Hooray, Heat!

There was a pretty dark period this fall during which nothing was working out and everything on the home renovation front was, generally, totally shitty. We tried to get our roof replaced and ended up with some new roof, some old roof, and a whole mess of rot and messed up box gutters. We tried to get some electrical work done (details forthcoming!), and ended up with a super disorganized electrician who took weeks to finish a few fairly simple jobs and was very non-committal and vague about when he might decide to come back. Then, there was the heat situation.

In case I haven’t established this enough: old houses are complicated. I think they’re completely worth the headaches, but the point is that there are headaches. We knew when we bought the house that we needed to address the heat system, but I had no idea that trying to get hot water running through our radiators would take the better part of two and a half months and make me want to be dead.

radiator1

A little background:

Our house was probably originally heated with wood-burning or coal-burning stoves, which were later replaced by hot water radiators (most of them are made by the American Radiator Company and are the very ornate “Rococo” design, and were probably installed around the turn of the century). Basically, a machine called a boiler has to heat all that hot water to distribute to the radiators. The hot water runs from the boiler through an elaborate system of pipes to the radiators, then through the radiators and back to the boiler to get re-heated. Hot water radiators provide really nice heat—they’re silent, extremely effective at heating up a space, and just all around very pleasant. I was told that our century-old radiators are actually more efficient than more modern baseboard radiator-style heating. I’d never consider replacing the radiators with a forced air system or anything else——I consider them a huge asset to the house, even if they aren’t 100% original.

ANYWAY. There was an existing boiler in the basement, but unfortunately it was probably from the 1930s or 40s and was super scary. It ran on oil as its fuel source, which was supplied by two enormous oil tanks that were buried in the yard. When the house went up for sale, however, the oil tanks were removed and abated (old buried oil tanks are NOT something you want to deal with as a new homeowner, so I’m glad they were gone!), leaving a lifeless ancient old boiler in the basement. While I suppose it’s possible we could have gotten a new oil tank and gotten the existing boiler up and running, there wasn’t really any point in that: oil is very expensive, and the old boiler (if it even still worked) would have been incredibly inefficient and potentially unsafe. The house was seriously overdue for an upgrade.

We’d planned all along to switch to natural gas to power the heat system, meaning some new gas lines would have to be run in the basement to a new modern boiler, all of which a plumber would have to install. Pretty straightforward, yes?

We had a gas line running into the house from the main on the street, but we’ve never actually had gas running into it. That’s partly why we switched to an electric stove when we renovated the kitchen—partially because we already had the stove, but mostly because we weren’t sure how long it would take to get gas service up and running. Additionally, because our house was split into two separate living units that we’re restoring to a single-family, the upstairs and downstairs were on two separate hot water heaters (which supply the hot water to sinks and tubs and the (broken) washing machine). There wasn’t anything particularly wrong with this setup, except that the hot water heater that supplied the second floor ran on electric and the main floor heater ran on gas…meaning no hot water in the kitchen for the first six months in the house. And of course it wasn’t like we could just turn the gas on. Because our house had been vacant, the gas meter had been removed by the utility company, meaning we’d have to request new service. And if we requested new service, they’d want to see what we were running, and our hot water heater was installed with a whole mess of code violations, so they wouldn’t have turned the gas on anyway. See how fun this stuff is?

Luckily, the utility company, Central Hudson, has been running a terrific Gas Conversion Program, which basically incentivizes homeowners to switch to natural gas for their home heating systems. Basically, they subcontract to a company who comes to the house for a free consultation, evaluates your needs, and puts together a couple of different potential packages depending on the necessary equipment. They also offer a number of financing options, which made the whole thing very appealing. We knew the approximate cost of all this stuff before we even bought the house, so we were prepared financially, but I liked the idea of financing the whole thing separately and saving our cash for other projects, so I set up an appointment.

This was at the beginning of September. The guy from the utility company came out, took one look at our existing gas line, and immediately said that Central Hudson wouldn’t give us gas for two reasons:

1. The existing gas line was too old, and no longer to code. Awesome.

2. Because the house was vacant for a while, it was more than likely that the line running into our basement had been cut at the street anyway, rendering it completely dead. Therefore, they’d need to dig up part of the street, the sidewalk, and part of our yard to run a completely new line from the gas main.

The great thing about the Gas Conversion Program is that getting this new line run is basically free——you pay a $500 deposit up front, which gets returned to you once your equipment is installed and activated. Without this program, that type of job would easily run about $5,000, so that was the good news. The bad news was that getting the new line run would take 3-4 weeks, meaning we wouldn’t even be able to install a new boiler until probably early October. The other semi-bad news was that in the caveat of taking advantage of the financing options was that we’d need to use a plumber supplied by Central Hudson, not our own plumber. Having worked with our plumber a couple of times for other stuff, I felt a little bit badly about taking the business away from him, but to pay off the new boiler over 7 years? Seemed worth it.

So I wrote my $500 check and waited.

And waited.

And waited.

4 weeks turned into more like 8 weeks, at which point the gas company engineer finally came out to the house and decided that there actually wasn’t anything wrong with our existing service—meaning the last 8 weeks (which brought us to early November, when things were getting very cold) had been a total waste of time. In that time, we also weren’t approved for the financing, so we were back to square one. At that point, I decided to just forge ahead with the gas company’s plumber, since that seemed like the easier route than backtracking and dealing with our own plumber, who’d still have to deal with the gas company to get the service turned on once everything was installed. The gas company said they could schedule me for the big install within the next week or so, so things seemed to be looking up.

And then they didn’t schedule me. And one week turned into two. And I was so frustrated and so sad. And the roof stuff was going on. And we were freezing. And everything was terrible.

On the eve of the weather going below freezing for the first time, I was very nervous. We had a couple of space-heaters running and had left the taps on a very slow drip, but I was starting to descend into a fit of paranoia about our pipes freezing and bursting and all being lost. Why was this so hard? Why couldn’t I seem to give these people thousands of dollars to fulfill my simple request of not freezing to death in my home?

