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PLEASE HELP: Spending A Small Fortune on Oil Powered Steam Heat

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Thank you in advance for your advice and suggestions!

I live in a Tudor built in 1929 based in Northern New Jersey. I have an oil steam boiler and radiators for heat (see below "Cooling and Heating Stats" and "Cooling and Heating Diagram" for more details). Last year I used 1,100 gallons of oil while keep the house VERY frigid and my wife wants to move:
  • The first floor was 63/64, if we were home, during the day and 56 at night (we used space heaters in the bedrooms).
  • We put up a blanket in our family room archway and put a space heater in there on weekends and at night. We kept the heat in the high 50s or 60 when doing this.
  • When we set the thermostat to 68 the first floor is 4-6 degrees warmer than the second floor (68 tmp 1st floor, 62 tmp 2nd floor).
  • We still used $5,000 worth of oil to “heat” our house last year. If my wife controlled the thermostat, we would have used $15K; the first floor would be 73 degrees, and the second floor would be 67.
My goal is to spend less than $5,000 a year on oil/gas, hopefully, a lot less, and have a warm house where and when I want it. Adding 100K BTU natural gas-forced air furnaces to my two central air zones may be the most cost effective way to achieve this goal. Based on my calculations, If I ran zone 1 and 2 for the same number of hours as I ran the steam system last year, I would lower operating costs/fuel by 80%+ per year or $4K (see below Savings Oil Steam vs Forced Air table). Further, I could keep the upstairs warmer when sleeping than downstairs and vice versa during the day, driving more savings. Here are my questions for you:
  1. What can I do to make the steam system operating cost (fuel) comparable to a forced air system (oversized furnace, switch to a natural gas furnace, etc.)? (see below "Cooling and Heating Diagram")
  2. Assuming #1 is possible, how can I fix the temperature differential and radiators that never turn on? I brought a "steam" expert plumber who shrugged his shoulders. Another guy told me it would cost me $1000s of dollars to calibrate the system. I know I could spend hours/days calibrating it myself, but I do not have this sort of time.
  3. Will it cost less than the mid-teens to achieve #1 and #2? Do you know any one in Northern NJ that can help me?
  4. Do you think the two zone natural gas-forced air route is a good alternative? Do you agree with my calculations in the Savings Oil Steam vs Forced Air table below?

SAVINGS OIL STEAM VS FORCED AIR



COOLING AND HEATING STATS
Heating
  • Brand: Weil-Mclain
  • Model #: 80 Series 1, #380
  • Steam Output: 867 Sq. Ft
  • Install Year: 2015
  • Fuel: Oil (2.4 Gallons Per Hours)
  • Type: Single Pipe
  • Flue Type: The flue pipe is metal that enters a masonry flue
  • Oil tank location: 275G in basement and above ground; installed 2015
Cooling/AC (Two Zones)
  • Zone 1: covers basement and 1st floor with floor registers
  • Zone 2: second floor only wit celling registers
COOLING AND HEATING DIAGRAM
Basement


First Floor


Second Floor



Third Floor


«1

Comments

  • pecmsg
    pecmsg Member Posts: 4,915
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    Steam, hot water, or scorched air a BTU is a BTU. You'll never see a return on investment. There may be issues with your equipment, have a Steam Tech look at it and advise.
    You want to save money heating / cooling that home Tighten the envelope! Prevent all that money from escaping.
    GGrossPC7060ethicalpaulMaxMercy
  • random12345
    random12345 Member Posts: 469
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    Non-pro homeowner with oil steam here. Since gas is available and that boiler can be converted, that would be my first choice. Is this your boiler? https://weil-mclain.com/products/80-commercial-gas-oil-boiler

    Post some pictures of your boiler and near boiler piping. Have you changed the convector vents recently? Post some pictures of your main vents too. Are the steam mains in the basement insulated? I would not consider adding a forced air system until the steam system is optimized and you've added a ton of insulation to your attic/roof deck and possibly sealed the foundation sill. That's an enormous boiler. I'm counting 21 convectors. Can you post some pictures of those too with and without the cover?
    Long Beach Ed
  • Jamie Hall
    Jamie Hall Member Posts: 23,554
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    Your first dubious assumption is that you can somehow make the house warmer with less than two thirds of the energy input (200,000 BTUh vs. 330,000 BTUh). Physics doesn't work that way.

