Has anyone converted from steam heat to forced air?

sksgradNovember 1, 2005

Just wondering what people's experiences have been of converting a house from steam heat to forced air. Specifically we are wondering about changes in the comfort of the house and any savings (or lack there of) in your gas bills.


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I can't imagine forced air would be an improvement over steam heat. IMP, forced air is the least attractive heating solution. Maybe what you need to do is change out your boiler for a more efficient one.

    Bookmark   November 2, 2005 at 1:37AM
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I grew up with hot water heat (baseboard radiators) and now have forced hot air. I HATE the forced hot air. The room is warm then cold then warm then cold. It doesn't seem to maintain as even a temp as a radiator.

Also, I think the conversion would be very expensive. You would have to run air ducts to every part of the house and if you have more than one floor and plaster walls then I wouldn't even want to try.

We actually heat our house with a pellet stove. We haven't even turned on our heat yet. Our house is actually c1850 however there must have been an old coal heater in the basement as there were air ducts that were put in when the house was built. We even have a wooden air return grate. It is really pretty neat but we have to make sure noone stands on it. I am sure that if someone did by mistake, they would fall through!!

My sister has steam heat and her house is always so toasty warm. I am envious!!!

    Bookmark   November 2, 2005 at 8:50AM
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I just did this last year. The original part of my house was forced air from a long time ago, but I'm not sure that it's original from 1850. There are two old additions that were steam. Instead of upgrading the boiler and furnace, I bought a bigger furnace. The ductwork was a PITA as it ran through a crawlspace. The runs going up the wall are through bulkheads and not inside the wall. This is the same as through the original, plastered house - through bulkheads.

If I didn't have the existing forced air system, I would have stayed steam. I did some research into efficient boilers, and they make alot of sense. You can get one super-efficient boiler for generating steam, heating your water heater and even feeding some radiant floor heating systems that you may wish to add. And the dry air is horrible.

    Bookmark   November 2, 2005 at 11:41AM
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What radiant floor heating system can you feed with steam? I thought you needed a hot water system.

    Bookmark   November 2, 2005 at 1:43PM
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Not a steam radiant heating system, but a "super boiler" that was high efficiency and did all of your water heating/boiling needs. This would be hot water heating (for use in taps and radiant heating) and steam generation. Seemed like getting one very efficient boiler and using it for all of your hot water needs made sense. I don't want to post a link here because the thread may be deleted (have you experienced that?), but if you google hot water boiler, you'll get some links to companies offering hot water/steam boilers.

    Bookmark   November 2, 2005 at 2:18PM
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I've seen 4 such conversions in Pennsylvania and Virginia.

The owners were, to my way of thinking, sold a false bill of goods.

Comfort levels were NOT improved, because in no case were they advised to tighten up the house, insulate, storm windows, etc. first.

Removing the large radiating masses of the radiators eliminated a comfort factor in that they continue to give heat even after the system shuts off.

Blowing air also exacervated the natural drafts in an unsealed house.

I believe that the homeowners did save a LITTLE money on their heating bills, given that they got furnaces with much higher efficiencies than the old boilers that were replaced, but the ultimate cost was MUCH MUCH higher, both in actual dollars and in terms of comfort.

    Bookmark   November 3, 2005 at 12:30AM
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We converted our 100 year old home from steam heat to forced air a couple of years ago because we were installing central air to get rid of the ugly window air conditioners and decided to junk the radiators as well. I can honestly say that the energy savings have been minimal during the winter months. Unless you're wanting to get rid of ugly window air conditioners as we were, I would say save your money and just upgrade your boiler as others have suggested...

    Bookmark   November 9, 2005 at 9:11AM
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We looked into both ideas (upgrading the 'oldest boiler in the world -- original to the house, 1901' or forced air)

The work and cost involved in adding a vent system, along with the fact that we would not see any significant savings during the winter outweighed the glamor of having air conditioning available without the ugly window units.

We bought a very efficient boiler, and for the rest of the house needs, upgraded to a tankless water heater, and frankly, we're already seeing savings, but in our case, that wasn't hard to do, as our heating bill with the old boiler was over 600 dollars a month!

A friend, who has installed forced air systems says that unless you are gutting the house (which we didn't...we kept the plaster walls, ect), the mess of installing a vent system is outrageous, and it's not something that you should be doing DIY.

Our new boiler cost significantly less than a new, installed forced air system.

Just my two cents

    Bookmark   November 9, 2005 at 11:12AM
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If I were you, I'd get someone who really knows steam systems to come out first and see if yours needs "tuning up".

