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.

Got three estimates? Get three more.

Posted by Steve on Mon, 10/31/2011 - 12:30am

A couple of weeks ago, I did my annual pre-heating season ritual of flushing my 42 year-old Weil-McLain steam boiler in preparation for the ceremonial relighting of the pilot light.  I learned later from a plumber that you shouldn't flush a cold boiler because the fresh incoming water will leave chemical deposits.  It was academic in this case however because the boiler drained dry.

WTF?  The low water cutoff (LWCO)/autofeed should have replenished the boiler with fresh water.  It didn't.  Granted, the LWCO looks like some sort of World War 2-era device and it had never been serviced since I bought the house so I wasn't surprised that it had failed.  I called the most knowledgeable plumber I knew in the neighborhood.  If ever there was a plumbing geek, it's him.  He even collects old boiler doors as a hobby.  But he also has a reputation for both being very expensive and very hard-to-get.  He even charges for estimates.

True to his rep, it took a week to get him to my place.  When he arrived he stared at the boiler and the LWCO for about sixty seconds and said it would cost $1500 to replace the LWCO.  But he didn't recommend it.  He pointed me to several areas of rust and some funky insulation on the boiler and said that it probably wouldn't last the heating season.  Furthermore, if he replaced the LWCO it wouldn't be compatible with any new boiler he would install so I would be throwing away $1500.

He opened a nicely bound, four color catalog of boilers and showed me what I needed: a new boiler.  He showed me the price printed next to it: $6558!  He could see the blood draining from my face and reminded me that that was the installed price.  But I would also need a new autofeed ($700) and $200 to pay an electrician to hook up the existing two-wire BX to the emergency cut-off switch.  The numbers kept building to the final cost: $7400!  If there are no unexpected problems, that is.  Then he handed me a bill for $54.38 for the estimate before leaving me to deal with the same problem I called him about.

Some DIYer I turned out to be

Posted by Steve on Sat, 01/16/2010 - 10:26pm

During the heating season -- from late October until April -- I run a large humidifier 24/7. It's something I've done since music school. I had a 115 year-old Czech flat-back double bass that didn't like steam heat. By the time spring arrived I would have spent anywhere from $300 to $1000 at the luthier getting glue joints fixed, new cracks repaired, the sound post reset and so forth. Running a big honkin' humidifier was a lot cheaper and the bonus was learning that it was healthier for people too.

The humidifier, a six gallon Bemis, is located in the kitchen extension where it's close to water and where the noise is less annoying. When I walked into the kitchen to feed the dogs yesterday morning, something was missing. It was quiet. Normally that means the humidifier tanks need refilling, but I'd just done that the night before.

I checked the unit and there was no sign of power. I pulled out the heavy breakfront to get to the wall outlet, forgetting about large bottle of VSOP on top. It shattered on the floor, showering my pants in brandy. After a quick clean-up and clothing change, I checked the plug with the first thing I found: my cordless phone charger. There was no juice at the outlet. Or at the next one either. Hmmm, a blown breaker?

The basement breaker panel looked fine. Nothing tripped. Aha! That circuit is downstream of a GFI exterior outlet on the back porch. Sure enough, it had tripped. I reset the GFI and the circuit, and humidifier, popped back to life. I climbed the stairs to my office/mushroom cave, self-satisfied that I'd fixed a problem that would have driven a lesser man to call an electrician.

An hour later, I went back to the kitchen for a coffee refill and saw that the humidifier was dead again. Drat, that probably means a bad GFI. Oh well, I can handle that too. But when I reset the GFI this time, the circuit was still down. Huh?

Steam Radiator Air Valves 101

Posted by Steve on Tue, 01/13/2009 - 12:46pm

As I was just opening my eyes this morning I heard a steady hiss coming from downstairs. Anyone who's got single pipe steam heat knows the sound, especially early in the morning when the boiler is working hard to warm the house from its overnight setback temperature.

That's the sound of pressure from the steam displacing air inside the pipes. It's normal. That's what an air valve on a steam radiator is supposed to do. But if it's loud enough that you can hear it a floor away, you've likely got a problem. It often means the valve is stuck open.

I went downstairs and saw that my glass exterior doors inside the mud room were completely fogged up, in fact dripping.

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