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Daydreaming....Building a New House...Would you Choose Steam?

I was having one of those "If we hit the lottery" talks with my wife last night and we were discussing the house we would build if we hit the lottery. Nothing lavish, just a colonial style house with plenty of modern insulation and energy efficient things. Think an 1880's house built in 2022. 3000 or less square feet with 4 bedrooms and 3 baths.

I mentioned I would probably want to stick with steam and she laughed because steam is only for old houses. That got me thinking. Is it?

Sure hot water baseboard or radiant flooring heat from a condensing boiler or heat pump is super energy efficient...but the jury is still out on the longevity of those systems. Of course, if I hit the lottery it would be a moot point and could just replace the system whenever I felt like it... but that's beside the pretend point.

I imagined a steam system that was extremely insulated with an EDR perfectly matched to the heat loss of the house and installed perfectly correct by some of the best steam pro's around.

I wonder what the pro's and con's of each option would be. As efficient as possible vs the perfect steam system. I'm going to have to buy a Powerball ticket so maybe I can find out!

Comments

  • dabrakeman
    dabrakeman Member Posts: 285
    If those beautiful toasty rads is the look and feel you want in your perfect house, then yes. I would concur. There are probably enough radiators on Craigslist and such you could put together that part of the system for reasonable cost. Put that "dream" house in Iceland or Yellowstone and have a ready supply of steam without a boiler and that would be ideal!!
  • Jamie Hall
    Jamie Hall Member Posts: 19,954
    Actually, if I were to build a brand new house (fat chance!) the heating would be close to if not 100% passive solar. The most recent house I did build looks, on the outside, like a colonial saltbox, and is actually post and beam construction -- but is about 80% solar passive solar. I wasn't a fanatic about it, so it does need some boost (a wood stove) on very cold cloudy days.
    Br. Jamie, osb
    Building superintendent/caretaker, 7200 sq. ft. historic house museum with dependencies in New England
    CLambLarry Weingarten
  • pedmec
    pedmec Member Posts: 655
    Nope. Your gonna need to hit the lottery so you can afford to install a new steam system. And good luck finding a contractor old enough to have installed a new from the ground up steam system. you can read all the books you want but nothing can teach you like experience. Unless the installer is 100 years old I wouldn't trust anybody. And I've been working on steam for 30 years.
    Jells
  • AdmiralYoda
    AdmiralYoda Member Posts: 492
    @pedmec I happen to live within New England Steamworks service area so I'm sure they could handle the design and install of my imaginary system :)

    But dreaming about it a bit more it would probably best to have my cake and eat it too. Maybe cast iron radiators but with hot water instead of steam. I imagine I could still use a heat pump or condensing boiler to supply the hot water...but I'd need considerably more radiator if it is running at the lower water temp.

    Modern efficiency and old world charm?
  • ChrisJ
    ChrisJ Member Posts: 13,555
    pedmec said:

    Nope. Your gonna need to hit the lottery so you can afford to install a new steam system. And good luck finding a contractor old enough to have installed a new from the ground up steam system. you can read all the books you want but nothing can teach you like experience. Unless the installer is 100 years old I wouldn't trust anybody. And I've been working on steam for 30 years.


    The pipes need to carry steam to radiators and they need to drain properly. So, everything is run like drain piping in the end. Steam can go up, down, left, right, it doesn't care. But condensate does care, so you work around that.

    It doesn't exactly require a genius. If you look at any steam system you can see the general idea and it's far from complicated. For a single pipe system, without looking at any charts or anything, off the top of my head most if not all horizontal runs to radiators would be 1 1/4" and most would get 1" vertical runs up to about 30 EDR.

    I'd have absolutely no problem or concerns laying out a new system for my self.

    Single pipe quasi-vapor system. Typical operating pressure 0.14 - 0.43 oz. EcoSteam ES-20 Advanced Control for Residential Steam boilers. Rectorseal Steamaster water treatment
    ethicalpaul
  • WMno57
    WMno57 Member Posts: 561
    edited November 23
    Interesting question. Probably not. I do see three niche advantages to steam:
    • smaller radiators
    • ability to let top floor freeze
    • less electricity required to heat
    I don't see the need for those advantages on a dream home. If you like hot cast iron radiators, set the mod-con to 180 F and enjoy hot radiators whenever you want.
    If were building my dream house it would probably be both forced air (for AC) and vintage cast iron HW radiators. I would also have in floor radiant in the basement and garage. The entire foundation of the basement and garage shop (floor, footers, and walls) would be heavily foam board insulated outside the concrete.
    Some pv solar, and a windmill, mainly because I'm interested in the technology. A small lithium iron phosphate or lead acid battery bank.
    A small water cooled Diesel genset. The home would be rural, so propane, for the boilers, not natural gas. I would always have several hundred gallons of fuel oil around for Tractors, etc.
    Down the road, I might get an A2WHP.
  • ChrisJ
    ChrisJ Member Posts: 13,555
    @AdmiralYoda
    I got sidetracked, I'm sorry.

