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Recommendation Needed for Heating System that can be Winterized during Vacancy

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jcrittenden
jcrittenden Member Posts: 2

Hello experts!

Here's a brain teaser for you. I'd love to hear your thoughts about a potential solution to this puzzle. I have inherited our family farmhouse located in a remote woods in southern Indiana, so very significant weather extremes. The house will be left unoccupied for long periods. The house originally was heated by hydronic baseboard radiators from a fuel oil-fired boiler. Radiators are still in place but rusted or banged up, and one of the copper pipes has burst in at least one place. The boiler and fuel oil tank have been defunct for 20 years. That's when two wall propane heaters were installed, one on each floor. My dad did that so that he could leave the house unoccupied. They run off a pilot light and a thermostat, so no need for electricity. The house is pretty cold with just them on, but my dad ran the wood stove too or sat under an electric blanket. We need more heat than that when we're there (we're not as tough as the older generation LOL).

Although there is electricity run to the house, it is unreliable and can be out for days at a time. There's a 1000 gallon propane tank on site. We're on a well, and water is plentiful and essentially free. Firewood is laughably abundant. Safety and reliability are more important than saving money, but I am aware that it doesn't grow on trees, so looking to be smart about the costs.

SO, what do you think? Things rolling around in my head are: revitalizing radiators using new propane boiler? Can I drain that system when house is unoccupied? Forget that and put in HVAC ducts with propane furnace? (One complexity is that the house has a solid wood floor and ceilings and exposed beams, so ducts are kind of a challenge but not impossible. Just trying not to mess up the aesthetics of the house.) Mini-splits with propane-fueled generator as backup? Should I worry about that open flame from the propane heaters when no one is there? P.S. Extra credit! I'd love to have air conditioning on the second floor (the walkout basement is nice and cool). Obviously the AC doesn't need to work when we're not there. Sorry for the long post and thanks in advance! I'm posting this because we've had two general contractors come out, and I feel like they aren't thinking this through.

Comments

  • DCContrarian
    DCContrarian Member Posts: 217
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    I would drain down the house and turn the heat off when you're not there.

    If you put glycol in a hydronic system it won't burst even if it freezes. Forced air doesn't need any special protection other than perhaps a splash of gycol in a condensate trap.

    Do you have internet access? It's nice to have something you can turn on half a day before you arrive so the house is warm when you get there.

    Generally the house plumbing is a much bigger deal than the heating system. I find it easiest to blow everything out with compressed air. If there are fixtures that aren't frost-safe even when blown out, over time you'll find them, just replace them.

    jcrittenden
  • Jamie Hall
    Jamie Hall Member Posts: 23,554
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    If it were not for your power supply problems — which are much more common than some on The Wall realise — my suggestion would be a heat pump. You say the climate in southern Indiana is extreme… well, not really, and a good cold climate heat pump should be able to manage. Depending on how large the house is and how it is laid out, you could either use one or two mini-splits, or a central unit. For the latter, you would have air ducts — and my suggestion there would be to admit their existence in the various spaces. Architecturally, that would be preferable to attempting to hide them — which never works well.

    However. You do have that power supply problem, which means that the house is going to freeze from time to time — and despite the wonders of the modern internet, you won't know about it. The problem is that an auxiliary generator big enough to power a heat pump is going to be a fairly good chunk of change, particularly if it's automatic.

    I think that my approach might be to really evaluate the existing radiators, and replace any which are too badly damaged to use and also replace any suspect — never mind burst — plumbing. Then use an appropriately sized propane fired boiler to provide the heat, and use glycol antifreeze in the system. That could run off a much smaller generator for when you are there and the electricity isn't — the antifreeze in the heating system would allow you to fire it up, no matter how cold it was. You would still have to drain the domestic water plumbing, but that may not be that much of a hassle.

    Br. Jamie, osb
    Building superintendent/caretaker, 7200 sq. ft. historic house museum with dependencies in New England
    jcrittenden
  • hot_rod
    hot_rod Member Posts: 22,382
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    Do you want the hydronic system back in working order. Comfort to many is superior to forced air. Although FA will recover quicker. I would not drain and refill a hydronic system. that allows excessive O2 into the system. You would probably need an air compressor to get 100% drain of the piping if it is fin tube.

    Cheap and maybe easy would be a mini split, or two.

    Drain the water system when you are gone. Heat cool, efficiently with mini splits.

    Wood stove for back up/ power outage and quick heat

    Bob "hot rod" Rohr
    trainer for Caleffi NA
    Living the hydronic dream
    jcrittenden
  • EBEBRATT-Ed
    EBEBRATT-Ed Member Posts: 15,764
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    More propane heaters and a wood stove. Without reliable electric power it will freeze with any other option.

    jcrittenden
  • Danny Scully
    Danny Scully Member Posts: 1,429
    edited June 3
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    STEAM, All you’d have to do is drain the boiler 😎.

