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 getting 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.