My Old House's gas boiler was capped by a utility contractor. Options?
May 6, 2016 6:29 PM   Subscribe

A contractor for a local utility shut off gas in the neighborhood to work on pipes, then offered to relight my boiler. He ran a test and the gas boiler (water, not steam) was emitting carbon monoxide (3000 ppm) so he capped the pipe and told us the gas couldn’t be turned on until it was repaired or replaced.

My house is 104 years old and the cast iron boiler must be that old too. I got an estimate from a local heating company that had serviced the boiler a few years ago. The say it will cost $9000 to replace the system with a 97% efficient one, and that it’s too old to repair. The estimate doesn’t break things down, e.g., parts and labor. I have asked for an estimate for an 80% efficient one and haven’t gotten a response.

This is for a house in the Northwest near Coeur d’Alene/Spokane. I was expecting an estimate of around $4000 which I planned to split up onto several credit cards, maxing them all out. $9000 is out of the question for me.

Has anyone been in a similar situation where they had to update a heating system on a budget? Would appreciate any advice on options.
posted by mulcahy to Home & Garden (17 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Can you look into a home heating loan? I know they exist in the Northeast, but I don't know about in Washington. There's lots of incentives (rebates, tax benefits, low-interest loans) available for improving energy efficiency, which the replacement of a 104 year old system is sure to do.
posted by nat at 6:38 PM on May 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

Check with all of your local utilities. When my water heater and boiler went, we had to wait about 2 months for the paperwork to go through, but the local utility gave me about $15,000 in state and local energy improvement incentives for a high efficiency boiler and extra attic insulation that dropped my $400 winter heating bills down to about $100. Switching to a high efficiency system, especially from something so old might be short term pain for a really good long term improvement, especially if the utility will do most of the work and payment.
posted by Nackt at 6:42 PM on May 6, 2016 [4 favorites]

Talk to some more heating companies. Estimates can vary wildly for lots of reasons, including that some companies just aren't very good at doing accurate ones. It's a dark art, estimating is. But as a homeowner, you should never just go with the first one you get. You haven't signed anything from this contractor, so you're under no obligation to go with them. Start calling around.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 7:09 PM on May 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

Also, you may find somebody who's willing to do a repair on your existing boiler. "Too old to repair" often means "not worth our time to repair," but it might be worth someone else's time. Contractors have specialties, and you might find somebody who does more work on older systems and who would be willing to do whatever needs to be done to keep yours going until you can afford a better one.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 7:12 PM on May 6, 2016 [2 favorites]

We got an 80% natural gas furnace system including 2.5 ton A.C.. for 7K in one of the most expensive markets in the country, so that's one data point.
posted by wnissen at 7:35 PM on May 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

If you're actually in Idaho, there is a state loan program.

I didn't find one for Washington but it might exist, or your utility company might have one; there is a database linked at the bottom of that page (and other useful resources on the page itself).
posted by nat at 7:42 PM on May 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

Data point: efficient heater plus a large new ac unit plus a bunch of duct work was 11k. I'd shop around. Check what brand too - some are significantly more expensive. I went with Arcoaire. Also ask neighbors, some one might have a recommendation.
posted by pyro979 at 7:47 PM on May 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

We had almost the same situation a few years ago with a seventy year old boiler and it did end up costing us about $8000 for a high efficiency one but at least at the time there were some nice tax credits that gave us about $2000 back (it's been almost a decade and I don't remember the exact figures). I really doubt that you're going to find a much cheaper boiler than that, they're always a lot more expensive to buy than hot air systems.
posted by octothorpe at 7:57 PM on May 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

We had an unexpected repair a few years ago in a similar price range (although a different repair) and were able to refinance our mortgage to cover the repair. Local credit union?
posted by anastasiav at 7:58 PM on May 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

Oh, and it's totally fair to ask for an itemized estimate. They aren't required to provide you with one, but equally, you're free to reject a contractor who won't give you one. (As someone who works for a GC, I would recommend it in your situation, though it's not always a deal-breaker.) You can ask for it up front when you talk to other heating companies, you don't have to wait for them to provide their first bid.