    Second, you do not appear to have taken into account the power from the space heaters. Individually, that may not seem that much. Overall? If you plan on not using them, your gas consumption will be even higher than it would be corrected for the error in assumption one above.

    Third, you do not seem to have accounted for the cost of installing forced air heat. Granted, there are ducts -- but they are for air conditioning, and the requirements for effective distribution for forced air heating are somewhat different. There will be a substantial capital investment involved here.

    Fourth, you are engaging in some quite unwarranted speculation about the future cost of oil vs. the future cost of gas. The difference in price has a way of evening out over time.

    As @pecmsg said, your first step should be to see what can be done about reducing the heat losses in the house. The second will be to get a real steam tech. -- there are several in your area -- to come and check the whole system for proper balance and operation. You should do that anyway.
    Br. Jamie, osb
    Building superintendent/caretaker, 7200 sq. ft. historic house museum with dependencies in New England
    GGross
  • KC_Jones
    KC_Jones Member Posts: 5,746
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    The only way to really save on fuel cost is to tighten up the building. You may be able to optimize the system to spend the same as last year, but keep it warmer, but without envelope improvements I doubt you do much more than that just looking at the system. To be clear which system is immaterial, as said above a btu is a btu. You can optimize transfer of those btu's to have less waste, but I doubt you will see significant reductions without envelope improvements. Air sealing being #1, insulation in the roof/attic would be #2, wall insulation #3.

    I'd also add, for consideration, that is a gigantic house.

    If you are heating for 6 months that's an average of ~35,648 btu/hr to heat 4000 sq ft of living space. I'm assuming the living area on the third floor isn't isolated from the rest of the house with insulation so it would technically still count as load on the system, whatever system that is.

    The pictures mentioned before would help judge if there are any smoking guns in the steam system that may help improve the system efficiency to get the btu's where they need to be.
    2014 Weil Mclain EG-40
    EcoSteam ES-20 Advanced Boiler Control
    Boiler pictures updated 2/21/15
  • Hot_water_fan
    Hot_water_fan Member Posts: 1,899
    edited November 2022
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    Everyone is overcomplicating things here. Switch to gas. Prices will change, maybe the ROI isn't there but if it prevents a move and a frigid, stressful winter, you're coming out way ahead. On a $/MMBtu basis, which is what you should care about, gas is about 70% cheaper using your number. You could convert the boiler to gas or install furnaces. If the furnace route, don't size the furnaces based on the boiler, that's a recipe for oversizing. Size them to the heat load. Your AC is getting old, replacing that with a heat pump and a gas furnace (a hybrid setup) could unlock even more savings. Usually a heat pump is about the same price as an AC unit. Below is the simplified calculation you needed to use :smile:


    ethicalpaul
  • fentonc
    fentonc Member Posts: 241
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    @gjames2467 - Are you only counting the 'supply' and not the 'delivery' cost for your gas? I'm nearby in ConEd territory and my supply costs are $1.01/therm, but my delivery costs are about $1.45/therm, so my total 'marginal cost per them' is almost $2.50.

    And as others have pointed out, it only makes sense to compare things on a cost-per-BTU basis.
  • EdTheHeaterMan
    EdTheHeaterMan Member Posts: 8,157
    edited November 2022
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    Switching to gas may be as easy as this: https://www.supplyhouse.com/Wayne-Combustion-62377D-HSG400-Blue-Angel-Direct-Spark-Ignition-Gas-Burner-200000-400000-BTU
    But that is not including the additional parts needed like extending the gas line, and many other parts that will bring up the total price. It also does not include mark up on those parts or the labor to install them. Since one of the rules for this forum is "Do not discuss prices" I can not tell you what I believe the total job cost might be, just be informed that it will probably be less than 2 new gas furnaces and all that is needed to install them.

    Save the old oil burner you remove from theWeil McLain boiler in a box and store it near the boiler. Some day when you are screaming about the high price of natural gas, you will have the option of changing back to oil heat at a much lower price.

    Edward Young Retired

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

    WMno57SteamBoiler
  • EdTheHeaterMan
    EdTheHeaterMan Member Posts: 8,157
    edited November 2022
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    Also 1000 gallons for that size home... sounds about right.
    What pressure are you operating the boiler? Does the gauge go above 2PSI?

