Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Baby It's Cold Outside: Choosing a New Heating System

We bought our house in January 2003.  We had the luxury of working on the house before we moved into it so things like heat were less of a priority than they would have been otherwise.  However, this was one of the coldest Januarys in recent memory, or so it seemed to us.  The temperature remained below freezing for weeks, unusual here in Southwest Virginia.  If we were going to work on the house comfortably, one of the first things on our agenda was to start the boiler.  

We had the natural gas turned on thinking it couldn't be that hard to light the furnace.  We knew from looking at it that it was old and probably a gas guzzler, but the previous owners had used it, so it must work.  Right?  Wrong.  Since the house had been empty for a bit, the gas company stuck around to see if there were any leaks when the furnace started.  Well, we tried and couldn't figure out how to light the thing.  The gas company representative tried for a half hour or so and couldn't get the thing started.  At that point, we decided that heat was over-rated.  We had been told the radiators were drained (apparently  mostly, but not completely, but that's another story) and we wouldn't be living there so we decided to go heatless.  In the dead of winter. 

The old, and I do mean old, boiler was cast iron and had once burned coal and later oil before it's metamorphosis to natural gas burner.  We knew we wanted to keep the radiators in the house and would continue using natural gas.  We also knew that with our climate, mountain breezes, and 42 windows, air conditioning wouldn't be necessary.  That meant a new efficient natural gas boiler was in order. Despite the heating contractor's insistence that we needed air conditioning, our choice was a Buderus boiler with programmable thermostat and an on-board hot water heater.

Things to think about when buying a new heating system:
  1. Make sure the company you buy it from knows how to service it.  We've had several occasions where we've known more about the service than the technicians and have had to tell them how they broke it.  Or  how to restart it. 
  2. Consider zoning the system.  Our second floor is always hotter than the first during heating season.  If we had zoned the system, we could turn the heat down upstairs or up downstairs.  As it is, downstairs holds steady at the temperature on the thermostat while upstairs is summery.
  3. If your system adjusts to the outside air temperature like ours does, be sure to put the sensor on the north side of the house.  Our sensor was originally next to the gas meter on the west side of the house.  In the afternoon sun.  Against a brick wall radiating heat well into the evening.  Unless it was a rainy day, we were cold.  The sensor thought it was much warmer out than it was, so the boiler either didn't think it was necessary to come on or would provide very little heat. 
  4. Programmable thermostats are the way to go.  We tend to be very predictable people and we want to be warm when we're up and about.  The thermostat is programmed for the heat to be higher in the morning when we get up, lower during the day when we're working around the house or out and about, and higher in the evening when we're more likely to be sitting.  Our house holds heat well during the time that the heat is lower and absorbs sun during the day, so the extremes aren't significant.
  5. Insulate, insulate, insulate!  It doesn't matter how efficient your heating system is if your house is drafty.  Insulate your walls, attic, and crawl spaces.  Put weatherstripping around your windows and doors and add storms.  
  6. If you have the option of having your boiler provide your hot water, do it.  Our water is always hot, never runs out, and can be used by more than one person at once.  The boiler keeps a few gallons of water hot year-round, then kicks on to provide unlimited hot water for showers, washing, and kitchen use for minimal cost.

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