Converting from oil to ??

EmilyJune 24, 2014

Tonight we had a plumber come to the house to give an estimate for converting from oil to gas. I live in the New York metro area in a 3600 sq foot three story house built in the 1920s with a balloon frame and full unfinished basement. When I asked about also moving our steam pipes in the basement to ultimately get pipes out of way for a future renovation, he recommended we get rid of oil furnace, indoor oil tank and all steam pipes in basement and instead get a ductless system which would replace heat and central air for whole house. Does this make any sense? I know installation will be expensive, won't electric bills be high? Any advice? Thanks.

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So you heat with hot water baseboard or radiator heat fueled by oil?

Boiler not furnace?

Are you satisfied with current heating system and comfort?

Nat gas is available?

What if anything or you doing about air conditioning? No ductwork system?

Post back.


    Bookmark   June 25, 2014 at 6:27AM
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Currently we have a gas hot water heater and oil furnace with steam radiators throughout the house. We have one 20plus year old central air unit powering just the first floor. We also installed central air a few years ago for the second and third floors. The 2nd floor has four bedrooms and two baths. The third floor has two bedrooms and one bath. All rooms have old fashioned radiators except the living room and master bedroom which have some sort of baseboard connected to the same system.
Our plans are to finish the basement at some point but the numerous steam pipes are taking up lots of room. They are also preventing us from redoing very steep stairs.
We had a plumber come yesterday to give an estimate for converting to gas and perhaps relocating steam pipes in basement to give headroom. The pipes would prevent us from finishing basement as they are low. He said it would be over a month of labor and be very expensive. It was at that point he suggested we get rid of oil furnace and oil tank and steam pipes and instead put in ductless split system covering heat and air for whole house. I looked online but mostly saw that people used ductless as a primary system but also had a furnace for colder weather. We would be removing it to get rid of steam pipes which crisscross the basement.

My concern is mostly monthly electric costs, comfort and how ductless system will look. Do we need to install unit in every room? The house has lots of separate rooms. Also, will this be nosy and how comfortable will house be? Is there a problem having this the only heating system in the northeast with no backup furnace? Thanks.

    Bookmark   June 25, 2014 at 7:49AM
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One more thing. There is currently no air conditioning or heating in the basement. When we redo it we fill need to add.

    Bookmark   June 25, 2014 at 7:55AM
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What are your rates? Electric/KWH, nat gas/therm, and oil/gal? I will give your fuel comparison.

Still have a boiler for your radiator heat? Correct?

I would consider converting to nat gas for radiator heat including what your options are for the basement, possibly putting it on a separate zone.

I think the idea of ductless mini splits is a poor idea.


    Bookmark   June 25, 2014 at 8:03AM
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Replacing the boiler and switching from oil to natural gas is the simplest and easiest option to save on your heating bills. I would conservatively estimate the heating bills would be cut in half, and possibly more depending on the efficiency of the new boiler and the gas rate.

It may be possible to move the steam pipes in the basement. The pipes in a one pipe steam system have to be set up properly in order to make it work. You need an evaluation of a steam heating expert to guide you on this. It is not your typical plumber.

I assume the plumber is talking about installing multiple mini split units on each floor. These are basically high efficiency heat pumps. The good thing about them is that they also provide air conditioning. The bad part is they run on electricity. I think high cost of electricity in the NYC area makes this less attractive than heating with gas. I also question how this will work in an old house that does not have an open floor plan. What will you do with the old radiators and the holes left in the old hardwood floors?

You may not like the heat provided by the mini splits compared with the steam radiators. The heat may not be as even and the house will be dryer in the winter.

There is a lot to consider before making this switch in the HVAC system. My advice it to consider all options, but get rid of the oil heating by October.

    Bookmark   June 25, 2014 at 8:04AM
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My high wall mini splits make good ceiling heaters in the winter. I have, however, cold floors in my raised house. If winter was much colder and longer here, I think that I would not like them. as the temperature approaches the set point, the blowers slow and don't mix the air very well.