    Look at this video. lower pressure = lower fuel usage https://heatinghelp.com/systems-help-center/the-right-pressure-for-steam-heating-systems/

    Edward Young Retired

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

    Long Beach Ed
  • Long Beach Ed
    Long Beach Ed Member Posts: 1,215
    edited November 2022
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    Excellent advice here!

    Switching to hot air is absurd. Common sense advice is to convert boiler to gas, if New Jersey permits new gas heating, and have a competent man assess and repair the steam system.

    As HeaterMan says, 1000 gallons seems about right for that size house. You're not buying lunch for three bucks anymore and you're not heating that house with oil for less than $5,000.

    Upgrade to gas. Best return on a buck you can find anywhere. Or move south.
  • mattmia2
    mattmia2 Member Posts: 9,843
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    What make you think a temp rise of say 30 to 60 vs 30 to 70 would cost you 3x as much? At most it might cost you 1/3 more to actually be comfortable.
    Hot_water_fan
  • pecmsg
    pecmsg Member Posts: 4,915
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    Excellent advice here!

    Switching to hot air is absurd. Common sense advice is to convert boiler to gas, if New Jersey permits new gas heating, and have a competent man assess and repair the steam system.

    As HeaterMan says, 1000 gallons seems about right for that size house. You're not buying lunch for three bucks anymore and you're not heating that house with oil for less than $5,000.

    Upgrade to gas. Best return on a buck you can find anywhere. Or move south.

    Please post documents supporting this!

    We don't know
    Cost of Oil
    Cost of NG
    Cost of LP
    Age of boiler
    Near boiler piping
    and a long list of other things that can increase fuel usage!
    Long Beach Ed
  • Hot_water_fan
    Hot_water_fan Member Posts: 1,899
    edited November 2022
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    If the gas and oil prices provided are correct, then switching to gas is an easy call and could pay back by spring. None of us know the future cost of oil or gas, but anyone confident in the future prices can put their money where their mouth is and become a supplier. 

    More importantly, any switch that prevents a move and provides comfort saves way more in dollars and stress. This is the true goal.  
  • pecmsg
    pecmsg Member Posts: 4,915
    edited November 2022
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    If the gas and oil prices provided are correct, then switching to gas is an easy call and could pay back by spring. None of us know the future cost of oil or gas, but anyone confident in the future prices can put their money where their mouth is and become a supplier. 


    More importantly, any switch that prevents a move and provides comfort saves way more in dollars and stress. This is the true goal.  
    Where has the OP posted HIS cost for oil and NG or LP?
  • Hot_water_fan
    Hot_water_fan Member Posts: 1,899
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    @pecmsg in the original post, in the savings calculator
  • pecmsg
    pecmsg Member Posts: 4,915
    edited November 2022
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    @pecmsg in the original post, in the savings calculator

    Thats not his actual costs for fuel. Thats 2021, my NG rates have gone up almost 60% over last year with more to come.

    To compare and make a decision we need the OP's cost of oil delivered and NG delivered.
    Hot_water_fanMaxMercy
  • Hot_water_fan
    Hot_water_fan Member Posts: 1,899
    edited November 2022
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    @pecmsg oh agreed. I understood it differently. All depends on how this particular utility handles gas delivery - monthly cost or variable unit cost. My gas itself is “only” $.80/therm. But delivery is nearly the same. 
  • PC7060
    PC7060 Member Posts: 1,204
    edited November 2022
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    What @KC_Jones said, the problem isn’t the heat source, it’s the poor performance of the house envelope.  
    Take his advice on where to spend your money; “Air sealing being #1, insulation in the roof/attic would be #2, wall insulation #3”

    Long Beach Ed
  • TonKa
    TonKa Member Posts: 104
    edited November 2022
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    It seems to me that starting with fixing his heat distribution problems make not only the most sense, but is something a homeowner can handle with guidance from the experts on this forum who kindly give their time. I don't feel switching to gas would be all that great if he still has a system which won't function as it should.
    Long Beach Ed
  • Hot_water_fan
    Hot_water_fan Member Posts: 1,899
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    The issue with insulation and air sealing is that the payback can be too long/functionally never, especially if there’s any existing attic insulation. 
  • pecmsg
    pecmsg Member Posts: 4,915
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    The issue with insulation and air sealing is that the payback can be too long/functionally never, especially if there’s any existing attic insulation. 

