Bring the heat
Weezie, Meg and I powered through the first fall cold snaps with the help of thick sweaters and blankets. Finally, two weeks ago, we made the decision to fire up the boiler, a hulking steel box that lives at one end of the basement.
It’s an old oil-burning unit that has been converted to natural gas, feeding baseboard radiators through a spaghetti-like network of copper pipes. There’s something oddly appealing about its old-fashioned hulk. It reminds me of cars of a similar vintage, from a time when efficiency was overlooked in favor of muscle and bold styling. The “Winkler” logo on the front even looks like a badge ripped off some old Detroit steel.
I was unprepared for the symphony of bangs, knocks and whooshes that would accompany start-up. I flipped the breaker on, opened the gas valve, heard the click of ignition and then a deep, rumbling roar as the flames began doing their work. The circulator pump squealed to life and pushed water into the pipes, which creaked from expansion. The boiler is located directly below the living room. Because the floor boards in that part of the house sit directly on the joists, the boiler might as well be in the room with us. It’s loud.
Retiring this system is high on our list of priorities. It needs to go for a number of reasons:
- The exhaust gases are eroding the mortar on the interior of the chimney flue.
- The baseboard heaters conceal the base molding all over the house and prevent us from opening any walls.
- Despite our house’s nickname “Seven Hearths”, there’s actually an eighth fireplace closed in behind the boiler.
- It’s inefficient. New boilers are up to 96% efficient (meaning 96% of the fuel burned turns into heat). This unit’s efficiency is probably somewhere in the 70s or lower.
Despite the boiler’s audible protests, it performs reasonably well. It’s not the kind of heating system you crank up to 75 degrees for the winter. But set in the mid-60’s, it chugs along and provides non-drafty, comfortable heat.
Unfortunately, that heat doesn’t make it everywhere. Turns out that there’s a short in the thermostat wire for upstairs, and the circulator pump for that loop won’t cycle on. I actually enjoy sleeping in the cold, but getting out of bed sans heat on a 30-degree morning can be challenging, to say the least. We got a home warranty thrown in with the house at purchase. After the company (starts with ‘A’, ends with ‘merican Home Shield’) initially agreed to cover the fix, they reneged and claimed that we were responsible for tearing out walls and identifying the break in the wire before they would pay up. The logic of this makes me really angry, so I try not to think about it. The HVAC guy offered to install a wireless thermostat for a cool grand; we passed. I’m going to rig up a temporary t-stat in the basement to get us through winter. But for a little while longer, we’ll be doing our mornings authentic colonial style: cold.