My cooling units went out and I installed some mini splits instead. At that point, heat pumps made sense from a power/fuel source standpoint. I wanted to eliminate ducts in the attic and under the house. One tenuous duct run that began in the attic and ran under the house supplying a flat roofed utility room is gone completely. Since gas got cheap, I've gone back to using gas-fired forced air in most of the house since I retained those ducts and the furnace.

The more and smaller rooms you have, as Mike pointed out, the more a mini split system will cost you. I live in a much hotter, humid clime than you right now, but I've lived in much colder than you as well, with oil-fired hydronic heat. If I still had that kind of heat in your area with no AC ducts I'd keep the heat, converting to gas if possible, and install mini splits for cooling unless I could easily put ducts inside the house envelope. (That means not in the attic.)

Is the renovation that you speak of only in the basement? If you are renovating the whole house, you should consider the trade-offs between efficient mechanical equipment and the tight envelope. The tighter the envelope, the less important efficient conditioning equipment is.

There are various types of mini split indoor units available, high wall are typical and least expensive. There are ceiling cassettes, minimally-ducted units that can serve more than one room, and floor units. There is no reason that you can't install a central ducted system in most of the house and use some mini-splits in rooms that are difficult to reach with ducts.

Mostly what you need are some very good HVAC expert in the house that is knowledgable about mini splits, steam boilers and everything in between. That might be a hard bill to fill, but try.

One big advantage of mini splits is the inherent zoning. One disadvantage of high wall units is the inability to add controlled, exterior conditioned air introduction. Lastly, having lived with nice hot radiators in a cold climate, I'd be awful reluctant to give them up for anything but in-floor radiant heat.

    Bookmark   June 25, 2014 at 5:32PM
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Tigerdunes - I don't have actual numbers but then again, rates can change and I could be stuck paying more in the future. We were looking to convert to gas when we mentioned the steam pipes will be in the way of a future renovation and plumber saw that dye yo lack of access to outside it may be impossible to bring in new boiler.

Mike_home - as I just mentioned, it looks like I have to now deal with an architect and contractor to now make a door to basement. Existing stairs cannot carry load and door to basement is too narrow. Perhaps another 5k-10k to just get ready to convert. Then 9k for gas furnace install, 4k for chimney liner plus cost of removing oil,tank. Plus pipes stay where they are all over the basement.

Ionized - I was afraid of issues in winter. Plumber said ok to negative five degrees. While ny doesn't usually get that low, you never know.. I already have air on all floors but basement. Two separate central air systems. One is for first floor and was done 20 years ago. A few years ago I installed central air for 2nd and 3rd floors.

Thanks for your ideas.

    Bookmark   June 26, 2014 at 7:43AM
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Boilers are not as large as they use to be.

I am concerned you are taking advice from a plumber. You need to be speaking to a qualified HVAC dealer who happens to sell nat gas boilers.


    Bookmark   June 26, 2014 at 7:49AM
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National grid recommended a bunch of people to convert from oil to gas. He was one of them. How do i find a qualified hvac dealer? Everyone seems to have an agenda....

    Bookmark   June 26, 2014 at 8:03AM
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Just want to make sure you are speaking to the right agenda here...just trying to help...any neighbors or friends who have switched from oil to nat gas boilers?...

I will say need to get going on this project so you can begin to take advantage of the obvious substantial savings before next heating season.


    Bookmark   June 26, 2014 at 8:37AM
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I grew up in a house built in the 1920's in Brooklyn which had steam heat. Maybe I am being too sentimental but ripping out the steam system just seems wrong to me. Your best option in my opinion is to convert to gas and making sure the steam system is operating at peak efficiency.

You need to bring a steam expert to give you advice about moving any steam pipes. Here is a link to a forum devoted to heating. Search for a contractor which specializes in steam. I get the perception these guys are expensive, but it will be worth paying for their expertise. There is also a forum (The Wall) devoted strictly to steam. Some of the contractors offer help. This may be a good way to meet one.

You will be surprised how small a modern correctly sized boiler is today. Perhaps you can get it through the current door way. The old boiler and tank will be dismantled into pieces in the basement. No need to make the door bigger just for removal.

Good luck and let keep us updated.

