The country town I am building, (that is what I now jokingly call it because there are 3 large size buildings) has always been deficient in one area for it to be inhabited full time. Each of my 2 houses was in need of a heating system. One house had a wood stove and the other had a wood furnace, which had been fine for now but, as a rental or to live there over longer periods of time, would not be.
I had always planned on putting in a boiler and using baseboard heat. The icing on the cake would be an oil-fired boiler in the basement that heated both houses and an outside wood boiler that could override the oil-fired boiler in the winter. When I built the guesthouse I had run an 8-inch pipe underground between the two houses dreaming of someday running heat piping through it, connecting them with one furnace.
So this was on my mind as I approached the plumbing supply company for a heating design plan.
Not many people are interested in taking on the complexity of installing a boiler and heating system, part of the job maybe, but not the whole thing. Back early on I had read in my construction bible, Do-It-Yourself Housebuilding by George Nash, that most people who build their own houses do not usually install their heating system, but the author said there is no reason why they couldn’t, as long as they had experience with other forms of household plumbing. He gave a brief overview of what was necessary. First off, he recommended having a heat loss study done on the dwelling. He said most plumbing contractors do not do this but their plumbing supply company does it for them. The companies will design the overall system for a client based on the type of system he or she wanted, and the amount of heat loss.
The kind of system I wanted was pretty straightforward until a co-worker started to put a bug in my ear about going with radiant floor heat. Bill said he had it in his house and loved it. I knew it was great and all the rage but I was at a disadvantage because I didn’t construct the house for radiant floor heat to start with. Bill showed me some pictures off the Internet of how to install radiant floor heat over and under existing floors. That got me excited to think it wasn’t too late for the guesthouse as the ground floors were not finished and the second floor, floor joists bays were open. So I started to think about radiant heat instead of baseboard.
I didn’t see Bill for about a month and when I did we didn’t talk about it. I did talk to some local people up in the mountains and was told by one person that I would never get my money back in heat savings to pay for the installation. I started to think of everything I had to do and was concerned about the time and pain of installing all that radiant tubing. So it was decision time, and with all the stress of my birthday party preparations, I took the easy way out. I made up my mind to go back to the original idea and use baseboard heat throughout. I even went so far as to install my first baseboard heater in the new downstairs bathroom I was building because I needed to put the pipes in before I closed up walls.
I was working with Bill again in the fall and one day he looks me in the eye and said, “So JD, are you putting in the radiant floor heat yet”? I sheepishly told him I decided to go with baseboard. He lit into me at that point. “You have to do it, you will love it, now is the time before you put the floors in and it’s no big deal.” Bill kept after me and showing me things on the Internet and talking about how much his wife and he loved the radiant floor heat. He even called his brother-in-law, a plumber and made me talk to him. Bill got through to me. It wasn’t like I didn’t like the idea; I just didn’t want all the complication. From then on it was full steam ahead with hydronic radiant floor heat.
The next part was to get a heat loss study and a plan. It was time to approach the manager of my local plumbing supply company. When I called Luke and told him I wanted to have an oil-fired boiler in the basement, radiant heat on the first floor, baseboard heat on the second floor, pipe heat underground to a guest house and have an outdoor wood boiler combination, he was OK with that. Then I told him I wanted to do it all myself…. there was silence, like a long silence. I explained to him that I had done all the other plumbing in the house and bought a lot of products from him. He reluctantly said, “ OK.” I said, “I need a heat loss study done and that other supply houses do that and will your company do that for me?” He said, “We have a guy who does that but he is semi-retired, only works till noon and is very busy.” I said “OK, I am not in a hurry now because it is a winter project”–to which he snickered out right. I got the message: it was probably going to be more than just a winter project.
From that point on I started to do research about Hydronic Heating. I combed the Internet for information and found there is not a lot because the work is almost always done by the trade, not the homeowner. In fact you can find derogatory posts from plumbers about people who do not know what they are doing and shouldn’t be messing around with it in the first place. One guy mentioned a book by Dan Holohan called “Pumping Away and other really cool piping options for hydronic systems.” I found it on Amazon and bought it for $25. It was a short, easy to read book that talked about modern hydronic principles, with formulas and simple drawings. It was by no means all the information I needed but just enough information to figure out the direction I needed to go in.
