Posted by: Debbie Abrams Kaplan | February 1, 2010

Living in an Old House

Moving into a new house (or rather an old house – built in 1935) required us to learn a lot. Especially since we  weren’t here for the home inspection (we relied on a heating/cooling system evaluation from a heating maintenance company.

Here, companies want you to pay for a plan – with a contract and monthly paymnet, they inspect your heating and cooling systems seasonally, and then give you faster service and discounts on recommended repairs.

We haven’t yet decided whether to go that route (versus paying a la carte – we welcome your opinion) – but we did learn a lot from that walk-through.

We have a boiler. Which looks like an ancient rusted metal contraption hooked up to a bunch of pipes.

This ancient-looking device is actually less than 15 years old. It used to be connected to an oil tank (you dread seeing those on home tours because you know it’s expensive to get rid of, and an environmental hazard).

Our oil tank had been removed (we got that paperwork at closing). Now, there’s a gas line going into the boiler, which our heating guy says is inefficient and expensive (he recommended a new $10,000 system). It shoots gas into the metal box, which then burns the gas and boils the water in there. The water then travels through the house pipes, into the radiators in each room.

The radiators, for their part, make wheezing sounds, like they have asthma. This took some time to get used to – now we view them as friends in the room. Most of the radiators are covered with pretty, painted metal mesh panels. When covered, they look nothing like the radiators we had in our old San Francisco flat.

Once a week, I’m supposed to turn off the heat for at least 30 minutes, so I can drain the boiler of rusty water and refill it without cracking it (putting cold water into a hot boiler apparently isn’t a wise move). There’s an ancient looking pipe/hose connected to the boiler base, leading into the sump pump area. I turn on that hose and watch rusty water from our boiler go in.

Then I refill that water using an ancient looking handle, conviently labled with a “fill water here” tag.

Once a month, I drain the other house pipes. You see water and metal don’t mix so well. So the water sitting in the pipes rusts the pipes and then you hear clanking sounds as the rusty water circulates. So you fill bucket after bucket of rusty water once a month, dumping it into the sump pump. It’s a very strange ritual, especially since I have to cram myself uncomfortably into the corner between the pipe, the wall and the boiler.

The contraption keeps us warm (at least in the basement and first floor). Physics taught me that heat rises. Apparently not in New Jersey or old houses with radiators though. Here, unless you blast the heat, the heat mostly stays in the basement and first floor, with a trickle going upstairs. Don’t worry – our guest room is in the basement.

We almost called the heating guy back (which would be another a la carte fee, I’m sure) to find out why our upstairs radiators weren’t working. Then we heard stories from others in similar houses. They said that the way the radiators are set up, the steam doesn’t make it up that far in quantity, unless the heat is on full blast.

One more thing – people here pronounce the first “a” in radiator more like gladiator rather than radon. It sounds funny to me.


  1. I say RAY-diator, if that makes you feel better, and I’m an East Coast native.

    We, too, have baseboard heating with a boiler (oil only; no gas on our street) and find the same thing to be true–the heat never makes it all the way upstairs. Or it makes it to certain rooms only, leaving the rest really cold. Case in point: the other night, when the rest of the house was at a cozy 68-70, our bedroom upstairs was registering at 60!

    Sounds like you have a very high maintenance system. Ours is nothing like that at all. The only things we have to do on schedule are get our oil delivered monthly and have the boiler cleaned annually (we’re due for a cleaning and yes, we have a contract with regular payments to cover stuff like that).


  2. I think the boiler was the inspiration for WALL-E

  3. Have you bled the upstairs radiators? That usually helped a lot in the house I grew up in. The downstairs radiators were hotter but upstairs would be plenty warm too. (And yes, it’s ray-diator to me too. Strange folks in NJ.)

  4. I asked the boiler guy about bleeding the radiator and he said we didn’t need to. Hmmm…
    Glad to hear others say RAY diator. Do you say water or WOODer?
    As for the upstairs not getting very warm, we just take out our snuggies. JUST KIDDING.

  5. I grew up on the East Coast too, and I spent some time in Minneapolis. Radiators I swear by. Trying to get forced air systems to kick in when it’s 5 degrees outside is challenging. If your boiler is 15 years old or so, you’d be well advised to upgrade to a new one. It will save money and should pay back the cost in about 7-8 years. You’ll probably need a new boiler soon, anyway (they’re not designed to last much past 15 years), so picking when you want to do it is a pretty good idea. I might wait until June and then get the work done–the pricing will be better. Hope that helps.

  6. […] Our friends in the neighboring town, Cranford, got flooded basements and backed up sewers when the river went above flood stage.  Some of our neighbors had flooding issues in their basements. Fortunately our sump pump worked and the French drain did its job. Our house apparently had flooding/water issues years ago, but previous homeowners took care of it. And we’re very grateful. And we’re even more grateful that our power worked, since our sump pump doesn’t have battery backup. Yet. And we have new carpet and new furniture in the basement, plus our water heater and boiler system. […]

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