    For me, yes absolutely I'd do steam, only I'd probably try to build my dream system.

    All copper radiators and piping, brazed and hermetically sealed and then charged with a refrigerant or water to give me the desired boiling point.

    Could likely even make it a giant heat pump system in the end.......
    Single pipe quasi-vapor system. Typical operating pressure 0.14 - 0.43 oz. EcoSteam ES-20 Advanced Control for Residential Steam boilers. Rectorseal Steamaster water treatment
    WMno57SuperTech
  • pedmec
    pedmec Member Posts: 655
    Thats ok. Your entitled to your opinion. But somehow you forget that you can't get installers to correctly install the near boiler piping with directions in front of them but yet we are somehow suppose to believe that we can build a steam system in a residential house without problems. Yet we all know that there are a hundred do's and don'ts that are not in a book on everything we do that unless the more experienced catches you will have no idea you did it wrong until there is a problem. BECAUSE YOU READ IT IN A BOOK DOESN'T MAKE ANYBODY AN EXPERT.

  • Steamhead
    Steamhead Member Posts: 15,654
    edited November 23
    I've done this, but not in my own house. The advantage is that if the power goes out (see: Texas), the system drains dry except for some basement piping and the boiler itself. Much less chance of freezing damage than with hot-water, and you don't have to mess with glycol.

    My design would be a Tudor system using cast-iron baseboard. In a small house this would require exactly two moving parts (air vents) in addition to those on the boiler.

    What's a Tudor system, you ask? Go here:

    https://heatinghelp.com/heating-museum/european-heating-systems-circa-1907/
    All Steamed Up, Inc.
    Towson, MD, USA
    Steam, Vapor & Hot-Water Heating Specialists
    Oil & Gas Burner Service
    Consulting
  • WMno57
    WMno57 Member Posts: 561
    edited November 23
    I would fly in a hydronic dream team. I would also hire a professional photographer and film maker. I would try to make some money off the entire endeavor. Weekend and week long hydronic camps for both Pros and DIYers. A fancy coffee table book. I would make so much money, I would buy another house. This would be an existing steam house. I would restore that, keep the steam, and could then decide whether I like steam or HW better
    Back to reality. I have chores to do and junk to fix. No dream team, so I DIY.
    Larry Weingarten
  • ChrisJ
    ChrisJ Member Posts: 13,555
    edited November 23
    pedmec said:

    Thats ok. Your entitled to your opinion. But somehow you forget that you can't get installers to correctly install the near boiler piping with directions in front of them but yet we are somehow suppose to believe that we can build a steam system in a residential house without problems. Yet we all know that there are a hundred do's and don'ts that are not in a book on everything we do that unless the more experienced catches you will have no idea you did it wrong until there is a problem. BECAUSE YOU READ IT IN A BOOK DOESN'T MAKE ANYBODY AN EXPERT.


    1: I can build a steam heating system in my house without problems
    2: If I was having a house built, I would be there watching things and making sure they're done correctly.

    I'm not sure what you're supposed to believe, but my boiler is piped correctly. I suppose if you don't believe me, or the various pictures and videos I've had over the years that's fine.

    If you can install a poop pipe, you can install a steam pipe. It's really that simple. I honesty do not understand what is so befuddling about it to so many.

    And yes, you are right, many seem to completely get it wrong and I don't know why. Maybe it's as simple as they don't understand water is a big deal and it needs to be drained freely and not impeded by steam flow.

    Regardless,
    The question was what would I do.
    I'd do steam.
    Single pipe quasi-vapor system. Typical operating pressure 0.14 - 0.43 oz. EcoSteam ES-20 Advanced Control for Residential Steam boilers. Rectorseal Steamaster water treatment
    ethicalpaulKC_Jones
  • hot_rod
    hot_rod Member Posts: 17,531
    Radiant surfaces are the most comfortable for me. Clean and out of sight.
    Low temperature below 120 on design days. This allows a wide range of options for energy, solar thermal, heat pumps, future technologies?