Also, check out the "WALL" on the Heating Help website. According to the posts on the site, a well-maintained steam system is just as efficient as a hot air system, and will give you MUCH more comfortable heat. You might also want to buy a copy of the book "So now you have steam heat". It's really helped me understand my system.

I live with a steam system now, and I've had hot air in the past, and hopefully I won't have to live with it again. It was drafty, cold, and it blew dust everywhere.

Here is a link that might be useful: Heating Help Website

    Bookmark   November 18, 2005 at 5:34PM
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So how much money is this costing? We were told that a conversion with A/C and forced air heat would cost $12,000 to remove all the boiler work, pipes, put ducts in, etc., but the problem is that it IS harder to sell a non-forced air/AC home in the midwest.

We heard that a whole house fan, and AC "gravity" system can resolve the cooling issues.

    Bookmark   January 27, 2006 at 9:25PM
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if at all possible, keep your steam heat system, and use your funds to upgrade the mechanics. I had the pleasure (luxury, I should say) of living in a steam heated apartment recently, and am now back in one w. forced air heat. As someone earlier wrote, you're either hot or cold. NOTHING beats steam heat for even, constant comfort. Sigh. I wish.

    Bookmark   February 14, 2006 at 12:51AM
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I saw the original post a while back when I was flipping through the back pages, and I'm glad it has been resurrected, so I can add my 2 cents.

I grew up in two hot water heated houses, but do not remember much about it. Up to last summer, all the places I lived in across the country were central hot air heated. I have moved into an older house, and one of the factors that weighed heavily in the purchase was the hot water heating. The house was built in 1947, but the original piping and rads were still in operation. Most of the modern people would have immediately walked away after seeing this system. I had intended to and have since replaced the old Gurney boiler with a new gas boiler, and the nasty oil tank was removed as well. The installer said the piping system and rads would last forever.

I have some respiratory issues and my sinuses and nasal passages have suffered over the winter in the past, to the point I was not sure I would be able to get through the winter. I would go outside in the middle of the night to breathe properly. I was so relieved when winter started to wane.

The overall gentle warmth without drafts and blowing dust is such a comfort. I don't know if it's true, that hot water heating vs hot air is a moister heat, but it seems to me it is. I have several portable humidifiers (one is a large e one), which I could use, but I find I do not have to. I have three window a/c's which provide good coverage of zones in the house in summer. I may look into a split high velocity unit in the future, but that is not a priority.


    Bookmark   February 14, 2006 at 6:53PM
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Thanks to everyone for your thoughtful and helpful responses. After reading all the posts we are definitely leaning toward keeping the steam and getting it tuned up so that the heat is more even in our house (probably an issue with the main vents). I am glad that this post generated so much interest and hope that it was helpful to others!

    Bookmark   February 14, 2006 at 7:30PM
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Ditto, naturelle. Always had hot water radiators and never thought about "breathing". Good old 1947 brock house with radiators! I now have forced air and I am now labeled "allergic". Breathing has become a thing of the past. Have added media filters, humidification, portable air cleaners in three rooms, and I am still always stuffy. If I ever move again, forced air is the one thing I will stay away from! No matter who I speak to, I always hear how horrible experiences have been with this kind of system. Why didn't anyone tell me this before I bought this house???

    Bookmark   February 14, 2006 at 7:46PM
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Yes, any water based heating system is actually better than forced air. The educated know that. But try selling it!!

I've been met with looks of absolute horror when telling people we have steam heat. Many realtors won't even show a client a house with steam heat. People have it in their heads that they can't get it maintained anymore, that its outdated, old-fashioned and inferior. In the tight Michigan housing market, selling a house with steam heat when there so many "forced air" houses out there (which also means they have air conditioning) means you practically have to give it away, because the only people who will buy it are flippers who won't pay what the house is worth and who plan on converting it to forced air anyway. I really don't know what to do - seems a shame to get rid of a superior system just because most people don't know better, but that is what I am considering doing (we are currently living in the house ourselves) Any ideas?

    Bookmark   June 30, 2007 at 10:19AM
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The trend in my area (lots of late 1800s townhouses) is for new buyers to rip out the steam heat and replace with forced air/central air. Many new buyers don't like the look of the exposed steam pipes all over the house, nor the floor-space-hogging HUGE radiators. Of course this also means opening up walls for ducts and redoing the floors where the radiators and pipes were. I grew up in a house with steam heat and, except for the knocking radiators on a cold night, loved the heat it gave off and the lingering warmth of the radiators...great for drying wet mittens and socks on a winter day, plus sitting on to warm your butt! :)

Good friends who gutted their townhouse two years ago said if they had it to do again, they'd keep the steam heat and just put in central air. They like the convenience of central a/c but hate the dry forced air and all the dust, dog hair and carpet fibers that it blows around.

