renewable, pt 1

this post isn’t pretty. it’s nuts and bolts narrative and bad photos of my grody basement. but i’m really enthusiastic about what we accomplished and wanted to share it.

i didn’t need to hear this winter that my oil-fired boiler was failing. after a week of it spewing out black soot, i had a technician come out to look at it. the technician announced that it would cost more than $2,000 to fix and there was no guarantee of the fix lasting. since the thing was 29 years old, this seemed like a bad plan.

the oil company sent out a salesman to assess the job of installing a new system and write up a quote. he was in the house for about four minutes, but it took two weeks to get the quote and in the meantime, i decided to check out alternative energy options. solar electric was the dream, but completely out of my budget, even with financing, so i started looking at other options.

i googled my butt off and didn’t find a lot of helpful information. after days of disappearing down renewable energy rabbit holes, i decided to put out a social media call. a facebook friend (a friend of a friend and not someone i know IRL) turned out to be knowledgeable and pointed me in some more helpful directions. i contacted two wood pellet boiler installers and made appointments for quotes from them. i still hadn’t heard back from the oil company salesman.

the two most helpful tools i found were the efficiency vermont website, which had useful local-to-me information including incentive and rebate information, and the efficiency maine website, which has some great fuel cost calculators and other tools. a lot of articles and forum posts i found were several years old and the tech has changed quite a bit in the last few years. there were some great articles out of europe, but the systems are slightly different and the pricing and fuel cost information was useless. i did what research i could and hoped i was educated enough to ask good questions to make an informed decision.

the first installer to come out was from lyme green heat, over the border in lyme, new hampshire. the salesman was friendly and able to really explain how a pellet boiler system worked. he explained the MESys boiler and storage system in depth and spent about an hour and a half going over everything from pricing to tech specs. i was relieved that my research had paid off and i could ask some reasonably intelligent questions.

the second installer was a local guy in the next town with a business called practical plumbing. he installs pellergy boilers, which are partly manufactured in vermont. this seemed like a great “buy local” opportunity twice over. the installer was really friendly and really knowledgeable and spent over an hour with me. like the lyme green heat guy, he was able to explain how the system worked, go over all the little details, and was just plain pleasant.

within a couple of days, i had the quotes from the oil company and from both of the pellet boiler installers. the oil company quoted both an oil system and a propane system. both were fairly inexpensive, but burned dirty, volatile fuels that could rise dramatically in price, especially with increased political tumult in the middle east and the potential for a future recession. my old oil burner was reminding me daily of how gross it was. my walls and ceiling were smudged in grey soot. my windows were glazed with soot. my cats with white feet had grey feet. i was determined to kick oil.

the quotes from the pellet boiler installers were high. i’m not going to lie, these systems are expensive. with a $3,000 incentive from the vermont renewable energy resource center and a $3,000 rebate from efficiency vermont on the boiler and another $500 on a heat pump hot water heater, plus a dedicated financing program for heating/weatherization loans through my credit union, i thought i could probably make it happen. my math seemed to indicate that i could still save $600 per year at current oil prices even with a monthly payment.

after a stressful week of looking at the pros and cons of the two systems, consulting a lot of fuel cost charts, and getting nowhere with an inquiry to a vermont-based pellet distributer, i had to go with the final cost and convenience. the MESys boiler didn’t need a heat storage tank, so came out a little bit cheaper than the pellergy system. the folks at lyme green heat would take care of some minor demolition during installation, too, and they deliver pellets in addition to installing systems. i decided to go with them. (as an aside, a couple days after my financing was settled and i’d signed a contract with lyme green heat, i got an email from practical plumbing letting me know that the RERC incentive on pellergy boilers was no longer contingent on installing a heat storage tank. if i’d known that earlier, it would’ve evened out the cost and, assuming i could’ve found a local pellet delivery firm, i probably would’ve gone with him just to stay local across the board. i like local.)

my basement was an incredible mess. i have no “before” pictures, because gross. one of the benefits of moving houses every few years is that you don’t accumulate so much dross. we’ve been in this house for close to 15 years and, man, there was dross. i spent a bunch of weekends packing stuff up for the thrift store in town that benefits the local hospital and took two big loads of boxes and bags. we also took a couple of loads to the dump and i stacked up what was left (mostly furniture and gardening stuff) in the far end of the basement from the utility room.

(all photos are iPhone 6 pics because that’s just how i roll.)

before basement 1
this is the partially finished corner with the stuff mostly cleaned out and the utility room the left.
before basement 2
the utility room that contains the boiler, fuel tank, water softener, fuse box, and water tank, but no light fixture (the light you can see in there is from the technician’s flashlight).
system 2000
the 29 year old system 2000 oil fired boiler and indirect hot water storage tank. this system had a side wall vent, which means that the east side of my house is also covered in soot from the blower there.
oil tank
the fuel oil tank; amazing that we think nothing of having these in our homes. it’s so gross. note that there’s still a quarter tank of oil.
soapstone stove
this was our back-up heat source when there was no power. i’m not sure what the previous owner intended, putting an incredibly expensive woodstock soapstone stove in this grim basement space. how awesome is that tattered old chair?? (it’s just there to provide a butt rest while you’re tending to the stove. maybe i’ll reupholster it next winter since it’s no longer needed down there.)

this is how things looked the morning the installers arrived. there were two guys, a technician and his helper. a little bit later, the salesman who came out to do the quote arrived to help and a big flatbed truck showed up with the system on board.

lgh flatbed
the system all packed up on a pallet and ready to roll out. (and awww! my tamarack tree is still standing upright then! an ode to the deceased tamarack in a later post.)

i had hoped to document some of the installation, but all hell sort of broke loose at that point. with a box truck, a pickup truck, my jeep, and that big red flatbed truck taking up most of the driveway and turnaround space, my uncle came to drain the last quarter tank of oil and had a tie rod end break on his huge pickup truck while turning around in the driveway. i had a meeting at work that i had to attend. it got a little crazy. i’ll have some more installation photos and narrative in my next post and some thoughts on the new system (both boiler and hot water heater), the energy impact, and the almighty cost comparison.

One thought on “renewable, pt 1

  1. The whole process is really fascinating. I like how when we try to learn a new thing and begin the research we discover that there is a whole UNIVERSE of facts and data we had no idea about! I hope the new system serves you well :)

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