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Should the baseboard heating stay or go

I recently purchased a 1910 American Foursquare in NE North Carolina. Yay! We got it cheap because there’s a fair amount of (non structural) work to be done on it.

The whole house is equipped with hydronic baseboard heaters: steam or water running through copper piping. The heating oil boiler does not work,
cards against humanity in stores, so we knew we needed to decide before the winter as to how we want to heat the house. Now there’s a floor that needs removing from under a stretch of baseboard heater, so I need to decide whether to remove the baseboard heat or whether to work around it very carefully. For that, I need to decide how we’ll be heating our house in the longer term (we plan to stay here forever).

I’ve only lived in houses with furnaces, so I originally assumed we’d rip out the baseboard heating units and copper pipe, scrap the bunch, and get a furnace. But, I keep hearing from people how heating oil is the “cheapest per btu” and how “hot water radiators are the best heat because it doesn’t dry out the air” like furnaces. I am having trouble finding good resources to help make a decision.

The original plan:

Make a decision in a couple months after insulating our house and foundation. If all else fails, use space heaters or replace the oil fired boiler with a new boiler (heating oil or natural gas).

We’re interested in using passive techniques in our house, including adding solar panels and a solar water heater. Some of these ideas are further down the road than others, but we will likely have almost every wall and ceiling open in the next year ish.

I’ve requested an estimate from the local natural gas company for connecting service according to a local, they ran gas lines down every street.

1. How noisy are baseboard heaters? During the boiler test at inspection,
cards aganist humanity, there was a lot of clanging/gurgling, but my husband has lived in (cast iron) steam radiator based houses and says they’re silent.

2. Should the baseboard heating stay, or should we put “something else” in? If so, what, considering our eventual passive/solar plans?

3. Natural gas or heating oil? Or some other heat source? We don’t live very far above the water table, which I think precludes a geothermal based system.

4. What are good search terms or where are good resources for me to learn more about these topics?

5. What should I consider/research for the best long term cost efficiency and compatibility with solar/passive techniques?

posted by bookdragoness to Home Garden (19 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite

“hot water radiators are the best heat because it doesn’t dry out the air” like furnaces.

This is oft repeated bunk. Heating air lowers the relative humidity, regardless of how you heat it. The water in a system using a boiler and radiators stays in the boiler and radiators; it doesn’t rehumidify the air. What does dry out the air is if your furnace or boiler lacks an outdoor intake for combustion air, because if it’s burning air from inside the house and sending it up the chimney, then it’s also sucking cold air (with lower absolute humidity) into the house through every available crevice.

I would guess that natural gas would be cheaper than oil over the long term. I’d start by getting someone to assess the condition of the existing baseboard radiators, and to tell you whether they’re compatible with a modern gas fired boiler. If they are, then you’ll probably save money by reusing the existing hardware. If they aren’t reusable, then you’re looking at a whole new system and the question becomes which type makes more sense.

posted by jon1270 at 6:51 AM on June 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

I live in Maine, in a 130 year old house with baseboard heating and a wood stove. I’d keep the baseboard heating pipes and reattach them when done with the floor work, or (less expensive) just work around the pipes.

A boiler can make noises as water recirculates around pipes, but it isn’t that bad and settles down after the initial firing to get water up to temperature.

Wood stoves are wonderful and keep a place toasty in the winters at minimal cost and it’s much cheaper to use firewood,
cards against humaity?, considering the upward trajectory of fuel oil costs.

Insulate, use drapes or close doors to segment rooms, and/or make sure the heat coming off the baseboards don’t get immediately cooled by leaky windows.

I’m suspicious of electric heat, but I admit I don’t have a good grasp of the economics. Maybe run a space heater in one room for a night over the winter, using a Kill A Watt device to measure consumption in kWh,
cards for humanity game, then multiply by estimated use via your electric bill’s published rates. Might be acceptable, might not.

Good luck!

posted by Jubal Kessler at 6:51 AM on June 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

1. Heating Oil is NOT CHEAP. Good grief. I think people in my area (New England) with gas heat pay somewhere around half as much as I do for oil. It makes me jealous. (but not quite jealous enough to convert because the furnace is practically new, and replacing it would be $$$$)

2. I do love my radiators, however. Far more than the baseboard heat I had in my last place. The fact that the metal retains the heat after the furnace turns off means it stays cozier longer.

3. Cast iron radiators are silent, or close to silent, when properly maintained. They still ping a bit, and hiss with the release of steam. Improperly maintained they clang like crazy.

I can’t imagine that installing radiators where there were none before would be an easy or inexpensive task though.

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