We move into our 1890 townhouse in October and want to live for a winter with the current steam system to see how well it works and how high our gas bills are. Right now we're leaning toward the steam heat/central air combo.

    Bookmark   June 30, 2007 at 1:07PM
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We've installed and serviced gas & oil fired steam systems for years. Installers often try to make a sale by offering hollow promises of savings & comfort by replacing steamers with forced air systems. Scorched air systems (or furnasties as many pros call them) definitely won't provide more comfort, and the supposed savings (if any) are due to the fact that they're comparing apples to oranges. (old steamer/burner vs new high efficiency furnace/boiler/burner) Other than mobile homes & camps, hydronic heating systems are the norm in my area. I wouldn't install a forced air system in my own home, spec homes or rental properties if you held a gun to my head.

As mentioned, some people don't like exposed steam pipes, radiators and a steam system (especially an older steam boiler) may be a negative selling point in *some markets*. Steam systems also sometimes have to be skimmed, and the people that service them must have a basic understanding of steam piping.

    Bookmark   June 30, 2007 at 1:35PM
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I moved in to a home that has a hot water heating system 1.5 years ago the first winter I was not sure about it. the boiler was over 40 years old and the windows drafty. for this last winter I had a new boiler with a circulator, the old boiler was a gravity system and got some new windows in the draftiest rooms. the difference in comfort was noticeable. the heat was very even and gentle. also my system is very quiet, I can not hear it unless I am in the basement and no dust blowing around either. I grew up and lived in houses with scorched air heat and electric baseboard, I like a well tuned hydronic heating system best. electric baseboard was ok fairly even, quiet and clean but more expensive to run.

    Bookmark   July 6, 2007 at 2:49PM
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This is a strange discussion.

Old steam heating systems allow almost no zoning (multiple thermostats) and takes a long time to respond to thermostat signals. It also has no way of adding humidity to or filtering the air or providing air conditioning. To say steam is more comfortable is ridiculous.

Modern boiler/air-handler systems offer all of the things that the steam system does not and they can be far more efficient. The savings in gas should be very impressive. Of course, you must be willing to pay for a condensing boiler, a humidifier, multiple air handlers and a good filtering system. That kind of comfort and efficiency doesn't come cheap.

If you aren't willing to pay for a well designed air system you might as well stick with the steam.

    Bookmark   July 6, 2007 at 11:07PM
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Christopher Nelson Wallcovering and Painting

If you aren't willing to pay for a well designed air system you might as well stick with the steam.

I would not trade my steam heating system for anything out there,even if it were free.

    Bookmark   July 7, 2007 at 5:35AM
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>>Old steam heating systems allow almost no zoningSure it does -- each radiator has a convenient knob you can turn on or off!

>>It also has no way of adding humidity to or filtering the air or providing air conditioning.By not blowing hot, dry air into the house, additional humidity is rarely needed. The humidity levels in our house stays very comfortable during the winter.

>>To say steam is more comfortable is ridiculous.For you to presume to judge someone else's comfort level is asinine, but it probably explains your angry post.

    Bookmark   July 7, 2007 at 10:11AM
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hatman52, you haven't participated here for very long so you don't know that I am an architect with 40 years experience designing apartments, dormitories, hotels, office buildings and historic house renovations.

I'm trying to give the members here a fair chance to improve the comfort level of their older houses.

I find most of the answers to the original question to be mostly anecdotal based on what individuals have become used to (like the absence of an automatic thermostatic control system monitoring interior and exterior temperatures and adjusting fan speeds in multiple zones). And the winter relative humidity in northern climates can be very uncomfortable especially for those with health problems. Relative humidity is not determined by air movement but by the temperature outside and the amount of moisture introduced inside.

Two of the HVAC contractors I use have been featured on the This Old House television series and most of what I know I have learned from them. I have found the comfort improvements and energy savings with modern high efficiency gas boiler/air-handler systems to be very impressive but not cheap and I thought the original poster might want to know that.

    Bookmark   July 7, 2007 at 1:02PM
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I don't often visit the Old House forum anymore because it seems to have been taken over by DIYers looking for quick cheap fixes. Even the Home Repair forum is more respectful of professional input.

    Bookmark   July 7, 2007 at 1:19PM
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'Also, check out the "WALL" on the Heating Help website".

