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Home has a boiler, but no radiators.

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Redcdr
Redcdr Member Posts: 16

We’re considering putting an offer in on a small (1300 sq ft) 1950 mid century modern home just outside of Pittsburgh. It has no air conditioning and in the listing under heating it says “other/steam”. The house is part of an estate so the disclosure has no information and the seller doesn’t know anything about the house. I noticed that the home has a boiler in the utility room, but no radiators anywhere, also no vents. I was under the impression that steam heat required radiators. Is it likely that it’s heated with in floor radiant? If so, how would the second floor be heated? It’s a split entry with the lower level on a slab. I’m assuming that it would be wise to abandon the in floor in favor something else. We would want to install AC. Would split units be the way to go? If so, can they supply heat as well?

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  • ChrisJ
    ChrisJ Member Posts: 15,915
    edited June 21
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    If it was built in the 1950s then I highly doubt it ever had steam.

    So either the date is wrong by several decades, or the description is wrong.

    For what it's worth the description on my house was off by 50 years and even the town's date on the books is off by at 30+.

    We would need a lot of good pictures of the boiler, basement, and rooms of the house before anyone could give recommendations on how to best proceed with it. There's plenty of good help available here if you give us the tools (lots of pictures and info).

    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
  • Redcdr
    Redcdr Member Posts: 16
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    I’ll put a link to the listing below, but I’m pretty sure the date is fairly accurate. It looks like the epitome of 1950s mid century modern design. It doesn’t have a basement per se, just the lower level of the split entry with small mechanical room off of the kitchen. Unfortunately I don’t have pictures of the boiler because I didn’t realize there were no radiators until after we looked looked at it in person.



  • ChrisJ
    ChrisJ Member Posts: 15,915
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    Yeah I'd agree that's 50s.

    Perhaps in floor radiant? I'm assuming the boiler looked like it was hooked up and not abandoned?

    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
  • Redcdr
    Redcdr Member Posts: 16
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    It was on the lower level and it definitely had what looked like 4 to 5 copper pipes going up into the ceiling. I didn’t see if there was anything going down towards the lower level. There was no other HVAC equipment in the mechanical room.

  • Intplm.
    Intplm. Member Posts: 2,083
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    Again As @ChrisJ asks. Please show some pictures. Until then, radiant floor heat is the best guess for the heating elements.

    CLamb
  • WMno57
    WMno57 Member Posts: 1,408
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    Realtors are clueless about HVAC. Many think boiler always = Steam.

    Flat roof, no basement, no AC, 75 year old in floor heat?

    Best upgrade for this home would be a large yellow machine that runs on diesel fuel. I'm serious. But the Inflation Reduction Act will fund a bunch of hack improvements, even though it should be torn down. No matter how much you spend, It will still be an odd-ball house for Pittsburgh. That design is more suited to a moderate and arid climate like California.

    I had an MCM. MCM is neat, but not all are worth saving. That house will cost you a lot of money.

    Get the boring brick ranch listed at $220,000. The extra 20 grand will be well worth it.

    Intplm.mattmia2
  • Steamhead
    Steamhead Member Posts: 17,003
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    "Warm laminate floors"? Yup, it's radiant.

    All Steamed Up, Inc.
    Towson, MD, USA
    Steam, Vapor & Hot-Water Heating Specialists
    Oil & Gas Burner Service
    Consulting
  • JUGHNE
    JUGHNE Member Posts: 11,102
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    There were also houses with ceiling radiant heat in that era. Copper tubing embedded in the ceiling plaster was a method.

    The "warm floor" statement could be that the floor covering is warmer than concrete or ceramic tile.

    WMno57hot_rodkcoppIntplm.
  • EdTheHeaterMan
    EdTheHeaterMan Member Posts: 8,166
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    If you have copper in the first floor concrete slab, it was probably not insulated properly back in the days before PEX tubing.  1940-1950's radiant heat was made popular by a guy named Levitt.  In fact there are 2 towns outside of New York city and Philadelphia both named Levittown.  He had a Henry Ford assembly line concept for building homes.  He discovered that the Radiant Floor design was less expensive in this construction process.  By the 1980s the copper in concrete started to fail.  There are stories about innovative ways the contractors found where to dig up the floor to patch the leaks.  One plumber used a Cat to find the warmest part of the floor,  that is where the leak was! 

    A 1950’s home with copper in the floor is probably not the best heating system to depend on.  Mini Split; maybe not such a great idea either.  You will be cold when you get in the single digits outside.  The second floor copper in the floor is probably a good idea.  That stuff can last forever, if it is not in the concrete.  

    If there are no floor pipes in the home, then you may have radiant ceiling heat as @Redcdr has indicated.  That could be a good system to keep.  As long as the copper pipes are not buried in the concrete.   

    One other option could be to add a gable or hip roof to create an attic in order to install a ducted HVAC system.  That may be your better option.  Can you get back inside to take your own picture of the boiler system?  


