My Pink House Has Gone Green

My pink house is now green. Green – as in – environmentally friendly.

Well, let me restate that. It’s as environmentally friendly as an old house can be.

On March 10, 2011, we assassinated our old cast-iron, oil-fired boiler. It wasn’t pretty, but it had to be done.

The old behemoth wasn’t really that old. It was born in Utica, New York in early 2002, and was, in fact, a Utica (brand-name) boiler. When we purchased this cold house in March 2007, we were told that the Utica was a higher end boiler, and should provide good service for years to come. It was rated at 200,000 BTUs, which is a lot of heating power for 2,300 square feet.

What we didn’t realize is that we’d spend several billion dollars on heating oil trying desperately to stave off Old Man Winter (a natural enemy of old houses).

And then came Winter 2010, one of the coldest winters we’ve had in a long time. And then oil prices started up (again). In three months’ time, we burned more than $1,600 in fuel oil.  In January 2011, when Mr. Oil Fill-Man appeared in my back yard (a scant 27 days after his last visit), I ran outside to chat with him.

“We’re taking 160 – 170 gallons of fuel oil each time you come by,” I told him, trying hard to be charming. “Is that normal for this area?

His answer was not a  comfort.

“Yes M’am,” he replied. “In this neighborhood, every house I visit is taking between 150-200 gallons of heating oil.”

This told me that my neighbors were probably apoplectic over their heating bills, as well.

Talking with two of my neighbors, I’d found that they’d converted from old oil boilers (about the same age as mine), to high-efficiency tankless gas-fired boilers. Both neighbors told me that their heating bills had dropped from $500 – $600 a month to about $125 – $150 a month. Both were delighted with the new system and the new savings.

I was not that surprised to hear that two neighbors had just had not-so-old oil boilers ripped right out and replaced with this fancy new system. I suspected that most people were NOT going to tolerate paying $500+ a month – every month – to heat their homes. It was an outrageous sum of money. And I knew that we’d done everything in our power to “button-up” the old house. Since purchasing the house in March 2007, we’d added four high-dollar storm doors to the previously naked (and drafty) primary doors, and we’d installed 12 super-dooper high efficiency replacement windows (on the rear and side), and we’d repaired and re-caulked old storm windows on the remaining windows. We’d also used up 40 tubes of caulk (yes, 40), in Summer 2010, closing up every little crack and crevice on the old house.

Frankly, I’ve always felt it was a bit nutty to use oil for home heating – for several reasons.

1)  Our oil reserves are dwindling. Peak Oil, according to the smart people, arrived in 2007 or 2008. I’m of the opinion that remaining reserves should be devoted to transportation, with an eye toward (quickly) developing energy alternatives for our little cars.

2) Many of our “oil dollars” go to a foreign country, and some of these oil-rich countries in faraway lands have a history of treating women with little or no respect. I find that reprehensible, and I don’t want my dollars funding such egregious behavior. Sharia law is a glimpse of hell on earth for women.

3) BP oil spill. ‘Nuff said.

4) Hugo Chavez.  ‘Nuff said.

5)  Every dollar I spend on oil is a dollar that leaves America and right now, we need to buy local. Natural gas supplies are abundant in North America. Having watched “Gasland,” I’m horrified at the fracking process currently in use (which is destroying our water supply), but for now, Natural Gas seems to be a better alternative than #2 Heating Oil, and the lesser of two evils.

6) Heating oil is messy and smelly. I’ve got the blessing (or curse) of a hypersensitive sense of smell, and every 27 days when we get an oil delivery, the smell has been powerful throughout my home. Our 275-gallon tank is in the basement and often when I open the basement door, I get a whiff of #2 heating oil. Not pleasant.

7)  Heating oil is dirty. It’s recommended that oil-fired appliances (furnaces and boilers) be cleaned once each year. Cost: $150 or more.

When it was time to get estimates for the new work, I had many choices, but the big two were:  Gas-fired boiler or Heat Pump?

The benefits of a heat pump were simple: It’d give us the chance to add central air. We had a central air system for the upstairs, but wouldn’t it be dreamy to have it on the first floor, too?

Yes and no.

The central air unit on the second floor had been oversized (by my request), with a major trunk line and vent directly over the top of our large, open staircase. In the summertime,when the A/C was running, great wafts of deliciously cool air came galloping down the stairs. Due to design of the staircase, probably 50% of the cold air ended up on the first floor. I’d also positioned the return in such a way that it’d naturally draft the hot air from the first floor. In other words, the 3-ton unit for the second floor effectively cooled much of the first floor.

Secondly, adding all new ductwork for the first floor heat pump (and A/C) would have made our basement well-nigh unusable. With no garage at our home, we rely heavily on the basement for storage. And I like having a big basement.

The other factor was, I love my radiators. They’re old and funky and they rattle and pop in the winter. I was not ready to abandon the old charm of the 1920s cast-iron radiators. Plus, it’s true what they say: Radiant heat is the most comfortable, even heating in the world.

So that left us with one more set of choices:  Cheap it out with a regular, average efficiency gas-fired boiler, or go ahead and spend the extra dough and go with a high-efficiency (90%+) unit.

The lower end gas boilers were $3,000 and up (for 80% efficiency), but would require that we’d re-line the old chimney. That’d add another $2000 to our costs, so we were at $5000.  For $7,500, we could get a super-high efficiency gas-fired boiler, rated at 94% efficient, which used a pvc snorkel, and abandon the old chimney, and get our heating bills down under $200 a month. And, we’d get a $500 rebate from our local gas company, making the price difference between the two options a scant $2,000 (or the cost of 100 days of fuel oil).