    If the looks of radiators turn you on, go for it🏡 I’d go with hot water
    Bob "hot rod" Rohr
    trainer for Caleffi NA
    Living the hydronic dream
  • The Steam Whisperer
    The Steam Whisperer Member Posts: 1,035
    I'd design an energy efficient house with passive solar. The interior side of the walls would be high mass with a well insulated cladding. Pretty simple...South facing windows with about a 30 inch roof overhang above if you're around 42degrees north. Then install a tiny 2-pipe mini-tube steam system ( very low mass distribution system) with high mass cast iron radiators. With the low heat loads, the typical room radiator would only require about 9 inch x 9 inches of floor area with a 3/8 inch supply and 1/4 inch return. If you bump up to 9 inch x 12 inch radiators, you could eliminate the steam traps by using supply valves orifices and then have a condensate return temperature of only 70F to 80F all winter long for a condensing economizer on the boiler. I'd run the power burner boiler on outdoor reset of the boiler input. However, the power needed to run the condensate pump and power burner would probably wipe out the fuel savings. I'd probably stick with a simple tiny atmospheric boiler with its tiny power draw of a couple of watts per hour. The steam system would be sealed with a vacuum ( like the old vari-vac systems)so the system could run from 140F in moderate weather and then up to 210 on those couple days a year.
    To learn more about this professional, click here to visit their ad in Find A Contractor.
    WMno57
  • GGross
    GGross Member Posts: 331
    If you won the lottery you could build both and decide which you like better! Keep the other one as a guest house :D

    Personally I would go with multiple systems. In floor heat, with a full ducted forced air system for ventilation and A/C, air handlers would be gas furnaces as a back up heat source. And since money is not an issue I would snowmelt the driveway. I would hire @Jamie Hall as a consultant to tell me how to do solar correctly, try to size under the impression that heat pumps may replace the gas equipment at some point.
  • Hot_water_fan
    Hot_water_fan Member Posts: 892
    A dream house in the US at least likely has AC. So do you just go fully ducted for heat too? 
  • WMno57
    WMno57 Member Posts: 561

    A dream house in the US at least likely has AC. So do you just go fully ducted for heat too? 

    Got to have big cast iron radiators. How else would I dry my socks?
    Hot_water_fanGGrossdabrakeman
  • ChrisJ
    ChrisJ Member Posts: 13,555

    A dream house in the US at least likely has AC. So do you just go fully ducted for heat too? 

    NO.
    You can do a heat pump with the A/C sure.
    But cast iron radiators painted black are an absolute must in my dream house.

    Single pipe quasi-vapor system. Typical operating pressure 0.14 - 0.43 oz. EcoSteam ES-20 Advanced Control for Residential Steam boilers. Rectorseal Steamaster water treatment
    Hot_water_fanSuperTech
  • ChrisJ
    ChrisJ Member Posts: 13,555
    WMno57 said:

    A dream house in the US at least likely has AC. So do you just go fully ducted for heat too? 

    Got to have big cast iron radiators. How else would I dry my socks?

    Single pipe quasi-vapor system. Typical operating pressure 0.14 - 0.43 oz. EcoSteam ES-20 Advanced Control for Residential Steam boilers. Rectorseal Steamaster water treatment
    WMno57
  • CLamb
    CLamb Member Posts: 119
    It depends a lot upon the location and climate. In many places little heat is required. If you don't need air conditioning then you won't have ducts. If you're in a valley then you won't get enough sun for solar.
  • EBEBRATT-Ed
    EBEBRATT-Ed Member Posts: 12,654
    I would install hot water.

    But steam would be fun to do!!!!
  • AdmiralYoda
    AdmiralYoda Member Posts: 492
    Thanks all for your comments, I'll be sure to comment back if I ever do hit the lottery! FYI... I live in New England and have a 0 zero degree design temp. For AC I'd probably go with a high pressure unit as I'm not a fan of the large duct work required for traditional air vents.

    But I'm just a homeowner that watches a lot of This Old House, not an HVAC or steam pro! Happy Thanksgiving everyone!
    Hot_water_fan
  • hot_rod
    hot_rod Member Posts: 17,531
    You need to deal with air quality on a tight efficient home. A ducted system is almost a must.
    Bob "hot rod" Rohr
    trainer for Caleffi NA
    Living the hydronic dream
  • MaxMercy
    MaxMercy Member Posts: 300


    Sure hot water baseboard or radiant flooring heat from a condensing boiler or heat pump is super energy efficient...but the jury is still out on the longevity of those systems.

    The jury came back - at least to mod/con boilers longevity. They get a wary eye by the tenth year, significant suspicion by the 12th year, and they're generally not running by the 15th year without divine intervention. They also can't be minimally and lackadaisically maintained.