I'll second that. The elite hydronic & steam gurus that post there can answer just about any question you may have concerning steam systems, hydronic systems, air systems, hydro-air, radiant, solar or even wood fired systems.

Here is a link that might be useful: The Wall

    Bookmark   July 7, 2007 at 3:29PM
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mightyanvil, you may have impressive qualifications, but your "bedside manner" certainly is lacking. To tell people who dare to disagree with you that their opinion is wrong ("To say steam is more comfortable is ridiculous.") is patronizing and insulting. Your experience and knowledge level is *so* vast you can judge a person's comfort level better than they can? Now that *is* impressive!

    Bookmark   July 7, 2007 at 5:42PM
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These comments are intended to help sksgrad. I really dont care if anyone likes them or me.

Steam boilers have an efficiency rating of about 50% (old style) and 70% (new style) at peak demand. Because they operate at high temperatures they are far less efficient at low demand so the average efficiency is in the 30 to 40% range for old style steam systems.

Modern gas fired condensing hot water boilers have an efficiency rating of 98% at all demand levels because the fuel-air mixture delivery volume can be varied with demand. The efficiency is somewhat offset by the cost of electric fans if air-handlers are used. However, the efficiency difference between an old steam system and a new gas fired condensing boiler/VSM air-handler system should be at least a 100% improvement.

Steam radiators cannot easily deliver heat to areas of greatest heat loss: windows. This can result in unevenly heated rooms with a greater draft potential as cold air drops off of the window surfaces to the floor. Warm air distribution systems can deliver heat directly to the windows reducing cold spots and drafts.

Modern warm air distribution systems do not blow hot air through a house drying out the house. Variable speed motors in multiple hot water fed air-handlers allow the least movement of air at the lowest temperature to reach individually controlled rooms so they are constantly at the desired temperature and relative humidity levels. (see link below) These levels can be controlled at other locations in the house and even over the internet. Outdoor sensors anticipate changes in demand allowing an almost undetectable system.

Miniature duct systems require more outlets and are not always as silent. They are very difficult to layout in an existing house because of the limited distance of their runs.

The air in a house comes from outside so when the season is cold the outside air is naturally low in moisture. Houses in the winter are dry no matter what the heating system. If a warm air system is poorly designed it will introduce hot air into a room and then stop as soon as the thermostat is satisfied. A air modern system does not operate at high temperatures and does not reduce the moisture in the air any more than any other heating system. However, a modern air system can have moisture added to correct the natural dryness of the winter season. It can also filter the air in the house and bring fresh air into the system through a heat exchanger which is a big benefit for people with respiratory problems and/or greater sensitivity to indoor pollutants.

In addition, an air system can deliver air conditioning to all rooms in the same quiet low volume manner which keeps the relative humidity low and allows a higher average room temperature so the cooling load is reduced.

This system is far superior in every way to any that I have seen but it comes at a higher cost and requires a competent designer. If there is a better HVAC system I would like to know what it is so I can specify it.

Good luck with your house sksgrad.

    Bookmark   July 7, 2007 at 8:17PM
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Christopher Nelson Wallcovering and Painting

Steam radiators cannot easily deliver heat to areas of greatest heat loss: windows

All of my steam radiators are located under the windows.

    Bookmark   July 8, 2007 at 6:42AM
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Cast iron steam radiators under windows are rare in all but the smallest of rooms because radiators rely on their height to allow adequate convection to occur and their area for adequate radiation to occur. It becomes a trade off between efficiency and comfort. Also the piping is more complicated which is not desirable in a steam system.

    Bookmark   July 8, 2007 at 1:13PM
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Christopher Nelson Wallcovering and Painting

Cast iron steam radiators under windows are rare

Well,I have one of the rare but well built homes(1924)and as I said earlier,I would not trade it for one of the multi million (mc mansions) built today and I still love my steam heat.

    Bookmark   July 9, 2007 at 6:30AM
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"Cast iron steam radiators under windows are rare in all but the smallest of rooms..."


I grew up in a town where many of the houses were heated with steam, including my house.

IIRC 17 steam radiators, added well AFTER the house was built, and every one of them was located under the windows.

The same was the case in the homes of my friends.

The house my Mother lives in right now was originally built with gravity hot air, but around 1912 was converted to gravity hot water.

All of the radiators are located under the windows.

Steam radiators don't solely rely on height to delivery heat.

Just as with hot water radiators, steam radiators can be made shorter and longer to increase the radiation surface.

