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Older Steam system, want to update it... I guess.

eh_coral Member Posts: 3
Hey all,

Just bought an old house in Northern New Jersey. Currently has steam heat, a HB Smith 14BB from 1984, I believe. I already have a proposal from one company to switch us over to forced air, but I'm trying to determine if keeping steam will be less expensive overall, since I don't believe forced air heat will affect our home value much, if at all.

We have a few issues:

1. We don't want to be on oil. Can this boiler be converted to run on natural gas? We are already set up for gas in the house, in fact there is a gas water heater right next to it. Should we just get a new gas boiler? Note: The HVAC guys commented on our gas meter that it's "big enough to supply the whole block" or something like that.

2. It's so loud. When it turns on, all I can hear upstairs is the mechanical whir. It doesn't really clank or anything like that, but it's still enough ambient noise that when it shuts off, you're like "Oh, okay, now it's quiet inside"

3. Our radiators are 1-pipe. We want to change them out for wall mounted, or at least narrower ones, maybe even recess them?. Particularly one in the kitchen that prevents a door from opening up all of the way. Just starting looking into this now, Modern Warmth radiator

The radiators don't make too much noise other wise. But, is there anything else I can add to the existing ones to have more control over each room?

What are your thoughts?


  • KC_Jones
    KC_Jones Member Posts: 5,690
    You're asking for opinions about ripping out steam on a steam forum, so I'll warn you, no one will be in favor the the forced air idea.

    As far as changing out radiators, the output of a radiator is based on the surface area of the radiator. So while you might be able to change to a more modern look, you may not be able to significantly reduce the size of them.

    To truly figure that out, you need to do a room by room Manual J heatloss calculation, then use that information to select which size radiator from the link you provided. The chart they provide is a wild guess, and honestly shouldn't be used, just my opinion. I also didn't see, at a glance, ratings for steam. And finally those are for 2 pipe steam, so there is no provision for a vent in the proper location so they won't work.

    I believe there may be other slightly more modern looking options out there, but be prepared you are talking about a significant amount of money for a contractor to do the heat loss calculations, new radiation, new valves, labor etc. For me, I just don't see the point. In all seriousness, at that point you might as well sell the house and buy the one without steam, that it sounds like you wanted.

    The boiler can be converted to run on natural gas, but if the sound is a problem, the natural gas isn't going to make a significant difference in that. If the sound is an issue an atmospheric style gas boiler may be in your future, they have a different burner set up that is typically quieter.
    2014 Weil Mclain EG-40
    EcoSteam ES-20 Advanced Boiler Control
    Boiler pictures updated 2/21/15
    guzzinerdChrisJLong Beach EdEBEBRATT-Ed
  • pecmsg
    pecmsg Member Posts: 4,677
    Pictures from further away. 
    Steam when properly sized and installed is S I L E M T !
    The installing contractor is the most important name to consider. 
  • eh_coral
    eh_coral Member Posts: 3
    Hey thanks for the reply, KC. My post is actually about determining what I can do to KEEP the steam heat, and make it better. Not why I should get rid of it.

    PECMSG, Are you saying that the actual boiler unit it self should be silent? That seems counter intuitive to me.
  • ChrisJ
    ChrisJ Member Posts: 15,433
    There's a chance a contractor could install a natural gas power burner in the boiler, but you need to supply better pictures as @pecmsg asked for. The only issue there is even a power burner is going to make some noise.

    The last thing you want is forced air unless it's strictly for cooling. I installed ductwork and central AC in my house and kept the steam and cast iron for heat.

    And personally, I'd stay away from those radiators, keep what you have unless they're convectors missing the proper covers.

    But for now lots of pictures. You need to show the piping around and above the boiler clearly and from several views.
    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
  • eh_coral
    eh_coral Member Posts: 3
    Chris, right on. Thanks for the insight.

    I will share some photos when I get back into town.

    Currently we have what I know to be traditional cast iron radiators. Two of which are recessed, which is great. The only real issue we have with them is one in the kitchen that keeps a door from opening as much as we want, hence trying to find a narrower type. But, I guess that would equate to less surface area.

  • dabrakeman
    dabrakeman Member Posts: 520
    Guess we need to see more details and pictures relative to your current system to understand why it would be noisy per say. I have a boiler nearly twice your size and I consider it much quieter than the gas forced air furnace I had in my previous old house. You say "mechanical whirr"? The lack of anything mechanical (in most cases) is the beauty of steam vs hot air or even water. Do you know where your "noise" is coming from?
  • pecmsg
    pecmsg Member Posts: 4,677
    Quiet or silent. My oil boiler was in the basement. I never heard it unless I was down there. Yes NG will be quieter. 
  • Jamie Hall
    Jamie Hall Member Posts: 22,877
    Any burner -- oil or gas -- which uses a blower is going to make some noise (usually low frequency), and bigger boilers may also have some noise from the flame itself (also low frequency). It is quite possible, though, that there is something about your particular installation which makes noise which shouldn't be there. A mechanical whirr, particularly, may be the oil feed pipe touching another pipe or something of the sort without any sound insulation. Worth looking into.

    I honestly don't know whether that H. B. Smith can be converted to gas. Some can. It won't be any quieter, since it will have to be a power burner even if it can.

    Forced air, unless it is very carefully designed and installed, will make more noise than that boiler will (or should).

    Radiator ratings are based on surface area -- but on the total surface area of the metal, not just the length times the width. A thinner radiator of the same length and width will usually have much less output than a thicker one.

