Mansion converts from steam to hot water heating

April 7, 2015
Where before the system had two zones, it now has 34 zones. Everything is controlled via Tekmar 529s that will actuate based on either floor or air temperature. An outdoor reset helps keep the boiler loop at the most efficient temperature.
The original mansion was completed in 1929.
NEWPORT, R.I. — At the height of the Gilded Age, Newport, R.I., was the summer playground of America’s wealthy. The Astors, the Vanderbilts, and the Wideners all built their summer “cottages”— some of the most opulent mansions in the hemisphere — along Bellevue Avenue. Seven of those mansions are today National Historic Landmarks. Some are still privately owned and used as summer residences. One such mansion has been under the careful stewardship of Jeff Ward who has been property manger and building engineer for going on a decade. “I don’t know how I ended up here!” Ward said. “A couple of guys, RISD [the Rhode Island School of Design] students were working on a project that was out of their depth and called me in. I met the owner while I was doing a project for them and eight years later I’m still working for the same family.” The current family has been in residence since about 2003. The original house was completed in 1929 and underwent extensive renovation in 1935. “Robert Goulet, the industrialist, bought the house… and did a complete restoration adding a ballroom and an entire wing to the house,” Ward said. Amenities include a greenhouse, a library with 400-year-old walls, and even a decorative Austrian furnace. “I don’t think it ever functioned,” Ward said, “it’s just this big, beautiful, glazed, 3,000-lb. furnace on one side of the ballroom.”
The mansion was renovated in 1935.
For decades the mansion’s real source of heat was a gigantic oil-fired Smith 350 1.2 million Btu boiler that fed steam to 67 cast iron radiators. Even for a house with almost 20,000-sq.ft., the boiler delivered nearly double the necessary capacity. At that time — and especially for the upper classes — energy efficiency was simply not a consideration. “Houses in this time frame were built with the 1918 influenza epidemic in mind,” Ward explained. “In winter they wanted to be able to heat this house with all the windows wide open.” While the old system could get the house up to 90°F fairly quickly — the surface of some radiators could climb to as much as 256°F — to keep the house at just 50°F for the winter could cost anywhere from $15,000 to $24,000.
To distribute hot water, 25 Ecocirc vario circulator pumps from Bell
On top of that, the boiler was subject to breakdowns that were becoming more and more difficult to deal with. “Every time we did a repair job it was costing $10,000,” Ward said. “I would have to bring in a couple professionals, wait for them to give up, jump in, bring in the block and tackle… just really difficult.” Custom parts needed to be fabricated, mountings needed to be re-cemented. Even for a family that was only occasionally using the property, the situation was becoming intolerable. Almost three years ago Jeff Ward got the green light from the owners to design and install a new hot-water-based heating system with a modern, efficient mod-con boiler at its heart. But there was a catch: the owners wanted to keep the vintage radiators that added so much to the look and feel of the mansion. While beautiful, the radiators did not work well with moving water. “The baffles were too thin,” Ward said. “I couldn’t get them to aspirate, I couldn’t get them purged completely. So they were a real battle.” Additionally, many of the radiators were in different sizes and configurations, making it a nightmare to accurately size the new system. Ward and his team spent almost two years cleaning the existing radiators. All 67 (weighing on average 250 lb., with the heaviest being 600 lb.) were taken outside, rinsed in muratic acid and washed with CLR before being reinstalled. Ward also built his own radiators inside the existing “shells” using 1-in. copper tube with 4-in. fins, overlapping and putting as much tubing as possible into the available space. In addition, Ward installed about 4,000-sq.ft. of radiant floor heating throughout the home, mostly using Viega Climate Trak. “It’s a snap-on product,” Ward explained. “8 ft. long panels, 4-in. wide aluminum with a centered ½-in. tube you snap your tubing into. They are made for retrofits. They work like a big heat sink. You screw those up in each bay, then insulate heavily.”
Two Lochinvar 399s were installed.
For the radiant work, Ward had the advantage of working with an older house. Most of the flooring was well-seasoned American walnut. “It’s very hard and does not shrink, even when I take it up to 150°F or 160°F,” Ward said, “which is very frowned upon, as a rule, with radiant floors.” That kind of heat in a younger house would begin to warp and shrink the flooring until the attachment points pulled away. While the cast iron radiators combined with the radiant floor heating did work well with the new, lower-temperature hydronic system, Ward needed to educate the owners. The old system could get the house up to temperature in about 12 hours; the new system needed more like 24 hours. During his beta testing, Ward used a 199,000 btu Quietside boiler, sometimes managing to heat the entire home using just that unit when the Smith 350 was off-line. Finally, it was time to install the new mod-cons, but first the old boiler had to go. “I ended up cutting the old boiler up with a 7-in. angle grinder,” Ward said. “The lobes of a Smith 350 are between 650 lb. and 700 lb., so I had to build a kind of hand crane with a chain fall, so we could pick them up, slide [the pieces] on to a utility vehicle and drive the whole show right into a 30-ft. dumpster.” Ward ended up filling the dumpster. Between the boiler and the black pipe about 17,000 lb. of steel went off to the salvage yard. Ward installed two Lochinvar 399s. With direct-vent sealed combustion, modulating burners with a 5:1 turndown ratio, low NOx operation and stainless steel heat exchangers, it was like leapfrogging generations of boiler technology. To distribute the hot water Ward used 25 Ecocirc vario circulator pumps from Bell & Gossett. The circulators feature an electronically commutated permanent magnet motor designed for hydronic systems. In testing, the Ecocirc delivered heat to a room while operating on just ¼ of an amp and maintained constant pressure. “I would not have been able to do this project without Steve Graham from [the local Bell & Gossett representative] Fluid Industrial Associates,” Ward said. “He was the one who came in here and told me what those pumps were capable of, and how if I wanted to I could control each radiator with a pump. It gave me a whole block of things to think about.” Where before the system had two zones, it now has 34 zones. Everything is controlled via Tekmar 529s that will actuate based on either floor or air temperature. An outdoor reset helps keep the boiler loop at the most efficient temperature.A Tekmar Gateway unit allows for remote control of the system — even down to individual zones — via the Internet. It’s an ideal setup considering the lifestyle of the owners (which involves a lot of travel) and the nature of the system, which needs time to bring the house up to temp. “I have it bookmarked on their smartphones,” Ward said, “and they can turn the system on from wherever they are in the world.” While the system is still being tweaked and refined, the results are already dramatic with fuel costs plunging about 80% in just a few months. “I don’t have the latest bills,” Ward said, “but we’re talking $30 per day instead of $300 per day.”
About the Author

Steve Spaulding | Editor-inChief - CONTRACTOR

Steve Spaulding is Editor-in-Chief for CONTRACTOR Magazine. He has been with the magazine since 1996, and has contributed to Radiant Living, NATE Magazine, and other Endeavor Media properties.

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