Last summer a guest staying a night in The Gallery asked me from the porch: What have you done to your home! Imagining of course I had demolished the entire house to rent out apartments
I had to laugh, as it would never cross my mind to occupy a house of this size solo, and my mother was not yet alive when the Odell House became apartments.
There have been many renovations and updates over the years, yet the boiler and radiant heat system are original to the house, and have gone largely unchanged.
Because they work so very well.
The house thermostat is another issue entirely.
The thermostat, controlling the massive boiler in the basement, used to be in The Gallery–the front apartment on the ground floor, facing First Avenue.
We recently rewired and replaced the thermostat, moving it to a more protected area of the basement–a place not influenced by the opening of doors, or the use of the small space heaters we provide for the various unit.
(Those of you who have stayed in The Gallery in the winter may be glad to hear this!)
With all those windows The Gallery runs cooler than some of the other apartments, and its nice to be able to tweak the heat a bit at will.
The house has had, from the time the boiler was converted from coal to gas, one central thermostat regulating the supply of hot water to all the apartment radiators.
There are little trails of confusingly-abandoned thermostats around the house. None functioning currently, but the one that does function–in the basement. Originally the thermostat was in apartment B, but the previous owners deemed that unit A was a better choice. (Probably largely because they lived there on a part time basis.) But unit A was a problem because unit A both runs cold and is used for short term guests–many of whom did not understand why we locked the thermostat: for the good of ALL the guests!
This “whole house service” means that heat levels have to be decided by consensus of the residents. General agreement rules. Cooler at night is appreciated, and temperature increases timed to make use of the inevitable spikes that one gets with this sort of system.
But people, particularly new guests who are not familiar with the heating pattern of the house, often want things a bit different when they arrive–even just for a little while.
So rather than explain, “Just wait a bit,” which modern folk unanimously interpret as “bad service,” we have a series of dedicated plugs, served by their own circuits, for small auxiliary heaters, as well as the air conditioning units in the summer. These were never meant to be the primary heat sources of the building. And, the heaters, when used, have to stay exactly where placed. Our engineers insist! Please don’t move the heaters to any other plugs, or fiddle with the voltage.
(We are not engineers, we try to do as told. . . .)
(I think what “those in the know” are giving caution about the variably-aged electrical circuits in most older buildings. It is important to use only new, dedicated circuits for high voltage items that did not exist when these buildings were constructed. But it is also sensible to keep the load down in general. Quick is not necessary with heat–steady is.)
Speaking of construction and the physical plant of these huge old homes, Browne’s Addition was a very progressive neighborhood right from the start. The mansions had carriage houses, not barns. (Barns meant flies and manure. Horses were considered a source of pollution–before the car took over that role) . So livery, “rental horses” were called for from town and arrived with a driver to be hitched to the owner’s carriages.) For heat, all the homes had coal boilers at first, but both gas and electric were run in the original construction, used for lighting and small tasks.
And there were of course telephones from the very start. How else to call for your horses to be delivered?
It was all very modern.
That scene lasted a scant thirty years.
With the twenties, came a nation-wide depression, a dip in the price of silver, and a slowing of construction. Silver, lead, lumber, Spokane staples of wealth, all plummeted, and Spokane’s great luxury building boom was over. But, there was government money for conversion of large private homes to much-needed apartments. Most of the large local houses were purchased and transformed.
So the buildings were originally and correctly wired in the last part of the 1890s, and then gradually updated as things changed within them. But even into the seventies, people had little idea of the numbers of electrical items that would eventually be in common use. So sensible electric consumption is still indicated. Even a modern house will trip breakers if, while making toast, you plug in your hair dryer to the same circuit your microwave is warming your coffee! It is all about load and that is why we have circuit breakers.
The boiler-fed gas heat system is a much more elegant and efficient system than the slight electric “tune up” heaters we provide.
Why have them at all?
As one guest cleverly said: “To accommodate various thyroid levels.”
Some (most) of the old radiators are gorgeous.