Here is a link that might be useful: Finding a steam heat contractor

    Bookmark   June 26, 2014 at 10:29AM
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How old is your boiler?

You might consider hiring an independent energy evaluator/rater to plan your path forward. Someone with the analysis "tools" might find that boiler replacement is not going to give you the best bang for the buck. Replacing the oil burner with a gas burner could be the better option. I am not saying that it is, but some numbers should be crunched and comparisons made to investing in your air sealing and insulation.

    Bookmark   June 26, 2014 at 2:04PM
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Do you like the steam heat? A really nicely set up and operating steam system is great heat. Do you want to keep the radiators? The other question is how far are you going with this re-model? Is it all three floors and basement or just first floor and basement.

Your simplest option, and cheapest, is to put in the power gas burner in place of the oil burner and leave the system as is.

If the pipes in the basement have to go then you move in to a whole new level of cost and options. Be aware that moving steam mains and returns, unless done by a guy who knows his stuff can affect system operation. With steam there is only one way and you need a "hand" doing that work. the reference to The Wall is the right place and if anyplace has good steam guys it is the City.

If you choose to remove the steam system all together you could go with a modulating condensing gas fired wall hung boiler. It will fit through the door and two guys can easily carry it downstairs. You could be looking at a total repipe or possibly you could save and reuse the second and third floor piping. Only "eyes on" can tell. With this change to the mod con boiler you can reline the flue with PVC for the flue or you may be able to sidewall vent and not need the chimney. You eliminate the tank water heater and go to an indirect water heater. Your heating distribution options are hot water baseboard, panel rads (Runtal & others) or staple up radiant in the first floor, or a combination. Perhaps you can re-use the steam radiators.

Depending upon lay-out the mini-splits will work perfectly for you for both heating and cooling and they will handle the heat load in NYC. Some mini split models work down to -30f now. I heat my home with a combination of them and Rinnai Energysaver. The Rinnai would be your best heating option for the basement.

Emily, being on the downhill side of a total re-model of my home & knowing what it can run, I am vicariously spending your money here.

    Bookmark   June 29, 2014 at 11:44AM
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just change out the burner and fire it with gas, keep the same boiler. plumbing/heating companies poo poo this because they don't want the business unless it's 2 or 3k minimum and a burner swap usually won't do that.

    Bookmark   June 30, 2014 at 11:16PM
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We did a swap from oil to gas burner, but we are located in Alexandria, VA and it cost more than $2-3k. The job included removing the 1940 oil boiler and basement oil tank, and replacing it with a mid-range efficiency conversion boiler (not a more expensive mod-con), and the estimates ranged up to about $9k. We already had gas for the water heater, but they extended the gas line to power the boiler, and also ran a new gas line for a clothes dryer.

I would have to look at the paperwork to be sure, but I think the bid we took was $8,300, and they used a Buderus .84 efficiency conversion boiler. The actual unit is a little bigger than a two drawer file cabinet, and they connected it up without any significant changes in the existing pipes to the radiators.


    Bookmark   July 1, 2014 at 7:54AM
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ccarlson, berlin means to just swap the BURNER, not the whole boiler. Not much, if any efficiency will be gained, but you do get the less expensive fuel that way. Although tank removal might be desirable, it may not be mandated by local building codes.

    Bookmark   July 1, 2014 at 12:10PM
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Unless this would be strictly a budget decision, I do not like the idea of a burner conversion from oil to nat gas. Do it right the first time and get a high eff condensing boiler.


    Bookmark   July 1, 2014 at 12:20PM
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Tiger, I agree with you on this point. BUT, always a but, eh? Emily has a lot of decisions to make first. How big is this remodel? What is the budget? The modcon may, and likely will, require substantial re-pipe and controls. She needs a total system evaluation with options ranked by comfort, cost, efficiency, etc. a system like this is not one to be done necessarily by the lowest cost bidder. She needs a really good technical person to evaluate and present her options. The burner conversion is only the simplest option. I think that for code and insurance purposes the tank must be removed.

