique question.

I am a renter (since 2016) of a 1905 house of 5400 sq ft (includes unheated basement of 1500-2000). Elderly owner/landlord. The natural gas covers cooking, dryer and hot water heater as well. 9 people here. Our gas bill last winter in Feb was $1280! The house is a sieve on the ground floor (always requires seasonal weatherproofing).

There is a Crane 300 Series (Model 9-300) in the basement with 3-4" rusty cast iron feed and return pipes coming out of it and a recently replaced Bell & Gossett 1/4 HP pump that took us as renters 3 days to locate locally in stock for $1400. There was even a glass screw in fuse in the wall! The ground floor is this strange indirect system of giant basement ducts with forced air over ducted radiators that lead to giant registers on the main floor (some are 18" x 18" others are 24" x 12") - the air barely comes out (no force) ; the rest is hot water radiators on the 2nd/3rd floor and those rooms are toasty!

How old is this system?!?!?!? What would a replacement option be here?? We want to advise the owner of her options. Photos attached of new pump, pressure tanks, system, and an example of one of the basement ducts in basement leading the ground floor.

Brooklyn, NY location (Ditmas Park/Flatbush neighborhood)








Comments

  • mattmia2
    mattmia2 Member Posts: 7,148
    edited October 2022
    The circulator could have been replaced with a modern wet rotor or ecm circulator, you didn't have to track down a 3 piece circulator.

    Have those indirect radiators been converted to use indoor air? They usually were designed to pull air from outside which was very inefficient. Make sure that has been sealed up and some sort of way to pull return air from the inside was added. They work by gravity, there is no forced air circulation.

    The system is original to the house. The boiler looks to have been replaced in the 50's or 60's. It was originally a gravity hot water system, the circulator was added with the new boiler.

    Not knowing your energy costs, that being a very large house I suspect your efficiency of the system isn't terrible, i would look more at fixing the comfort problems first. A new boiler would be a bit more efficient but it won't be a dramatic change. The way to save on heating costs would be to add air sealing and insulation to the building.
    reggi
  • HVACNUT
    HVACNUT Member Posts: 4,858
    Lowering the fuel cost will require permanent weather proofing (air sealing), the correct size boiler, if the existing isn't correct, and shorter showers for some of you. Assuming the landlord would need to cover those costs so I don't know how far you'd get with that.
    As far as the first floor is concerned, where is the thermostat? There's only one serving all 3 floors?
    You say minimal air flow but you don't necessarily need velocity with heating air. If it's not enough to satisfy the thermostat (if it's on the first floor), there are things to check. I'm sure you've checked the air filter. 
    The coil could be plugged up as well. Is it the correct size coil? What type of motor in the air handler, belt or direct drive? If belt drive is it the correct belt? Belt tension adjusted to amp draw? Fan blades dont have 70 years of crud buildup? 


  • KC_Jones
    KC_Jones Member Posts: 5,352
    Air sealing is your friend here. If the system is working I wouldn't replace it unless the house is tightened up first. Right now it is taking X amount of BTU's to heat the house, that won't change with a new system. So to reduce fuel usage you have to reduce load. Air sealing, insulation, etc. Once that's done you should see reductions, how much is a different question.

    Also, it's 5400 sq ft, it's going to cost a lot of money to heat that monster. Running those numbers against my own 1500 sq ft house with 5 people, 1280 doesn't seem that outrageous to me given the age and size of the house. Tighten it up some and you should reduce that, how much is another question.
    2014 Weil Mclain EG-40
    EcoSteam ES-20 Advanced Boiler Control
    Boiler pictures updated 2/21/15
    hot_rod
  • leonz
    leonz Member Posts: 682
    I would have an estimate of how much it would cost to weatherize the home first and then fix the heating system by removing the ducting and re install the correct plumbed gravity hot water system as it was originally designed to be with the open to air expansion tank in the attic or the top of the riser pipe on the 3rd floor if there is no attic.

    We or at least I have no idea where the point of no pressure change is with that circulator as you have 3 bladder tanks in the basement connected to who knows what or where and your landlord need the help from a plumber with experience in gravity hot water heating or a steam licensed plumber that understands gravity hot water systems.

    They only made it worse when installing that mess as a top fed or bottom fed gravity hot water heating system will always deliver slow even heat.

