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Advice on installing propane heaters


jbefumo
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I'm not an inspector, but I figured this was probably the best place to get advice from people who actually know what they're talking about ;^)

I live in a 1500 sq ft, 1960s vintage ranch home, upgraded insulation & reasonably tight - area is Northeastern PA.

Have a relatively new forced hot water oil furnace but with the cost of oil, it's still prohibitive.

I installed a 60,000 btu coal burner in the center of my basement, and have used that exclusively for the past three years. With the addition of a reciprocating fan and registers cut in the floor of each room, it is adequate, but a pain to keep up with, and, of course, I can't GO anywhere lest the fire go out.

I'm thinking about putting some propane units in the basement. My first thought was to use two or three, 30,000 BTU, blue-flame, wall-mount, ventless units, strategically placed, but wonder if this is the best/safest/most efficient approach.

Cost is definitely a factor - I need to keep the installation cost under $1k.

Something that will operate without electricity is also preferable, since we often lose power during the winter, though I can always supplement with the coal/wood burner.

Speaking of which - I do have a double-wall, stainless steel chimney in place for the coal burner, which might or might not be usable for some kind of propane unit.

I WILL be letting my supplier do the actual hookups, btw.

Thanks in advance.

Joe

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I don't really know what I'm talking about, but I have opinions on everything. In my opinion, you should not even consider a ventless gas burner, let alone 3 of them. They can't be trusted.

Buy a larger direct vent unit that draws intake air and exhausts through an exterior wall. I had a wall-mounted shop heater that worked great, sold it for cheap. If you buy a used one, have it checked out for safety by a qualified gas heating technician -$100 well spent.

Propane is not a cheap fuel and you need to burn a lot of it to get the same BTU's as wood or coal. But no fuel is cheap, unless you grow your own wood.

Here's a few ideas - Consider saving up for a heat pump, which gives you AC in the summer and heat for at least most of the winter. The efficiency of a heat pump is said to be 300%. It could be backed up by your existing oil furnace. Expensive to buy, though.

Check out pellet stoves. They have an automatic feed which needs electricity, but they are very efficient and you just make sure there are pellets in the hopper and set the thermostat.

Replace the oil furnace with an electric furnace. They last forever and burn no fuel. Electricity is expensive, but you can add the heat pump later and have the electric furnace for backup. For power outages, you've got the coal burner.

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Thanks, John,

Yeah, if I had property and wood, that would be ideal, but buying it is prohibitive. Haven't checked the cost of coal this year, but the last time, I think the price was about $220/ton, and I needed about 7 tons for the winter, so all in all, it wasn't much cheaper than oil, not to mention the inconvenience factor.

I asked the question because I have the same suspicion about unvented burning of ANYTHING . . . My next door neighbor uses one of those open blue flame, unvented wall-mounted furnaces, in her living quarters, and reports that it's relatively inexpensive, but again, the idea just doesn't impart a warm fuzzy feeling for me.

Had a heat pump when I lived in South Carolina, and it was excellent, but my understanding is that they're less efficient in colder climates. Aside from being in NEPA, I'm on top of a mountain, in a weather belt that's always the coldest in the area.

Thanks again!

Joe

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I'm not an inspector, but I figured this was probably the best place to get advice from people who actually know what they're talking about ;^)

I live in a 1500 sq ft, 1960s vintage ranch home, upgraded insulation & reasonably tight - area is Northeastern PA.

Have a relatively new forced hot water oil furnace but with the cost of oil, it's still prohibitive.

What's a forced hot water furnace? Do you mean boiler or is it really a hydro-air furnace?

What is its BTU rating?

What do you pay for oil?

I installed a 60,000 btu coal burner in the center of my basement, and have used that exclusively for the past three years. With the addition of a reciprocating fan and registers cut in the floor of each room, it is adequate, but a pain to keep up with, and, of course, I can't GO anywhere lest the fire go out.

What do you mean by "coal burner?" Are you talking about a coal burning stove?

What's a reciprocating fan?

I'm thinking about putting some propane units in the basement. My first thought was to use two or three, 30,000 BTU, blue-flame, wall-mount, ventless units, strategically placed, but wonder if this is the best/safest/most efficient approach.

I wouldn't use more than one of those. Any more and you risk indoor air quality issues.

What does propane cost where you are?

Cost is definitely a factor - I need to keep the installation cost under $1k.

Something that will operate without electricity is also preferable, since we often lose power during the winter, though I can always supplement with the coal/wood burner.

Speaking of which - I do have a double-wall, stainless steel chimney in place for the coal burner, which might or might not be usable for some kind of propane unit.

I WILL be letting my supplier do the actual hookups, btw.

Thanks in advance.

I suggest that you start by finding the cheapest fuel and then find a heating solution that utilizes that.

As for your coal burner, in the old days, those things used to be fed by an auger that was driven by weights on a chain. It was easy to adjust it to run untended for 12 hours or more.

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JB, you really need to use proper terminology to clarify what you have as you used conflicting terminology.

A few things don't add up here. If your house is 1,600 sq ft. and recently weatherized, why did you go through 7 tons of coal??? To compare, you probably could have burned about 3-4 tons of pellets at half the BTU/ ton and been comfortable. What is your avg. room temp.? IF you have a furnace, why are you cutting holes in the floor and using a table fan for heat distribution?

Ventfree is out. Your house is too small and too tight to legally install one. The basement is the absolute worst place for VF. Why put them in the basement instead of the living space? You don't make sense. BTW, LPG is very expensive, too.