Then, out of nowhere, my plumber texted me. Not the one who we’d hired through the gas company, but our plumber. It was maybe the best text message I’ve ever received. Turned out, he was worried about us. I guess I hadn’t effectively communicated that he wasn’t doing the job, so he’d already ordered the equipment and was ready to pick it up at the suppliers. He could come at 9 a.m. the next morning. My heart swelled with hope. It was beautiful.

Early the next morning I called to cancel the other plumber (dick move, I guess, but they still hadn’t managed to schedule me and sometimes you have to do what you have to do!), and called my guy to report that we were a-go.

You guys. He WERKED. IT. OUT. I love my plumber.

plumbers

What I had been told by the gas company was a simple one-day ordeal was actually a four-day, four-person exhausting saga of crazy plumbing insanity. Even just getting the old system disconnected from the ancient boiler was an enormous undertaking. The image above is three large men with a 4-foot pipe wrench (and a large section of cast-iron pipe slipped over the end for extra leverage) yanking on century-old cast iron pipe joints. Each joint had to be blow-torched for 5 minutes before it could be forcibly loosened by these hulking gentlemen and prepared to be tied into new plumbing. I can’t even describe how crazy it was to watch all of this unfolding, but trust…it was intense. Particularly since it was taking place in my very scary basement.

boiler

BUT OMG, LOOK AT ALL THAT GORGEOUSNESS. I mean, can you even? I can’t.

That right there is a very incredible high-efficiency gas boiler. We had a choice between a regular-efficiency boiler and high-efficiency, and we chose high-efficiency for a number of reasons. Even though high-efficiency equipment is more expensive up front, it’s obviously more environmentally friendly and is less expensive to operate over time. Additionally, high-efficiency boilers can vent directly through the side of the house, whereas regular-efficiency boilers have to vent through the roof. Since our only available means of venting was an old unlined chimney, the added cost of lining the chimney wasn’t worth it anyway.

This thing is incredible. First of all, it’s tiny (replacing something roughly the size of a Buick). Second of all, it’s suuuuuper quiet——you can really only hear it running if you’re in the basement. Third of all, it turned out that we couldn’t get the old gas hot water heater up to code, but this thing is so cool that not only does it run our entire heat system, it can also act as a tankless hot water heater. And because of the crazy ordeal of getting this all up and running, combined with our customer loyalty, our terrific plumber tied all of the water lines to the boiler, allowing us to do away with both of our inefficient/inoperable hot water heaters. For free. So all at once we had a working heat system and hot water on both floors of our house.

hotwaterheaters

So yeah, that itty-bitty thing replaced both of these massive hot water tanks AND a huge ancient boiler. Technology, man. So cool.

I know I might be the only person who’s at all excited about this, but looking at that fancy new system all set up makes me really happy. The first time I felt our radiators all toasty and doing their jobs, I cried. Nay, I sobbed. Literally. For nearly an hour. It was pathetic.

After so many months of things going really slowly or really badly and feeling generally like garbage, this finally felt like we’d done something really, truly good for this house. This is a huge, huge improvement and step toward bringing this place into the 21st century——preserving the original character but with a modern, safe, and effective infrastructure behind it. It might sound cheesy, but feeling those radiators come to life (and, miraculously, all in perfect working order) and the house heating to a comfortable temperature really felt like feeling the house come to life for the first time. Magic.

nest

We splurged a little and went for the Nest thermostat, which has also been amazing. Since we aren’t at the house all the time, it’s great to be able to set the temperature much lower when we’re not there, and even tell it to heat up when we’re en route to Kingston. I feel like it’ll pay for itself over time with energy savings, and it’s also just really fucking cool. Zero complaints.

Here’s some potentially helpful hints if you’re looking at old houses or are looking at replacing a heat system:

1. Always find out what the existing heat system is. If it runs on oil, find out when the boiler or furnace and oil tanks were last replaced. Insist on having the oil tanks inspected. If they are leaking, the seller should have them removed and abated and have documentation to prove it. EPA regulations around this stuff are intense, and you don’t want to mess around.

2. If you do need a new system, get written estimates for the job before you close. This is a costly upgrade, so you’ll need to have an accurate picture of the projected cost to plan your financing accordingly.

3. If you want to switch to natural gas for your home heating system, it’s worthwhile to see if your utility company offers a similar program to Central Hudson’s Gas Conversion Program. I really don’t know enough about whether other utility companies are doing stuff like this, but I’m guessing they are.

4. Some banks and credit unions are offering home heating loans specifically for this at low interest rates. If you’re interested in upgrading your system but don’t have the cash up front, this might be a great option, even if your utility company doesn’t have a program in place.

5. If you’re in the Hudson Valley and need a great plumber, feel free to email me.


120 Comments

  1. We have the exact same Navien combi boiler, just installed a few weeks ago. Pretty, isn’t it? Ours is in a fairly visible part of our house (laundry room, right off the kitchen) so I’m glad it’s pretty sleek looking. Also nice to be able to join two large ugly pieces of equipment into one small, wall mounted package. So glad you are no longer at risk of freezing to death in your own home :)

  2. I have a question: What are your codes like if the house could be bought/sold multiple (I’m assuming multiple) times over the years without an upgrade of the boiler and all its associated bits?

    When I bought my house–and this is in Texas, so heating is not the huge deal here it is there–there was a nearly-new central a/c unit and a gas forced-air heating system, ditto. Both had been replaced the by the last-owners-but-one to bring things up to code compliance. When I bought the house I’d lived in before this one, we’d had to do all sorts of work to remove gas wall heaters and make the water heater compliant with the codes, which had of course changed since the house was last sold in 1967.

    So how on earth did you end up with a boiler from the 1940’s? Is your heating code like our structure code, basically, “If it’s standing, it’s fine”?

    I ask both because I’m curious and because I’m wondering what other joys lie in store for you down the road. (Speaking of which, I’m very, very pleased that your house is coming to life some more. This is wonderful to watch!)