A month later I called the plumbing supply place and asked to talk to Charlie, the heat loss guy, and told him of my ambitious plans. Charlie gave me the same reaction as Luke, when I told him I was going to do it myself–silence. Then I went on to tell Charlie what I wanted to do- using what is called primary and secondary piping and use an outside temperature-reset controller, things gleaned from Dan Holohan’s book. Apparently that impressed him enough to want to work with me, even though he made it clear he didn’t hold people’s hands and didn’t usually work with amateurs. But I must have said the right things because I finally heard his “OK.” He said he would talk to Luke and we scheduled a time for me to come in with floor plans.
A heat loss plan is exactly what it says it is. There are formulas for which you put in the room dimensions, windows and location, ceiling height and the R-value of the insulation, things like that. It is best to work off architectural drawings from your house but in my case I didn’t have those so I found a free software program from Taco called FloPro Designer. The program allowed me to draw simple floor plans with window and door locations and the other relevant information. Then the software gave me the number of BTU’s required to heat a specific room to 72 degrees on the average coldest winter day in my geographic location. The latter part is what I wanted Charlie to do but I gave him a printout of the FloPro calculations anyway just for reference. (By the way, FloPro came up with usually smaller BTU numbers than Charlie did but they asked me some questions I didn’t understand and with open floor plans there is always need for human interpretation.)
I went in to see Charlie and gave him my floor plans created with the Taco, FloPro Design software. We talk about it for awhile and then Charlie took me downstairs to their training room where they have workshops for the trade and a real, working display of a radiant floor heat manifold and piping. He also talked to me about modern 3 pass boilers and European style low temperature radiators.
By bringing in a professional floor plan, including the heat loss numbers made Charlie realize I was for real and more eager to help me. It goes without saying he wanted to sell me the boiler, piping and controls. He just didn’t want the annoying phone calls about how tight to make a fitting, where a wire should connect or what to do next.
In a week Charlie called and told me to come in because my heat loss study was done. The study showed a total heat demand of 100,800 BTU’s at –20F. That was 42,000 BTU’s for the downstairs radiant floor heat and 18,800 for the upstairs low temperature radiators. He ballparked 40,000 BTU’s for the 900 sq. ft. Guesthouse. The price for all this was $13,500. That included two Biasi boilers, with the most expensive one being a wood burner, the pumps, pex tubing, and 5 low temperature radiators for the second floor, manifolds and controls. The guesthouse radiators were left out as directed by me excepting for the ballpark BTU’s required.
He sold me on the idea of a very simple system. The plan called for a boiler to supply hot water at up to 180 degrees and then it is mixed down to around 100 degrees or less or whatever it would take to make the house 72 degrees. The design aimed at a floor temperature of 85 degrees, not to go over 95 degrees. Most boilers are not made for low temperature operation; in fact they go to hell if they are operated too low too often. They like to operate around 140 to 180 degrees. Because of this, a mixing strategy is necessary to produce the low temperature hot water needed for radiant floor heat. You want to stand on a warm floor not a hot one. Low temperature water runs through radiant floor heat because you couldn’t stand on the floor if it was over 120 degrees. The temperature of this water is determined in my case by a control devise talking to a single indoor room thermostat and the outside reset controller in combination. If the temperature is dropping outside the house the control devise anticipates more of a demand for heat, raising the water temperature to satisfy the indoor thermostat and conversely. This way the room temperature is more even, the comfort level is improved and you do not waste as much fuel. What is being mixed is the cooler return water with the 140-degree or above boiler water going in. At times, no hot water may be mixed in because the temperature is rising outside. The way the boiler stays happy is with what is called primary and secondary piping. The primary, continuous loop constantly circulates hot boiler water, while the secondary loop draws off the primary loop, mixing in cooler return water and then sending it to the floors.
I knew about these ideas when I walked in to talk to Charlie and get the quote, but upon leaving I realized there were a lot of things I didn’t know. I thought he might give me a piping plan for the primary and secondary loops too, or that the plan would be in the quote somehow. Unfortunately, the quote created more questions than answers in its cryptic product descriptions. He gave me a simple schematic of how the wood boiler was to be piped, supplied by the manufacturer, Biasi. In the end that schematic turned out to be only partially relevant.