Since you live on coal country and there is good hard anthracite coal available near you, I would recommend burning coal with an LPG fired direct vent as backup when you can afford it.

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Sorry - it's an oil fired hot water furnace - heated water circulated through baseboards. When I last looked during the winter, oil was around $3.60 a gallon. Probably cheaper this time of year. Checked propane today and it's $2.39.

Not sure about the details of the oil burner offhand. It's a Burnham unit that I had installed when I bought the house - 1993, I think.

Coal burner is a 60,000 btu Hitzer heater - not a stove.

Reciprocating fan - you know - one of those free standing units that rotate back and forth on top of a pole - used to see them in offices?

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Yeah, it's coal country, but since they use oil to mine it, move it, etc., the price also keeps going up. Stoker furnaces, which feed the coal automatically are certainly available, but mine isn't one, and I'm not sure I want to go that route. Biggest impediment, which I hadn't considered when I got it, is getting rid of the ash. Unlike wood ash, the residue from coal is full of all kinds of nasty stuff you don't want getting into your soil, ground water, etc.

I fed numbers into a calculation program and at the moment, propane is about the cheapest on a per-btu basis, followed by electricity, and oil the highest.

Haven't really considered pellets - trying to stay away from anything that requires frequent negotiation of the basement stairs, as my knees ain't what they used to be . . .

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At the moment, I'm leaning toward something like this:

http://www.littlegreenhouse.com/accesso ... sale.shtml

(The LX 60). It's vented, and I'd just mount it in my basement so it seems as if it should do the job as well as the coal burner did.

I figure I can always run a 220 line for an electric baseboard or two if needed in particular rooms. I have plenty of capacity in my panel, and am comfortable with electrical work.

The main issue that has steered me away from just installing electric baseboards is that all of my existing hot water baseboards have electrical outlets above them, and since THAT is contrary to code, I'd have to move them all, which greatly complicates what would otherwise have been a fairly straightforward process.

Thanks again to all for the advice.

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Sorry - it's an oil fired hot water furnace - heated water circulated through baseboards.

Just so you know, that's a boiler, not a furnace.

When I last looked during the winter, oil was around $3.60 a gallon. Probably cheaper this time of year. Checked propane today and it's $2.39.

Not sure about the details of the oil burner offhand. It's a Burnham unit that I had installed when I bought the house - 1993, I think.

Coal burner is a 60,000 btu Hitzer heater - not a stove.

When I google that, all I get is Hitzer stoves. How is the thing you have different from a stove?

Reciprocating fan - you know - one of those free standing units that rotate back and forth on top of a pole - used to see them in offices?

Oscillating?

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At the moment, I'm leaning toward something like this:

http://www.littlegreenhouse.com/accesso ... sale.shtml

(The LX 60). It's vented, and I'd just mount it in my basement so it seems as if it should do the job as well as the coal burner did.

Those unit heaters are not usually listed for use in dwellings. You might check on that.

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I'd get estimates from a couple of qualified contractors to repair or replace the boiler. Radiant heat is very comfortable and efficient-if it isn't something is broken. Then I'd move that coal stove upstairs and use it to supplement the boiler. It will be far more efficient when it's in the space your trying to heat.

If your dead set on adding another heat source, look at stoves that will burn multiple fuels allowing you to choose the most economical fuel each season. And get something that will automate so you can get out of the house fer chrissakes!

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Actually, based in no small part on the valuable advice and feedback received here, I've decided to stick with oil for at least this season while I really think this through . . . due diligence and all that . . .

I just ordered a new motor for the boiler ($62 with shipping), and am about to start searching for a service manual for my boiler (Burnham v-15A).

I watched the last time I had the system serviced, and it didn't look like anything I can't handle myself. (The gentleman we used to use retired, and finding someone else trustworthy, reliable, and affordable in these parts is probably an exercise in frustration.)

Thanks again for the sanity check!

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Now that we know you have a boiler and radiators (convectors), we can help you better.

How many thermostats does your system have? You should be able to turn some areas down, rooms you don't use.

A programmable thermostat can be set to turn heat up and down automatically according to the time of day, rather than the temp, and they are less than $100.

Ask your oil supplier who they can recommend for servicing. Tell them you want an old timer who understands boiler systems.

You could have a direct vent (vent thru the wall) propane water heater installed in the garage. A propane leak in the garage will be less likely to fill your basement with propane. That water heater could be plumbed to supplement the oil burner.

Add to the insulation in your attic, replace door weatherstrips, replace the windows if they're old.

In my neck of the woods, I would suggest an electric fireplace in the living room. They are safe and efficient and run on 15 amps 120 volts.

Heat pumps are getting better all the time. Don't be surprised to see more of them in your area. Mitsubishi makes indoor units that need no duct work.

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One thermostat upstairs. Had one in the basement & convectors down there, but we rented the house out for a bunch of years and the tenant destroyed them. Do have a programmable thermostat though, and we typically keep the temperature quite low - around 60 or less. Got used to it because with the coal furnace burning full blast,that was as high as it would get.

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. . . Do have a programmable thermostat though, and we typically keep the temperature quite low - around 60 or less. Got used to it because with the coal furnace burning full blast,that was as high as it would get.

There is a serious problem with your house that has not yet been described. Is there a roof over the house? Do you have glass in the windows? Do you leave your doors open all winter?

Something doesn't add up.

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