1928 Weil-McLain hell.
September 18, 2011 6:18 PM   Subscribe

How bad is it to stick out the winter with my house's ridiculously old heating system?

Just bought a house built in 1928. Hey, and the boiler is from 1928 too! It's an oil-fired steam system.

Initially, I was planning on getting the boiler replaced (either with another oil system, or a gas system) before this year's heating season. But I'm starting to feel daunted by the many house repairs that I need to make, so I'm wondering if it's better to tough it out this winter and stockpile the cash.

The boiler works (and was apparently repaired last year to cement some cracks and replace a burner) -- but it needs constant manual water infusion to avoid cracking, and lacks most of the safety valves other systems have.

Boring details: New York City, 2000 square foot 3-story attached house, old windows and probably a poorly insulated cockloft. Weil-McLain boiler. As a bonus, the boiler currently needs to have a bunch of insulation replaced, because the asbestos guys took most of it away this morning.

Is this going to ruin my life? Should I bite the bullet and have it ripped out? I know my fuel cost will be higher, but what else is in store?
posted by zvs to Home & Garden (14 answers total)
With the caveat that I know nothing about your boiler in particular or even early-20th century boilers in general, I just want to remind you that winters in New York City are cold. And windy. And long. Having wintered in my fair share of under-heated homes in the Northeast, I want to remind you that a warm, draft-free home (heck, a warm, draft-free bathroom) is not a luxury; it can, in fact, save you from ennui, rage, and/or a four-month-long runny nose.
posted by minervous at 6:44 PM on September 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: After I bought my house I stuck it out one winter with what I thought was a ridiculously old boiler - it was 70s or early 80s vintage, egads, and there I was thinking that was antique - and in retrospect I should have replaced it right then instead of waiting for a year. This is in Asheville, NC, where we do in fact get cold winters but nothing on New York. It cost me almost $1000 in propane for that one winter and about $400 in repairs, because old Soviet boiler* broke down constantly. The new boiler was 6 grand and it would have made one hell of a lot more sense to apply that first thousand to it instead of to the propane company. Since I replaced it, my heating bill has gone down by, I kid you not, about 75%. Granted, I did switch from propane to natural gas when I got the new boiler, which is one reason my new boiler was so expensive, but still, there is nothing as great as going from about $250 a month to heat your house to about $70 or so. If your experience is anything like mine, you will kick yourself for spending that money on oil - and fuel oil is expensive - instead of on a new boiler. You can plastic the windows and wait on that job, particularly if you have efficient heat, but I would not wait on a new heating system. As a data point, my first winter with the new boiler was with my old, horrible windows and the fuel bill was still comparatively nothing.

* Soviet boiler - the first boiler repairman who came over to get the beast working again was Russian. He got all nostalgic when he saw my boiler - reminds me of my childhood! he said, reminds me of home! Ah my Soviet boiler, I do not miss thee.
posted by mygothlaundry at 7:07 PM on September 18, 2011 [3 favorites]

Best answer: We used to own a house older than that, with the original boiler. For the first several years we lived there, I handled the water thing manually; it really wasn't that big a deal. It hung in for quite a long time. When we finally got it replaced, we found that our heating costs didn't go down by much, but the newer, more effective boiler meant that parts of the house that had never been warm before, were. That was very exciting! As minervous says, once we actually had heat in all four bedrooms, we wondered how we had lived without it before.

We kept costs down by not removing the old boiler. We just had the new one installed next to it. The guy who did the installation told us "you'll never sell this place with the old boiler sitting there," but the basement was so big I couldn't see why anyone would ever care--certainly I wouldn't be put off by a disused boiler sitting harmlessly in the corner of the basement if I was house hunting--and in fact it was not an issue at all when we sold.

A big part of the answer to this question is: how comfortable are you taking the chance that the boiler will finally fail on a cold night in January? Not replacing the boiler is akin to gambling--you might make it all the way through to spring, or you might find yourself having to live without heat for a few days, and get a new boiler on very short notice.
posted by not that girl at 7:12 PM on September 18, 2011

During my frugal college student years, my roommate and I rented the 2nd floor of a house built in 1916 in Madison, WI. Electricity was free, but we had to pay for heat. We ended up getting a cheap $25 two-pack of little space heaters and didn't end up using the actual heat once.

Of course, overall the apartment was pretty chilly during the below-zero winters, and sometimes we'd have to move the space heaters around the apartment with us, but it really wasn't much of a bother since we were used to cold winters. Just make sure you don't use the microwave and a hair dryer and the space heaters all at the same time or you'll trip the circuit breaker.
posted by desertface at 7:23 PM on September 18, 2011

Have you asked the previous owner of the building how much they spent on heating and whether the heating system functioned last winter? That would be my first step. My house was built around the same time and I have a pretty old boiler, too, but it heats really well.

