Hi Umbra,

My fiancée and I bought a house in October. We plan to green the house up as best we can, and one of our first projects will be how we heat the house. Since we didn’t have any money after buying, we had to limp through this winter with an oil-powered steam boiler from 1962. Obviously not efficient at all. Plus it was having “puff back” issues so part of the time our basement was filled with lovely oil smoke. What should we do to replace this boiler? I know there is natural gas in the street so we could have the whole system replaced. Or should we look at alternatives such as biofuel and a new oil boiler? Or are there other options that I don’t know about?

Jesse
Wayland, Mass.

Dearest Jesse,

Oily boiler toil and trouble, that’s what you’ve got. (If I don’t start with a joke they dock my weekly M&M’s allowance.)

You look radiant.

Photo: iStockphoto

Let’s assume that you’ll replace your boiler, although if there is any doubt, call in a technician. Yours is so old that it would be shocking if it were as efficient as modern models. Furnace and boiler efficiency are measured in AFUE (gesundheit): annual fuel utilization efficiency. This is a measurement of how much of the energy is turned into heat, versus how much leaks out or vents off as waste. Modern furnaces and boilers have AFUEs above 80 or even 90 percent; older types often fall below 70 percent. Lord knows what your boiler is, other than a hilarious relic, but others of us who don’t have Puff the Dragon in the basement can learn our AFUE either from a label, from a professional, or from learning the combustion efficiency from a professional and then multiplying by 0.85.

I can’t find one heating system that is touted as best in all situations, which is logical, since your electricity comes from coal and mine from hydro, your house may have three finished floors and other people have exposed pipes in the basement — It Depends. The web is here for you, though, and I’ve picked the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy site and the government of Ontario for your preliminary decision-making; for lists of the best furnaces/boilers, the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. The EERE and Ontario are thorough, laying out all the choices and assisting you with charts, decision-making tips, contractor assistance, thoughts on fuel costs and environmental impact, and generally overwhelming (but useful) amounts of information. Fuel costs, installation costs, the infrastructure and layout of your home, and various soon-to-be-revealed other limitations will hopefully winnow your choices down until you know which system is best for you.

The simplest thing is probably and obviously to replace the current system with an updated version. Then, if you have biofuel available in your area (which you do), you can look into using that in your boiler instead of heating oil and do a little petroleum sidestepping if it works out. That’s a great option if it’s available to you. Natural gas burns cleaner than oil (or wood, pellets, or propane), so if the costs and boiler efficiencies work out, changing your fuel source to natural gas might make sense. Other common energy sources include solar, heat pumps, wood or pellet-fueled stoves or furnaces, and electricity. Electricity in your area is probably coal-generated and not so clean.

A drawback to deciding on any system other than a steam boiler is that you’ll have to replace the infrastructure that delivers the heat to the “conditioned” spaces. If you switch to a hot-water boiler in order to have hot-water radiators (one reason to make this choice is that hot-water boilers are apparently more efficient than steam), you will have to futz with the radiators if not outright replace them, and you may have to replace the pipes. If you wanted radiant floor heating and your joists aren’t exposed underneath, forget it. If you switch to a furnace and a forced-air system, you’ll need to install ducting and grates all over the house — I’ve learned from EERE that a reason to consider doing this is to have air conditioning as part of your central heating/cooling system.

In sum, yes, there are other options you haven’t heard about, and you should look into it because I can’t even begin to do the topic justice. Set aside a good chunk of time to do so. When you do purchase a new heating system, be sure it is properly sized for your home. And before you have someone size your furnace or boiler, you want to do all the efficiency improvements, such as insulation, that reduce the BTUs required to heat your home. That’s what you want to do. Whether you will have the time and money to do it, who knows?

Flexibly,
Umbra