Before the meeting I had been doing more research and on Amazon I stumbled across this $200 textbook called Modern Hydronic Heating by John Siegenthaler. I was hesitant to order the book because it cost so much and not sure of the value to me. So I held off ordering the book till I met with Charlie and studied his paperwork. I ordered the book soon after the meeting because I was worried going forward about asking a lot of stupid questions and I still did not have a piping plan.
The book was a lifesaver. The important thing was, it had beautiful piping diagrams for all kinds of situations and photos of all the products I would need from fittings to air-eliminators. It was now the middle of November. I had the quote and heat loss study in hand, but didn’t want to buy anything yet. First of all, I wasn’t sure about so many things, and secondly, I was still finishing up insulating and sub-flooring the living room.
The answer to my piping configuration problem was many times made perfectly clear by reading Siegenthaler’s book, only to have it vanish later with my own contradictions and a doubt. So I called Charlie in a couple of weeks and said I had some questions. When I went in he said he didn’t have much time because he was working on a large heat loss plan that needed to be done yesterday. He spent most of our precious time talking about this large expensive project for this million dollar home. I soon came to realize he did not have the answers I was looking for and that was part of the reason he stalled the conversation. He finally said, “That is a question for Luke.”
He took me on a hunt for Luke to no avail and had me sit down in a conference room. Luke soon came in with a large poster of the low temperature mixing valve piping arrangement I needed from the supplier, Heatlink, a Canadian company that supplies a lot of products to the radiant floor heat trade.
The hot and cool water pipe mixing question was answered but not my two-boiler piping plan with secondary and primary loops and pumps. I took pictures of what he showed me and then he took me back to the workshop room with the radiant floor heat manifold and there I took pictures also. After that I brought out the quote and pointed out to him some things I didn’t understand. He said, “You have to talk to Charlie about that.” Say what? Not wanting to push the issue I left and did not feel good. What the hell is going on? Why can’t they just tell me? Was this just a way for them to force me to do more research and thoroughly understand the job or did they not know everything? At first I thought it was the former but in time I discovered it was the latter. They sell the stuff- they don’t put it together; they understand the concepts, not the details of every situation.
Based on what Luke gave me, the schematic Biasi provided, and from Siegenthaler’s book I was able to come up with a plan. I scanned many of Siegenthaler’s diagrams, put them into my computer along with the Heatlink mixing diagram and using photo editing software, Photoshop, I cobbled together a piping plan that made sense for my particular needs.
In another week I went in and asked for Luke directly showing him my piping plan. He thought my plan was very well done from a graphical point of view and we talked briefly about some key things that needed to be changed. At that moment his suggestions made things crystal clear and I scribbled down a few notes. When I went back to my computer a few days later to work out the changes, I realized something was wrong with my interpretation of what Luke had said. This was particular to how the two individual boilers would connect into the primary loop. Usually the primary loop is also the boiler loop, but in my case I had two boilers and the goal was not to waste energy running hot water through a boiler that was not running. The second wood boiler was going to be outside, about 50 feet away and in an unheated shed, so I didn’t want oil heating that.
I went back to Dan Holohan’s book, Siegenthaler’s book and a new Biasi diagram Luke gave me. The answer was there all the time; I just didn’t see it.
The concept is about using closely spaced copper tees, close by mere inches, one to feed hot water and one that returns cool water, to create hydronic separation within a loop and individual pumps for each loops.
I ended up with five pumps, two boiler loops, a primary loop that each boiler feeds into and two secondary loops. Everything is connected to the primary loop with closely spaced tees.
For good measure I emailed Luke my final plan hoping for his blessing. He didn’t respond the first day and I was wondering if he didn’t like it or he didn’t get it, but I was in an anxious state at that point. The next day I get an email from Luke with an attached PDF from the Biasi boiler manufacturer people saying my plan looked good. All Luke wrote was “Nice looking plan.” Whew! What a relief!
I admit, many things about building my house I figured out as I went along, but this was not one of them. There was no way I was going to start my boiler install without a proper accepted plan. Now I could start soldering some pipe.