    Weatherizing the home and fixing the mess there by ripping out the ducting sealing the home and fixing the gravity hot water system to work as it was intended is what I would do as whoever installed that mess did her no favors in my opinion as it could have been maintained correctly with the gravity heating system.

    My thoughts anyway.



  • JUGHNE
    JUGHNE Member Posts: 10,278
    edited October 2022
    Leonz, I would guess that the ductwork was part of the original gravity system. If it was gone there might be no heat for the ground floor.


    JD, are there actually blower motors inside the ductwork?

    You would hear something running if so. Look for wiring/conduit etc.

    Some of these systems has a grill in the floor for cold air to drop down and then wall or floor grill for warm air to rise up thru. You may not feel much air moving.

    And look outside for fresh cold air inlet that might come in thru the basement wall, it would be largish duct work.

    One concern is if you have a blower (or even a good gravity flow IF it used to come from outside) sucking air out of the basement to blow upstairs you could potentially cause a downdraft in the flue/chimney piping and pull fumes/CO into the house.
    As the basement is more sealed up, for air infiltration, this could become more of a concern.

    $1280 for 9 people is $142.22 per the worst month.

    That is cooking, clothes drying, hot water and heat......

    It would be interesting to see more of the basement system, back up to show floor to ceiling of the heating system.

    You could look in "Find a contractor" section of this wall.

  • Jamie Hall
    Jamie Hall Member Posts: 20,421
    Well... in a high class home of that sort, the underfloor heating with grilles and return ducting feeding it was likely original, and is an excellent way of heating a space. What one does want to make sure is that any outside air connections are removed and sealed, but leave the interior return air ducting and encosures.
    Br. Jamie, osb
    Building superintendent/caretaker, 7200 sq. ft. historic house museum with dependencies in New England
  • leonz
    leonz Member Posts: 682
    Hello Jamie,

    I am wondering if they added the floor and wall vents
    long after they put in the gravity hot water system to
    let the heat in the basement just rise up into the home?

    There is obviously a coil in that air duct and it may be
    plugged with dust and dirt too.
  • leonz
    leonz Member Posts: 682
    The State of New York still has weatherization programs funding for them so now would be the time to contact a plumber willing to do a detailed heat loss study with infrared cameras and a blower door to find the leaks, measure the square footage area of the living spaces and windows, measure the cubic footage of each room including the attic if it has an attic and measure the basement for its cubic footage and measure all the windows.


  • Jamie Hall
    Jamie Hall Member Posts: 20,421
    leonz said:

    Hello Jamie,

    I am wondering if they added the floor and wall vents
    long after they put in the gravity hot water system to
    let the heat in the basement just rise up into the home?

    There is obviously a coil in that air duct and it may be
    plugged with dust and dirt too.

    1905 and fairly high class -- it most likely was gravity hot water from the beginning, but those floor registers with heating units in them were all the rage in better houses. The trick to renovating them today is that some did have outside air brought in as well as return air, for better air quality, and that you do not want -- so that needs to be tracked down and sealed off. Usually pretty obvious. I have worked on two systems like that -- one gravity hot air and one gravity water.
    Br. Jamie, osb
    Building superintendent/caretaker, 7200 sq. ft. historic house museum with dependencies in New England
  • leonz
    leonz Member Posts: 682
    I was wondering if they had a small octopus furnace in the basement too.
  • Jamie Hall
    Jamie Hall Member Posts: 20,421
    leonz said:

    I was wondering if they had a small octopus furnace in the basement too.

    Possible. Gravity hot air. And possibly not so small! But by 1905 gravity hot water was not at all uncommon.
    Br. Jamie, osb
    Building superintendent/caretaker, 7200 sq. ft. historic house museum with dependencies in New England
  • mattmia2
    mattmia2 Member Posts: 7,148
    That ductwork looks more modern, I wonder if it was a rework of the system to remove an outside air intake and possibly add or make exclusive returns from the first floor.
  • JDBrooklyn
    JDBrooklyn Member Posts: 5
    Yeah, a guy once mentioned it had been a gravity system. When the circulator went out and we had no heat back in early March though, the electrician who was here said that it might be able to work as a gravity system temporarily but the hot water never rose more than 3 feet up from the boiler!

