Old-fashioned Heating Follow this couple’s journey to restore heat to their Victorian.
ONE COUPLE’S JOURNEY TO RESTORE HEAT TO THEIR VICTORIAN HOME
We Ferndale 1997 moved to in and Were thrilled to own a beautiful 5,000 victorian square Foot home
that proudly bears the honor of being on the National Register of Historic Places. Soon after we moved in, it became clear that the current “heating solution” of two pellet stoves and a small forced-air heater was totally inadequate to keep the moist coastal chill out of the air. The home has single-paned windows with over 1,000 pieces of separate glass, many of which are original stained glass, as well as extensive period-accurate wallpaper that hangs from cheesecloth on all our walls. We wanted to honor our home’s pedigree by choosing a period-accurate method to heat it.
Our heating journey began in 2000, when we decided to invest in 34 antique radiators from Boston to for every room of the home. We quickly forgot the delivery cost for 7,500 pounds as we unpacked our beautifully embossed radiators, installed them on the inside of the walls of every room and connected them to flexible PEX tubing. We routed these new lines inside the walls, along the attic subfloor and underneath the home to outfit all three stories.
All this plumbing was divided into different heating zones that were connected to manifolds (like arteries and veins) powered by a massive hot water heater (like a heart).
Unfortunately, after the heating system’s first year of operation, the nightmares began. The heater proved to be unreliable, inefficient and unaffordable. As persistent as we were, we could not keep up with the constant breakdowns and huge repair bills that occurred over the following eight years. To top it off, the giant hot water heater was constantly coming on to warm the recirculating water in the tank, causing our propane bills to soar to more than $1,000 a month for six months of the year. So, in 2008, we finally gave up and made a long overdue decision. We shut down our propane heater for good and said goodbye to our warm and toasty radiators in lieu of a small pellet stove in our main parlor, supplemented by portable electric heaters and layers of sweaters and blankets in the wintertime.
A BRIGHT RAY OF HOPE
Eight more years of heating woes—huge electric bills plus the added injustice of being cold November through April—prompted us to reach out and see if newer technologies could cost-effectively heat our house. When consulting with a local solar installer and mechanical engineer, we realized that a $20,000 solar option was out of our budget. Thankfully we already had the bones— radiant hydronic heating manifolds and PEX plumbing— connected to our cast-iron radiators. After more research, we made the decision to install a tankless Noritz model CB-199 Combi Boiler. This high efficiency condensing boiler is the one we wanted for three reasons. First, it heats both domestic hot water and our radiators; second, its ondemand tankless design reduces heating costs significantly; third, it is 80% smaller than conventional heating and hot water systems.
Because we live in a sparsely populated rural community in the redwoods of northern California, our pick for installers in our area for the unit we wanted was scarce. Finally, out of frustration, we called Noritz directly, who put us in touch with Fred Patterson, a wholesale distributor for Noritz. Several weeks and many phone calls later, Fred, an accomplished installer in his own
right, took pity on us and on a cold January morning in 2017, drove five hours from Sacramento to save the day. Most of Saturday and all day Sunday, we teamed up with a local plumber to disconnect the old heater, remove our 50-gallon domestic hot water heater and install our new Noritz condensing boiler. Connecting the new system to the old domestic plumbing and radiant manifolds was like performing a miraculous heart transplant. But just like waiting for the patient to wake up, starting up the system was the moment of truth.
So here it was, 40°F outside and not much warmer inside. We set our first floor thermostat to 65°F, and voila! Within an hour, the seven rooms outfitted with radiators heated up to 65°F. Considering that we don’t have insulation in the walls and single-pane windows, we were amazed to feel even heating in every room. And what a natural cozy feeling that warmth from radiators provides! For the first time in eight years, our radiators came to life again.
WORKING OUT THE BUGS
As with any new system, we needed to work out the bugs over the next few weeks. After Fred left, we were the lone rangers, spending hours on the phone with Noritz technical support to sort out various problems. The old exhaust vent needed an upgrade to a high-heat, 3-inch polypropylene pipe because the newer system had a higher exhaust temperature that could have melted the old pipe and created harmful vapors. The circa-2000 bleeder valves were faulty and had to be upgraded with new valves (all 34 of them) before we could bleed our radiators. Once we fixed the leaking valves, it took a lot of trial and error, “bleeding” the radiators to remove all the air in the lines (like trapped gas). We only have one more piece to go: the whole house filter. After that, our heating story will have come to a happy conclusion. Our electric bill is a fraction of what it was and our propane costs are now reasonable. We can embrace the comfort each beautiful radiator provides.
If you’ve already invested in an older radiant heat system but are unhappy with its performance like we were, consider replacing your heater or boiler with a new-technology on-demand system. Whether you have a small cottage or a three-story Victorian, affordable warmth may be right around the corner.
Our heating journey began in the year 2000, when we decided to invest in 34 antique radiators.