You can see how the water would flow in on one side and out on the other.
The hot water boiler system is a very clean, healthy and efficient way to heat. It consists of a huge system of paired pipes filled with hot water (outflow and return to the boiler). It is a circulating loop. There are no dusty air ducts or shared air flow between the apartments.
I grew up with boilers in New England and obviously like them.
(Many fusty New Englanders, traditionally felt creepy about central air heat, calling it the “instant hot and instant cold” method.
Never mind, “Particles of ‘who knows what’ blowing all about”, my grandmother used to fuss.)
(This is the barn of my great grandfathers summer home which sadly had no boiler (nor insulation!) as it was always shut down in the winter.)
Not so in Browne’s Addition. These houses were built for the cold. Radiant heat–now all the rage in concrete floors–was here from the start.
But, though a wonderful system, radiant heat is not fast or easily customizable on a moment to moment basis. The boiler is either actively running hot water, or it is not. Like the more modern floors, radiators are designed to store heat and give it off gradually. There will be moments when they are quite hot to the touch. Moments when they are cooler. This is the nature of the system. It does not mean that it is “off,” just not running at that moment.
The radiators have valves that can crudely shut them on and off by not allowing the hot water to run through them. Shutting individual ones down–something the boiler hates–has nothing to do with if hot water is flowing through the system–the thermostat controls that.
Over the course of time there have been many more complaints that the house is too hot than too cold. And if it is routinely so for you, then we can shut off one of the several apartment radiators–and leave it off. (That way we can anticipate the water pressure needed in the system.)
The worst heating season is not the dead of winter. Ten degrees outside? No problem.
The house boiler (AKA The Beast In The Basement) is more than up to that. The trouble arises in the shoulder seasons when it does not get quite cold enough in the morning to trip the boiler on, and folks are a bit chilly come 8 AM. And then, like the saying, “We would all be worse off if God said “yes” to all our prayers,” it gets just cold enough to make hot water start circulating. The radiators get nice and warm–and then the sun comes out and it goes to 80 degrees outside. (This is Spokane, after all!) And then all that hot water has to cool . . . Trust me, it is better to err on the side of a little too cool in those situations than to inspire the Beast in The Basement to go to work on a day expecting high temperatures.
Anyway, we discourage turning the radiators off and on for two reasons: first, the valves are inclined to leak and need tightening if used much–please tell us right away if you see this. Second, randomly turning them on and off isolates the apartment from the main heat source. In some cases it is actually better to open a window for a moment–and tell us you had to because it was too warm–than to try to influence the system by shutting yourself out of it. Because it is very likely you will on the next day be too cold!
I’m going to repeat myself here, this is Spokane, land of boom and bust in more than just the economy. Last month (November 2014) had a period of daytime high of -5 degrees. Yesterday, (December 2014) I think the high was 62 degrees. This makes a four month range of, let’s see, since August, (105 degrees) November ( -5 degrees0. . . . er. . . 110 degrees F.
That said, if you visit Spokane, “layering” is a clothing strategy we live by, and if you live here long term we can pretty easily customize your heat to suit you–though possibly not like the union rep who worked here many years ago during an election season. The young activist complained pathetically of cold in unit F–the top floor. When I came to check his radiators I found him lounging in front of his computer in a swim suit, watching the snow fall.
Correct dressing for the basic climate aside, there are a couple of units that do get too hot and turning off one of the radiators on a more or less permanent basis can help with this. (The bedroom in F and the hall of D are examples of this). Units A and E tend to run cool, and that’s not too surprising as they both face north and have huge banks of bay windows. Units C and B are practically perfect in every way–show offs!
So if you are too hot or too cold please tell us–there is a lot we can do to help with either situation that has nothing to do with the central boiler–though with proper feedback that is also possible.
(Obviously it does no good to turn up the house heat if for whatever reason the radiators in a particular unit have been turned off!)
Just let us know how its going–or beforehand if you know you tend to be cold or hot–and we will help you stay at the right temperature for you.