Coping With Ancient Heating Equipment

Scott Gibson

The old farm came with an old boiler. How old we didn't know.

But it worked well enough to burn 2,400 gallons of fuel oil the winter before we moved in, the local dealer told me when I called to ask. No mistake about that? I asked him. No, he said, all the records are right here. Even then, there was no heat on the second floor.

Heating oil was cheap at the time, but as cheap as it was, 2,400 gallons was simply beyond our means. Every time the boiler kicked on I winced.

We had tenants living in an apartment on the second floor of the barn, heat included. One day in January when they weren't around I noticed one of the apartment windows was wide open. That night I flagged one of them down and suggested that an awful lot of toasty warm air was getting away.

The window was open for the benefit of their cat, he said. Kitty liked to come and go when they were at work.

And so we decided the ancient boiler, and the tenants, would have to go. We were having enough trouble staying warm ourselves without trying to heat East Bowdoinham.

I put an ad in the paper, offering the boiler for free to the first person who would come and haul it away. Not long afterward I got a call from the Baptist Church in a neighboring town. Not only would the church love to have the boiler, but they'd dispatch a crew the following Saturday and take it away.

They showed up early. We pulled the stairs out of the basement bulkhead to give them more room. They set up a winch and somehow wrestled the monstrous thing up and out of our cellar and into the back of their truck. I pulled all the old baseboard radiators out of the first floor and cut the hot-water lines to the barn.

We were done with oil heat.

We bought a cute little Jotul cast iron stove. The brochure assured me it would heat the house. No problem.

In reality, if we hovered within a few inches of the stove it was possible to stay warm while wearing only one or two sweaters and a wool cap. The idea of going off into the cold reaches of the house at bedtime was almost more than we could bear.

Eventually we bought a wood furnace, which I installed in the basement. It took 3-foot long logs, and for the next five winters I fed it every morning and every night.

I'm not sure which was worse, buying 2,400 gallons of fuel oil or cutting, hauling, and splitting 10 cords of wood for the winter. Even at a quarter a gallon, the oil would have been $600. I bought the wood on the stump from a neighbor for $8 a cord. But it was a lot of work turning trees into firewood.

I guess what I would have liked is a boiler like the Viessmann I have in my basement now. It's something like 85% efficient and heats the house and all our water with 650 gallons of oil a year. That's how far heating equipment has come. Only thing is, oil isn't 25 cents a gallon any more.



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