    Hugs to Mekko and the Little Old Man.

    • Oh gosh, um…I’m not entirely sure? As far as I understand it, any new work obviously has to be done to code, but work that was done previously just has to have met current code when it was installed and is grandfathered in. If an existing system is being altered during renovations, though, that’s when you have to bring it up to code——so for example, when we renovate our bathroom, we’ll need to have new plumbing installed for the sink and tub (some people get around this by simply making “cosmetic upgrades,”——i.e. not changing the footprint but doing everything else——and in many cases it’s permissible to leave non-code-compliant stuff in place in that instance), but for now there’s no reason to go tearing into that system. There are plenty of things in our house that don’t meet current code, some of which we’ll change and some we won’t, just depending on when and how we renovate and the actual safety risk involved.

      Does that help? Our house only had three different owners during the 20th century, by the way, and we basically bought it in as-is condition from the estate of the previous owner. The listing agent had dealt with the oil tanks, getting the exterior trim painted, and making some structural repairs to the garage, but that’s basically it. We had inspections (both a general home inspection and plumbing and electrical inspections), so we know more or less what we got ourselves into! It’s a lot of work, but the house is usable and the systems are, in general, pretty simple and mostly in working order, meaning there isn’t a big rush on most stuff. Especially now that the boiler is checked off the list!

      • Huh! I guess it’s a difference in codes. I have aaaaallll sorts of interesting electrical stuff that got grandfathered in, and don’t even ask about the lean-to that was grandfathered in when I bought this place. It’s interesting that you live in a place where bits could literally be frozen off your body, yet heating can be grandfathered. I live in a place where large structures are routinely flattened by storms, yet grandfathering allows dicey construction to stand.

        The biggest lesson I learned from owning two older houses (1928 and 1948) is that Codes Are Weird.

  3. I love your radiators. It’s so funny to me how you explain about the heating though – that’s the way it is done in all houses over here in Germany (if you don’t have floor heating).
    I am a bit jealous about your tankless water heating though… Mine operates with a tank.
    Glad you know longer have to freeze and looking forward to whatever you will do next.
    Greetings from across the pond
    Jenn(ifer)

  4. I’m so happy for you!

  5. Yay!!!! So much!!!!

  6. So, so happy for you, Max, Mekko & Linus for your new warm, efficient heating system.

    Kudos to the hero plumberman. Do hope he got lotsa thanks for a job superbly done.

    I have water heater and furnace envy. Bought this brand new condo 7 1/2 years ago & my system is hulking & antiquated in comparison to your’s; will research Navien. One question, did you worry about gas leaks/accidents during the install? It’s a worry for me especially if the installer is not detail oriented.

    Love your post, you never disappoint.

    • Thanks! Since there wasn’t actually any gas running into the house during any of the install (it wasn’t switched on until all the equipment was in and they’d run a pressure test on the new lines), we didn’t have to worry about that. We did, however, notice a slight gas odor a few days afterward, so we immediately called the utility company, who sent someone out within an hour or so. He detected a slow leak at one of the new joints, but said that it didn’t have to do with the workmanship but is fairly common for new lines to develop small leaks within a few days of the install, and easily fixed it by just tightening one of the pipes. I little bit scary, but it was all OK!

  7. I’m so relieved and happy for you! I’m so glad you found a great plumber and that he was able to take care of this for you.

  8. We had our old 100 year old cast iron boiler replaced this summer. It had started out as coal burning, been converted to oil, then to natural gas. They had to cut the thing into 4 pieces to get it out of the house. Now we have a boiler like yours (it sort of freaked me out the first time I saw it, since it’s so small). The only downside is that it’s colder in the basement now, since the boiler doesn’t get all hot and heat the place – which, when you think of it is really a very good thing. The behemoth was an accident waiting to happen.

  9. Woot! Your plumber sounds like an awesome human being.

  10. Did you hig the plumber? I would have hugged the plumber. I don’t think I would have been able to stop myself.

    • Of course! He was actually recommended by the realtor, did our plumbing inspection for us, and has done all the plumbing work so far on the house, so we’ve developed a very familiar relationship, haha. It’s kind of a bromance.

      • I was just going to say that a shout to the plumber is so necessary! I have such huge respect for tradesmen like plumbers, electricians, exterminators etc. who are so skilled and can maneuver equipment like this. I can certainly handle computer issues, but thinking about plumbing makes my brain explode. These folks will crawl in the deepest, darkest spots and accomplish amazing feats. Thank G for these people!!

      • I was just going to say the same thing as Kimberly. You should share his contact info on here and drive business his way. Sounds like a great company.

        Also thank you for going into detail about radiators. They have always been this huge mystery to me. I had no idea they ran off of water! Can they burn you if you touch them? They seem dangerous.

      • I didn’t ask my plumber if he was comfortable with me sharing his information so publicly here (he seems like a very busy guy already…I’m not sure he needs it!), so that’s why I figured people could email me if they’re really interested. I have no problem sharing! He’s great.

        Our radiators run off of hot water, but sometimes old cast-iron radiators heat using steam! They really don’t get hot enough to burn somebody…they’re surprisingly effective just being very warm!

  11. Well hot damn, literally and figuratively! Joining the love for your plumber and crew; toasty is exactly what a Hudson Valley house should be at this time of year. Not sure a two-dog night would be adequate for you and Max in freezing weather… unless you or he figures as the third dog? Assume the box gutter situation is under control and you can now hunker down for more interior reno work during the long, cold months. Basically, YAY and enjoy! You were due for a break on the house front.

  12. So happy for you! We have an efficient (electric) boiler for our water heating system here too and we looooove it! Might consider speding some dollars on the Nest thingy, I heard so much great comments about it. Don’t give up, it’s all so worth it!

  13. Thanks for the tips about the furnace! I am in escrow on a 1oo-year-old home (YAY! Never thought I’d see the day as a home owner) and have the inspection tomorrow. Our furnace is old so who knows what kind of issues we could be facing – I’ll make sure to ask these questions to the inspector!