    Again, I disagree

    The return on investment for insulation is instant and continues for many many years. Keeping the heat in prevents burning oil, gas, electric.

    MaxMercy
  • Hot_water_fan
    Hot_water_fan Member Posts: 1,899
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    Instant payback? Show me the math. Insulation is great! We should not overhype it though, it is a disservice to people posing questions like this. 
    It’s a long payback if there’s anything resembling existing insulation in the easy to access places. Insulation retrofits are expensive, and should be! It’s hard work with plenty of opportunities to screw it up. If it was effective and easy, seems like every attic would be R-60. 
  • pecmsg
    pecmsg Member Posts: 4,915
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    If your cold you buy a jacket. $125 now your warm!

  • Hot_water_fan
    Hot_water_fan Member Posts: 1,899
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    If I can buy heat for $45/MMBtu (say oil at $5), gas at $18/MMBtu, or electricity at $12/MMBtu, I should not insulate unless the MMBtu saved are less than $12/MMBtu. 

    If attic insulation costs $3/sqft, that means I need to save a present value of .25 MMBtu/ square foot or .166 MMBtu/sqft at $2 versus whatever is already there. That’s no small feat! The way to make those numbers work is either stay in the house a very long time and/or except a very poor rate of return. Which might work for some people, might not for others. I’m not anti-insulation but when someone asks for help because they’re paying a lot per MMBtu, I hesitate suggesting another expensive option. 
    TonKa
  • pecmsg
    pecmsg Member Posts: 4,915
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    Weve had this argument before.

    I'll respectfully disagree!
    Hot_water_fan
  • Hot_water_fan
    Hot_water_fan Member Posts: 1,899
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    I’m truly not arguing! Sometimes insulation is an incredible deal, sometimes it’s a terrible deal. That’s all
    Canucker
  • gjames2467
    gjames2467 Member Posts: 2
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    @pecmsg
    See below near boiler piping photos and an updated diagram of the third floor (there are three radiators up there). The pipes are all insulated. I was wrong on my Natural Gas price, it is $1.50 per therm. Price for oil is $4.50 capped this year. Boiler was installed in 2015.

    @random12345 @TonKa
    I replaced the broken Varivalve vents (6 of them), mostly on the second floor. These radiators did not work at all. Now all the convetor radiators work and the pressure on my radiator never goes above zero. The differential between the first and second floors is only three degrees now. I have kept the house at 67 during the day, 64 at nights, and we used 130 gallons over the last 21 days. The weather has been very moderate too. There are radiators on the first floor that get hot instantly, the rest take anywhere from 10 minutes to 20 minutes.



    I had an experienced plumber quote me the cost of a new car to replace the boiler with a new natural gas boiler. He also said he would not convert the burner to natural gas. I am reaching out to another plumber recommended above to get his thoughts.

    @Jamie Hall if you read my boiler spec, see below, it says the Net Steam MBH is 208. Doesn't this mean my output BTUs are 208,000? So ~200K forced air natural gas directed at the first, second and third floor will be equivalent to the steam convectors?

    @EdTheHeaterMan see my boiler spec below. Are you saying that if my pressure is low then the oil consumption per hour is less than the rated 2.4 gallons?

    Boiler and Near Boiler Piping Photos










    Revised Third Floor:


  • EdTheHeaterMan
    EdTheHeaterMan Member Posts: 8,157
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    @EdTheHeaterMan see my boiler spec below. Are you saying that if my pressure is low then the oil consumption per hour is less than the rated 2.4 gallons?


    The steam pressure does not make the burner burn less GPH. 2.40 GPH is equal to .04 Gallons per minute.

    In order to make 212° steam at 0 gauge pressure to say 8 PSI steam you need to burn more fuel. So I'm saying in any given hour, the burner might operate for 20 minutes to make 0 PSI steam, but it might run for 24 minutes to make 8 PSI steam. That would be 0.16 gallons of oil every hour. That would be a little over 3 gallons per day.