I knew early in December I was going to use and install 5 low temperature radiators on the second floor so I went ahead and ordered them. I also bought a couple of pumps to get familiar with them and read the manuals. The boiler, copper pipe and other items I didn’t buy till I had my plan. So everything was delivered on New Year’s Eve day 2012.
The first thing I did was install my 5 low temperature radiators on the second floor. Low temperature radiators are fairly new in the USA but have been used in Europe for some time. These radiators can be run at 140 degrees, but in my case, Charlie sized them to run at the same temperature as my radiant floor heat. Low temperature is more efficient because there is inherently less heat loss from low temperature heat emitting devices. These radiators will run off the same loop as my radiant floor heat at whatever temperature is called for by the downstairs thermostat. Each radiator has a home run pex pipe to a centrally located manifold that can be individually flow controlled. The higher the flow rate, the more heat. You can set up these systems for more individual control with multiple thermostats and valves but Charlie kept it simple for me as a novice installer and to keep the cost down, which was fine with me. The radiators were a breeze to install with two ¾ inch holes drilled next to each other one-inch from the baseboard, two brackets screwed into the wall studs, and the radiator snapped into the brackets.
It was January and I was not looking forward to going down into that cramped, cold basement to work on my boiler installation. Fortunately I was able to solder my pipe plan into sections up in my heated workshop, making sure everything fit together properly on the floor and getting myself familiar with the Biasi boiler.
When I was satisfied, I took the pipe sections down into the basement and attached them to the wood sleepers I had screwed into the cement basement wall. After I soldered it all together I air pressure tested the system and fixed a few leaks.
From my experience, solder joints rarely leak but threaded fittings do. Fitting leaks are a real pain in the butt because you have to cut the copper pipe, retape the fitting, screw it back together, solder in a copper repair sleeve and hope it doesn’t leak. I took great care in putting this together and was very disappointed in the few leaks I did get.
After the primary loop was finished I started on the boiler loop, using cast iron black pipe and copper pipe. I got it all together and when I pressure-tested the loop I got leaks on most of the threaded fittings.
This made me mad and I’ve come to learn the answer to this problem cannot be found anywhere! I have talked to plumbers about avoiding leaks in threaded fittings and they just say, “I use 5 or 6 Teflon tape wraps and tighten the heck out of it.” Well I did that, and have been down this road before with black gas pipe but with the care I took, I didn’t think I would have the failure rate I did. I’m not talking about big leaks; I am talking about very tiny leaks, leaks that you can barely see the soap bubbles- but a leak is a leak.
With a hydronic system you do not want any leaks, no matter how small. Very small, tiny drinking water system leaks for the most part stop after a few weeks. I didn’t want to screw around with a hydronic heating system leak. I couldn’t cry about it too long, I just had to jump in and do it over.
So I took the boiler piping apart. Now with each threaded fitting, I brushed on a layer of strong pipe dope, then wrapped a thin piece of cotton thread around the pipe threads, pushing the thread into the pipe dope, then wrapped this all with 6 wraps of teflon tape and then “tightened the heck out” of the cast iron or copper fitting using a cheater pipe. I didn’t get any leaks after that.
The next part of this equation was an oil tank. I put a new 250-gallon oil tank in the basement when I built the house about 8 years earlier but the piping to fill it wasn’t done.
The proper way to do it is to run 2 two-inch cast iron pipes out the basement wall and then 3 feet above ground. Mind you, this was the end of February so after I hammer-drilled two holes through the 10-inch concrete wall and cut out some rebar, I had to dig through about a foot of frost on top of the ground. I tried to do it by hand but gave up after about a half hour and then was forced to take the time to coax my backhoe to start. The machine made short work of the frost because I had broken a nice hole into it by hand.
After hooking up the feed and vent pipe, I needed to get the tank to boiler oil line in place. I was in a quandary about just how to do this and again didn’t want to bother Luke about it.
I did know I did not want to use flexible copper tubbing because of the location of the pipe run, (right across the bottom of the basement stairs) and I don’t like flared cooper connections, as I’ve had bad luck with them. I wanted to use ½ inch, black, cast iron pipe. I knew I needed a shut off valve at the tank but didn’t know I needed a firomatic valve between the oil filter and the boiler. I found this out incidentally from an oil delivery guy.
