Wood Burning Furnace with Radiators?

old_home_loverNovember 13, 2012

I have posted two pics of what I sincerely hope to be furnaces in the basement of the 1875 home we are going to restore. The Executors selling the place said it has oil heat and there is a tank in the basement but also these two things. Thing is, one full wall of the basement is packed about three feet deep, wall to wall, and ceiling to floor with small pieces of wood. About six inches long and a couple inches thick. These seem useless as firewood for the fireplace upstairs and it would be serious overkill to have that much kindling especially since there's no wood pile of logs. So my questions are:

Could they be for one of these furnaces?

If so, would a furnace like that be used in conjunction with the hot water radiators throughout the house?

If so would it be okay to put that system back 'online' so to speak as a temporary measure to heat the place? We need to run new electrical and I am concerned about plugging in heaters until that's completed but would love to be able to have a plumber get the radiators running again first. After sitting empty for the better part of fifty years it is so damp and cold! We live several hours away and getting heat functional is a high priority since we could stay there overnights when we traveled to work on other things.

Finally, if we are going to use the wood furnace, who do we call to look at it? A chimney sweep? A plumber? Does anyone even deal with that anymore?

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Here's the other one:

    Bookmark   November 13, 2012 at 3:43PM
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Also, if anyone could please give me an idea of what I should be asking the plumber who looks at the radiators that would be a big help too. Thanks so much in advance!

    Bookmark   November 13, 2012 at 3:45PM
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Your pictures are not very clear, especially the first one. The second one appears to be a solid fuel unit, probably originally coal, but again, very hard to tell from the pictures.

In the second photo, in the rear is an oil fired boiler. I'd guess this is the most recent unit. Seems to me you need your local heating (HVAC) contractor to come by, not a plumber. Getting started with oil would seem to be the best bet, and any oil dealer would be happy to help because they also sell you the oil. Won't cost a dime to have them come by, and while there they can venture opinions on your other units. Based on their input, you can come back to us "old house sleuths" with that and better pictures, and we can go from there. But first you need heat, and it looks like oil is your quickest and easiest path. It takes a long time to heat an old house, and a lot of effort stoking the fires, and all that after you've come a long way and have only a short time to stay...

    Bookmark   November 13, 2012 at 7:05PM
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I agree, the first one looks like a coal stove and perhaps it was once used to heat hot water or for the radiators.

Whether you wish to burn coal, or not, someone will have to be there to riddle it, shovel the coal in and haul out the ashes every day, perhaps even more often in very cold weather. That's not something that can be just done on the weekends, because in between times the pipes will freeze and burst.

The same thing applies to a wood-fired furnace, which I do not see in your pics. If a house was heated with wood it most likely would have been before they had central heat. Radiators and wood burning are not a common combination. Using it when you are not there full time would be impossible for much the same reasons, only more so, than for a coal furnace.

The wood you see may be left over from a wood cooking stove, though from your description these pieces seem small, even for that use. There are always odd things left in houses. Any wood-fired furnace will have a substantial, fireplace-sized chimney.

Since you do not plan to live there full-time immediately, if you do not have an absolutely reliable oil or gas burner, then my best advice is to leave the house cold for one more winter as the risk to it less if its pipes are still empty. Once the weather is milder in the Spring you can risk leaving running water (toilets, taps, bathing etc.)in an unheated house and just fire up the water heater when you arrive for the weekend. As a stop-gap you could get a smallish electric HW heater to tide you over next spring. That will give you time to sort out what you're planning for whole-house heating systems before next winter.

Once you are there and would notice leaks or furnace failures in time to do something about them, you can choose which furnace to start up. If there's an oil furnace that can be used, you will find it quite satisfactory for a winter or two, though probably inefficient by modern standards and expensive.

Don't get rid of your (hopefully) hot water cast iron radiators, they are the best heat. Only thing better is under-floor radiant hot water heating, which is hard to retro fit into an old house. Both work on the same principle of radiant heating.

Since you have multiple furnaces and fireplaces, pay close attention to the chimney set-ups. Do not allow more than one appliance or fireplace to use a single flue. To do so is to risk serious danger from carbon-monoxide poisoning. Don't assume that just because it is currently connected in a certain way that it must be OK and safe.

The blue creature is probably the oil burner to feed the radiators and the HW. If you can get someone to overhaul the system at a time when you're likely to be there for a week or two (to troubleshoot) you might be confident enough to leave it during the week afterward. But if there's any doubt, don't chance it as the damage from burst water pipes or radiators can be severe. (Also your insurance co may turn weasely if a shaky system was left unattended.)


    Bookmark   November 14, 2012 at 5:12AM
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I've just re-read what I wrote and see that I have somewhat obscured what I meant to say.

The most important point I wanted to make is that even if you had a functional, or rehab-able, coal stove you can't use that to heat the house unless you (or a very reliable someone else) are there virtually every day to tend it (riddle, fuel and carry out ashes). They just don't work that way, even modern ones, which yours are not.

