Natick, Mass is located just 15 miles west of Boston. Settled in 1651, the old town’s history is vividly displayed through its infrastructure and architecture.
After 134 years, the Bacon Free Library is still just that — a red brick beacon to education and exploration. Not far away, the Eliot Church of Natick was founded as a church and meetinghouse in 1651, where native Praying Indians and white settlers would come together in worship.
The Station tree, a 500-year-old, black oak, was respectfully left standing over the centuries, marking the boundary between Natick and Needham, MA. The age of the town — and its regard for all things antiquated — can be seen in almost every element. Even its heating elements.
“Most of the homes in Natick are hydronic museums,” said Derek Nord. “Steam of every variety is still used, and is still comfortable. But when the old steam boilers fail, most homeowners look to hot water as a replacement.”
Nord is a one-man boiler band. His laser-like focus on all things hydronic, paired with meticulous attention to detail, have kept him busy since starting Nord Plumbing & Heating in 2010.
“I love boilers,” he continued. “Hydronics and plumbing are all that I do. I know some really great guys if I encounter a job that needs AC or ductwork.” And those guys often return the favor when they need a boiler mastermind. According to Nord, he’s friends with a number of other tradesmen in town. They collaborate on projects if need be – even to the point of handing their calls off to each other when they’re on vacation.
With real estate at a premium around Boston, many homeowners in Natick improve and add onto existing homes instead of relocating. A recent remodel of Nord’s own 75-year-old Cape Colonial required the kind of collaboration Nord is used to.
The 1,400-square-foot home used steam heat and lacked any sort of air conditioning when he and his wife purchased it. The downstairs was gutted, and the existing porch was closed in to create a master bedroom, adding about 300 square feet.
Nord not only did his own mechanical work, but also opted to do the framing for the project himself. After carefully considering what it was he wanted to accomplish, Nord had the heating system mapped out, and called a friend for help with the AC.
“Given the lack of space, we decided against a regular ducted system,” said Nord. “We didn’t like the idea of evaporators hanging on the walls, so we chose a SpacePak high-velocity AC system over mini-splits.”
Small, but not simple
The job resembles Nord’s company and capabilities well; small, but by no means simple.
One of the complaints about the original system was that it was hard to control during the wild temperature swings that New England can experience. Nord wanted to make sure they were curbing expense while also optimizing comfort.
In the basement, Nord tore apart and removed the old 80,000 BTU steam boiler. Much to his surprise the unit was undersized. He hung several pieces of diamond plate aluminum and a 95 percent efficient, 105 MBH Burnham Alpine condensing boiler on a nearby wall, to be joined shortly by a number of other hi-tech, high efficiency products.
The boiler would eventually supply heat to four zones; upstairs fin-tube baseboard, downstairs radiant in-floor tubing, European-style panel radiation in the master bedroom and a 60-gallon indirect tank for DHW. Directly under the Alpine, Nord used a low-loss header, or hydro separator, to create a secondary loop from which all connected load draws. This allows for numerous zones to pull from the boiler at different flow rates simultaneously. It also adds a little extra water volume to the system.
“Controlled by the boiler’s outdoor reset, hi-temp water is supplied to a secondary loop,” explained Nord. “Via injection pumping, the hi-temp loop feeds fin-tube radiation upstairs, a single, six-foot long, three-panel Runtal panel in the well-insulated master addition, and the water heater.”
The primary loop uses a three-speed Taco 00R circulator, while each zone operates off its own Grundfos circulator. There is an extra circulator and set of closely-spaced tees installed but capped off for future use in the basement.
The secondary loop also supplies hi-temp water to a Viega hydronic mixing block, which selects a supply temperature for the five in-floor radiant loops based on its own ODR sensor. Very often, this runs between 100 – 115°F.
“Any time you’re putting together an intricate system like this, regardless of size, you really need to select components based on their individual performance as well as their ability to mesh well with each other,” said Nord. “Overall system performance can be tricky to perfect, but it’s a beautiful thing!”
Nord says he selected the Alpine boiler based on a number of factors, the first of which is that he simply doesn’t get any callbacks when he installs them. He initially switched to the Alpine because he wanted a stainless steel heat exchanger instead of aluminum. Since then, he’s found that the broad size range – from 80 to 399 MBH – means that the unit fits just about application he’s come across.
“The Alpine is very easy to install, and readily available through The Portland Group,” said Nord. “I use it on most of my hot water jobs.”
With the exception of the master bedroom, the downstairs is heated by Uponor 5/16 PEX in Quik Trak subfloor paneling under quarter-sawn oak flooring.
Last winter, Nord saw a roughly 40 percent savings on energy, despite the added living space and much improved comfort. “It’s not unheard-of for one of these oil-to-Alpine jobs to save upwards of 75 percent,” said Nord. “A few years ago I had a family tell me they were spending $800 per month on oil during the coldest part of the season. After the retrofit the following year, they were spending roughly $200 to $250 for gas each month.
Space at a premium
The job progressed slowly but deliberately. When the walls were torn out, they installed supply lines to the upstairs radiators and roughed in the high-velocity AC. Radiant tubing went down at a different time, and the bedroom panel radiator was installed late in the game.
“One of the biggest challenges was running supply and return lines through the basement,” said Nord. “The old, load-bearing posts and beams in the basement were tough to work around.”
But it’s Nord’s ability to work hydronic magic in historic homes that makes him a real asset to his community, whether that includes optimizing antiquated systems or installing cutting edge equipment in turn-of-the-century structures.
Date started: August, 2012
Date Finished: May, 2014
Size of Project: 1,400 square-feet
Workers onsite: 2
Boiler — Burnham Alpine condensing boiler, 105k BTU input
Mixing Block — Viega
Panel radiator — Runtal
Fin-tube radiation — Slant/Fin
Pumps — Taco primary, Grundfos secondary
Relays — Taco
Manifolds — Uponor 5-loop EP radiant heat manifold
Piping — Uponor 5/16 PEX
Radiant panels– Uponor Quik Trak
Tools Used — Viega ProPress
Valves — Watts and Webstone ball valves
Separators — Taco vent on primary, Spirotherm on secondary loop
Air conditioning — SpacePak high-velocity system
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