The radiator under the bank of windows in the dining room was 24 sections, height was about 30 inches.

I'll stick by my original assessment -- unless the owner is willing to put a rather massive amount of money into an old home -- totally new systems, insulation, windows -- a simple switch from steam to forced air doesn't make much sense.

That may, or may well not, be appropriate, feasible, and possible.

I'm certain, though, that if you do have 40 years of experience in this that you'd know there's often a point of no return where spending money to make upgrades is not only a waste of money, it's foolish.

    Bookmark   July 10, 2007 at 12:55PM
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Kframe19, The original poster's question was "Has anyone converted from steam heat to forced air?" It appears that your answer to that question would be "no". He then asked about experience with comfort and gas bills. Again, I suspect you would have nothing to offer in that respect.

I have done many of these conversions and in every case the comfort level was greatly increased and gas bills were greatly reduced. Only once was the steam system kept in spite of expensive boiler repairs and the difficulty of extending the system into a kitchen addition.

I am renovating a house and in addition to a boiler/air-handler HVAC system the owner wants solar voltaic panels on the roof. For the panels the break even is 25 years and he is 75 years old. He thinks the increase in the cost of electricity cost will be greater than the assumption in the ROI calculation and the break even period will be 15 years. I can't talk him out of it. He finally said, "it's the right thing to do."

Whether the cost of any new system is worth the benefits is something only an owner can decide.

    Bookmark   July 12, 2007 at 10:20AM
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kframe19, I realize that you have "seen" conversions performed poorly by others. But the original poster is in need of better information than that. He needs to know what is possible with a competent designer and contractor.

This discussion has gotten hijacked by irrelevant issues like the height of a radiator.

Let's just drop it.

    Bookmark   July 12, 2007 at 10:35AM
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The last steam-to-air job I did was for one of my sister's investment homes. The home was a single story home with easy access, so the job went quick. Efficiency was increased by replacing an ancient steamer, and comfort was increased by insulating, weatherizing and replacing windows & doors. The current owners(our fuel customers)are happy with their fuel bills, and happy with the comfort level, although they also use a pellet stove, and fireplace for heat.

A gas fired forced air system with A/C sharing common ductwork is the cheapest way to go, and is often the favorite system of builders, flippers and installers. Forced air retrofits are so easy even a caveman can do it. Lightweight gas boxes are much easier on the back, stairs and climbing hand truck than large cast iron boilers as well.

    Bookmark   July 12, 2007 at 1:05PM
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We have a 2 pipe closed hydronic radiator system in our 130 year old home. Thick (about 12") masonary walls but (mostly) uninsulated. The house does have newer, high quality windows and a 1980's vintage gas fired boiler. Last year, we carefully installed duct work for CAC but after reviewing our options, chose to stick w/ the radiators, add a circulator pump and replace the valves and (eventually) the boiler w/ a newer higher efficiency model. Besides that fact that I adore the radiator heat (I leave my next day's clothes on the radiators overnight so they're nice and toasty when I get dressed), it costs less to heat our house than what our neighbors who have converted to forced air systems pay, even w/ our crappy old boiler. We can easily just turn down the heat in a room we aren't using, too. (Well, we can now... before the valves didn't seem to do much of anything.) Around here, a few folks have recontructed radiator systems and just kept the duct work for the CAC.

That said, I wouldn't want to be the one to have to remove the radiators and drag them out. We had them moved temporarily when we were replacing/restoring the floors. I can't budge even if I throw myself against one.

    Bookmark   July 12, 2007 at 10:32PM
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Help- I am interested in purchasing a house but it has steam heat- the heat is not so much the problem..what do I do about cooling??? Are there any options besides converting to forced air? The forced air option sounds a bit pricey and quite the mess for a 2 story plastered home...any suggestions?? Thanks!

    Bookmark   April 23, 2008 at 11:11PM
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We bought a house with forced hot air heat (originally was gravity hot air) and had hydronic baseboard retrofitted. I grew up with steam and greatly prefer it to forced air, but hot water is superior to all, I think. Steam is simpler and less to go wrong with it. I would never, ever consider putting forced air heat in my home. Hydronic baseboard (or radiators) is very efficient, nearly silent, easy to zone, and requires less gutting of your home than a forced air system would.

If I had steam in my house, I would probably leave it be, unless it really wasn't working well. If some rooms were way too cold and others way too hot, and I had big money burning a hole in my pocket, I would install a multi zone cast iron baseboard hot water system instead. Most comfortable heat of all.

    Bookmark   December 13, 2010 at 11:19PM
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