Heating an old house: Should the baseboard heating stay or go?
June 1, 2012 6:29 AM   Subscribe

Heating an old house: Should the baseboard heating stay or go?

I recently purchased a 1910 American Foursquare in NE North Carolina. Yay! We got it cheap because there's a fair amount of (non-structural) work to be done on it.

The whole house is equipped with hydronic baseboard heaters: steam or water running through copper piping. The heating-oil boiler does not work, so we knew we needed to decide before the winter as to how we want to heat the house. Now there's a floor that needs removing from under a stretch of baseboard heater, so I need to decide whether to remove the baseboard heat or whether to work around it very carefully. For that, I need to decide how we'll be heating our house in the longer term (we plan to stay here forever).

I've only lived in houses with furnaces, so I originally assumed we'd rip out the baseboard heating units and copper pipe, scrap the bunch, and get a furnace. But, I keep hearing from people how heating oil is the "cheapest per btu" and how "hot-water radiators are the best heat because it doesn't dry out the air" like furnaces. I am having trouble finding good resources to help make a decision.

The original plan:
Make a decision in a couple months after insulating our house and foundation. If all else fails, use space heaters or replace the oil-fired boiler with a new boiler (heating oil or natural gas).

We're interested in using passive techniques in our house, including adding solar panels and a solar water heater. Some of these ideas are further down the road than others, but we will likely have almost every wall and ceiling open in the next year-ish.

I've requested an estimate from the local natural gas company for connecting service - according to a local, they ran gas lines down every street.


1. How noisy are baseboard heaters? During the boiler test at inspection, there was a lot of clanging/gurgling, but my husband has lived in (cast iron) steam radiator-based houses and says they're silent.

2. Should the baseboard heating stay, or should we put "something else" in? If so, what, considering our eventual passive/solar plans?

3. Natural gas or heating oil? Or some other heat source? We don't live very far above the water table, which I think precludes a geothermal-based system.

4. What are good search terms or where are good resources for me to learn more about these topics?

5. What should I consider/research for the best long-term cost efficiency and compatibility with solar/passive techniques?
posted by bookdragoness to Home & Garden (19 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
"hot-water radiators are the best heat because it doesn't dry out the air" like furnaces.

This is oft-repeated bunk. Heating air lowers the relative humidity, regardless of how you heat it. The water in a system using a boiler and radiators stays in the boiler and radiators; it doesn't rehumidify the air. What does dry out the air is if your furnace or boiler lacks an outdoor intake for combustion air, because if it's burning air from inside the house and sending it up the chimney, then it's also sucking cold air (with lower absolute humidity) into the house through every available crevice.

I would guess that natural gas would be cheaper than oil over the long term. I'd start by getting someone to assess the condition of the existing baseboard radiators, and to tell you whether they're compatible with a modern gas-fired boiler. If they are, then you'll probably save money by reusing the existing hardware. If they aren't reusable, then you're looking at a whole new system and the question becomes which type makes more sense.
posted by jon1270 at 6:51 AM on June 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

I live in Maine, in a 130-year-old house with baseboard heating and a wood stove. I'd keep the baseboard heating pipes and reattach them when done with the floor work, or (less expensive) just work around the pipes.

A boiler can make noises as water recirculates around pipes, but it isn't that bad and settles down after the initial firing to get water up to temperature.

Wood stoves are wonderful and keep a place toasty in the winters at minimal cost-- and it's much cheaper to use firewood, considering the upward trajectory of fuel oil costs.

Insulate, use drapes or close doors to segment rooms, and/or make sure the heat coming off the baseboards don't get immediately cooled by leaky windows.

I'm suspicious of electric heat, but I admit I don't have a good grasp of the economics. Maybe run a space heater in one room for a night over the winter, using a Kill-A-Watt device to measure consumption in kWh, then multiply by estimated use via your electric bill's published rates. Might be acceptable, might not.