We opted for the high efficiency tankless gas-fired unit.

Several things went wrong along the way. The high-efficiency gas boiler was ordered, but didn’t arrive. That’s okay, we were told, they’d upgrade us to a better system, no extra cost. Sounded good. Oopsie, more trouble. The better system had a lag time too, so we’d have to wait three weeks for unit to arrive. But then, the company had located the unit we’d contracted for and we went forward with the installation.

Next, Virginia Natural Gas had to drive us nuts. They would not set a meter for us until the boiler was in place. That’s funny, because the contractor didn’t want to set up the new boiler until we had a meter in place.

In the end, Virginia Natural Gas won. No meter would be installed until the boiler was in place and complete. Dealing with VNG was an enormous hassle. For a time, I really missed dealing with Miller Oil. They were so friendly and accommodating.

Once the boiler work was mostly done (and we knew it would soon be ready to be turned on), we called Virginia Natural Gas for the 3,492nd time. It was a Thursday afternoon.

“The next available date on our calendar is Friday afternoon,” the operator told me.

Friday, as in eight days away.  We’d already been two days with no heat or hot water. We were already  greasy and cold. A bad combination.

After I made a few screeching noises, she moved the date up to Saturday, between 9:00 am and 4:00 pm.

Friday evening, we got an automated call from Virginia Natural Gas. It said that our meter would be set on Saturday morning, between 1:15 am and 1:15 am, and that we were to make sure someone would be home at that time.

Watching television in our living room, wrapped up in blankets, we listened to the voice mail and laughed out loud through chattering teeth.

Saturday morning, my optimistic husband got up and went outside to check for the meter.

“They didn’t come at 1:15 am,” he said with a bit of disappointment.

About 2 pm, Mr. Meterman showed up. He looked at the gas line poking out from the house, and said serenely, “I can’t hook this up. They ran the line in the wrong place.”

I fell on my knees and begged. From my close-to-the-ground position, I hugged his legs and told him that we were making mortgage payments on a cave, and that I’d lost feeling in my fingers the day before, and could he please, please, please give us a little heat?

Surreptitiously, I rubbed my greasy hair against his pants leg. He scrunched up his face, groaned and took a step back.

Moved by my impassioned pleas, he forced the modernistic, bright yellow piping this way and that, and managed to get the gas meter set in place.

Virginia Natural Gas had told us that Mr. Meterman would fire up our appliances. Mr. Meterman said he was not permitted to fire up our appliances.

Fortunately, Mr. Brandy-New Boiler sprang right to life when turned on, and for the first time in 72 hours, we had hot water again.

Monday morning, the contractor re-appeared and got the boiler going, and Monday afternoon, our radiators were once again filled with hot water, making their trademark snap, crackle and pop noises.

My house is warm again. And it’s a good, comfortable warmth. And best of all, it’s a high efficiency warmth.  🙂

Old Oil burner

This is the only picture I have of the old oil burner. I'd intended to snap a few before photos when the work started, but was so stressed out by all the upset of my house being torn up (again), that I thought, "ah, forget it." This photo was taken in March 2007 when we first looked at the house.

The poor old Utica, as its being hauled off for scrap.

The poor old Utica, as it's being hauled off for scrap. Notice the heavy cast-iron boiler on the front. Workers estimated this rig weighed about 400 pounds.


The new unit is wall hung, and is much smaller. It is a tankless boiler, and water is heated as it passes through the boiler.

The new unit is wall hung, and is much smaller. It is a tankless boiler, and water is heated as it passes through the boiler. Notice the unpainted square on the basement floor, where the old boiler once sat.


Another view of the new equipment.

Another view of the new equipment.






This photo shows the complexity of all those pipes. Lot of stuff going on there!


And outside, it looks like this. The white PVC pipe is an air intake for combustion. The silver is for exhaust.

And outside, it looks like this. The white PVC pipe is an air intake for combustion. The silver is for exhaust. The red area around the border is where my house is bleeding from the jagged, rough and ugly cutting. The house cried out in pain, but I was the only one who could hear the throes of agony.


I wasnt thrilled with how the gas meter business turned out.  Two holes and one crooked meter.

I wasn't thrilled with how the gas meter business turned out. Notice, the house had some hemorrhaging here as well. The hole on the left was the contractor-created hole for the natural gas piping. They used a bright-yellow 1" line and it was not attractive. Monday morning, the contractor agreed to remove the misplaced yellow line and replace it with black-iron pipe, in the hole to the right. You can see (from this picture), how awkward the placement of that left-side hole is. The yellow gas line continues just inside the house.


Close-up of the pain

Close-up of the pain. The hole on the right was the original hole, where a gas line was run many, many years ago. If the contractor had simply used that hole in the first place (as I requested), it would have saved us all a lot of trouble.

And theres a handy dandy little gauge on the wall that measures boiler temps and domestic hot water temps. Highly entertaining.

And there's a handy dandy little gauge on the wall that measures boiler temps and domestic hot water temps. Highly entertaining.

Instructional literature that came with the unit shows that the tankless boiler is a happy little thing.

Instructional literature that came with the unit shows that the tankless boiler is a happy little thing.

But he can get frustrated pretty quickly.

But he can get frustrated pretty quickly. Not sure what he's doing here...

My pretty, pretty pink and green house!

My pretty, pretty pink and green house!

Another view

Another view

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