When I went to get the firomatic valve at the plumbing supply place the guy at the counter brought one out to me. I had never looked at one before and my first impression was that it didn’t work, so I asked for another one. The guy brought out a couple of them and they all seemed very wonky. The counter guy like me thought there was something wrong with all of them. So I went to a box store and looked at what they had- same thing. So I bought one and went home to research it on the Internet.
A firomatic valve, (AKA OSV valve or fusible link valve) is a valve that shuts off the flow of oil if a fire is present or around 165 degrees according to InspectAPedia.com You can manually shut off the oil with this valve also. Turns out, when they look closed they are open and vise versa. They have a fusible link like lead that melts and shuts off the flow of oil when they reach a certain temperature caused by a fire or other problem. So you do not want them too close to your boiler but not too far either.
After I got the fuel lines all hooked up I flushed out the boiler and piping with fresh hot water and then filled the system with cold water, adding a pint of acid neutralizer to prevent rust and four gallons of hydronic heat system antifreeze (I need to add more antifreeze, it didn’t test as low as I need).
After the system had been filled it was safe to start the pumps but I needed the controls attached to do that. This was the area I knew least about. The only devise I had purchased at that point was the aquastat that came with the boiler package, which by itself could run a standard baseboard one or two zone system. But I needed a control devise that would talk to the outside reset control, (which was basically a thermometer), the indoor thermostat and sense the temperature of the water going to the radiant floor heat tubing. This device would most importantly control the mixing of the hot and cooler return water.
What threw me off to begin with was Charlie included a $180 control box I didn’t need for my simple type of system. The good thing was that it caused me to study the manual and understand what it was used for and how it was wired. It was a box used to control multiple zones and their zone valves which I didn’t have. Once again I was in need of a solution that wasn’t easy to find. I had e-mailed Luke about this and he agreed I didn’t need the box but ignored my question about what I did need. I took a whole day downloading and then printing out schematics from Heat Link’s web site. You could get different views (schematics) at different locations on their site of the same product. I needed to see all the alternatives laid out in black and white in front of me. I needed to touch them and mark them up, pushing things off to the side that didn’t work; it was all new to me. At the end of the day I saw only one possible option with the controller I was going to buy. I kept coming across this option in my research but it didn’t have my name on it, I kept telling myself that it had to be mine. It was. Simply put the Heat Link controller would tell the Biasi boiler to fire but not to start pumping. The boiler’s aquastat would control the boiler loop pump, turning it on when the water was hot enough and protect itself. All the other pumps and devices would be regulated by the HeatLink controller. I called HeatLink’s help line and the guy confirmed that this was the way to do it. I had to call him back when I was actually attaching the wires because it does get confusing and the schematic does not show my situation. Whew again!
I was almost ready to start the system, but there was one big problem for me now. I was dreading this part- getting a qualified plumber to come in and set-up my boiler. They use specialized electronic probes to make sure the boiler is working safely and efficiently. This must be done and I wasn’t qualified to do it. I didn’t want a plumber to come to my house with a chip on his shoulder because of what he would think of a know-it-all like me that was crazy enough to install his own boiler.
First I needed fuel oil so I looked in the yellow pages and found a delivery company a couple towns over that had boiler techs also. I called them up, explaining my situation and the owner was more than happy to deliver 200 gallons of fuel oil and then a boiler tech. I called Luke to check on their reliability and he said they were a first rate company- that was all I needed to hear.
The oil was delivered in two days. They needed me there for the first fill up in case there were any issues. When the delivery guy started to fill the tank I was down in the basement to check for any problems. The guy let her rip and I was amazed at the sound of that oil flowing into my tank. It sounded like a typhoon coming into the basement. After I got over the sound and checked for leaks, a sense of relief washed over me.
This is was a big deal for me- I actually had oil in my tank and was ready to heat. Ended up the delivery guy was also a boiler tech and he came down with his instruments to spec out the boiler.
He bled the fuel lines and in a flash fired up my boiler. What a rush it was to hear the boiler fire after all that anxiety and work. The tech told me everything was fine and he thought I had a good set-up. I felt good after hearing that from a professional.