    Glad you’re nice and toasty warm. :)

  14. As a fellow old radiator fan, I’m so happy you were able to bring your radiators back to life. There is something so comforting about their gentle warmth, holding your hands over the radiator in the morning as they warm up, putting hats and mittens on them to dry after a snowball fight, putting a towel on one to warm up while taking the morning shower.

    People keep telling me to replace the ones in my 1900 house with baseboard radiators. I weep a little inside every time they do.

    And they are so, so much better than forced hot air heat. I refused to look at any houses with forced air heat, much to my agent’s dismay. But I simply never feel warm in them during the New England winters.

    And kudos to the wonderful plumber!

  15. so glad you have heat and things are looking up! Since the utility company didn’t come through for you and caused delays – will you get your $500 deposit returned? I know it’s a small amount compared to what this entire project cost but just wondering!

    • I’m supposed to, yes! Have to call to bug them about it, I guess…fun fun.

      • Don’t you ever feel like a dick for cancelling tradespersons, etc. who are not giving you good service! It’s your money, it’s your house and, trust me, they’re not losing any sleep over it! I’m married to a carpentry instructor and he loses it when he experiences trades that don’t show up, don’t contact you, produce sloppy work. You are number one, not them! Apply same thoughts to hair stylists, financial planners, lawyers, car salesmen, etc …

  16. I literally threw my hands up when I saw the picture of your Nest thermostat (in happiness). After the post about the roof and the beginning of this post all I could think was that you needed a win. New fancy heating system + cool thermostat = win. At least to me.

  17. You are a really great writer Daniel. :)
    I hope your plumber gets some business from you. It is hard to find
    quality tradesmen sometimes.

  18. Yay! for house mechanicals in working order!
    My husband and I are addicted to This Old House and Ask This Old House. All of our friends who still just rent apartments and don’t have to deal with home maintenance/repairs are always saying, “You WATCH that show?!” or even better, “What show?” They just don’t get it…..

    We do have oil heat but all of our service people who come to work in the basement ALWAYS “ooh!” and “aah!” over our plumbing setup and our oil tank which is shiny silver and rated to be outdoors (it’s in our basement, though) and will stand up to something like -35 degrees or something crazy. So yeah, we show off all our mechanicals to everyone who comes to see the house for the first time.

  19. Congratulations on everything – the great plumber, the nest, the boiler – you deserve it! I’m sure I would have leaked salty tears for more than an hour over that. Good people are hard to find – hang onto your plumber for dear life. Ask him if he knows any electricians. Maybe you can find two good people. xoxo

  20. I’m soooooo happy for you. I know exactly what you mean about knowing that the blood and bones of your house are modern and safe. That way, it doesn’t feel like you’re just slapping paint on an accident waiting to happen .. you’re really making it better. Congrats! Stay toasty.

  21. Your photo of the 3 plumbers with the wrench is a masterpiece–a modern retelling of the raising of the flag on Iwo Jima, or prehaps the famous photograph by Lewis Hine: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Lewis_Hine_Power_house_mechanic_working_on_steam_pump.jpg
    (yes, I’m a photo history nerd, working in a contemporary art museum).

    Bravo to fabulous plumbers and to heat.

  22. I audibly squee-ed when I saw the pic of your new boiler. We have radiator heat in our home with a boiler that is ancient. During a home energy tune-up earlier this year, we had our hot water tank replaced and the boiler tuned up. I think if we had the bucks and had known there was an option like this, we would have gone to this system. Mind is blown!

  23. Congratulations on the beautiful new hardware! It’s a dream of mine to replace our forced air with a boiler, radiant loop for the first floor, and hydronic coil for the 2nd floor. The compactness of your system gives me a lot of hope for our eventual install. I honestly can’t tell you how jealous I am of your boiler. I’m super envious of how expandable it is. If down the road you find you’re not getting enough hot water, you can just add an indirect water heater to the equation.

    Also, that little arch firebox thing in the basement is friggen cool.

    • Thank you, Alex! I figured you might appreciate pictures of a boiler, haha. It really is very cool, I have to say…compactness wasn’t really a huge priority since the basement (at least for now) is really just storage space, but it is nice that it takes up so little space. And I have to say that the tankless/on-demand hot water is really pretty incredible…all it’s really serving right now is the upstairs shower/sink and the kitchen sink, so I guess the demands on the system will increase once we renovate the downstairs bathroom, add laundry, and (hopefully someday) a dishwasher, but for now I’m very impressed with how effective it is for hot water!

      (isn’t that fireplace cool?? We think that part of the basement (which is below the kitchen) might have served as the original kitchen at some point).

  24. Dude, your house is going to be SO BALLER when it’s finished!!!! So glad to hear this story has a happy ending and that you guys and your pups have heat! You should send your plumber a big Christmas/Hanukah thank-you this year!!

  25. Oh man, heat problems are the worst. We have The Nest Thermostat too. It’s saved us a lot of money on our utilities. I hope you enjoy it, my friend.

  26. Woohoo! Congrats on the new heating system! I so feel for you for having such a struggle this fall, and it’s so impressive that you’re doing all this work (or arranging for others to) and treat your house with such love and respect. I live in an old house too, we have 53 degrees in our kitchen every morning now during winter. We kind of need to change the windows… anywho, back to you, I’m so glad you managed to solve your heat-problem while still being able to keep the beautiful radiators. They might not be original, but when it comes to items of good quality, I think this kind to additions just adds to the story of a house.
    Oh, and once again, thanks for letting us take part in your ongoing house-adventure, and writing so honestly and wittily about it. .

  27. Congratulations on heat! Heat is so awesome! I will totally be hitting you up for that plumber contact when we buy our upstate house next year (YIKES).

    • Yikes is right!! Are you really thinking about it?? Where are you looking? (you guys should come stay a weekend!)