    So lower pressure can save on fuel oil, Not by reducing the firing rate... by reducing the run time.

    Edward Young Retired

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

  • Jamie Hall
    Jamie Hall Member Posts: 23,554
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    "@Jamie Hall if you read my boiler spec, see below, it says the Net Steam MBH is 208. Doesn't this mean my output BTUs are 208,000? So ~200K forced air natural gas directed at the first, second and third floor will be equivalent to the steam convectors?"

    Yes, more or less. Mostly less. If the forced air is very carefully done -- all ducts right sized, all ducts sealed, no ducts in uninsulated spaces, etc. etc. -- you will get most of that 200K where you want it. I wouldn't count on getting more than about 180K of it, though. Transmission losses in steam heat are very close to zero, even with uninsulated risers.

    In terms of trying to size things, you really should go back to a Manual J calculation -- if only because there is no guarantee that the boiler was sized properly in the first place, never mind the radiation.
    Br. Jamie, osb
    Building superintendent/caretaker, 7200 sq. ft. historic house museum with dependencies in New England
    GGrossEdTheHeaterMan
  • clammy
    clammy Member Posts: 3,113
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    A 80 series boiler even a 80-3 should have been piped using both tappings ,just as a question does the burner short cycle when calling for heat ? Was a pick up factor add3d to the boiler when sizing was done . Has this boiler been cleaned meaning fire side and water side ,I would image there’s some mud and debrie after 7 years on the water side .
    As other have stated if no building up grades as for air sealing and window replacement been done , these are in factor key in lower fuel consumption . In my experience attic insulation is a big one and even bigger but over looked is attic pull down stairs , build yourself a r 8 ridgid blue board box to seal the pull downs ,I did this on my own home years ago and it did reduce my already low gas bill by I would say 15% but increased comfort drastically . Every old home I look at and suggest and those who have listen have found the same results less chimney effect less draft through the home .
    As everybody has just about stated and I will repeat . Have your main vents replaced so your mains vent quickly use either gorton # 1or #2 depending on your mains length and install quality radiator vents not vari vents they are garbage , install some gorton vents and make sure your rads are pitched properly . If your gonna do it yourself then go w maid of mist radiator vent kits w orifice caps which you can change to get better balance and when they die replace w better gorton
    vents .
    As my dad used to say big house big bills small house small bills but a 1000 gallons of oil for a large older home is not to bad it’s just the price of fuel which is the deal breaker .
    As for replacing w a different type of system like hot air will save nothing a btu is a btu and hot air in a older home w no air sealing or building insulation upgrades will most likely yield less comfort and a even high fuel bill while usually having to run a higher thermostat setting for the same level of comfort . Plus you will experience draft and air circulation which you have never had In a home heated w steam maybe some convection air flow but unlike a hot air system .
    Not to thrash anyone but has your oil company been cleaning your boiler most will only include a fire side cleaning not a water flushing of the bottom of the boiler . Unless there pulling the side panels off and removing the access plates ,pulling the flue pipe off and possibly the collector ,checking your chimney base for obstruction and vacuuming the combustion chamber there not doing justice after which the burners pump pressure and cut off should be checked and any burner adjustment should be checked w a combustion analyzer to verify proper combustion . From your picitires it looks like that baromaetric damper could used to be leveled and then possibly adjusted for it correct orientation .
    Peace and good luck clammy
    R.A. Calmbacher L.L.C. HVAC
    NJ Master HVAC Lic.
    Mahwah, NJ
    Specializing in steam and hydronic heating
    SteamBoiler
  • HomerJSmith
    HomerJSmith Member Posts: 2,479
    edited December 2022
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    Can one arbitrage the cost of BTUs? Have two boilers, one that runs on oil and one that runs on nat gas (Mod/Con). Use the fuel that is the cheapest per BTU. When BTU costs change, change to a cheaper to operate boiler type. My mom told me when I was a mere lad sitting on her lap that there is no free lunch. I had to go to work at an early age to pay for my food. BTUs cost, you want to lower that cost, use less BTUs. Simple!
  • HomerJSmith
    HomerJSmith Member Posts: 2,479
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    I know, I know. How does one lower BTU usage, you ask? Plenty of suggestions in this Post.
    PC7060
  • EdTheHeaterMan
    EdTheHeaterMan Member Posts: 8,157
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    I know, I know. How does one lower BTU usage, you ask?

