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Q&A Spotlight

Replacing the Heating System in an Old House

Steam radiators and spotty insulation make for a challenging HVAC problem

Steam radiators on a single zone currently heat a 5000-sq.-ft. house in the Boston area. The homeowner wants to upgrade, but how? Photo courtesy sswj / CC BY-NC-ND / Flickr.

A big house near Boston is posing big questions for its owner when it comes to upgrading a one-zone steam-heating system.

Writing in a recent Q&A post, kcchernak (we’ll call him KC), explains that the 5000-sq.-ft. house, built in 1892, has living space on three levels, including a finished attic, and is heated with a gas-fired steam boiler that was installed just six years ago.

Heat is controlled by a Nest thermostat with comfort sensors that help regulate heat in specific areas of the house. KC is in the process of installing air conditioning and making a few other upgrades with some, but not all, of the interior walls open.

“Aside from being single-zone and the drawbacks of that, the current radiator system clangs quite a bit and we have some leaky radiators that probably need to be replaced,” KC says. “We’re paying quite a bit for natural gas right now and we’re a bit high on electricity, too. It’s also worth noting that we know we have some insulation gaps and are working to remedy those in the next several months as well.”

KC has spoken with several HVAC contractors who suggest that he add heat pumps to the system, or replace the steam boiler with a wall-hung boiler and a forced-air distribution system.

In addition to attaching a quote for a new HVAC system, KC also posts a recent gas bill of $993 and electric bill ($239) for a total energy charge of more than $1200 for the month.

“I’m wary of making a total heating system switch, but maybe I shouldn’t be,” KC says. What’s the next best step? That’s the topic for this Q&A Spotlight.

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