Well, it's done.

Posted by Steve on Wed, 10/22/2014 - 12:55am


After three years in the making, the boiler epic finally wrapped today. I have a brand new, Williamson 140,000 BTU steam boiler.

Granted, it's not on the epic scale of Lord of the Rings but I think it took even longer to complete it.

This story began in 2011 with this tale of woe.  I had big plans about extending the house renovation by gettting rid of steam heating altogether and replumbing the house for hot water heat instead. 

It made sense to do this for several reasons.  First is that hot water heat is cheaper to run.  You're not heating a cauldron of water to the boiling point and having static pressure force steam evenly throughout the house.  

You don't have to concern yourself with the black art of air vent sizes and with water spills from stuck air valves or, worse, stuck float valves in the boiler.

You're not dependent on gravity for the return so you can heat basement spaces easily. You can zone your heat with a manifold, even solenoid driven ones that will let you have a wireless thermostat in every room.

Plumbing hot water heat is relatively easy too because you can use flexible Pex tubing and compression fittings.  It would give me the option of having a heated towel rack in the bathroom doubling as a radiator.  The current master bath has no heat (and a vented skylight... brrrr).

On the other hand, it would have meant ditching all seven existing steam radiators in the house and replacing them either with larger units or with more radiators... probably twelve. Even the DIY cost of doing this job would push the new heating plant installation into five figures.

My old boiler actually worked fine.  It was the autofeed -- a device that maintains the boiler's water level -- that broke.  Replacement was $1100-1500 and there was no guarantee that the boiler wouldn't croak the next day leaving me with both no heat and a useless mechanical autofeed. 

I probably could have nursed the old boiler untll warm weather by manually filling and purging the boiler every couple of days.  Then I could have started on building the new heating installation in the spring. 

But pragmatism and a good spreadsheet rules.  My new steam boiler is 82.9% efficient. Factoring in my current gas bill + the additional 12-13% efficiency of hot water heat + the current cost of natural gas, it looked like hot water heat would save me only about $200/year, and that's based on the old boiler's heating season costs.  It could be 30 years before I saw break-even.

So when Dennis Behan at Bay Ridge Plumbing gave me an estimate that beat the next lowest estimate by almost two thousand dollars, the decision made itself.  The bonus is that Dennis is a nice guy.  He even knocked another hundred bucks off his estimate today.

Dennis told me last week that he'd start the job Tuesday morning and be done by around 3pm.  True to his word, he did. 


Next life, I want to be a plumber.

Posted by Steve on Thu, 10/16/2014 - 5:20pm


Back in 2011, I wrote an article about my failing Weil-McLain steam boiler entitled Got Three Estimates?  Get Three More. The article concluded with my finding a plumbing company willing to rebuild my ancient autofeed mechanism for a fair price.  Despite most heating contractors swearing that my 42 year-old boiler wouldn't survive the season, it made it through 2011, 2012 and the brutal, polar vortex winter of 2013 without a burp.

Two weeks ago, I relit the pilot light on boiler.  The outside temps were in the 60s so I didn't turn on the boiler.  A few days later I noticed that my kitchen extension floor was a pool of water.  Rats, I'd left the windows open before an intense thunderstorm.  Cursing my stupidity, I mopped up about 15 gallons of water and went upstairs.  I returned an hour later to see the floor soaked again.  The windows weren't the cause.  There were no water pipes in the extension and it was bright and sunny outside so I didn't know what was behind this.

While mopping up for a second time, I heard an occasional *bloip*, like a leaky faucet into a pan of water.   It was coming from the baseboard radiator.  When I lifted the access panel I saw water squirting out of the air valve like a drinking fountain.  At least I knew what was causing that.   It was the autofeed/low water cutoff again... probably a stuck float.  No problem, I'll call the same plumbing company that fixed it last time.




Forward to the Past

Posted by Steve on Sun, 10/13/2013 - 2:31pm


My very first DIY project at Brooklyn Row House was wiring the place for CAT5 ethernet. I decided to do this even before I had an inkling of what I intended to do with the place, or even where my office, bedroom and computers would eventually be located. In retrospect, if I'd guessed back then I would have been dead wrong.

Streaming media was still pretty much of a pipe dream in 1999 but I knew it was coming Real Soon and I wanted to be ready for it. I needed a wire soffit between the three floors for cables so I installed fourteen feet of 3" EMT tubing between the basement ceiling and a second floor closet. Through this I pulled six sixty-foot CAT5 cables, four lengths of four-pair phone wire, a pair of coax cables (my satellite TV at the time required one for each LUN) and a bunch of twisted-pair bell wire for a future wired alarm system. It fit but, suffice to say, I probably should have gone with 4" EMT.

The coax, phone and alarm wires were eventually enabled but a funny thing happened with the CAT5. I never used it. Their tails remain coiled, labeled and attached to nothing. What happened? Wireless got better. While wifi was definitely slower than wired ethernet, it served my needs so I tacitly abandoned my plans for ethernet ports in every room (along with beer taps and air compressor ports on every floor... seriously, I half considered those as well).


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