Turn the Heat Around

Feb. 11, 2015

Converting a heating system from oil to water in a Rhode Island mansion

About the author: Mark Handzel is vice president, product regulatory affairs, and director, HVAC commercial buildings for Xylem Inc. Handzel can be reached at [email protected] or 847.966.3700.

With the invention of the oil burner in 1903, heating a home using oil became possible. By 1915, the first oil burner was installed in Boston; by 1917, contracts for oil to heat homes were pouring in. At the time, oil was a clean alternative to the messy and backbreaking work of shoveling and burning coal. 

Oil has been used for almost a century to provide heat for millions of homes. Now, as those aging boiler systems degrade, they become more costly to maintain. Many people are seeking an alternative to these inefficient systems from the previous century. In addition, there is a growing desire to minimize the environmental impact of long-term fossil fuel consumption. 

In an effort to find an efficient, more cost-effective alternative to oil, one homeowner in the seaside community of Newport, R.I., turned to water to heat his 15,000-sq-ft home. In place for just a few months, the new system is already paying dividends, with fuel costs plunging about 80%. “This is the fastest payoff ever,” said Jeff Ward, the property’s caretaker. “We don’t need oil anymore.” 

Doing the Research

The success of the project led by Ward is the result of research, testing and a bit of ingenuity. He knew research would be key to designing the best pump setup to convert the antiquated system from steam to hot water. Needing a thorough understanding of what each manufacturer offered, he started by visiting manufacturers’ websites and downloading pump manuals. 

He then compared the benefits and capabilities of each to determine which products were capable of supporting the upgraded system. After selecting pumps from several leading manufacturers, he set up a beta test for each in the house and used an amp meter to measure the output and determine the most effective and energy-efficient model. 

Ward concluded that the Bell & Gossett (B&G) ecocirc vario circulator pump met the energy and heating needs of the home. Taking more than two years to retrofit, the heating system in the 1920s villa is now state of the art — complete with Wi-Fi and remote programming capabilities — powered by a B&G pump system. 

With its electronically commutated permanent magnet motor, designed specifically for hydronic systems, the pump met the needs of the mansion’s new system. In Ward’s test, the ecocirc heated the test room and maintained consistent pressure while operating at just 0.25 of an amp. 

Other advantages of the pump include a 30% savings in energy, using 25 fewer watts while functioning at maximum speed. Additionally, its variable speed capabilities allow it to adjust to demand instead of running at maximum speed at all times, resulting in less energy use. 

Radiator Revamp

A challenge arose when it came to bridging the home’s 67 existing radiators to the new technology. Steve Graham of Massachusetts-based B&G representative Fluid Industrial Associates Inc. (FIA) was brought in to help make it work. 

“It was a challenge to reuse the radiators and run new piping without it becoming a major construction project,” said George Carey, vice president of FIA. “But aesthetically, the radiators fit the look of the house and the homeowners wanted to keep them.”

Because the homeowner wanted the radiators to be a functioning part of the new system, they needed to be disassembled and cleaned, a process that took two years. Crews had to work around complicated plumbing features, such as two radiators located behind built-in bookcases. Specialized tubing connects the radiators and the 25 ecocirc pumps, now in a centralized location in the house.

Savings & Benefits

The ancient boiler was only part of the home’s heating problem. Previously, there were only two zones to control the temperature in the house. Installed by Steve Antoch of A&L Plumbing and Heating, the new system features 34 zones and has Wi-Fi capability. Now, while the homeowners are out, they can send a text message to Ward, who can program the system remotely so they arrive to comfortable temperatures inside the house.

While proper pressure within the system was a primary consideration, the ecocirc also proved it could handle the long heat runs in the 20-room house for just pennies a day in electricity costs, which was a priority for Ward.

Another key feature of the system is its outdoor reset, which takes into account the outdoor temperature when heating the water. For example, water is heated to 180°F on a 10°F day, but only needs to be heated to 110°F on a 50°F day. 

The pump also protects against dry run conditions. If the circulator detects there is no water in the pump housing, it automatically enters into a protection mode until the presence of water is detected again. 

By replacing the obsolete and expensive cast-iron steam boiler, the homeowner saves $20,000 a year in oil costs alone. In contrast, the carriage house on the property, which is still fueled by an outdated system, costs about four times as much to heat as the main house now does. 

As property owners and operators continue to seek ways to be more efficient and save energy costs, retrofits that require thoughtful solutions will continue to increase.

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About the Author

Mark Handzel

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