    Robert O'BrienSteamheadjcrittenden
  • WMno57
    WMno57 Member Posts: 1,390
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    The right answer depends on your budget. My recommendation is ALL the below:

    Non condensing propane furnace.

    Heat pump. Size the heat pump for cooling, not heating

    Compromise the performance of the ductwork (a little) to keep the aesthetics. Hardest part of the project, but you will want the AC.

    5 to 10 KW propane standby generator with battery bank backup. Check out Generac PWRcell. Pricey, but maybe competition will bring prices down. The batteries in the PWRcell are more than you need. $500 of deep cycle lead acid might be enough.

    Cellular Internet and and cameras.

    Maintenance contract with Generac Installer and/or propane company.

    Shut off well when you are away. Maybe drain the domestic water pipes.

    Southern Indiana is a humid continental climate. Some colder winters and many hotter summers than New England.

    I DIY.
    jcrittenden
  • Jamie Hall
    Jamie Hall Member Posts: 23,554
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    One other strong recommendation. Very strong. Hire a local (and pay him or her, dang it) to come and really check on the house when the power is off (and, preferably, regularly anyway). Whatever heat source you use.

    Why people won't do that baffles me completely…

    Br. Jamie, osb
    Building superintendent/caretaker, 7200 sq. ft. historic house museum with dependencies in New England
    exqheatjcrittendenCLamb
  • Steamhead
    Steamhead Member Posts: 16,948
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    This. And a steam system can be built with a minimum of moving parts, aside from what's on the boiler. See:

    https://www.heatinghelp.com/systems-help-center/european-heating-systems-circa-1907/

    All Steamed Up, Inc.
    Towson, MD, USA
    Steam, Vapor & Hot-Water Heating Specialists
    Oil & Gas Burner Service
    Consulting
    jcrittenden
  • DCContrarian
    DCContrarian Member Posts: 217
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    jcrittenden
  • jcrittenden
    jcrittenden Member Posts: 2
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    Thank you for these insights. Really appreciate the specifics on the backup generator battery. Thanks for the thoughts of glycol versus draining. Also like the compressed air idea — haven't done that at all. Good idea about remote surveillance and pre-heating. We just put a dish on the roof, so that might work. I hadn't thought of steam at all though I've lived in several places with that nice heat (and occasional Songs of the Radiator). We do have a caretaker, but he can't always get down this very long and steep driveway that we have (I should have mentioned that). Or rather he can get down, but he won't get out. Usually during an ice storm, when (of course) that's when the power is out LOL.. Thank you again. I thought I might get some pretty interesting ideas from this forum, and I did.

  • Jamie Hall
    Jamie Hall Member Posts: 23,554
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    Steam does have its points. I've restarted two pipe steam systems from cold, down to about 10 F temperature in the house, though just barely at freezeing in the basement. It's a bit tricky… but doable.

    And… in ordinary situations, where the system hasn't been turned off, a steam system will just turn itself back on after a power failure. You don't have to do a thing.

    Br. Jamie, osb
    Building superintendent/caretaker, 7200 sq. ft. historic house museum with dependencies in New England
    jcrittenden
  • DCContrarian
    DCContrarian Member Posts: 217
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    My point was if you have a heat pump or a propane furnace, all you need is a WiFi thermostat and you can arrive to a warm house. If you drain a steam boiler someone has to go there and fill it before it can be turned on.

    jcrittenden
  • Jamie Hall
    Jamie Hall Member Posts: 23,554
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    You don't have to drain the steam boiler. Basements rarely freeze — at least in older houses. It will just fire up when the power comes back.

    And yes, if you have wifi, you can arrive to a warm house. If you have wifi… if you have wifi…

    City and suburban folk live in a different universe, I think.

    Br. Jamie, osb
    Building superintendent/caretaker, 7200 sq. ft. historic house museum with dependencies in New England
    jcrittendendelcrossv
  • Big Ed_4
    Big Ed_4 Member Posts: 2,818
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    I like the heat pump idea , I would also add some electric strip heating for a back up ..

    The two propane heaters , shut them down and use as a back up …

    Use a compressor and blow down out the water line and use RV winterizer for traps , toilets and washing machines in the winter months …. The well not sure , thinking heat tape ..

    There was an error rendering this rich post.

    jcrittenden
  • DCContrarian
    DCContrarian Member Posts: 217
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    If the well pump is submersible just turn off the switch. There should be a check valve inside the house, put a drain between the check valve and the well and open it and let the pipe drain back into the well.