  28. I just wanted to pop in to say that I absolutely love your blog. I have a ton of DIY blogs in an RSS reader, so I rarely actually come over to one and post a comment. I have my own blog and I practically pee if anyone ever comments on it, so I’m trying to do better about commenting on my favorites. (Not trying to get you to go read mine – it’s dreadful.) I just wanted to let you know that you’ve got a huge fan here in TN. ;)

    I’m sorry that you’re having so many problems with this house! But the transformation is amazing. I’m glad to be living vicariously through you. I get to see all the pretty pictures and not have to deal with any of the stress!

    • Aw, thanks Sarah! And welcome!

      Aside from the gutters, which I knew deep down might have been a problem all along, we’ve actually been pretty lucky——any surprises have been relatively minor, and we knew going in that this stuff had to be done within the first few months. So many of the problems are really due to logistics and people and contractors more than the house, which I guess is a good thing! The learning curve is really steep and it’s all pretty stressful, but at the end of the day, the house has actually been pretty kind to us!

      • Maybe it just seems more stressful to me because if it were happening to me I’d be an absolute wreck. :) It’s going to look amazing when you get it finished!

  29. What great news! I had the same project going on in my house a couple years ago and I love the new gas boiler. The cast iron radiators are so wonderful and they have a great classic look. The loan option we used was through NYSERTA. http://www.nyserda.ny.gov/
    They offer financing for improving the energy efficiency of your home. I had some old windows replaced, insulation added, and the heating system. This might be something to look into for other projects. They even did a free energy audit to see where I would save the most money.

    • Teresa, I’m so glad you brought this up——I completely forgot to mention NYSERTA! Unfortunately I didn’t find out about it until the end of the summer and was told that the whole ordeal would take more time than we had, but it would have been a great option if I’d known sooner. I’ll definitely look into it again for future renovations and have the free energy audit done. Our house is a disaster (our walls are all insulated with brick and mortar…R-value of less than 1!), but I’d love to know what they’d suggest for energy efficiency upgrades.

  30. Hooray for heat! Sorry it was such a long and painful process. Seattle readers — our version of Central Hudson’s Gas Conversion Program is called Community Power Works. My husband and I used it to covert from oil to natural gas, and they helped us find financing (4% interest rate, payments tagged on to our Seattle City Light bill HOLLER). They help you with loads of other energy upgrades too (insulation, duct sealing, water heater upgrades, etc.). Rad program.

  31. I loved the hot water baseboards at one of our houses… they were really quick and efficient, so if radiators are better, I want some! Living with forced air is the pits, I dust every day and my skin is so dry. Looking at your new control system makes me all tingly inside, I love it, and now you have extra space too if you wanted it! But please please tell me you will be repairing the wall behind the nest and installing it without the plate?? I love my Nest, we splurged on it this year. But I admit part of why I love it is how simple and pretty it looks on the wall. I made repairs to the drywall to get it on without the plate! ha ha. Can’t beat calling it ahead of time to tell it to heat the house after you’ve been gone.

    • Yes, I definitely plan to do that! I actually wasn’t there the day it was installed, so I kind of missed the whole thing! I’m assuming it’s pretty simple to get rid of, though. The wall needs lots of repair and paint and everything first, so I figured it can stay like that for a while.

  32. Congratulations on the new heater! I’ve been reading your blog for a while and have really enjoyed your posts about this new-to-you home. Thanks for sharing the good, the bad, AND the ugly with us!

    We used a similar high-efficiency unit when we replaced the boiler in our 1876 Colonial. We’ve been so pleased so far with its performance. Our old boiler was an ancient cast-iron number which our plumber estimated was about 30% efficient. Our gas bills were astronomical, the house was still freezing cold, and the final straw was when the boiler started setting off our carbon monoxide detector. (Yikes!) We had the new boiler installed on a cold December day and immediately noticed a difference: the house was warm and toasty for the first time ever, and we were pleasantly surprised when our next gas bill was around 1/5 of what we had been paying. I hope that your experience with the new, efficient boiler is just as successful, and that you are able to enjoy many cozy nights in your lovely home!

  33. Would it be rude for me to ask how much the high-efficiency boiler/water heater was? We have retrofitted forced air in our 1928 house that was there when we bought it and so far everything works fine (knock on wood) but seems terribly inefficient. The basement is easily 5-10 degrees warmer than the rest of the house because of all the radiant heat the furnace puts out. And while my cat really likes hanging out down there in the winter, it doesn’t seem very good for my heating bills or the planet. And how is yours working out in terms of hot water? It would be nice to get hot water without running the faucet for five minutes every time.

  34. YAY!!!! That’s a sexy piece of new equipment you’ve got right there! I wonder if something like that would work on a steam system. I’ve got a boiler & 2 hot water heaters eating up floor space in my relatively small laundry/utility room. All 3 are relatively new(ish) though, so it doesn’t make fiscal sense to rip them all out. But boy would that floor space be nice. Congrats on your upgrade (and not freezing to death)!

    • Unfortunately, I think the options are much more limited (and less cute) for steam heat. I’m not an expert, though! I just know that Anna at Door Sixteen had to replace her boiler and she has steam, and her boiler pretty much looks like a boiler.

  35. Oh my gosh, this is wonderful. I totally vicariously feel awesome for you, I get it — an oil tank system is such a burden, those big old boilers are cumbersome and scary, and two big water heaters on separate floors must have been inefficient and take up a lot of space. Even though it seems you were prepared to deal with all of this as-is if you could have gotten it operable (a willingness commendable in and of itself), to combine all of that functionality into a state-of-the-art device and have ALL your home and water heated, cleanly, reliably, efficiently — soooo happy for you!

    I follow these posts religiously, and have been having such a good time reading about your progress. Rooting for you guys from Seattle!

