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Heating Upgrades for the Victorian

We bought our Victorian just in time to experience the coldest winter here on record in Chicago. A pipe even burst in the basement! (Although to be fair, that happened to a lot of homes in the area. A pipe burst in our old house too, with which we had never experienced any heating problems.) After sealing our drafty windows with plastic sheeting the house stayed dramatically warmer, and we also had our old boiler serviced and bled the radiators. The house still struggled to stay in the mid to high 60s on the first floor though, while it was comfortably warm upstairs and hot all the way up on the third floor. So before another winter comes, we had some work done to the house’s heating system.

Old Boiler
Old Water Heater

The boiler still has some life left in it, but its chimney is in need of big repairs. We could have added a liner to prevent further corrosion, but the age and condition of the brick would have made it an expensive and difficult job. Another option for roughly the same cost was to replace the old boiler with a new model that was more energy-efficient and that could be vented out the side of the house, so that’s what we chose to do. We also replaced the water heater at the same time. There was a backdrafting issue identified during our house inspection, there wasn’t enough capacity for a house of this size, and the thing also had to be fixed twice in the last two months. Those three factors swayed us toward replacement. The water heater is now tied into our new boiler, so it’s piggybacking off of the radiator system for faster heating and more efficiency.

Ooh, get ready for some more Pinterest-worthy pictures!

New Boiler and Water Heater

So pretty, right? Our basement’s a gem.

And we’re down to a single gas meter! The Victorian was split into apartments in the 1930s (common in the depression era), and it was still a multi-family house until just before being sold. There remained both a residential and commercial account for gas, and getting them combined into one residential account (which has significantly lower rates) was a long process. Lots of red tape and hoops to jump through, and the expense of rerouting the pipes is the responsibility of the home owner. We started the process right away when we moved in a year ago, and it took a good ten months.

Then there’s the last of our heating system upgrades. We were cautioned against using the valves on our radiators because when they’re as old as ours, mineral build-up and corrosion can cause them to break with use. Hot water radiators are either on or off — there’s no middle adjustment — so ours were all on, all winter. That third floor was toasty. Now we’ve added thermostatic radiator valves to each of the six radiators on the third floor, and to two of them on the second floor (in rooms that were consistently warmer than the rest). They aren’t pretty, but they’ll automatically turn the radiators off when the room temperature is warm enough, so that the heat can be directed to where it’s needed instead. The valves are currently set at 68, but we’ll experiment to see what’s best when winter comes — they can all be individually adjusted.

Thermostatic Radiator Valves

Brandon and I can take consecutive showers now without running out of hot water, and between the new valves and the boiler, we should see more even and efficient heating this winter. That, and the elimination of the commercial account, will also bring lower heating bills. Working on the guts of the house doesn’t bring the prettiest pictures, but we’re glad to have had the work done.

Our Pipes Burst

The good news is that the pipe in the ceiling of the laundry room burst while we were awake and right above it in the kitchen. If we had been asleep, or even just upstairs, it would have been much worse.

We woke up on Monday to a cold house with the pipes frozen from the laundry room, up through the kitchen and on to the second floor. The bathrooms all had running water though, so we consulted with a plumber, made do, and hoped for the best. We also located the main shut-off valve for the whole house. Just in case. The previous owners said that the pipes had frozen once before, years ago, but that they thawed without incident. It had never been so cold before though, they added!

We had left the faucets on so that we could tell when water started to flow again, so when Brandon heard the water running last night, he assumed it was from the utility sink. I went down to check on it, and water was pouring out of the ceiling. I swore loudly, Brandon ran downstairs, and we sprinted over to shut off the water to the house completely.

We’re working with the plumber that the previous owners had used for the house, which we’re grateful for because as they put it “he knows this house.” He’s downstairs right now and has been for a few hours, working to cut out the damaged copper pipes and replace them with new. Because it turns out that not only did one pipe burst, a second one did too, right above it. Fun!

Burst Copper Pipes in the Ceiling

Burst Copper Pipes

He said that there isn’t really anything we could have done to prevent this from happening. It was just too cold, and copper doesn’t hold up to being frozen for a few days like the old cast iron pipes do. (Thankfully those are fine.) We are wrapping the pipes in insulation, and we have some people coming out tomorrow to look at the heating system. It’s a balmy 60° downstairs right now, but that’s in the dining room where the thermostat is located. On the other side of the house, you know, where the pipes burst? There’s a tomato on the counter that has frozen solid, and the 12-pack of pop on the floor froze and burst open too. Eh, we’ll get it sorted.

This is really only tangentially related, but I couldn’t resist.

*Update* In case this information is helpful to anyone, it took three hours and cost $250 to have the two pipes replaced and wrapped with insulation. Also, the house is up to 65° and rising! It’s 10° out now, so the heat can finally catch up.

The Victorian House: Laundry Room and Basement

You might want to shield your eyes for this part of the house tour. We’re heading down to the basement.

Stairs to the Basement

The laundry room is missing the part that makes it functional. You know, the washer and dryer? They weren’t included with the sale of the house (they were old coin-operated models), and so we had to get new ones. I’ve already ordered a set, and they’re scheduled for delivery on Friday.

Basement Laundry Room

I thought that there was a spot on the third floor that would make for a nicer laundry room (we miss our last one), but now I’m second-guessing that option. Some of you left comments about the potential rumbling/rocking/swaying action, and that was confirmed by the salesman when I bought our appliances. I guess washers and dryers are made for basements, not the third floor of Victorians from the late 1800s. But maybe the second floor? More investigation will be necessary.

Hey, look! A treasure chest!

Random Treasure Chest

I don’t know why it’s there either. Here’s the rest of the basement.




A safe! Another chest!

Safe, Chest

Had enough? Me too. We’re fine with it remaining an unfinished basement and just using it for storage. There’s plenty of living space elsewhere in the house. Speaking of which… more prettiness tomorrow, including the kids’ favorite spot.