    It looks like the basement ducts are unique to each room. My room, the former "sitting room" has a row of five windows and has two heat feed registers - one right under window one the wall and one under window five in the wall. Then I have a large return in the floor. When I look under my room though, these ducts are just unique to my room. It seems like the flow of air, which is hot but barely moving - is reliant on the envelope of my room and natural air flow? I do have 12' ceilings too and my room is about 250 sq ft. I do have storm windows on my windows. My room tends to be how I like it in the winter. I do wonder about the ducts though - they have never been cleaned nor checked in the 6 years I am here. Could the coils in them be seriously clogged an impeding the natural flow?? The one photo originally attached shows one part of my ductwork under my room

    Now in our living room/sun room which is may 1500 sq ft - we have two 4'x4' French windows single pane! And four sets of 6' x 6' stained glass/glass French windows that used to open French style outwards but were long painted over. This room has two feed and two return registers - all in the floors and all 3'x1'. There is also an antiquated aux electric heater over one of the registers. This room is COLD in winter - perhaps we could fashion some seasonal plexiglass/acrylic storm windows??

    There is a dining room and den that both have registers under the windows - strangely, the den has the best heat air flow - it has one large 5'x8" feed and smaller returns on either side.

    Another problem room, besides that living room/sunroom, is the kitchen/mudroom - open to each other. There was some Reno in the 50s/60s because we strangely have a radiator in main kitchen (it gets HOT), then two barely working baseboard heaters in mudroom (seemingly pointless). The kitchen has horrible windows too - those Florida/tropical style crank out ones opposite of French style. These could use a removable/temp storm window too!! Kitchen always cold too!.
    ____________

    One thermostat located on 2nd floor at top of staircase. In the coldest months, we tend to need to keep it at 70. Upper floors are toasty but all have storm windows and radiators. At setting of 70 though, the kitchen/mudroom and living room/sunroom will only get up to 62-64

    I do not see any fresh air intake anywhere. Like I said, in my room, the ducting is unique to my room alone. I would love to open the ducts to check the coils and clean them out! See the one photo for the duct under my room.

    As far as improving the envelope on the ground floor, with a 1500 sq ft room full of huge single pane windows including two working French style ones that leak like crazy, is fashioning some type of removable/temp flex storm window a good idea? Weatherstripping/plastic has not helped really. I know heating costs are projected to go up 25-30% and with $1200 winter bills, I just want us to take preventative measures AND we want comfort in these rooms that can't seem to heat up.

    When we moved in, we did find two rather ornate radiators in a cedar closet on the top floor. They are both 4' tall with legs. Not sure where they had been. In two 2nd floor rooms that both have curved walls of 5 windows, they have a complete stretch of curved radiators.

    There is no real attic space besides a crawl space accessed by a hatch. No one has ever gone up there.

    When the circulator went out back in early March - a guy came by and said "oh my god - this system is crazy - just to drain it! He was talking with the electrician who was here and I recall him saying "days and days to go through" and "$20,000 at least"
  • Jamie Hall
    Jamie Hall Member Posts: 20,421
    I wonder who or what is in the attic?

    More to the point -- it would be an excellent idea to get at the radiators or whatever in those underfloor units, and clean them. Thoroughly. Try a shop vac for starters, and then brushes. You will be amazed at what's in there -- and you are depending entirely on the air getting warm and flowing freely through them for heat. That will also give you some idea how big they really are, and thus how much heat you can expect out of them.

    Improving the envelope in those cold rooms can't hurt, either.

    As to the mud room, how does hot water get to those?

    This thing can be made to work, and you don't need to pay for a new car to make it work -- but it is going to take some serious work with balancing, which means you may need some relatively minor pipe work and some balancing valves.
    Br. Jamie, osb
    Building superintendent/caretaker, 7200 sq. ft. historic house museum with dependencies in New England
  • veteransteamhvac
    veteransteamhvac Member Posts: 73
    Br Jamie makes a very good point about the in floor convectors. Unfortunately, from the look of it in the one picture posted the ductwork looks pretty well intact and sealed, so they might be difficult to get to. Are you certain that the valves are open to the living room convectors? My experience with these types of convectors is that due to them hanging from the basement ceiling they are prone to shifting and leaking which results in their being turned off.
  • JDBrooklyn
    JDBrooklyn Member Posts: 5
    @veteransteamhvac - yes, they are very well sealed. And yes, you are right - one of the two in my room was putting out no heat. went I went to the basement, first I felt the pipe (hot just like the other), then I looked for any electrical wiring, to see if there could perhaps be an individual fan. Finally, I got up on a chair to look right where the vent went up to the non working register and there was a large round metal circular "key" that was turned the opposite of the working register, So I turned it and VOILA - heat.