  36. Daniel, your website gave us the courage to buy our beautiful, amazing, gorgeous, 1927 craftsman instead of a gut rehab. We have the same heat situation, but our boiler had been converted to gas from coal long before we arrived and it is still running great. It is, however, the size of a mini cooper, without exaggeration.
    Our pump (the pump that pumps water from the boiler to all 13 awesome radiators) completely freaked out on us 4 weeks after we moved in—and 2 days before Thanksgiving, of course. It started making a scary, scary noise, shook the whole house, and then just shut down. Luckily, because radiant heat is THE BEST, the boiler continued to heat the water and the radiators continued to operate like an old gravity system, even without the pump. We did have the pump replaced, but we are being honest with ourselves about the need to put in a more efficient boiler eventually. Yours is just gorgeous, and I love the Nest. This post is so exciting to read! Thank you again!

    • Wow, thank you! It makes me happy that I might have had even a little bit to do with somebody deciding to save an old house——sounds like a super cool project! That’s good that you were able to replace a part instead of replacing the whole thing, at least for now. When you *do* replace it, hopefully you get to appreciate the energy savings, too! I’ve yet to get our first gas bill and am a little scared…

  37. I wanted to cry with you by the end of the post. What a victory! Rooting for you from Florida!

  38. It’s the infrastructure that makes or breaks an old house. The new boiler is great and the radiators are perfect. Congratulations on working at the right solution until it came good! Decorating is a breeze in comparison!

    Just wondering – will you insulate all the copper piping connected to the boiler? We certainly would here in the UK where we have had gas central heating for decades.

  39. Huge congratulations on such a giant leap forward. Freezing your ass off in the winter is SO overrated. The new system looks amazing!

    Also, I’m glad your Awesome Plumber was able to work things out so you could use him instead of Dickhead Plumber.

  40. I shed a tear for you! This is big.

  41. I saw a similar heating system on an episode of This Old House! As I understood it, the water diverts between heating system and plumbing system. So does that mean the radiators aren’t putting out heat if someone is taking a hot shower? I imagine that’s not a pain since showers don’t take that long, but I wonder about when dishwasher/washing machines are running?

    • I don’t know!

      • We have a system just like you have installed and new combi boilers are so sophisticated that you can have a shower and have the heating on full blast with no noticeable difference. Dishwashers and washing machines cold fill and heat the water themselves so you don’t have to worry about those taking anything out of your system.

      • Oh, cool! Thank you!

  42. I’m always so fascinated by the history of old houses – can I ask what the brick is in the basement behind the old water heaters? Is that a fireplace? Or a coal shoot of some kind? I don’t think I’ve ever seen a brick hearth in the basement of an old house before.

    • Yes, it’s a fireplace! From what we can tell, the upper levels probably had wood stoves that tied into the chimneys, but this part of the basement (which is directly below the kitchen) has a fireplace. It’s possible that this room was the original kitchen of the house…it looks like there are remnants of some verrrrry old plumbing, and there was a back stairwell that led down into this room that have since been removed.

  43. This sounds like a major stressica simpson moment (if a moment last for weeks). Thanks for detailing it all out (with humor). I’m a semi new reader and am filled with project envy ALL of the time.

    Keep the renovation stories coming.

    Adam

  44. Oh, man, your blog is so amazing! I’m so glad I discovered it. It’s like This Old House for real people. Thanks for sharing your journey and congrats on having a warm house.

  45. Congratulations!!
    I can imagine your happiness, I am getting heating installed this week too – the oil tank was removed from the building basement last week, the huge boiler that hasn’t worked since I bought my place is going this week – hopefully next weekend I won’t need to heat with candles and flowerpots any more (surprisingly effective!).

  46. What an ordeal! Having stayed with a friend who didn’t have working heat or hot water, I can totally understand how you felt. Nothing can compare to bathing in hot water! Nothing except having a heated home, I guess. Congrats on this big step in making the hosue amazing!

  47. That new heater looks amazing. I’m pretty sure I’d stare at it for hours. Happy to hear you won’t freeze to death.

  48. I break out in a cold sweat every time I read one of your posts.

    OMG. Heat. You are SO lucky you had the option of converting to gas. Out here on Lawn Guyland where I am, there IS no gas within an even remotely reasonable radius, so we’re stuck with oil… which is hella expensive. Also, our original basement tank sprung a leak (yay!), so we had to replace it. Then our buried supply line leaked (yay!), so we had to replace it. Of course we couldn’t bury it again, so it runs overhead now… which is apparently a no-no and makes air get in the line, which MAKES THE HEAT BREAK. And when you have no heat in a oil-run house, you ALSO have no hot water. YAYYYYY! Yes, three times this season already. Good times.

    So, a $500 TIGERLOOP (yes, a Tigerloop. How cool is that name?) later and we seem to be back in business. The only thing we haven’t replaced yet is the burner itself. KNOCK FREAKING WOOD!!!!!

    You are a brave, brave man. And very lucky :)

  49. That piece of pipe added to the pipe wrench handle is called a cheater bar. I’m sure you can figure out why. I especially love the photo of the three large men and the wrench — reminds me of the flag raising at Iwo Jima or any number of Renaissance paintings.

    Mostly, though, I am glad you guys are all warm and toasty and it didn’t cost your entire retirement fund plus a leg. We had hot water heat in our 1937 house in Mpls; I had never lived with it before, but came to love it — so steady and silent.

  50. you poor thing! I was wondering why you weren’t posting pretty shots of tabletop arrangements or bathroom fixtures or wallpaper, and now I understand that you have been completely buried under unpretty issues. like being cold. and weird gutter situations. I’m so glad you are warm and toasty now!!

  51. This was so scary to read. We really don’t have these problems in Florida, it was a sunny 84 today. Please don’t freeze!

  52. Yay for the win! Congratulations, so nice not freezing to death. And having a plumber you love, priceless :)

  53. Is it weird that I envy the unpleasentness of the situation as much as I envy the joy of the result?? after all, if it weren’t for a little struggle and hardship every now and then, we wouldn’t be able to appreciate and bask in our ability to overcome, right? Without bad, would we even recognize good??

