January 4, 2004

Energy efficiency in our old house

Thanks in part to New York State, my 74-year-old house finally has substantial insulation and a new furnace.

When we bought the house, it had been a rental property for years. The owners had lived in it briefly at some point in the 1970s, but we seem to be the first owner-occupants in a long time. On the bright side, we got it very cheaply, but the list of things to do was (and is) enormous. The last major renovation seemed to have been a new kitchen, in the early 1950s, though some of the bathroom fixtures have 1970s dates inside.

We bought it in large part because its mortgage cost far less than the rent on our Lucenteland house-behind-a-house, and because we could live in it during the work that had to be done. We did major electrical work on it immediately, upgrading from a 60-amp to a 200-amp service and rewiring much of the house, and also had plumbing work done. We refinished the floors before moving in. The rest of the house's infrastructure sat for a while.

The house came with an Octopus furnace that we suspect was original. It was an old coal furnace with a gas insert added later, shown below.

old Octopus Furnace
Old Octopus furnace with gas insert

(The furnace is on the right; the brown box in the middle is an old Sears wood stove that came with the house.)

After a few years of amazing heating bills, we read in the Ithaca Journal about a program New York State offered of low-interest loans and rebates to encourage homeowners to modernize their heating systems. The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) has a Home Performance with ENERGY STAR program that focuses on existing homes in need of updates as well as a lot of other options for residential buildings.

The article mentioned Performance Systems Contracting, a company based in Ithaca, as a participant in this program and a provider of $100 home energy audits. We gave them a call and scheduled an appointment.

Jon Harrod, who performed the audit on one of the colder days last winter, got this gleeful smile on his face when he saw our house. He set up a blower door test in our (leaky) back door and pulled amazing amounts of cold air into the house. Our furnace was 53% efficient. The infared video camera showed that a blanket Tracey had put up on one wall was making a big difference - since nothing else was blocking the cold.

It took a while for us to sort out everything (and get the asbestos-laden ductwork removed, a separate process), but in August and September PSC came to the house and started work. They removed what was left of our livingroom ceiling (long story involving mice) and replaced it, and patched a hole in the wall where a wood stove used to be. They rebuilt our attic so that it would still have some storage space but would be a much better place for insulation. They blew insulation into the house, though our house's well-aged and none too thick sheetrock gave them some problems, which they solved. Most visibly, though, they replaced our furnace, removing the old Octopus.

starting to remove the furnace
Starting to remove the furnace

old Octopus Furnace, minus sheet metal
The cast iron insides revealed

the old gas insert
The old gas insert

taking away the cast iron top of the furnace
Hauling away the cast iron top

the old gas burner
The old gas burner

The new furnace (which is 93% efficient) is very different from the old one. It no longer uses our chimney, relying instead on some strange-looking PVC pipes to the outside. It recovers heat from condensation, so periodically it pumps the water into the sewer system. It also has two speeds for its fan, not the single 'whoosh' we used to hear when the old furnace came on.

old Octopus Furnace
New highly-efficient furnace

So far, the results have been great. At the final blower door test, our air leaks had fallen around 44%. (That's without replacing any windows, or adding Tyvek wrappers.) Our timing was good, as NYSEG gas rates now float. Natural gas cost 55.959 cents/therm this time last year, and 62.431 cents/therm now, for an 11.5% increase. NYSEG's estimating every other bill based on last year's usage. Even two weeks after our bill for December was calculated, our meter indicates that we've only used two-thirds of the gas they thought we'd used. Between the insulation and the furnace, it's a very different house.

If you have an older house or are contemplating buying one, this kind of work is an amazing way to make the cost of ownership much lower. The state incentives may help you get started, but the benefits in the long run speak for themselves.

Posted by simon at January 4, 2004 10:37 AM in , ,
Note on photos

32 Comments

Erica Kokaly said:

Hello, we are also looking into buying a 1920's home with an octopus style furnace. By any chance do you remember an estimated total cost for having it removed and replaced? Thanks*

I don't have the breakdown at hand, I'm afraid. The total work we had done came in at less than $10,000, including the furnace replacement and removal, blow-in insulation for the whole house, some construction in the attic, leak sealing throughout the house, and asbestos removal.

Asbestos removal can be a huge wildcard - ours was $1800, but it could have been much worse if we'd had more than just some asbestos tape. I think the only way to know is to have a contractor give you an estimate.

Julie said:

I'm looking at an older house. I realize your gas prices jumped but about how much in either efficiency or cost in gas per year did the change make?