    Bookmark   July 1, 2014 at 1:05PM
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Thanks to everyone for their advice. I went to the website recommended above for steam plumbers and found someone who specializes in steam to come to the house. Unlike last plumber who spent 5 min looking at system before quoting price, this one spent 1 hour measuring every radiator in the house (i had 17 units) as well as the stairs to see what could fit into the basement. He seemed knowledgeable and proposed a steam boiler Burnham model #IN6. His work $7000 plus cost of boiler through national grid of $2650 minus rebates of approximately $1300 back. He thinks i have a chimney liner and suggested i pay chimney company to check. If yes, recommends a unit which will vent through the chimney. Said would do power vent if we wanted but due to additional parts, there may be more problems.

How do i know if this sounds reasonable?
Each vendor seems to contradict the last....

Thanks again for all the good advice.

    Bookmark   July 3, 2014 at 12:29AM
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The fact that he looked at and measured every radiator in the house makes me feel he knows what he is doing. Just remember all steam specialists are plumbers, but very few plumbers are steam specialists.

What did this contractor say that contradicted what the previous guys said? You should keep notes on what all contractors say, but make note of who is saying it.

What was this contractor's reaction about raising the steam pipes in the basement? Did he think it was feasible? Is this adding a big cost to the quote?

Is he picking a boiler that will fit down the basement stairway? Did you tell you the size and how he arrived at the size?

Is the quote $7000 plus $1350 for the boiler after rebates? The installation charges seem high, but I suspect a big part of it moving existing pipes. I assume this includes removing the old oil tank.

Are you going to get a second quote from another steam expert?

    Bookmark   July 3, 2014 at 9:42AM
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It seems like he measured the radiators to arrive at a BTU requirement for the radiators. If the home has had significant air sealing and insulation improvements since the heating system was designed, and the heat source is not down-sized to match, you might end up with sub-optimal performance. A heat loss calculation should be done for your home with any additional planned improvements included.

"Said would do power vent if we wanted but due to additional parts, there may be more problems."

It seems like he is indicating that a power-vent boiler has more moving parts so it is more likely to break. I'd get a comparison of the efficiency of the power-vent compared to the chimney-vent models to see what your fuel cost difference is likely to be.

If placing the power vent out the side of the house is difficult with the current location, perhaps the re-piping that you are doing will make it trivial to move the boiler elsewhere. It might work better for you re-model as well. Eliminating the chimney is a good thing for eliminating a potential source of roof leaks.

With hot water boilers, a PVC liner can be run up the chimney. I don't know if that is the case for steam boilers. If that is possible it might make it possible for the boiler to remain where it is if that is what you want.

    Bookmark   July 3, 2014 at 10:05AM
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I found this old document on how to size a replacement boiler. For a steam system the boiler size is determine by the number and sizes of the radiators. The boiler has to produce enough steam to fill all the radiators. If you want to decrease the size of the boiler, you have to install smaller radiators.

I would think venting up the chimney would be easier than trying to do a side vent in brick house built in the 20's. These houses typically have many windows and very small lots. Installing a side vent could be difficult.

Here is a link that might be useful: Boiler Replacement guide

    Bookmark   July 3, 2014 at 11:31AM
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I wondered about that complication with installing a smaller boiler. I can't say that I know how the steam systems are supposed to work, but I was thinking about the difference between returning cooler steam to the boiler vs condensed water.

If the house is improved wrt heat loss, and the boiler can not be made smaller, the owner will have to live with larger temp swings.

    Bookmark   July 3, 2014 at 12:13PM
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Actually, mike_home, we arent ready to renovate basement yet so quote does not mean moving any pipes besides the one involved in boiler change out. Depending on where they get moved, it will be a maximum of 10k. He said it could be a lot less once we have an exact plan. He found a boiler that they would put together after it was brought down to the basement. Price includes removal of old boiler and oil tank. There were 2 other companies listed for my area. One had a number with no machine and the other said that the "salesman" doesn't give estimates in the evenings but she would ask. She never called back.

Ionized, While i would love to remove chimney someday, it would be cost prohibitive so if there is a chimney liner, we might just stay with it.

All, steam plumber company was very responsive and professional in meeting with us and providing quote.

I guess next step is to ensure chimney is lined.

    Bookmark   July 3, 2014 at 7:18PM
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