Posted by: Li Ling Young | February 9, 2013

The Furnace Is Gone

This house was in pretty good shape when we bought it.  There had been some unfortunate indoor painting, but the previous owner had kept good records and appears to have cared for the house well.  A sticker on the furnace showed decades of annual maintenance visits.  A furnace that is cleaned and tuned each year not only operates cleanly and efficiently but also has somebody keeping an eye on the condition of the furnace.  The burner had been replaced in the last few years.

Oil burner

Old furnace, new burner

Our long term plan did not involve fossil fuel, so the furnace was to be no more than a bridge while we figured out our dream heating system.  We bought the house with half a tank of home heating oil.  That gave us a timeline for getting something new in place.  I didn’t want to buy any more fuel but the cheapskate in me also didn’t want to leave unused the fuel we already had.  I hoped, but couldn’t really know, that the half-tank would last us through the heating season after the insulation improvements.

In August the local woodstove shop had a sale, so we went down and talked to the folks at the Chimney Sweep.  Since we were asking some pretty penetrating questions our salesperson handed us off to the guy who knows the most.  Indeed he had many good insights and helped us select a stove that would burn cleanly and could heat the house.  With our woodstove in place by mid September we felt certain we could stretch the oil out to last the whole season.  We broke in the stove, but mostly used the furnace to heat the house on the chilly-but-not-cold days of fall.

Both Nik and I know lots of people in the heating and cooling business.  I called up my favorites, Vermont Energy Contracting and Supply, to schedule a clean and tune.  These guys treat their employees well and have made a specialty out of high end systems.  It’s run by a couple of cerebral guys: a refreshing alternative to the blockheads one sometimes finds in the plumbing-related industries.  They’re busy people and I couldn’t get on their calendar until late in November.

After almost 3 months of using the oil furnace, the maintenance technician came out to have a look.  He discovered that the refractory chamber, where the burner shoots the flame, had collapsed.  Bummer.  Furnace totally unusable.  And since we had no intention of heating with that furnace in the long run there was no question of getting it repaired.  The furnace was 40 years old and we we should have expected something like this.

oil pump and meter

Leroy pumping oil out of the tank while his helper removes the fill pipes

The folks at Vermont Energy Contracting and Supply connected us with a guy who removes oil tanks in his spare time.  They are big, so you really need a pro, and I was later to find out that they are considered hazardous waste, so you need a pro.  Leroy Brace showed up around 3pm with a helper.  They pumped the fuel oil out of the tank and measured it.  We had just enough oil in there that the value of the oil would cover the cost of removing the tank.  Leroy takes care of all that, so it’s “free” to us.  They were very careful not to spill any of the oil, which is good because that would have made the house smell like oil for years.  They removed the fill pipes in the garage.  Next I knew they were maneuvering the tank, whole, through my kitchen.  Still no spills.  Outside they strapped the tank to a trailer, settled up and drove away.  Done before dark (remember, it’s December on the 45th parallel).

Good-looking 40-year old furnace.

Clean on the outside, dirty on the inside. You know this is a well-maintained furnace because the stickers show decades of regular tune ups and the service technician has left an extra belt for the next time the blower belt blows.

Now we have an empty corner where once the oil tank lived.  Also, it’s now possible to insulate that corner.  Nik got inspired by the sight of an empty corner, so a couple of days later he and one of his colleagues spent an afternoon getting the furnace and ductwork out.  That didn’t go so clean.  The inside of 60 year old ductwork is pretty cruddy.  So, now we have a lot more space in the basement, more room overhead, a fossil-fuel-free house and no heating system.

Oil furnace heat exchanger

Here’s the heat exchanger from inside the furnace ready to be hauled away.

Woodstove, it is your hour.  We have been heating since November with the woodstove.  For the most part we’re comfy.  We’ve developed a good system involving the kids doing the clean, safe work and the adults doing the stuff that’ll wreck your lungs and burn the hair off your arms.  This isn’t the way we want to heat our home over the long term.  We’re working on an automated heating system that will do everything except keep the house comfy during the coldest times of the year.  Fortunately, that’s when the woodstove really shines, so our two heat sources will work nicely together.  We look forward to consuming less wood, making less smoke in the neighborhood and having less cleaning and hauling.  But for this year, with sunny days ahead and  the end of the heating season in sight, I think we’ll make it, even without the furnace.


  1. […] house has a heating system from the 1950s. We stopped using the ancient oil furnace when we installed our woodstove. I thought that I did a good job sealing up all the unused heat […]

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