    Steamers and hydronic boilers can last twice that or more. My builder spec steel boiler was still running when I replaced it (broken up firebox chamber which would have required lifting the boiler to replace - so I replaced the boiler instead) at close to 30 years old.

    The Slant I installed was relatively cheap, easy to install, easy to tune, requires far less maintenance, and not finicky one bit. It's very quiet and much more efficient than the old steel boiler.

    Regarding steam, I knew zip about them when I joined this forum, and the only thing I can say I know conclusively from learning from the learned here is that the original install is critical to an efficient, quiet, and trouble free steamer. If you can get a quality installer, that's a big part of it.

    What I don't know is if having a steamer will affect resale of the house. A couple of phone calls to local realtors might give you better insight on that.


    Long Beach Ed
  • ChrisJ
    ChrisJ Member Posts: 13,555

    Single pipe quasi-vapor system. Typical operating pressure 0.14 - 0.43 oz. EcoSteam ES-20 Advanced Control for Residential Steam boilers. Rectorseal Steamaster water treatment
    MaxMercySuperTechCLamb
  • Long Beach Ed
    Long Beach Ed Member Posts: 789
    edited November 24
    Some interesting thoughts. We've built many extensions to older systems, and threading black pipe is a lot of work. New houses also often lack the space required for the piping of a steam system.

    Not mentioned here is the regulatory nonsense that we have to deal with in some states. New York and California are talking of outlawing steam systems entirely and requiring their replacement. New York is very close to demanding electric heat in all new construction. So that introduces some consideration.

    On the other hand, "rolling environmental blackouts" of electric service that are proposed in some areas would render most other heating systems useless in dark times.

    Personally I would consider steam in my own new construction. Reliable without electricity and quite versatile with some of the newer innovations of small-piping designs developed by people on this site.
  • BobC
    BobC Member Posts: 5,349
    edited November 25
    If were going to install a new system I'd look into the minitube steam system. The piping is much easier and less expensive.

    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
    Long Beach EdCanucker
  • Lance
    Lance Member Posts: 227
    My ideal heat system: Back in the day, a radiant floor known as (Latin: hypocaustum) was considered the best. Even today a properly built home with radiant floor means several things. Quietness, I do like a quiet winter. I live on the floor, pets like it too. Air can be at 65F, but a toasty floor means comfort even barefoot comfort. It's hidden, takes up little space unlike air conditioning ducts which I like, but they too can be smaller or made silent with a valance hydronic chiller system. Zone control is better, but not really needed. It's silent, I like silence! The boiler can also heat my hot water and it is quieter than my air-conditioner. I can also fuel this with natural gas at 96%+ efficiency. Of course, my backup is a gas stove or fireplace. My best backup is a wood stove or fireplace. Best reason is it makes my wife happy on the bathroom tile!
  • Steamhead
    Steamhead Member Posts: 15,654
    edited November 25

    ..... New York and California are talking of outlawing steam systems entirely and requiring their replacement.....

    Where did you hear this?
    All Steamed Up, Inc.
    Towson, MD, USA
    Steam, Vapor & Hot-Water Heating Specialists
    Oil & Gas Burner Service
    Consulting
    Hot_water_fan
  • Hot_water_fan
    Hot_water_fan Member Posts: 892
    @Steamhead exactly, how many California steam systems are there? Niche of a niche. 
  • EBEBRATT-Ed
    EBEBRATT-Ed Member Posts: 12,654
    Outlawing steam won't happen in NYC. Impossible. There would be more lawsuits than you would believe
  • Long Beach Ed
    Long Beach Ed Member Posts: 789
    edited November 25
    Fossil fuel heating is banned from virtually all new construction in NYC starting in 2024. A problem exists that there is insufficient electric distribution and the utilities are often refusing the 400 amp residential service required. Electric heating also increases annual costs five-fold. A huge problem here.

    The governor has asked the State Legislature to issue legislation to remove fossil fuel heating from existing buildings statewide, offering homeowners grants of $20,000 to $50,000 for mandatory installation of electric heating. Again, while there is no electric distribution capacity available legislators have rallied behind increased fuel prices to ensure transition into electric heating.

    I doubt we'll ever see this enforced, but I've doubted many other absurd rulings around here and seen them happen. The exodus from this place has already begun.

    https://www.nyc.gov/office-of-the-mayor/news/852-21/mayor-de-blasio-signs-landmark-bill-ban-combustion-fossil-fuels-new-buildings?hidemenu=true

    https://www.constructionspecifier.com/new-york-city-bans-fossil-fuels-in-new-construction/
  • PHM
    PHM Member Posts: 11
    Build a dream house?