I think we're saving between 1/2 and 2/3 of our prior gas use, even with a crusty old water heater. I wrote about the savings at http://livingindryden.org/archives/000317.html

crystal nielson said:

hello my name is crystal nielson. I have recently purchased a home build in 1911 for my daughter who is a 6yr old little girl who is disabled and a very sick little girl,my daughter has been hospitalized over nearly 20 times since birth for lung problems, asthma and low oxygen levels. My home has the octopus heat source also and is very cold all the time. the heat bill is usually $600.00mo and leaves us without any food. My daughter and other two children freeze all the time and cough all night,without enough heat to warm their bones. I live here in Spokane WA and I am in desperate need of help with the heat source in my home for my children sakes and youngest daughter health.I am writing you to ask if you would know any help or resources who I would be able to contact in need of help. thanks so much and the restoration of our home was definitely wonderful.

cindy said:

we are in your boat. we are buying a 1920's house and are going to put some money into it before we even move in. But...it will be beautiful when they carry us out! and your furnace made us laugh.

Jill said:

i live in a rental townhouse with an octopus furnace. i am pretty sure the tape is asbestos. and our heating bills are crazy. $400/month and we don't go over 60 degrees. what makes me angry is how much energy we waste. any ideas on encouraging a landlord to take the plunge to energy efficiency?

Carrie Allen said:

Hello, My husband and I bought a house w/an octopus furnace in it over a year ago. We desperately want to get rid of it, but we fear it is covered in asbestos, how did you go about finding a contractor to remove it?

I'm not sure where you are, but any heating and plumbing contractor should be able to get you started.

I had a separate asbestos contractor remove the asbestos, but I found them with the help of the people I had replacing the furnace.

Mike Jones said:

Hi, my parents live in harford, just down the road....... I am wondering when you replaced the furnace, what did you do with the duct work, as i just bought a rental property in Binghamton to rehab and am wondering what to do with the ductwork as its much larger than putting forced air furnaces use. thanks

When we had the asbestos removed, most of the ductwork went away with that, and then we put in new ductwork with the new furnace.

(There are only two ducts that go above the basement, and they use open wall spaces, so this wasn't too hard.)

dave said:

We replaced our old furnace with a new trane high efficiency furnace last season. Ever since everyone in our family (two adults and a 4 year old) have this kind of cough that never goes away. The symptom went away during summer (furnace was not on) and came back one day after we turned our furnace on. No CO2 issue in the house. Does anyone know what the cause is? Thanks in advance..dave

Dan said:

I just saved two octapuss furnaces from a friend who were going to have them scrapped . They are super cool antiques .under the sheet metal cage were cool huge coal or wood stoves .they used be converted to saw dust burners buy removeing the bottom door . then they were converted to oil . I am restoreing them back to just being cool looking wood stoves . Mine are two 1900 age montag mod 25.s I may put one on my steel patio and another in the basement . I dismantled both of them myself in less than 3 hours . if you have some real nice ones it would be better to farm them out to someone that can appreciate what they are and for what they can still be cleaned up and become great looking wood stoves. I am using free soy oil in my old oil burning stove you just need to heat it and filter it
Instesd of paying 10 thousand to remove your octapuss just find some one to take it free addvertise on craigs list perhaps. You may need 3 strong men to dismantle them if it comes apart like the montags do all gravity fit and several screws for the sheetmetal . Mine were very easy to dismantle . Be careful with the wagon wheel iron rim they mount on don't break those. if you have a nice large out building or covered large patio these could become a great center peice and a fun wood stove to heet the area during cocktail hour or any social event . parts of mine are 3/4" thick and really hold the heet the fronts have 5 doors and a water box . I can't wait to cleanup and paint and set mine up

gary said:

dave i am trying to convert one of these furnaces back to wood and coal. i have been looking everywhere for info on how these work, what parts i am missing. i would really appreciate any help you could give. email bs23h1@aol.com. thanks

wolf said:

Just leave the Octupus in place. i install furnaces, and usually just set the new furnace next to the old. Cost for replacement is about $3000, and I bypass the old asbestos ducts.I'm in the northeast.

The old asbestos ducts are such a scare for every one these days.the stuff only gets you if you distuirb it . I have heard you can just paint them then it holds all the stuff together and covers it and it becomes plenty safe . Furnace companys love to scare folks into spending thousands on its removal . I am currently heating my home for free with an old 1930's montag oil burner useing free veg oil from the chinese resturant up the street . The most mportant thing it took me to learn was you can't use sintered bronze nozzle filters just find an old stainless steel screen type filter they screw rite on to any mod nozzle nozzle . The filtered oil burns hotter than desel . It won't lite on it so I start it on desel switch over to heated filtered oil after a few minutes and then turn the heet up to 75 or so . my small tank I made for the oil holds 4.5 gal. that will last the whole eve 4 hours aprox . Then i let it run out or switch back to desel so it will re lite the next morn when I use it again . how cool is that .

Carl C said:

Oh my! I never would trust having that "THING" in my house!
I am so glad my house is newer, and doesn't have those problems!
The gas burner looks humongous!
YIKES!

Vincent (Binghamton, NY) said:

i have the same exact furnace and i am curious to who it was that u had remove the abestos tape.