    I’ll most likely NEVER be able to convince my man to commit to buying a house, much less a house that needs more than the minorest of cosmetic upgrades (which would cause it to be out of our price range anyway) The designer in me dies a little everytime I think about what I’m missing out on…

    Anyway, until I moved to NY, I’d never experienced gas ranges and radiator heat. It is unfathomable to me now how anyone functions without them.

  54. Your plumber should totally get a superhero cape for that — what a great guy! When you find a contractor like that it’s like finding gold.

    I would totally do radiators for heat, but I can’t buy a house w/o central air — I just can’t (seasonal allergies would slay me, let alone August heat). I wonder if there’s any way to do both?

    • AGREE–Yes, that plumber should be honored, acclaimed, applauded, lauded, lavished with praise. Is there an equivalent of an Oscar Award in plumbingdom? If so, he so deserves it.

  55. We have been reluctant to replace our old boiler (probably from the 40s, quite the oil guzzler), because we don’t want to have our chimney relined (mantels and plater would suffer). Glad to hear there are other options. How big of a vent does it require? Is it something like the size of a dryer vent, or something bigger?

    • I had a 40s American Standard cast iron gas boiler hulk replaced with a high-efficiency boiler too. It side-vents with PVC pipes that are about the size of dryer vents. One caveat, around here code requires a minimum 4-foot clearance where it vents outside.
      And I can only laud my boiler installer guy too!

  56. I can only imagine how wonderful the heat must feel!

  57. I have a Navien hot water heater that looks very similar to your boiler and I learned the hard way that ours needs to have vinegar run through it during its annual maintenance (even though we don’t have hard water). You may already know this because your plumber rocks and you are smart, but I did not and neither did any of the plumbers who worked on mine. Without the vinegar cleaning, the valves get stuck and we end up with cold water. The upside is now we know that the Navien techs are quite helpful and competent and easy to work with! And we can DIY our hot water heater maintenance! Congrats on your new setup!!

    • Oh, that’s fascinating, Hillary! I do have to ask my plumber about maintenance (the last thing I want is this thing dying anytime soon!), and I’ll definitely bring this up. Thank you!!

  58. Wow, really interesting post – learned a lot today.

  59. I’m glad this story has a happy ending! All that crap is stressful enough, but when coming into winter… yeesh. Very informative read, I’ve never lived anywhere with boilers or radiators.

  60. ok i have a really stupid question: since the second time the gas people came out and they said the lines were ok and operational, at what point did you actually start getting gas service???

    • A couple weeks later…it was a bit more complicated than that. Central Hudson, the gas company, subcontracts the gas conversion stuff to another company called Precision Pipeline Solutions. It was the guy from PPS that told us that the line was too old/probably dead, and the PPS engineers and design team that planned the new service. I guess it has to be cleared by Central Hudson, though, and when THEIR guy came out, he insisted that our service was fine and did not need to be replaced. Then the PPS people tried to argue with Central Hudson that it DID need to be replaced, and Central Hudson kept saying it didn’t, and then they squabbled about it for a while. When everything was installed, pressure test had been done, and we were ready to have the gas turned on, the PPS people came back to install the meter and turn the gas on and STILL (after all those weeks!) tried to argue that they couldn’t use the existing service and they’d have to run a new line. The things I said over the phone that day…well, all I can say is that expletives are effective because they eventually caved and gave us gas. It was a mess!

      • wow. just… wow. i am glad you have heat and especially glad you have the world’s most awesome plumber xx

  61. Hi Daniel,

    We just did an extension to our house and were able to use some amazing new insulated plasterboard right on top of the bricks and mortar that was really slim and was up to code for energy efficiency requirements for the build. You might want to look into it if you are going to be replacing any dry wall and want to increase your energy efficiency.

    • That’s really interesting Arianna, thank you! Fortunately and unfortunately, pretty much all the walls in our house are the original plaster, which we’re planning to keep everywhere that we can. But if we ever do more extensive gutting, I’ll definitely keep that in mind!

      • I know how you feel, our house is dated 1840 and when we renovated we kept as much as we could but after the first winter we fixed some serious cold spots in the house out of necessity! Insulating the attic is also very good too and learn how to ‘bleed’ the radiators if they haven’t been used to get the most of those gorgeous beauties.

  62. My, I am sooooo happy for you!!! And the picture in the beginning is beautiful. And I am glad to hear that things worked out with your original plumber, it is really priceless to find and work with people who are knowledgable and committed.
    Sorry don’t have the time to read all the comments, but your house sounds nice and toasty. Have a wonderful day!

  63. Home improvement projects can prove to be a real bear at times. So glad this replacement project work out for you. It’s no fun being cold in your own home.

  64. That is the sexiest boiler I’ve ever seen! I’m happy to know you guys won’t turn into human icicles this winter.

  65. So glad your heat is up and running before temperatures really plunged! My parents have a small vacation house in the Adirondacks. Before they committed to keeping the heat on all year we would drain the system in the fall with an air compressor and hope nothing exploded in the winter. I think at least once a year we would turn on the water and someone in the house would start screaming that water was spraying out of the baseboards, walls etc… So so glad this isn’t part of your winter!

  66. Daniel… so glad that things are coming together for you. My son (also a Daniel!) closes on his first house this Friday. It’s a 100+ year old bungalow, in surprisingly good condition, considering her age. A few electric problems are being handled by the seller, the rest will be up to him. I hope he fares half as well as you have done.
    Bravo! and Congratulations!

  67. When I scrolled down and saw your pic of your new boiler I thought “Wow! Looks like something from ‘This Old House’. And it is! “Daniel’s Old House”. So glad everyone is nice & toasty – you can only put on so many layers of clothing. Heat & Hot Water = HEAVEN.

    Question – Even though you can “smell” the gas and the boiler is in the basement, are you also the proud owner of some new carbon monoxide detectors?

  68. Congrats on the heat — what a nice feeling! I’m hoping you’ll be tracking your monthly gas bill and that you may possibly be willing to share it with the world for those thinking of doing an oil to gas conversion.