    If it's a shallow well pump, you have to drain it. There will be a drain plug on the well body. Take the plug out and put in a boiler drain so you can drain it with a quarter turn. You also want a drain between the check valve and the well. This pump will require priming when it's time to turn the water back on, you want a boiler drain on a priming spot so you can prime it without tools. To prime, put a funnel on a short piece of garden hose with a hose clamp, then attach to the priming spot and pour prime water into the funnel. Before draining the pipes fill a plastic gallon jug 3/4 full of water and leave it beside the pump. With an air cushion it should be able to freeze without bursting.

    All the boiler drains should have caps so accidentally flooding the basement is a two-step process.

    jcrittendenbburd
  • JakeCK
    JakeCK Member Posts: 1,401
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    While offroading/camping in Colorado I setup my laptop and started gaming online at about 8k ft. It is possible, unfortunately, to get decent internet anywhere in this day and age. :p

    And remember everyone wifi =/ internet. I dont get why so many people think wifi is internet.

    WMno57
  • WMno57
    WMno57 Member Posts: 1,390
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    I'm in NW Indiana. Somewhat close to ChicagoLand, but no broadband internet. I was buying DSL internet from the local landline phone company. Many outages, and very poor customer service. They were on double secret probation with me.

    Couple years ago, a drunk knocked over the combination phone and electric utility pole. Electric co-op had the pole replaced and power on in 8 hours. After a day W/O internet, I made my move. Got cellular internet from AT&T. Had to buy my own NetGear cellular modem, but it was worth it. Cellular modem runs on USB, so 5 volts DC. Had it for a couple years now. One outage of a couple hours. That's it.

    Took 40 days for Frontier Communications to string their phone line across the road. Had all kinds of problems with those clowns on the billing. I canceled DSL 3 days after the pole went down. Frontier was real nice on the phone, then a couple weeks later I would get another bill with increasing late charges. Sent their DSL modem back immediately. They claim they never got it. They finally owned up to their incompetence and admitted they did get the modem. There is a pattern with Frontier. They do that on purpose to increase their revenue. Someone from that company should go to prison.

    They were always trying to get me to sign up for paperless billing. WMno57 don't play that game. If I don't write a check, you don't get payed!

    Starlink is another rural internet option.

    I DIY.
  • GroundUp
    GroundUp Member Posts: 1,941
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    Are you sure about that submersible pump/check valve scenario? I don't have a ton of experience with submersible well pumps but I have been in thousands of mechanical rooms on well water and zero of them have ever had a check valve inside the building- they are always in the pump. Maybe that varies by location or age, but I own several properties with submersible pumps between 3 and 43 years old with the same scenario. Cut the power and cut the line, the line stays full forever.

  • DCContrarian
    DCContrarian Member Posts: 217
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    Usually there is a foot valve in the well that keeps the pipe from draining down. Then there is a pressure tank and pressure switch in the basement, and the check valve is right there, it's to keep house water from flowing into the well if pressure is lost so you don't risk contaminating the well. If you blow out the pipes with compressed air as I do, that check valve will close when the pipes are under air pressure. The section of pipe between where it enters the house and the check valve needs to be drained. Usually there's a drain right where it enters the house and if you're lucky that's also the low spot. If it's not the low spot you can connect compressed air and blow out through the check valve.

    Basically it's all about finding every place water can stay and figuring out a way to get it out.

  • GroundUp
    GroundUp Member Posts: 1,941
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    A shallow well with a non-submersible/jet pump has a foot valve, yes. A submersible never has a check above grade that I've seen- it's on the pump itself, often hundreds of feet below grade.

    PRR
  • Jamie Hall
    Jamie Hall Member Posts: 23,554
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    Yup.

    However, unless someone really messed up your submersible installation, it's not going to freeze anyway. No need to drain it, even if you could.

    Br. Jamie, osb
    Building superintendent/caretaker, 7200 sq. ft. historic house museum with dependencies in New England
    KC_JonesGroundUp
  • jpsr
    jpsr Member Posts: 2
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    One thing not covered by the previous posts is the DHW. Emptying and refilling a tank takes time, and can be a hassle. We have an equipment room at our cabin, and it is well insulated. When we are not there, we leave the water tank “hot’ as well as heating the equipment room, but we drain the water lines which run from the equipment room. Because of the thermal mass in the tank, coupled with the insulation, the room will survive a week in the winter without freezing. We are located on the Bruce Penninsula in Ontario Canada, and winters can get below 0. If you can keep the equipment room warm, steam or hot water might work. Circulating pumps and the furnace wouldn’t require the same amount of electricity to run as a heat pump would, and if you heated the hot water using an indirect tank it would give you the best of both worlds!

    WMno57
  • GroundUp
    GroundUp Member Posts: 1,941
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    Be careful with that…. If a line opens up somewhere in the system and dumps the water, you now have a fire hazard. If you valve off the tank to avoid this, you then have an explosion hazard.