Good luck!
posted by Jubal Kessler at 6:51 AM on June 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

1. Heating Oil is NOT CHEAP. Good grief. I think people in my area (New England) with gas heat pay somewhere around half as much as I do for oil. It makes me jealous. (but not quite jealous enough to convert because the furnace is practically new, and replacing it would be $$$$)

2. I do love my radiators, however. Far more than the baseboard heat I had in my last place. The fact that the metal retains the heat after the furnace turns off means it stays cozier longer.

3. Cast iron radiators are silent, or close to silent, when properly maintained. They still ping a bit, and hiss with the release of steam. Improperly maintained they clang like crazy.

I can't imagine that installing radiators where there were none before would be an easy or inexpensive task though.
posted by instead of three wishes at 6:52 AM on June 1, 2012

1. shouldn't be noisy. there may be some air in the lines that needs to work its way out (at least, that happens with radiators -- you have to bleed some on the top floor), or maybe some cracking as the pipes expand the first time you run them in a season, but otherwise silent.

2. hard question. I don't see any advantage to forced air (noisy furnace, dry heat, pipes full of dust, etc.) unless you think you might put in central A/C, which would otherwise require an entirely separate set of ducts. however, you really don't want heat and A/C in the same places anyway, so separate might not be all bad. worth considering is that air ducts are much larger than water pipes, and thus more space in the walls/floors might be required...

3. I have no experience with oil, although friends of mine have run systems like that ok -- personally, I'd rather be hooked up to a pipe than reliant on a delivery (which is usually how heating oil works), but again, there are financial and environmental costs to replacing everything.

4. "heating efficiency" "heating oil versus natural gas" I dunno, seems like remedial Google skills. you'd be better off getting a good HVAC recommendation and talking with a real person about all possible considerations.

5. I know that some parts of the country use passive heating via radiant floors, but that involves some constraints (like I think you have to go with a finished concrete floor). I think solar power could be used to run the blower on a forced air furnace -- not sure what circulates the water on a radiator system.

probably other folks have more to say on all this.
posted by acm at 6:53 AM on June 1, 2012

Mine make noise, as discussed in this thread.

I grew up with radiators, and I prefer the baseboard heating (ours runs on a gas boiler). It's a nice heat, and not too expensive to run. My last place had electric radiators and those were costly.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 7:29 AM on June 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

I agree, radiators dry the air the same, if not more, than any other type of heat. Tricks we used in my old apartment in Oakland, put a cake pan of water on it, or a wet towel.

In the south Natural Gas is probably your least expensive choice. You may want to look into a new, conventional HVAC system, rather than dealing with something as old as what you are describing.

Contact your gas company, your electric company and study up on the Federal, State and County rebates for switching to more energy efficient heating and cooling. It may make sense for you to scrap the entire old system and go with a new one.

See what you can get if they throw in tankless hot water as well. (I am the poster child for this. I love me my unlimited hot water!)

Just for reference, I paid $1400 to buy and install a tankless water heater and got back $900 in tax and cash rebates. Who's laughing now?
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:39 AM on June 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

Background: we went from a new house with oil-fired baseboard boiler to an old house with gas forced air heat and AC.

1. The two systems create two different types of noises. Baseboards and the pipes that supply them can be noisy from the expansion and contraction when they heat and cool down. Forced air systems produce more of a constant white noise while in operation. Baseboard noises can take a while to get used to.

2. This falls under personal preference - mine leans toward baseboards, because the heat produced comes on more gradually and just feels more comfortable to me. There are different types of solar heat, and I believe you might be able to find a hybrid system that uses existing hot water baseboards.

3. Definiely, natural gas. Prices for home heating oil can fluctuate wildly and is affected by global politics, while natural gas is the closest that you'll get to a local fossil fuel, and prices are more consistant. I don't think your location rules out geothermal, but the cost and difficulty of drilling a well will likely be cost prohibitive, and usually makes more sense for new construction.

4. And 5. Try using "home heating forums" as your search term. Also, your state extension service might be able to point you in the direction of information relevant to your area.
posted by Sir Cholmondeley at 7:47 AM on June 1, 2012

I've lived for a little over a year in Boston- before moving here I had only lived in homes with central A/C and forced air/natural gas heating. Now I live in a 3,000 sq ft. home, built in 1986, with baseboard heating and an oil boiler. I've learned a lot in the past year, some of which I'll include in my answers below. I hope it helps!

