Oil-fired boiler or gas? Older home needs new heat source

February 20, 2013 

Question: Eighteen years ago, we had to replace the steam boiler that had heated our old home for more than 50 years.

Our oil supplier installed an oil-fired boiler/burner unit, with a new feeder cutoff, smoke pipe, and draft regulator — a complete system replacement.

We’ve left the three-story Victorian for a retirement ranch-style house, and the old house is on the market.

Recently, we discovered that the steam boiler had cracked, and water is leaking into the burn chamber.

We have had a temporary fix applied, and are looking at an estimate of about $10,000 to replace the entire system with another boiler and all the ancillary equipment.

We’re told that 18 years is about the anticipated maximum operating life for this type of equipment, and that none of the existing equipment can be reused.

The alternative seems to be converting to gas heat, which appears to be more desirable in today’s housing market.

We have scheduled an appointment with another contractor for a second opinion, but I wondered whether you could suggest any other avenues we could pursue, and whether, in your experience, 18 years is the normal life for a steam boiler.

Answer: Always get a second opinion with something that expensive.

The experts tell me that you can never predict how long anything will last, and that applies as much to oil-fired boilers as it does to anything else.

The reason for your situation, from what I have read, is that the water in the system absorbs oxygen from the air that is pushed out of the radiators and pipes each time the system fills with steam.

If the boiler is not protected somehow — chemicals or a feedwater heater — the oxygen and minerals in the water eventually will destroy the boiler.

The oxygen in the water and the metal the boiler is made of combine to form rust on the inside surface where the water and metal touch — regardless of whether the boiler is made of cast iron or steel.

This degradation continues until the metal gets so thin it fails, and the boiler leaks water or steam.

Although natural gas is a cleaner-burning fuel than oil — as I can tell you from 14 years of annually cleaning the firebox in a former home’s furnace — converting wouldn’t solve the longevity problem.

From what I’ve read, it is the nature of the system — there also seems to be a debate over cast-iron vs. steel boilers — rather than the fuel used to fire it.

In addition, the experts say that just replacing the boiler and not the ancillary equipment would, in the words of one of them, “invite callbacks.”

The price quote may be a bit high, but you are dealing with a rambling Victorian, which was not built when energy efficiency was so important.

I’d get some other quotes to make sure.

Now, I’ll put on the real estate columnist’s hat to expound on the reality of today’s market.

Seven years ago, you could simply disclose that the furnace had a problem and negotiate for a drop in asking price based on estimates of what it would cost to fix.

We had so much equity in our houses that $10,000 was a minor inconvenience.

Buyers could get any size mortgage just by being able to exhale and could easily replace the boiler.

Older houses these days are not the flavor of the month with buyers unless they are in tip-top condition.

If you are using a real estate agent to sell your house, I recommend that you ask what he or she thinks is the best road to take.

I believe that the answer will be to obtain the best price, including a service contract for proper maintenance that might extend the life of the boiler, and then replace it.

Alan J. Heavens of the Philadelphia Inquirer has been writing about real estate and home improvement for the last 14 years. He can be reached at aheavens@phillynews.com.

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