    I should check the living room registers from below - with the Living Room/Sun room envelope air flow, with the single pane windows and air gaps, the air flow should be much better. But again, this room has six giant window - two full walls of windows
  • Jamie Hall
    Jamie Hall Member Posts: 20,421
    Keep poking at things. A lot of the time working on old systems it's a matter of contemplation and then trying something -- the first rule is "do no harm" and the second is "don't do anything which isn't reversible".
    Br. Jamie, osb
    Building superintendent/caretaker, 7200 sq. ft. historic house museum with dependencies in New England
  • mattmia2
    mattmia2 Member Posts: 7,148
    So there was a damper somewhere in the ductwork/enclosure or there was a radiator valve inside the enclosure?
  • TAG
    TAG Member Posts: 737
    Grew up in a big stone house -- Philadelphia main line. We had those ducted radiators in the public areas of the first floor -- there were dampers to control the mix of outside air. The place was built in 1921 and I was told the outside air blend was because of the 1918 pandemic .... originally ours was coal and would have never been off so there was no drafts. The cases and dampers were much heavier looking metal .... that looks like regular ductwork. Ours would really pump it out ..... start looking for dampers
  • JDBrooklyn
    JDBrooklyn Member Posts: 5
    @mattmia2 - yes - dampers with levers in basement just below each heat-feed register. And there are valves just outside the ductwork for the radiator/coil inside of each. Again, this ductwork seems to be self-contained in each room, as if to rely on flow of air within the room. I can locate no fresh air intake. This house was built 1906. The ductwork is in no way connected to any other room. This is the setup in four of the common space rooms on the main floor only, as well as the vestibule and main hallway
  • Gilmorrie
    Gilmorrie Member Posts: 173
    edited October 2022
    Based on your location, size of house, etc., I think $1,280 per year for gas is not unexpected at all. (What else, if anything, are you using gas for, besides space heating?)

    From what I see in your pictures, your system is not older than your stated 50 years, probably less. This winter, your costs will go up because of increased fuel prices - unless you do something very major to reduce your heat loss. Probably too late, this year?
  • Robert_25
    Robert_25 Member Posts: 452
    Gilmorrie said:
    Based on your location, size of house, etc., I think $1,280 per year for gas is not unexpected at all. (What else, if anything, are you using gas for, besides space heating?) From what I see in your pictures, your system is not older than your stated 50 years, probably less. This winter, your costs will go up because of increased fuel prices - unless you do something very major to reduce your heat loss. Probably too late, this year?
    It was 1,280 per month.
  • pecmsg
    pecmsg Member Posts: 3,535
    725K BTU,s/h input. 
    Yea that’s a lot of NG to burn. 
  • Jamie Hall
    Jamie Hall Member Posts: 20,421
    Perspective, folks. Big old houses do burn fuel. If we didn't pre-buy and thus spread the cost out over all 12 months, there would be a couple of months in the middle of the winter when we'd spend at least that if not more per month. There really isn't any good way, either, to avoid it. Even a very tight modern house with HRVs and all the toys may use 25 BTUh per square foot at design conditions. A somewhat less tight older house could easily be half that again. Cedric's home -- hardly a model of modern insulation -- peaks out at somewhere around 33 BTUh input, for instance.
    Br. Jamie, osb
    Building superintendent/caretaker, 7200 sq. ft. historic house museum with dependencies in New England
  • mattmia2
    mattmia2 Member Posts: 7,148
    I think that ductwork was a replacement of the original ductwork that had outside air intakes around the middle of the 20th century to remove the outdoor air intake.

    If the damper is closed you get almost no heat, the radiator has to be able to pull heat through it by gravity to heat. If you kook down through the grate, can you see the element? Can you get a picture?
  • JDBrooklyn
    JDBrooklyn Member Posts: 5
    It was $1280 for a peak month last season - I can't wait to see the bills THIS year. Natural Gas. We use for cooking, dryer and hot water too. 9 of us live here.

    The damper on one of the two registers in my room was closed. The levers look like those old skeleton keys - a big metal circle handle that is either vertical or horizontal. When I was examining, I noticed one was one way and one was another so I turn it and heat came out.

    Ducts do look mid century. Boiler is a CRANE circa 1960 ish apparently, too, so makes sense. We do have an old porcelain "oil burner emergency shut-off" switch at top of basement stairs.