My answers:

1. I have never heard a peep, ping, or any other sound from our baseboard heaters.

2. The cost to install a furnace and the ducting for forced-air heat is probably going to significantly exceed that of installing a new oil boiler that connects to your existing baseboard heating. I had a new Buderus boiler with outdoor reset installed in my home a few months ago- it's a high efficiency unit that qualified us for a number of rebates through our energy company (even though they're a gas/electric company, they still handled rebates for HE oil boilers). Total cost for this project was about $9000 IIRC, offset by ~$500 in rebates.

Having lived with both, I prefer radiant baseboard to forced hot air heating. Although I agree in scientific premise with jon1270 and Ruthless Bunny re: humidity from radiators vs. forced air, the cyclic nature of the way forced air heat works (i.e., it's completely off until triggered by the thermostat which then kicks on pushing out a sustained burst of heated air) results in greater fluctuations of temperature. If you're sitting in front of a hot air vent when the furnace kicks in, you're definitely going to feel more "dried out" vs. sitting by a radiant heater.

3. My understanding is that natural gas is cheaper than heating oil. While wandering down to my basement to check my oil level once every 2 weeks is not a huge deal, having a permanent connection to the gas line is certainly more convenient. One thing worth noting is that with natural gas you're tied to your energy utility's rates, whereas with oil you will probably have a choice of companies.

5. It's not really a passive technique, but one thing worth considering is a pellet stove. We have a Harman stove that provides the lion's share of heating for our home in the winter. Even in this year's mild winter, my neighbor reported spending $1000/month on heating oil in January-February. By contrast, I spent ~$400 for a 1-ton pallet of pellets (that's 50 40-lb bags) that I store in my basement. I used about 35 of the 50 bags, and most of the oil I burned was for hot water. I like the pellets because they're cheaper than oil, burn incredibly clean, and are environmentally friendly (they're usually made from recovered compacted sawdust from mills). Our stove has a thermostat so we can set it to maintain a temperature and an automatic ignition system. In the winter, my interaction with the stove is feeding it pellets once every day or two and cleaning out the ash bi-weekly.
posted by EKStickland at 7:54 AM on June 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you do end up going with a whole new system, your current copper pipes might be worth something. Don't let the workers offer to "dispose" of them for you.
posted by vitabellosi at 9:01 AM on June 1, 2012 [3 favorites]

3. My understanding is that natural gas is cheaper than heating oil. While wandering down to my basement to check my oil level once every 2 weeks is not a huge deal, having a permanent connection to the gas line is certainly more convenient. One thing worth noting is that with natural gas you're tied to your energy utility's rates, whereas with oil you will probably have a choice of companies.

Actually, there is competition in the Natural Gas arena. It depends on your area, but in Atlanta we can choose between 3 providers.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:45 AM on June 1, 2012

It would likely expensive to add all the ducting for forced air. Why do that when you have a heating system already? Absolutely do replace the boiler (gas is a good idea, new boilers are much more efficient). In NC, you might even be able too get away with an on-demand has hot water heater as a boiler (much cheaper).

Secondly, if you ever want to do solar hot water heating, you want the radiant heating for that, not forced air.
posted by ssg at 9:57 AM on June 1, 2012

I live in a 50-year old apartment that has radiant baseboard heat. I don't pay for the heat, so I can't speak to that aspect, but I can speak to noise. The radiators in my apartment do make noise as they expand and contract. There's some popping, some slight scraping of the fins against other bits of metal, etc. It's mildly annoying, but eventually you tune it out. The noise only occurs as the pipes expand and contract. It's more noticeable during the shoulder seasons when the heat doesn't run as frequently: the pipes have more time to cool to room temperature between cycles. During the coldest part of winter, when the heat runs more often, the pipes stay warm and thus don't expand and contract as much, so the noise is less. Aside from that, there is a very faint sound of water rushing through the pipes, but that's minimal and actually kind of soothing. Occasionally I hear air bubbles gurgling, but I believe that is something that eventually gets bled out of the system.
posted by Nothlit at 11:11 AM on June 1, 2012