    There really is only one good way to control the heat output in one pipe steam, but fortunately it is easy: change the vent on the radiator. If you want less heat in a particular room, just use a smaller vent. There are also thermostatically controlled radiator vents, which if used correctly will shut the heat off completely if a room is too warm.
    Br. Jamie, osb
    Building superintendent/caretaker, 7200 sq. ft. historic house museum with dependencies in New England
  • WMno57
    WMno57 Member Posts: 1,228
    A good forced air furnace is like a Chevy Malibu. It might go 200,000 miles. All the parts were made specifically for the Malibu. Parts don't get changed around.
    A boiler is like a Kenworth or Peterbilt truck. It will go 2 Million miles. Parts are not specific to the make/model and are made by other companies. Cummins, Caterpillar, Detroit, Meritor, Eaton, Fuller, Rockwell, etc. When parts wear out, they can be rebuilt, replaced like for like, or replaced Cummins for Cat.
    Your HB Smith boiler is just getting broken in. Beckett, Carlin, and Reillo all make gas burners for it.
    If you want hot water radiant heat for your kitchen floor, you can do that with your existing steam boiler. Taco, Grundfos, B&G, and others make circulator pumps for that.
    My Weil McLain boiler is from 1950. It was originally Oil. A Midco gas burner was installed in it 55 years ago. If the Midco burner died tomorrow, I would be looking into a replacement burner. At 75 years old, my boiler may have years of life left. No forced air furnace can come close to that.
    My WM and your HB Smith have power burners. They have a fan, although it shouldn't be that loud. Maybe yours needs oiled? Your oil burner also has an oil pump. No pump needed for natural gas. There are also Steam boilers with atmospheric gas burners. No fan.
    You need a Steam contractor, not HVAC. A good Steam contractor will be able to advise your on your options. If I owned your house, I would have @EzzyT or @clammy come out ASAP and look it over.
    They can give you some options, maybe quiet down the existing Beckett burner, and you could then run your oil tank empty.
    And yes, Steam heat done right is SILENT.
    I DIY.
    bburdLong Beach Ed
    EBEBRATT-Ed Member Posts: 15,295
    If the noise of the oil burner is objectional the power gas burner you put in the same boiler will probably be objectional as well. The BB14s were good boilers but you're looking at 40 years old so I would not bother converting that to gas.

    Just install a gas boiler.
  • Hot_water_fan
    Hot_water_fan Member Posts: 1,788
    edited January 26
    I’ve lived with steam, forced air and forced water. Done right, forced air is great and almost all Americans have it. It also lets you have cooling, which is extremely popular. If steam added “value”, new houses would have it. 

     Is a 100 year system actually important? Hopefully all of us will live to 150 but I’m not counting on it :smile:
  • Steamhead
    Steamhead Member Posts: 16,710
    @eh_coral , three words: Keep The Steam. Your house will never be comfortable with forced-air. Period.

    Post some pics of your system- let's have a look at it.
    All Steamed Up, Inc.
    Towson, MD, USA
    Steam, Vapor & Hot-Water Heating Specialists
    Oil & Gas Burner Service
  • ethicalpaul
    ethicalpaul Member Posts: 5,573
    pecmsg said:

    Quiet or silent. My oil boiler was in the basement. I never heard it unless I was down there. Yes NG will be quieter. 

    Sarcasm warning: Got it, the oil burner is silent, but a gas atmospheric boiler will be more silenter :lol:

    In reality, an oil burner is loud as hell and yes an atmospheric boiler is a lot quieter.

    Yes, get a new atmospheric gas boiler if you want or need to replace yours, make SURE it's sized correctly (warning: most contractors won't be able to)
    NJ Steam Homeowner. See my sight glass boiler videos: https://bit.ly/3sZW1el
  • Jamie Hall
    Jamie Hall Member Posts: 22,877
    Granted, a gas atmospheric boiler is quieter -- should be almost silent. A power burner boiler, gas or oil, will be just about equally noisy.

    I note again, though, that if one is hearing a whine type noise as opposed to the low frequency flame noise (they are very different0 one should look for somewhere along its length that the oil supply pipe is actually in tight contact with another pipe or some framing. Oil pumps do whine, and they transmit that whine along the pipe -- which in turn can transmit the whine into other pipes (in which case you may hear it all over the house!).
    Br. Jamie, osb
    Building superintendent/caretaker, 7200 sq. ft. historic house museum with dependencies in New England
  • delcrossv
    delcrossv Member Posts: 651
    edited January 27
    As someone who has forced air heat, and spent a lot of cake to make it as quiet and even as possible,  it still isn't as good as the steam systems I manage for the family's properties. 

    If you want to go gas, just get an atmospheric gas boiler, and have it installed by someone who knows what they're doing. 

    Regarding your kitchen rad,  you could exchange the width for height for similar EDR. IIRC castrads makes some very skinny models.

    Trying to squeeze the best out of a Weil-McLain JB-5 running a 1912 1 pipe system.
  • mattmia2
    mattmia2 Member Posts: 9,391
    Don't oil and gas power burners have acoustic shells that can be put over them to make them somewhat quieter? I would say that at the age of that boiler i agree with @EBEBRATT-Ed that it doesn't make a lot of sense to change the burner. That boiler could last another 40 years or it could leak tomorrow.

    Another option for the kitchen would be to run a hot water loop off the water in the boiler then you could use fin tube baseboard, panel radiators, a kickspace heater or a number of other options.
  • guzzinerd
    guzzinerd Member Posts: 225
    edited January 27
    My 70+ year old gas burner is whisper quiet, makes as much noise as the sound of the natural gas running through the line when it's on.  Literally just a faint hissss
    Bryant 245-8 2-pipe steam in a 1930s 6-unit 1-story apt building in the NM mountains.  26 radiators heating up 3800sqf.