    Turn the thermostat down

    update inefficient equipment with efficient equipment and design.

    Insulation

    Caulk

    Stop paying attention to @HomerJSmith

    the last one was a joke

    Edward Young Retired

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

    MikeAmann
  • Steamhead
    Steamhead Member Posts: 16,948
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    @pecmsg I had an experienced plumber quote me the cost of a new car to replace the boiler with a new natural gas boiler. He also said he would not convert the burner to natural gas. I am reaching out to another plumber recommended above to get his thoughts.

    That boiler could have been originally installed with a gas burner as well as an oil one. It even says so on the label- "Gas MBH". That guy doesn't know what he's talking about. I think Carlin would spec the 201Gas burner for that boiler.

    As others have said, with regard to the steam system itself, first thing is to upgrade your venting. This gets the steam to all the radiator takeoffs quickly, so the boiler does not need to run as much to heat the house.
    All Steamed Up, Inc.
    Towson, MD, USA
    Steam, Vapor & Hot-Water Heating Specialists
    Oil & Gas Burner Service
    Consulting
  • Chris_108
    Chris_108 Member Posts: 22
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    I can attest to this... I live in a English Tudor in NJ built in 1927 and I had barely any main venting on my steam mains. Once I added some venting (added 4 vents two on each side as my steam mains hug the perimeter of each side of my basement I saw a huge difference. I added a big mouth and a Gorton #1 to each side and I had radiators heating up that have always been cold
    bburdMikeAmannSteamBoiler
  • JUGHNE
    JUGHNE Member Posts: 11,093
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    On the value of insulation, it is hard to imagine that at one time there was a negative return on investment for insulation.

    Many years ago heating oil was perhaps less than a dime per gallon.
    Looking at the cost of insulation (pricey at the time) it would never have paid for itself and may have been considered but there was no ROI.

    My parents built a house in the early 40's (war years) and did splurge and insulate their house. 1 1/2" balsam wool bats in the walls and 3-4 inches of vermiculite in the attic. For them the ROI was less coal or firewood to lug into the house.
    Labor saving.....work smarter not harder.

    Most houses built at that time did not invest in insulation because of cheap fuel.
    ethicalpaul
  • nde
    nde Member Posts: 86
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    Smart wife!
    JUGHNE
  • george_42
    george_42 Member Posts: 121
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    I am in PA and heating and cooling my 4000 sq ft home with good insulation with geothermal for about $1200 per year. My home ios 4 years old and well insulated . My advise , listen to your WIFE and MOVE.
    ethicalpaul
  • SteamBoiler
    SteamBoiler Member Posts: 90
    edited December 2022
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    @gjames2467

    I live in a 1920s Tudor as well with plaster and wood lath walls. I am pretty sure we have no insulation in the walls. Attic floor is insulated. We have really old wood chain and weight windows but I spent time this past month caulking the gaps and adding weatherstripping to minimize cold air entry. Home's half the size of yours and I expect to spend $1200 on gas steam boiler heat alone this winter - November through April.

    The most important thing in my opinion is to check your thermostat heat call duration and if it is long enough to make sure you get bang for the the buck in terms of getting heat to the last radiators in the home. We have used 25% less gas November of this month compared to the same month last year (though the absolute bill amount is higher - delivery charges are 25% higher and cost of gas is 100% higher!

    I switched out a Honeywell Chronotherm mercury thermostat last December for a Nest and after some initial hiccups Nest is running robustly with an average 20 minute heat call. The earliest radiators get heat at about 12 minutes in and the last ones about 15 minutes in. Heat is set to 68F starting 6pm, backed off to 64F at 10pm, and recovers in 1F steps every hour starting 3am. Though I wasn't savvy enough at the time to look for this, the Honeywell was likely keeping the heat calls too short and the 2 late radiators never came on and the early radiators were on but just barely. The basement and utility room were always extra warm and the house was cold. It is reversed now with the Nest.

    As others have posted, other things to check are mains venting and make sure heat gets to the radiators as quickly as possible. Make sure your pressuretrol isn't malfunctioning and making the boiler run for longer than it has to.