FYI (if you stay with the existing system)—despite the similarity in appearance, there is a world of difference between hot water heat and steam heat. It has to do with the difference between sensible heat (hot water) and latent heat (steam). If you aren't in the northeast, you might have trouble finding someone who truly understands the difference. Not a reason in and of itself to dump steam, it just means that you will need to learn at least enough about steam heat to evaluate whether or not a service tech knows what he/she is talking about.

I owned a condo in a small building heated with steam in Chicago. I called dozens of plumbing/heating companies before I found one that passed my quick screening test (i.e., I said we needed someone to "balance" our steam heating system)—and they weren't taking on any more clients that year.

See heatinghelp.com for more info.
posted by she's not there at 11:19 AM on June 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

1. "Clanging/gurgling" was one of the signs that my previous boiler was defunct. The tankless system I installed to replace it makes the occasional clank when it starts up, but is almost completely silent otherwise.

2. Overall, I prefer my baseboard heating to the forced-air system I had in House the Original: more even heating, much less dust blowing about.

3. In my neck of the woods, heating oil costs something on the order of three times as much per month as gas. I'd absolutely go w/natural gas if you can.
posted by thomas j wise at 12:05 PM on June 1, 2012

Man. You have the baseboard radiators. Use them. I own a home in Maine with forced air heat and I'd swap it for hydronic in a minute if it weren't very expensive and disruptive to make the switch. If I were you, I would plan to put in a new condensing gas furnace. Find out what it will cost to get a natural gas line into your house, find a reputable local heating contractor (maybe even start with an energy auditor because they're less likely to try to sell you a particular product/system), and go from there. An auditor would also probably be able to help with the solar/passive integration questions.

As for noise level: baseboard heaters in my experience definitely do some pinging and creaking as they heat up/cool down. It might take a little getting used to, but it's not a big deal. In contrast, I find the fan noise associated with air heat much more noticeable.
posted by that's candlepin at 12:09 PM on June 1, 2012

If you get a furnace... you need to run ductwork. This is not a trivial task, and is a great way to bust holes in an old house.

Find out if your system is steam or water -- it matters, especially for installation rebates and tax writeoffs. I switched from oil-fired steam to gas-fired steam this year and I'm pretty happy with it. There are some noises (the occasional low whistle of steam escaping, mostly -- clanking pipes can be fixed).

Oil is expensive as hell, although converting is not free either. The cheapest system may be the one you already have.
posted by zvs at 1:38 PM on June 1, 2012

I'm confused. In my house, the furnace makes heat, and the baseboard pipes distribute it. You can have different furnaces that use the baseboard pipes. I prefer radiators, but not enough to make the switch. My forced hot water baseboard heat is pretty quiet, steam radiators in my old house clanked sometimes, and hissed. My hot water runs off the furnace - not efficient.

Is natural gas available in your area? Call and see if they have any deals for people who switch from oil. There are gas furnaces that are very efficient. When I thought I would have to replace my furnace, I got an energy audit. It was very useful. These companies do energy audits; do some local research to see who's reliable:
posted by theora55 at 6:14 PM on June 2, 2012

I heard back from the natural gas company and service is unavailable on my street.

In conclusion, I'll keep the baseboard heat units intact for now and get estimates for a replacement heat system later this year.

Thanks for all the information - sometimes it's hard to get started in an area when you know nothing about it, so I really appreciate all the different angles to look at it from!
posted by bookdragoness at 9:14 PM on June 4, 2012

Not sure if you're still checking this thread, but oil heat isn't the end of the world. Pretty good/efficient oil boilers exist. And the bottom line is that you're much better off keeping the hydronic system than replacing it, and just getting a new oil boiler, pellet burner, whathaveyou to power it.
posted by that's candlepin at 11:59 AM on July 17, 2012

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