Here's perhaps the first important lesson to learn from engaging with your new old house: unlike modern buildings, the original expectation was that they would normally require daily, human maintenance to run. Whether that meant pumping up water from a cistern, cleaning and refilling oil lamps, re-icing the ice box, tending the fire in the cookstove and water jacket, emptying the chamber pots, or dealing with the coal stove, nothing was automatic. Not needing constant human attention is the defining characteristic of modern life's conveniences.

I know this intimately because I have lived for nearly a quarter century in a house much-older than yours which is still without central heat. Friends are often floored when they realize that in the winter our personal plans are absolutely subordinated to the need to return home and re-fuel the woodstove twice a day, without which our house and our (modern) plumbing would freeze overnight and crack.

When our house was built before the Civil War this risk didn't exist since one of the things that went along with no central heat was also no central plumbing. The geranium on the windowsill might have perished if the homeowner was kept away from tending the woodstoves, but the house would have otherwise been fine.

However, nowadays houses have pipes and drains and washing machine sumps which must be kept from freezing, hence our need to return and tend the stove daily from November to the end of March. The lesson here is not that we, or the original owners, live an impossibly primitive and onerous life. It's that changes we make to the technology of an old house (adding indoor plumbing in 1959) can have far-reaching consequences.

And also it challenge our assumptions of what's a normal thing for a rich and satisfactory life. In your case proposing to travel several hours on a weekend and expect to find yourself in a warm house heated by a coal stove is probably a fantasy. When your house was built, that weekend plan itself would have seemed absurd. People just didn't do that sort of thing, except perhaps for visiting hunting or ice-fishing camps, where the emphasis would have been squarely on the camping part.

Nowadays, it's not uncommon to have a year-round, heated weekend house, just awaiting your arrival. In the 19th c., that would have likely required employment of an on-site caretaker (and his wife).

When you purchase an old house, you're missing an important factor if you percieve it merely as an outdated shell to be upgraded to a modern system. You risk not seeing that it, once, was a complete, up-to-date set of technologies for the support of human life.

And altering one or more of them can impact the others in unexpected ways, with significant consequences for good and ill. Each of these survivor-buldings has a lot to teach us, if only we will take the trouble to observe and think about them.


    Bookmark   November 14, 2012 at 6:24AM
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Thanks very much from both of you. Liri you may have misunderstood what I was expecting. I certainly never expected the house to be warm when we arrived; more that if we showed up in the morning we could have heat that night. However I didn't think about the pipes freezing once water is reintroduced so that definitely changes things, lol.

I am so looking forward to having the radiators restored but I'm not willing to risk bursting pipes, so I guess we'll wait or go for a system we CAN leave running.

Thanks again!

    Bookmark   November 14, 2012 at 8:02PM
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Well, as long as you don't put any water in either the heating system, or the plumbing system you can just go there and plug in electric or fire up gas space heaters whilst you're there.

Then let the house cool off between visits.

But there are two caveats: There is a certain (physical) cost to a building when it warms and cools, especially over short time periods. It's better all around to warm up and stay warm, or conversely to stay cold. I'm not talking about the changes that might occur when you turn down a thermostat while you're away for a day, week, vacation, etc. That still is a heated house. I'm talking about what happens when you start from an ambient temp house in the winter in a cold area where all the components of a house may be below freezing, then heat it up over the course of a day or two (and that's how long it takes to heat a plastered house because of the thermal mass inherent in plaster), then reverse it. Those cycles can lead to problems.

And secondly, if you're doing work on the house the temperatures are important during, and especially, after if you're painting, repairing plaster, refinishing floors, etc. These jobs need "normal" temps during curing or problems ensue.

If you can get any full-time heating system up and running (reliably) it will be fine. But if not, then just postpone work for a few months until winter moderates. A winter is nothing in the lifespan of a 19th c house.

One final thought: if you do get a system up, don't think you can risk keeping it a very low level to save on energy costs. If you have any power outages, and your house is already in the 40-50's it will freeze very quickly, much more quickly than a fully-furnished house normally kept in the 60-70 degree range. In this situation even brief power outages that you would normally just ignore could put your house at risk. If you keep heat in the house this winter, it would pay to have someone local you could count on to go and start and maintain a generator.


    Bookmark   November 15, 2012 at 4:54PM
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Liri - that is something else I hadn't considered, thank you. I don't think we will actually get to any of the kinds of tasks you listed until spring at least, though. There is just so much to do to even GET to where I can do those (IMO FUN) things.

One is electrical, and if I may prevail upon you, you sound very knowledgeable about these things; so would running the electrical this winter be a problem if we didn't do any plaster repair or anything yet? I was thinking we could leave the house cold, leave the water off, really do nothing except install the breaker panels and run the wires. That will probably take a winter of weekends alone since the house is 3600 sq ft and still has the knob and tube electrical. With a house of electrical-gadget-obsessed men-and-boy-folk we want to make sure we start fresh and calculate the loads we want for every room so I will never again discover that I can only vacuum the downstairs if we turn off the dishwasher upstairs and the lights in the bedroom, lol.

