Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Beast Saves the Day

Yesterday was day two of the heat pump/air handler installation and electric upgrade. By the end of today, we should have our new system up and running.

The upgrade from 100 amp service to 200 amp service is complete, and the new breaker box is much better than the old system of two ancient breaker boxes and one (even more ancient) fuse box. I'll post some pictures of that later.

We had some excitement yesterday morning when the electrician got here. For some reason I had the mindset that the electrician would get here, shut off the power to the house for about an hour, then finish upgrading our service and turn the power back on. If I had really thought about all the work he was doing, I would have realized how silly that was. But I didn't think about it that much.

So I was a little surprised when I got a call from Niki around 9:00 yesterday morning, telling me that the electrician had just shut off the power and it was going to be off all day. It was 30 degrees when we found this out. Fortunately, the radiators retain their heat for quite a while after The Beast shuts off, so I knew we were okay for at least an hour or two. But with the workmen needing to go in and out of the house constantly, it was just a matter of time before thing started getting chilly.

After briefly considering a triplet exodus to Niki's house, I decided to do something I'd had in the back of my head for a while. Rex (a friend of mine from work) and I went to the house and set up what you see below.

2008 10 28 01

It's a battery and an inverter spliced into the AC wires for the boiler. We had heat for the whole day -- in fact, even as I write this The Beast is still hooked up to that battery.

I would wager that there are very few houses in Wichita that could be heated for several days with a battery as the source of electricity. But The Beast is a gas boiler (originally coal, but it was converted), and the heat is circulated through the house by gravity: the steam rises in the pipes, and when it cools off in the radiators it turns to water (called condensate), which flows down the return pipes. There are no blowers or pumps. The only need for AC power is to open and close the valve when the thermostat tells it to. When we set this up at 11:00 yesterday morning, the battery had 12.05 volts. I just checked it again this morning, and it has 11.98. With a fully-charged deep-cycle battery, we could probably heat the house for a few days without power. Nice to know!

We had more excitement last night when we tried to turn on lights upstairs. I'll write more about that when I have time, but I have to say that Tracy Electric did an impressive job late last night, and they promised to replace anything that might have been damaged.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Halfway to New Heat

The heating and cooling trucks pulled into the drive at 8:15 this morning and left right around 5:00 pm. And they replaced this old air conditioning compressor...

Old AC

...with a shiny new heat pump.

New Heat Pump

They'll be back again, though. The air handler and thermostat still have to be installed, and that will likely take most of tomorrow.

I've received the same response from several people upon hearing that we are having a heat pump installed. It's a mixture of shock, horror, and disappointment. People are surprised that we are getting rid of The Beast. Rest assured that The Beast will still be part of our family. The new heat pump will be on a new thermostat, and The Beast will still be hooked up to the old thermostat.

I'll post more tomorrow evening after (we hope) the whole system is set up.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Beast Lives

We have a few more days before our new heating system is installed, but the weather decided not to wait. So far we've been using space heaters during the night, and the house has warmed up enough during the day that it hasn't been a problem. But today the temperature stayed in the 40s all day, and the house stayed cold despite the valiant efforts of our little electric space heaters.

And it's supposed to get colder. The forecast is for lows in the 20s and 30s this weekend, so we realized that we would have to awaken The Beast one more time. I figured I should get it on video, in all its Freddy Kruegeresque glory. I opened the lower door and set up the Mino as I turned on the gas.

I lit the pilot light at 4:45. At 5:00 I went back down to check on it, and the water was at full boil and the pipes around the boiler were warming up. A few minutes after that, I was sitting in the living room when I heard the familiar popping that accompanies the steam pipes expanding. By 5:30, the house was toasty. I had forgotten how much we enjoy radiant heat. As much as we're looking forward to manageable bills during the coldest months, I'm really going to miss the old-school heat we get from The Beast.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Electric: Upgrade

We're having a heat strip installed in the new air handler. It was only a couple of hundred dollars more, and it basically converts the air handler into an electric furnace. However, the wiring that goes up to the air handler isn't stout enough for the heat strip, so we had a couple of electricians out to give us estimates. Just run some electric up to the attic. Simple, right?

In the tradition of College Hill House, it is much harder and more expensive than that. We're getting a 20KW heat strip in the air handler, and our house's electrical service just can't handle it. So we are upgrading our service from 100 amp to 200 amp. Of course, that means it will be longer before we can have the heat strip up and running, and it will cost about five times as much as we expected. But the heat pump should be installed on Monday, and it should be at least a month or so before we need the backup heat from the heat strip.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

This is So Wrong

In general, Internet polls are useless. You cannot get a good sample from a poll on a Web site. Take any political poll, run it on a liberal site and a conservative site, and those two results will be completely different from each other -- and different from what the majority of Americans probably think.

And yet, I still participate in Internet polls that look interesting to me. So as I was checking the weather yesterday, I clicked a poll about coffee consumption. I was shocked to find out that many people who go to are crazy:

Coffee Poll 2

Friday, October 17, 2008

The Decision

We finally made our decision about the heating situation. It was a little easier than we planned, because of four companies we've had out, only one gave us estimates. The others wouldn't return our phone calls, and now I've heard that one of them went out of business. Glad we didn't go with them.

We are getting a heat pump. Specifically, the Trane XL14i heat pump, a 4TEE variable speed air handler, Trion Air Bear air cleaner and some sort of fancy-pants thermostat.

You may notice something missing from that list: anything to do with the boiler. That's because we simply couldn't afford to get the heat pump (or air conditioner) and replace the boiler this year. Since our a/c is on its last legs and the air handler is filled with mold, we decided to go this route.

Hopefully the heat pump will help us save money by keeping the house warm during those weeks or months when the temperature stays above 35. When it goes below 35, the heat pump isn't efficient enough to be worth running (it isn't a geothermal heat pump), and we'll have to awaken The Beast.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Sticker Shock


Ouch ouch ouch.

We got an estimate on our boiler/air conditioner situation yesterday.

I say again, ouch.

Here's what we had hoped to do: replace our 40% efficient steam boiler with a 90%+ efficient hot water system. Not only would this save us money, but it would be safer as well (those steam pipes hit temps over 200 degrees F). We were also going to replace the 25-year-old A/C unit with a heat pump, which would allow us to cool the house all summer and warm the house on those high-30s and 40s days without firing up the boiler (or hot water unit).

So that's what we heard about yesterday. I don't want to give the exact number, but for those of you reading this post in the distant future (and I assume you are, since I don't think anyone reads this blog in the present), I will provide some handy 2008 equivalents.

For the price of installing a hot-water heating system and a heat pump, in the year 2008 a person could do one of the following:

  • Catch the matinee of Tropic Thunder at the Warren Theatre 2,714 times (that's the original 2008 version of Tropic Thunder, not the crappy remake from 2043).
  • Renew your Flickr Pro Account for 761 years.
  • Buy 5,937.5 gallons of gas (roughly enough to drive a Hummer from Wichita to Kansas City).
Obviously, we are looking into other possibilities.