Jazz Aloofa Skywalker said:

that old furnace is farout we are putting in a old coal furnace to help heat our house cause here in virginia there is plenty of coal stock piles just waiting to be dug up i dont support coal burning but ya gotta get by these days with the high price of things at least coal and wood are free here
theres somthing mystical about those big old iron furnaces man i can look at them all day and i dont know why i have never seen one like the old one you had i think it looked bettere than your new one creepy but groovy ya dig

Gary said:

I posted on here last year looking for any info or parts for these furnaces. I converted mine back to wood last winter using a makeshift grate. Worked great, house was warm, gas bill for stove and water heater only ran me $26 a month. I am still looking for any info or orginal parts for my furnace. If anyone has any info, please contact me at bs23h1@aol.com

Phil said:

Hi... I also just bought a house (1915-ish) with a gas-converted coal furnace, and I am just dreading my first heating bill. I would greatly appreciate any details on how to convert to wood. If anyone has done that, or knows someone who has, please email me at philandcole@gmail.com. thanks!

Robert Hull said:

How could you ever think of replacing that beautiful old furnace with that ugly new thing? I live in Niagara Falls, New York and heat my house with a coal boiler--nothing better. And yes, my pipes are also covered with asbestos--the best insulator around. Unless you are spending your days with your nose pressed against the stuff and its flying around everywhere, asbestos is a safe and effective material.

David Crement said:

I am a model railroad builder and am doing some research about 1920 homes in PA that had I think old coal fired furnaces. I remember the furnaces from my past can not remember if they had electric blowers or where they gravity fed.
Thanks for the info.
Dave

John said:

Hello, So is your Octopus Furnace use only coals for burning?
I bought my house in 12 years ago, My farmhouse is 179 years old which built in 1830. Well I have 105 years old wood zero gravity furnace with broiler for 2nd floor, My furnace kinda looks same as yours but lot different. My furnace brings tons of heat. One time I put too much woods, it makes my house really hot like close to 80's degrees, even when the out temp is 0. SO I'm still using my old furnace I LOVE it.

DANA said:

I have an old Green Colonial furnace (from Des Moines, IA, out of business in 1975) (coal converted to gas) and the bellows have shot craps in the diaphram. The only markings I can find on furnace is "927" at top front; and "Type O" on the door. The diaphram is a "Low Blast Model 150C Economite, Serial 90324". The bellow is approx. 5" in diameter with small hole in center to seat into diaphram. I know this is an antique, but if I can't find this part I'll need a whole new furnace. If your company doesn't have parts, can you give me any leads to find it? thanks so much! Dana

In my first house, a 1950's bungalow, heat was provided by a gorgeous, monstrosity, octopus heater. My ex soon converted it from gas back to its original coal. The house was so cozy & warm then, & bills were lower! A wonderful heat!

When my ex & I moved to an 1800’s Victorian, there was an updated forced air gas furnace, which made for a very cold home. Since we kept the bungalow as a renter, he removed the octopus furnace & set it up in a huge workshop that was on our new property.

Being in PA, coal is readily available, & the coal heat made that workshop into a toasty retreat. On bitter days, I would actually visit the workshop just to warm up. (Not to mention we always had heat during power outages.)

QUESTION: Since being divorced, I no longer use the shop, plus I am preparing to sell the property. Where might I go to find someone interested in buying this big, old, warm work of art now?

Michael Stevens said:

Azure, I have a shop and am considering putting an octopus stove in. I would be happy to communicate with you about it. mdstevens7@yahoo.com

Dave Clutter said:

I sure would love to have an old octopus furnace in my house.anyone want to donate one for free?

Diana said:

I can donate the Octopus furnace if you are interested in contributing to the cost of removal.

Francis Donnelly said:

Good article. Getting rid of abestos properly, and safely, is of the utmost importance:

Ken said:

Check out my 1942 Octopus Furnace on the my restoration page of my website. http://www.oldhouseguy.com/my_restoration.html

It's not efficient, but it belongs with a restored 1910 house.

Jake said:

We bought this house twenty years ago. My then 73 year olg plummer told me this old (snowman) furnance he called it, which was converted to oil in the 60's. He said it is made of the same steel that they make battleships out of.
It is 75 years old, he told me to not replace it as long as i live.
Why i asked? He said the best new furnance they make will only last 20 years cost 8,000.oo dollars some fail in as little as 15 years.
This 75 year old furnance will last another 75 years, period.
It will cost more money to operate yearly, but not as mush as buying a new buner every 15 years.
I have other properties and in thiry years of owning them i have replaced the newer type furnances twice in thiry years. Costing me 5,000 installed, each time. He was exactly right. I have replaced the small decker burner unit on the floor here once in twenty years. Costing us only $600.00 installed.
So think about it. When was the last time you replaced your new burner. How many times have you had to do it?