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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.