If you can't afford to replace it, some relatively cheap ways to conserve energy:

1. Put your thermostat on a timer so you can automatically turn down the heat when no one is home and when you are sleeping. Timed thermostats cost about $50 or less and are relatively easy to install yourself.

2. Insulate your attic if it isn't already. Insulation by the roll is pretty cheap and easy to install... you can do your attic for a few hundred dollars, probably.

3. Use plastic film on the windows, or heavy curtains, or both.
posted by MegoSteve at 7:30 PM on September 18, 2011

Nthing desertface and Megosteve. if your heat is out, a space heater can really save the day. And insulate everything you can!! And layer up your clothes and bed.

I lived 2 winters in Japan which just doesn't do central heating, and the house had no insulation either. But a combination of a space heaters, hot baths and lots of layers made it fairly comfortable. On the other hand, those winters were no NY Winters.
posted by Caravantea at 7:37 PM on September 18, 2011

Would it be possible to get your windows and insulation done before winter?

At least then the heat being put out would stay in the house. Also, think about heating just the room you're in with a space heater. Hang blankets if necessary.

Also, check out Ask Me for tips on keeping warm in a cold house. When you're cold, put on another sweater, jump up and down, then count the money you're saving.

Have a good winter.
posted by BlueHorse at 7:39 PM on September 18, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks, all. A few million replies:

* Fixing windows: No. Windows can't change -- the house is landmarked. Replacing them is currently cost-prohibitive as a result. We do have storm windows.
* Insulation -- maybe. The cockloft is currently sealed off and I have not yet figured out how to deal with that.
* Timed thermostat, blankets, etc.: Already got that. I'm not bad at managing heating costs -- at least at my old place in Seattle. But I've never had to maintain a system like this one. I'm used to gas-fired forced air, and well-maintained boilers.
posted by zvs at 7:42 PM on September 18, 2011

We ended up getting a cheap $25 two-pack of little space heaters and didn't end up using the actual heat once.

Yeah, but your electricity was free. A person would go broke trying to use electric resistance heating all winter in NYC in a 2000 sq. ft house.
posted by Juffo-Wup at 7:53 PM on September 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Your boiler is a spring chicken compared to mine. 1918 Dominion Radiator Safford-Vogul. It was built for coal of course and retrofitted many years ago for gas. It has some repaired cracks but no manual refill and we use an electronic thermostat to run it.

We're also in Calgary, which gets an OH GOD FUCK lot colder than NYC. You have NO IDEA what cold is, minervous. And our ancient boiler has served us with only one hiccup when we had to replace the expansion tank right after we moved in, and that was in Feb 2005.

Get some of your own retrofitting done. You can update the water feed, can't you? Our boiler is older than yours and moreover a simple hot-water (not steam) gravity system and we don't lack for "valves" because previous owners saw fit to add them. We had an old analog thermostat (in fahrenheit!) that we replaced as I say with an electronic one- and had to program specifically for a boiler which works NOTHING like a high-efficiency furnace and needs the longest possible cycle time. It takes a while- at least 30 minutes- for your house to reach your desired temp with radiators.

Our heating costs aren't that bad- but we do keep the thermostat at 20 tops in the winter. Gas costs us maybe $300/mo in the worst months and that's not that much more than our friends with newer homes and modern furnaces.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 10:41 PM on September 18, 2011

Our house has the original 1939 boiler, retrofitted for gas. For about the two coldest months of the year it's a bit expensive ($200/mo, which is a lot when you're 25 and broke), but the radiators do work great.
posted by nonasuch at 9:12 AM on September 19, 2011

Check to see if there are any energy-efficiency programs available that might give you a tax break or, better, tax credit, for increasing efficiency. I'd try to estimate the cost of heat with an old, probably pretty inefficient boiler, vs. the cost of a winter with a new one. And I'd do some shopping now for a new system, so that if the boiler breaks down mid-winter, you're prepared.
posted by theora55 at 1:35 PM on September 19, 2011

Oil-fueled boiler from the 1940s heats our three-story rowhouse in Philadelphia. We've got an emergency fund in case the thing conks out, but the utility guys and all of our inspectors have all laughed about whether "when" or "if" is really the more likely scenario.

The new ones are technically more efficient but don't last as long, so...whether the efficiency comes out in the wash is a real question. As far as we can tell via comparisons and such, we're not too off-base on energy costs for heating compared with our neighbors who have more modern systems.
posted by desuetude at 11:59 PM on September 19, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks all. Good arguments from both sides.
posted by zvs at 8:25 PM on September 21, 2011

« Older Do you know of a recently published French book...   |   ID a car part in Drive Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.