    Yes; with two steam boilers in parallel.

    One boiler natural gas and the other coal. And only if I could pipe it myself - or direct the piping crew on a minute-to-minute basis.

    All cast iron baseboard as the radiation. Two pipe and I would consider vacuum return.

    And electric radiant ceiling heat in every room in the unlikely case that I ever got tired of hanging out in my mechanical room.

    CLamb
  • The Steam Whisperer
    The Steam Whisperer Member Posts: 1,035
    edited November 25
    HP brings up the need for a small ducted ventilation system in very tight homes and I agree. I would put in at least a simple HRV and that same system would probably be big enough to handle cooling with a high mass structure inside a "styrofoam cooler" design that allows thermo-coupling to the earth and with solar gains properly controlled in the summer. We current cool our 1903 1600 sq ft home single wythe brick veneer exterior and insulated 2 x4 frame wall in the hottest Chicago weather with only 1 ton of cooling. Upgrading to Low -E aluminum storm windows on the west exposure probably cut our cooling load about 30%, as reflected in the savings on our summer electric bills. They now run under about $90 for the worst summer month. High mass really helps cut those afternoon peak cooling loads so only a small cooling unit is needed.

    If the push to continue to put more and more load on the electric grid continues...I.E. heat pumps and electric cars.... I can easily see rolling black ups starting to become a regular reality.
    While NYC is pushing for all electric, Chicago's programs focus on improved efficiency, which can create huge reductions in energy usage and emissions with small investments. More efficient buildings will also be much less expensive to convert to new energy sources if and when the time comes.

    For those in big cities, have all of the street and park lighting been converted to LED and do you have smart grid yet? Chicago upgraded nearly all the public lighting to LED about 4 years ago and I believe smart grid is available everywhere in the city now.
    To learn more about this professional, click here to visit their ad in Find A Contractor.
  • Steamhead
    Steamhead Member Posts: 15,654

    Fossil fuel heating is banned from virtually all new construction in NYC starting in 2024. A problem exists that there is insufficient electric distribution and the utilities are often refusing the 400 amp residential service required. Electric heating also increases annual costs five-fold. A huge problem here.

    The governor has asked the State Legislature to issue legislation to remove fossil fuel heating from existing buildings statewide, offering homeowners grants of $20,000 to $50,000 for mandatory installation of electric heating. Again, while there is no electric distribution capacity available legislators have rallied behind increased fuel prices to ensure transition into electric heating.

    I doubt we'll ever see this enforced, but I've doubted many other absurd rulings around here and seen them happen. The exodus from this place has already begun.

    https://www.nyc.gov/office-of-the-mayor/news/852-21/mayor-de-blasio-signs-landmark-bill-ban-combustion-fossil-fuels-new-buildings?hidemenu=true

    https://www.constructionspecifier.com/new-york-city-bans-fossil-fuels-in-new-construction/

    @EBEBRATT-Ed has it right. Even if this passed it could not be enforced. Unlike Germany, where boiler inspectors ("chimney sweeps") can legally enter a property unannounced and remove a non-conforming boiler, here at the very least a judge would have to issue a warrant for someone to enter. And since judges in general only issue warrants for criminal cases, that would likely doom this law if passed.

    But I'd bet some politician with connections to an electric utility would try to make it a criminal matter...........

    All Steamed Up, Inc.
    Towson, MD, USA
    Steam, Vapor & Hot-Water Heating Specialists
    Oil & Gas Burner Service
    Consulting
    Long Beach Ed
  • TonKa
    TonKa Member Posts: 23
    Fossil fuel heating is banned from virtually all new construction in NYC starting in 2024. A problem exists that there is insufficient electric distribution and the utilities are often refusing the 400 amp residential service required. Electric heating also increases annual costs five-fold. A huge problem here. The governor has asked the State Legislature to issue legislation to remove fossil fuel heating from existing buildings statewide, offering homeowners grants of $20,000 to $50,000 for mandatory installation of electric heating. Again, while there is no electric distribution capacity available legislators have rallied behind increased fuel prices to ensure transition into electric heating. I doubt we'll ever see this enforced, but I've doubted many other absurd rulings around here and seen them happen. The exodus from this place has already begun. https://www.nyc.gov/office-of-the-mayor/news/852-21/mayor-de-blasio-signs-landmark-bill-ban-combustion-fossil-fuels-new-buildings?hidemenu=true https://www.constructionspecifier.com/new-york-city-bans-fossil-fuels-in-new-construction/

    Banning the method of generating steam via a flame does not ban steam heating.