  69. I had a somewhat similar story at a house I was renovating. The gas had been turned off at the street because of a gas leak in the neighborhood. We didn’t have it turned back on right away because the house was vacant and it was late summer. Then when we tried to get the heating system upgraded, the gas company said they’d have to dig up the street, and we’d have to wait till APRIL (due to frost). They would just not process what I told them about why the gas had been turned off. But – happy ending – they finally sent someone out who determined that no digging was required, turned the gas service on, and saved us from a cold winter.

  70. My dad just went through having his old tanks taken out and a fancy new gas tankless one put in his old house too. I’m pretty sure he also sobbed over his radiators actually being hot too lol. First thing he said when I visted “Come feel how hot the rads are now!!”

  71. Ohhhhh Daniel! HOT!

    No, not you, not even the trio of plumbers (although the photo is appreciated). I mean the new boiler of course!

    HOT water, HOT radiators, HOT dogs . . . happy days are here again!

    Crikey, it looks like you could run the Pentagon with that set-up! I love the thermostat that looks like a rocket launching pad, and of course you had to choose the ‘Nest’ version, being your namesake and all. Mandatory.

    Completely understand your being so emotionally overwhelmed after the place warmed up, it’s no fun living in a cold house, even when it’s a beautiful house.

    Good on your plumber for ‘taking the initiative’ – whatever the misunderstanding, the guy obviously wanted the work, AND got it done. And you know him from the previous job, so all in all a good experience. Some tradesmen really are good guys, fortunately!

    Now, what happened with that pesky electrician again?

  72. I can tell you that I went to bed grinning and satisfied. No it wasn’t sex, it was better than that. HEAT and hot water in an efficient and streamlined form in the Kanter house. Somehow, it works out, first the roof, and now a heating system. I hope that this is the end of the big fixes and things are smoother from here on. I’m sure learning a lot from your struggles and appreciate the process.

  73. Oh my, this sounds like the east coast version of our heat saga. So glad you guys got it sorted out and will be WARM this winter! (And I agree, there is something super sexy about new mechanical systems in an old house.)

  74. Very exciting! Your basement looks immaculate, btw.

  75. I’ve been living vicariously for a while now, and I can’t help but send my HUGE congratulations on this job well done!

    The one thing I worry about: the old oil tank abatement. I’m not sure what sort of process folks go through to handle residential tanks in NY, but I hope it’s at least as rigorous a remediation as what I’m having done for work right now at one of our 100-year-old locations (I work for an oil company). Soil contamination is nasty stuff and can be way more pervasive and hard to deal with than most people think.

    My Holiday Wish for you all is that when your tanks were removed no evidence of leaks or contamination was found and that everything is puppies and rainbows as far as that is concerned. Hopefully part of the pre-sale abatement included a report on this stuff to you guys!

    • Yes, it did! I can’t remember the exact details, but I do know the abatement process was pretty involved (all done by the seller’s agent before we even looked at the house). We were given an EPA-certified report stating basically that everything had been done correctly and everything was good to go!

  76. Yay! Hopefully the roof situation will be (is?) dealt with just as successfully. How is it going anyway?

    • It’s going pretty well! I need to post an update, but unfortunately it’s covered in snow right now! Fortunately, it was ready for the snow. Phew.

  77. I spent so long on your blog the other day, that when I woke up the following morning I was confused why I was in my house and not yours. Total buzzkill. Love what you have done with the space!

  78. I feel so unbelievably sorry for Sad!Daniel without heat, with very broken box gutters and roof issues. When you blog “everything is garbage”, I actually find myself thinking “and that’s pretty bad, when everything is garbage”.

    Super stoked about your sweet hot water heater! and like ten THOUSAND hoorays for your plumber. :)

  79. You know you’re a home owner when heating and hot water become exciting. Whenever we give a house tour, we still show off our tankless water heater. Everything needed replacing when we moved in (furnace, A/C, hot water heating), and I love the peace of mind that comes with knowing our system is up to date and of our choosing. That, and we gained a few valuable feet of square footage when we ditched the hot water tank.

    Do write us a post in the spring about your Nest thermostat! Ours is only four years old so I need a good dose of justification to replace it.

    • When you replaced your old boiler with the navien did you have to flush out your cast iron radiators? If so was it a power flush? Did you insert a valve in the system for collecting dirt in the old cast iron radiators?

      • I think the system was flushed, yes, but I don’t know the answers to your other questions! Sorry!

  80. So happy for you!

  81. Now I am obsessed with looking at combo boiler/hwh. I also have hot water heat in my 1890 house, but no central AC system, which is NOT good for humid Midwestern summers. You should see the leviathan in my parent’s 1920s Tudor- it’s literally 7 feet tall. I can’t wait to show them this post. :)

    Old houses are HARD!

  82. Check in here on that Navien–we are looking at installing a Navien combi to replace huge inefficient scary natural gas boiler and water heater BECAUSE we can’t use the sketchy venting system that came with the house we just purchased (actually the natural gas company, when I called them out about an odor I suspected, just shut off our NG until we have figured out a safe code way to vent our natural gas appliances, so we HAVE to switch to hi-E because we have to vent horizontally out of the house now, can’t use old and sketchy flue…Has it worked out well? We’re in Missouri, with not terrible winters but have two little kids and we do A LOT of laundry…Do you like it?
    Thanks!

    • Hi Lindsey! I’m sorry to hear about your gas situation! Been there, done that. Sheesh, you’d think your inspector would have warned you!

      I LOVE our boiler/hot water set-up. LOVE. Our heating bills were relatively low last winter (especially compared to our neighbors and friends on oil…yikes), and it kept the house toasty all winter. It’s been great for hot water, too…some say they notice a bit longer lag-time to get hot water out of the tap with tankless heaters, but it really doesn’t bother me. And the on-demand hot water means it doesn’t run out, ever, which is AMAZING since one of us (achem…max) likes his long hot showers. No complaints!

Comments are now closed for this article.

Back to Top