When I owned and operated my own plumbing and heating business November 1st marked the official beginning of the heating season for me. 60% of my business was plumbing but 40% was heating. Heating quickly became my favorite part and coincidentally, it was also the most profitable.
I did a lot of boiler fixes. I replaced expansion tanks, circulator pumps, feed valves, air vents, controls, gas valves, and thermostats, but my absolute favorite was boiler replacements. If I was lucky, people would decide to replace their old inefficient heating systems during the summer when there wasn't any rush to get 'em back on. But more often than not, a majority were emergency replacements that took place during the coldest months of winter; a time when older boilers struggle to keep up and eventually fail.
Typical gas boiler and water heater replacement. There had been an old oil-fired boiler with a tankless in there that was inefficient and eventually leaked…
After a while, I realized the best way for me to replace a boiler was to have everything delivered the day before, so I could unbox everything and make sure the supply house didn't forget anything. Then, I'd uncrate the new boiler and dress it up with all the threaded pipe and fittings in preparation for the following day.
I'd return the next morning at 6:30 and shut the circuit, drain the old boiler, and move it out of the way so I could install the new one. I usually hired a helper for the day and I'd have him break down the old boiler so we could take it out in sections. The older boilers were much bigger than modern ones and I replaced a lot of old American Standard Arcoliners, absolute monsters, installed in the '50s, which were really good boilers in their day and typically lasted 50+ years.
I always scheduled my electrician for 3:00 and usually by then I'd have the new boiler piped, filled, purged, and ready to go. We never stopped for lunch, just a quick coffee…
It was a very stressful day, and even though I told every homeowner that the heat wouldn't be back on until 6:00 p.m., by midafternoon they'd start asking me every half hour, "Is the heat gonna be on soon?" I always did my absolute best to get the heat on ASAP, but I couldn't perform miracles. Everything takes time.
In addition to repairs and replacements, there were additions and remodels that needed more baseboard or cast iron radiators. Radiant floor heating was gaining in popularity, as were wall-hung boilers, but my work was predominantly old-school stuff; floor-standing boilers and hydronic baseboard. When I was an apprentice I installed miles of baseboard and it wasn't a whole lot of fun. The fins are sharp and I almost always bled. Unfortunately, I couldn't wear any kind of gloves while I was working with pipe and fittings, just didn't work for me.
One of the most satisfying heating jobs I ever did took place during a remodel. The woman of the house was home all day, her husband left early for work. She was in her late 30s/early 40s, with dark hair and an incredible body. It seemed that every day she'd be getting out of the shower just as we arrived. She'd wander around the house in a very promiscuous way with only a white towel wrapped around her wet hair and another one, not much bigger, wrapped around her voluptuous torso. She was obviously enjoying the tease and maybe just a little desperate for attention… They don't teach you this in plumbing school but, a good plumber always maintains eye contact with his female customers and does not let himself get caught staring at a customer's partially exposed body, no matter how tempting. I knew that women who walked around job sites like that were only trying to tempt guys into looking. I take great pride knowing I never took the bait! (well, almost never…)
Most of that remodel was cut and dry, but the oversized mudroom at the rear of the house, just beyond the kitchen, was a bit challenging to heat. For one thing, there were three outside walls of sliding glass doors where no baseboard could be hung and because the stairs were enlarged to six feet wide by five and a half feet tall, the wall adjacent to the house had less than four feet available for baseboard, which wasn't enough to do anything. When we calculated the heat loss the mudroom, which had a 10' ceiling height, was an area that required a lot of BTUs (British Thermal Units). Not many guys including us, were using radiant floor heat at the time (1987), so my plumbing partner and I considered installing two Beacon Morris kick space heaters under the first stair, one on each side. Back then, kick space heaters were noisy, expensive, and they often stopped working. They could be a total nightmare. And, they need to be piped and wired, which can get expensive…
This is an updated Beacon Morris Twin-Flo III kick space heater that's much quieter & more reliable than the earlier models
At one point during my plumbing career, I had a conversation about baseboard with an engineer from Slant/Fin, makers of baseboard, boilers, and other heating apparatus. I was wondering what they did to increase the BTU output of their 83A high output baseboard. He said the fin tube was larger but the real gain in BTUs was because the enclosure was much taller than standard baseboard, creating a "chimney effect" that increased the output.
This is a current piece of Slant/Fin Baseline/70 that's 9 1/4" tall & with the H-3 element, puts out 25% more BTUs than standard baseboard
He also referenced the older copper fin tube wall convectors, which were tall and installed in the walls under windows back in the '40s and '50s. He said a lot of their BTU output was because of the height of the convector and not so much the size of the element…
Here's a Sterling wall convector. Notice the height above the wider element that gave it the "chimney effect" & more BTUs
I started to brainstorm… Could I create a convector out of the 6' x 5.5' set of stairs? My plumbing partner thought I was absolutely crazy, but the more I explained it to him, the more he liked it. There was already a 6' element under the stairs left from the original mudroom. The enclosure had been removed by the builder. My plan was to leave the element right where it was and have the builder cut a vent into the lowest stair riser to allow cold air in, and cut another one into the top stair riser to let the heated air out. One. Big. Fucking. Convector!
I was in love with the idea and my partner liked it too. I convinced the builder that it would work incredibly well and he didn't have to pay us anything or pay an electrician to do any wiring. Builders are inherently cheap and he liked it! The stairs were gonna be finished in solid oak and cutting vents into them was a big deal. I suggested shiny brass grates that would be more aesthetically pleasing.
The builder and I met with the woman of the house, who surprisingly, was fully clothed at the time, almost didn't recognize her, and I explained how the stairs would function as a convector. I told her I'd call when it started getting cold to see how it was working and if for some reason she was unhappy, we'd come back and install two kick-space heaters. But I knew it was gonna work…
At the beginning of November it was starting to get cold, so I called her to see how the stair convector was working. She said her two kids sit at the top of the stairs by the vent and that hot air blows out of there like there's a fan. My big fucking stair convector worked!
I'm not sure if she came to the door wearing only a towel and it was just the two of us, that I might not have been tempted, especially if she intentionally dropped her towel on the floor… (ruh-roh!)
Okay, she was fucking hot and so was the air coming out of the upper vent in her new stair convector, which as a plumber, was my only concern. After all, a woman in heat is a beautiful thing…