You can ask them to suggest ways to bring the price down, too—you don't need to come up with ideas on your own, there. It's possible there won't be much they can offer you in terms of cost-saving measures (especially on something as bog-standard as a boiler install, which kind of just is what it is) but it's worth asking.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 9:24 PM on May 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

posted by AugustWest at 10:06 PM on May 6, 2016 [2 favorites]

Home equity loan indeed. This is not the kind of purchase to put on credit cards, paying 10-20% interest.
posted by megatherium at 5:03 AM on May 7, 2016 [4 favorites]

I should add that our new boiler cut our monthly gas budget by almost $100 so it's almost paid for itself by now. We live where it gets much colder than it probably does in Spokane though.
posted by octothorpe at 5:29 AM on May 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

Spokane has low-interest loans for specifically this situation, if you meet the income requirements(they are different for city and county residents). See more details here.
posted by rockindata at 7:24 AM on May 7, 2016 [3 favorites]

I have experience with repairing old gas-fired water boilers for home heat, and with trying to get people to repair old, unique home infrastructure. Repair of these items requires problem solving skills that are often absent from companies that are geared toward replacement, and HVAC companies can be fabulously opportunistic and predatory in their pricing (as evidenced by the ready $9000 quote, and the absent quote on the 80% efficient boiler). If you do have to replace your boiler, get quotes from at least 3 HVAC companies, and get it done in the summer, to avoid gouging.

> .. so he capped the pipe and told us the gas couldn’t be turned on until it was repaired or replaced.

He's in a tough place. He was a contractor for the gas company, so he could not responsibly do anything else. He didn't offer his company to fix it, did he? If he did, that's a red effing flag, and I wouldn't use him ever for anything. If he didn't offer you his card, he was doing about the only thing that he could that would prevent liability for him in the future.

I'd get someone to uncap that gas line and hook the burner back up to the boiler, and I get that someone to inspect and clean the gas jets on the burner, the air ports on the burner, the air supply to the boiler, and the flue. If that carbon monoxide test was accurate, it is almost certainly one of those items causing the problem.

I'd try to get a male beard to front for you when making the arrangements, to avoid some of the extra crap that women always seem to get from contractors and mechanics.

Gas jets on burners don't wear out, but they can become clogged. Air supply to burners are often fouled by spiders and bugs and rodents, and can cause a yellow flame and incomplete combustion and carbon monoxide. Flues require maintenance, and a clogged flue can cause incomplete combustion and carbon monoxide.

Additionally, in case there is any truth to that 3000 PPM diagnosis, a certain amount of caution is indicated. I'd get several carbon monoxide detectors and install them where I spent the most time in the house (bedroom, TV, kitchen, wherever), and I'd put one near the boiler itself. I heat with propane and wood, and I have carbon monoxide detectors in the bedroom and near the fireplace.
posted by the Real Dan at 12:59 PM on May 7, 2016 [2 favorites]

1. Get more estimates - In Progress. Moscow ID is pretty small so there aren't a lot of options.
2. Inquire with local utilities - Avista doesn't assist but has referrals for $300 rebates.
3. Apply for Idaho State Energy Loan - Will do!
4. Purchase detectors - Will do!
5. Get male beard - not sure I can do that one but great idea! Women get no respect from contractors!

I love the idea of having someone inspect and clean up all the items suggested by the Real Dan but may have a hard time finding someone to do that. I asked the first contractor - the $9000 one - about doing something like that, or just replacing certain parts and he said he wouldn't even touch a boiler that old due to liability.

I had a 2nd company come out on Friday but haven't gotten an estimate yet. Hope to get a third. I greatly appreciate the feedback and am feeling a little more knowledgable now.
posted by mulcahy at 1:43 PM on May 7, 2016

Here's a bit of follow up in case anyone stumbles along this post with the same problem of replacing an old boiler.

My first estimate was for $8900 (not including any asbestos removal) for and the company wasn't very helpful or informative. My second estimate was for $6800 and they were a lot more communicative. They suggested I leave the old boiler in place and install the new one next to it because there is plenty of room and then I won't have to pay for any separate asbestos removal. I went with this company.

I also applied for a low interest loan from my state energy department and was approved. Hope to have the new energy efficient boiler installed in July.

Thanks for the help!!
posted by mulcahy at 8:45 PM on June 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

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