So is that feasible or do you forsee any issues with undertaking a project like that over the winter (aside from the obvious cold.)


    Bookmark   November 16, 2012 at 12:17AM
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No, the cold won't interfere with electrical work.

The wires may be a bit stiff if it's very cold so if you are planning to "fish" them through the walls this may present a modest problem.

Unless you're really confident about your security I wouldn't lay in a whole house's worth of electrical supplies at once. In my area thieves are pretty keen on the copper in wires.


    Bookmark   November 16, 2012 at 7:42AM
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I'm pretty sure the house is secure, there are brass fixtures everywhere and in the 50 years it's sat unoccupied not a single pane of glass has even been broken. It seems like it must be a very quiet neighborhood (an assumption the neighbors have verified.)

Thanks again!

    Bookmark   November 16, 2012 at 10:30AM
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Prior to the introduction of the EPA and the Clean Air Act in 1972 it was customary for single family residential homes in the suburbs to have an empty 55gal barrel in the back yard. The barrel was stood on end, the top was cut out, and they punched about a dozen 2" or 3" holes around the bottom to let air in. The household trash was collected in paper grocery bags and once a day just before sunset they would take the trashbags out, drop them in the barrel and burn the trash. We were supposed to have a heavy screen to lay over the top of the barrel to prevent sparks from flying out, but most ppl ignored that. As you might imagine, there was always some trash that didn't burn, cans, vegetable peelings & such so about once ever month or six weeks we had to haul the barrel to the town dump and dump it out.
In the larger cities and ppl of means in the suburbs had an indoor trash incinerator, which is what I think the unit in the first photo is. The trash incinerator was a simple burner that you dropped your trash bag in and as it burned it had a flue pipe connected to the house chimney to carry the smoke out. Some actually had a gas burner to effect a better combustion of the trash, but either way, you had to open the door on the bottom and shovel out the excess that didn't burn. Opearting a home trash incinerator is strictly prohibited today.
The large dark unit in the second photo appears to be a coal fired furnace, athough without seeing the rest of the top I can not tell if that one is a steam or hydronic boiler. To start a coal fired boiler or furnace you began by opening the firebox door and building a small wood fire. Once the wood was burning good you put a little coal on it and waited till the coal was burning good before adding more. From a cold start it usually took about two hours of close attention until you had a full fire up. Once it was burning good you had to go down about once ever 3 to 4 hours and shake the grate (the pull handle on the left side) to break up any clinkers on the grates, then add a couple shovels of coal. At night you went down right before bedtime, shook the grates and added about 4 or 5 shovels of coal, then open the ash pit door on the bottom and get 3 or 4 shovels of ashes, which you carefully spread over top of the coal so the coal would only smolder overnight, and first thing in the morning, even before coffee, you had to go down and use a poker to break up the ash klinker on top and shovel some coal on to get the heat up again.
On the ash pit door there should be a flat panel that is hinged from the top, which is called the draft door, and it was connected to a damper chain from a pulley above the furnace. On the first floor of the house there was a brass knob on the wall that was connected to that damper chain. If you wanted to turn the heat up you turned the knob and it would open draft door allowing more air into the firebox and heating the fire up, but careful, The chimeny flue had a barometric draft relief door that would normally regulate the amount of draft ofer the fire, but if you opened the draft door too much, the fire would get too hot and you ran a serious risk of a chimney fire.
Growing up in the 50's & 60's it was a right of passage for boys about 10 years old to learn how to burn the trash and stoke the furnace.
The smaller unit to the left of the furnace in the second picture is an oil fired hydronic boiler. If you look on the large copper pipe on the front of it you can see a black section that is the circulating pump for the hydronic system.
In both of those boilers the water is contained inside cast iron sections and if the boilers were not properly drained it is almost a foregone conclusion that the water has froze and cracked the cast iron over the years of sitting idle. It also almost goes without say that over the years of storage the firebrick & refractory lining in the fireboxes has deteriorated beyond use by humidity.
My greater concern is Asbestos. Both of those boilers will have to be dismantled in place before they can be taken out and they contain substantial amounts of asbestos. It will require complete containment by a professional Asbestos Abatement crew to dismantle and remove those boilers and that can be very expensive...did your realtor disclose that fact at the time of sale?

    Bookmark   November 17, 2012 at 2:45AM
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Lazypup - We bought it from an Estate so they don't have to do a disclosure though I doubt very much it would have made any difference in our decision. The age of the home indicated to me that we would probably being dealing with asbestos at some point. The house has been infrequently visited and not lived in at all for the past 50 years, but the price was right (I could ebay the radiators for more than we paid for the place) so we went for it.

It's been a lifelong dream to restore a house like this and I expect plenty of trouble along the way, but we are not in a position where we need to live here any time in the next few years so we aren't really concerned, but thank you for the heads-up! Also for the wealth of info on how these things may have been used. :)

    Bookmark   November 17, 2012 at 10:40AM
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