    Edward Young Retired

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

    WMno57
  • Redcdr
    Redcdr Member Posts: 16
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    I really wish I would have paid more attention to the heating system when I was there, but these questions didn’t cross my mind until after we left. We might be able to go back and get some pictures, but with the way the market is here, it may be gone by then. If it has radiant ceiling heat, how well would that heat the lower level? It seems like the heat would just rise to the second floor and not do much for the floor beneath the ceiling.

  • Redcdr
    Redcdr Member Posts: 16
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    We didn’t get any or our own pictures, but I included a link to the Zillow listing in a comment above.

  • WMno57
    WMno57 Member Posts: 1,408
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    Ed makes a great point about unheated slabs being cold. An Air to Air Heat Pump won't be able to make the home comfortable. Today, one could build a house on a slab with 4 inches of foam under the slab and Pex radiant heat in the slab. It would wonderful. But 75 years ago Pex and foam were not available.

    The average home inspector will not have the knowledge to properly evaluate this heating system.

    You really want a basement on an older house.

  • hot_rod
    hot_rod Member Posts: 22,472
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    No registers, fin tube, radiators, good chance it is either radiant ceiling or floors.

    Although there are a lot of ceiling light fixtures, there was generally a map included with radiant ceilings.

    Bob "hot rod" Rohr
    trainer for Caleffi NA
    Living the hydronic dream
    EdTheHeaterMan
  • Redcdr
    Redcdr Member Posts: 16
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    If there’s a radiant ceiling, is there any way it would be able to sufficiently warm the lower level?

  • WMno57
    WMno57 Member Posts: 1,408
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    Yes. Heat only rises is a misconception. Heat travels to cold, no matter the direction. This is why you need insulation under a radiant slab. Otherwise you are paying to heat the ground below the slab.

    EdTheHeaterManIntplm.
  • ChrisJ
    ChrisJ Member Posts: 15,915
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    That's because hot air rises but IR doesn't care.

    To prove your point, look at where the sun is. Not only is it up, but it's far away with a vacuum separating it from us.

    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
    EdTheHeaterManJakeCK
  • hot_rod
    hot_rod Member Posts: 22,472
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    any radiant surface will transfer heat energy to whatever it can “see” As long as it is at a lower temperature

    The sun is 93 million miles from earth, the moment you step into its path you feel the radiant energy

    Bob "hot rod" Rohr
    trainer for Caleffi NA
    Living the hydronic dream
    EdTheHeaterMan
  • DCContrarian
    DCContrarian Member Posts: 301
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    What's really common in those Levitt houses is to abandon the coils in the slab and add baseboards that run on the same circuit. It's not a super-expensive fix.

  • EdTheHeaterMan
    EdTheHeaterMan Member Posts: 8,166
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    Send in an offer with an inspection contingency.  The inspection must include a operational heating system test.  So the water, gas and electric must be turned on. At that time you go thru the Home with a home inspector and turn on the heating boiler as soon as you get there.   If there is no fuel available, then make sure that the seller or realtor has the gas turned on or the fuel tank filled with at least enough fuel to operate the boiler for 3 or 4 hours. if the house was vacant for a winter season, with no heat, you may have lots of frozen pipes that burst. Is it oil heat?  Propane heat?  Natural Gas Heat? At that time you can take all the pictures you need for this forum for our expert advise.

    You can operate the boiler during the inspection and see if the first floor gets warmer than when you arrived.   Back in the day, A boiler installer that completed a heating system in the summer would have to prove that the heater would heat the home to 120°F if the outdoor temperature was 70°, before he could get paid for the job.   That is where the saying “You got to sweat for your money” came from.

    you usually have a number of days to back out if the inspection reveals problems like the need of a new roof, or a boiler that is leaking.

    If the seller can not accommodate this "utility turned on" contingency, then you may want to pass on this one.


    Edward Young Retired

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

    Larry Weingartenmattmia2JakeCKCLamb
  • EdTheHeaterMan
    EdTheHeaterMan Member Posts: 8,166
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    Let the seller or realtor make the arrangements to have the utilities turned on, you don't want to have anything to do with that. If there is a leak, let the sellers find out and be responsible to get it fixed before you do the inspection.

    Edward Young Retired

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

    Intplm.
  • mattmia2
    mattmia2 Member Posts: 9,944
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    What thermostats do you see? the type and locations would be a clue. Various types of electric radiant panels were common around that time too. It could be a combination of hydronic radiant and electric radiant. Are the houses around it similar? Asking them could tell you a lot if it is a subdivision of similar houses. Many old radiant hydronic systems failed but some lasted. It has a lot to do with how they were installed.

  • JakeCK
    JakeCK Member Posts: 1,415
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    If you get a inspection make sure you or the one you hire to do the presale inspection has a thermal camera. You will known immediately where the heat is. You can buy ones that connect to the usb port on your phone for a fairly affordable price. They are great to have for around the house for many other reasons too. Such as seeing if the insulation is less than adequate.

    CLamb
  • mattmia2
    mattmia2 Member Posts: 9,944
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    I would go one step further and if it is hydronic or electric radiant that you must also have a contractor with expertise in the respective system inspect it. A home inspector won't be able to tell you enough to know if you need to replace the entire system or if it will work for another 30 years.