Do you have a vintage house? Does it still have an old coal burning Octopus Furnace?
Vintage Parlors are nice but they’re a dime a dozen. It’s rare you see a kitchen that matches the period of the house. More rare to find a vintage furnace! This is the stuff your guests will remember and talk about to others.
My house was built in 1910 but unfortunately I do not have a 1910 furnace. It’s most likely that the kitchen stove heated part of the house and the rest remained unheated.
In 1941 however, a brand new American Standard/Sunbeam coal burning Octopus Furnace was installed to provide central heating.
The octopus furnace was a coal burning gravity hot air type. A gravity furnace heats the air and the hot air slowly rises through a duct system as hot air always rises.
There was no fan to force the air on this model. Just blasts of very hot air naturally rising through the ducts.
The reason this furnace is called an Octopus Furnace is because of the duct-work.
Each heating vent has it’s own duct that attaches directly to the furnace giving the furnace the look of an octopus.
Today several ducts can branch off one duct.
A Brief History of Home Heating
It was not until 1885 that the nation would burn more coal than wood. Prior to 1885 the majority of homes in America were heated with wood burning brick fireplaces and derivatives (pot belly stoves) of the cast iron Franklin Stove invented in 1742.
In 1885 the first riveted-steel coal furnace was built. Without electricity and fans to move air, these early furnaces transported heat by natural convection (warm heated air rising) through ducts from the basement furnace to the rooms above.
Around the same time, the invention of low cost cast iron radiators would change home heating. Now homes with a coal fired boiler in the basement could deliver hot water or steam to radiators in every room.
These two methods would dominate home central heating until 1935, when the introduction of the first forced air furnace using coal as a heat source used the power of an electric fan to distribute the heated air through duct-work within the home.
Soon gas and oil fired versions of forced air furnaces would relieve the homeowners from the chore of “stoking the coal fire” and relegate coal furnaces and cast iron radiators to the dust bin of history.
Although central heating was available in the later 19th century, many average houses did not have “central” heating until the later 1930’s. Combination stoves heated the space with wood for winter cooking and heating and gas for summer cooking.
(The above information was taken from Sustainable Dwelling. The full article can be found here .)
Life with a 1941 American Standard / Sunbeam Octopus Furnace
When this Sunbeam coal furnace was installed in 1941, the basement floor was dirt except for the cement platform for the furnace.
Coal was delivered into a nearby basement window. Below the window was a sort of pen where the coal was stored.
This coal burning octopus furnace was converted to oil sometime during the 1950’s when oil was very cheap and popular.
Some of what they saved was the grating to lay the coal on, the lever to shake off the ashes, and the crank to dump the coal.
They even saved the instruction manual (link at end of article) explaining how to put the furnace together and light the coal on fire.
Thankfully the owners at the time were historically minded and kept all the coal burning parts when removed for oil conversion.
Oil in New Jersey in 2010 is expensive at $3.08 a gallon. The furnace is probably about 50-60% efficient. To make it affordable, I keep the heat very low and dress warmly. This is part of experiencing life in a real historic house. We must adapt to the house – the house should not be adapted to lazy owners.
There is a door on the furnace with a shelf. Soap stone bricks heat up there and are wrapped up in a towel to be placed at the foot of the bed for extra warmth during the night.
The machine that burns the oil is loud and smells like oil. I was told by oil servicemen that this furnace will last a long time with little maintenance.
Here is a video showing and hearing the old octopus furnace in operation.
Is There a Future for this Old Octopus Furnace?
My Dilemma : History – Environment – Economy
Although most people never consider mechanical systems as historically important, they are and should be preserved. This old octopus furnace is historic and part of the evolution of the house. This furnace is now rare and cannot be replaced.
There are less and less of these around. It’s conversation piece to show guests and looks so good to show off. I am responsible for this artifact and should not be selfish about saving on my heating bill but do what is right for the house.
People would never throw out an antique piece of furniture (well not most) but they rarely care about an antique furnace.
This old octopus furnace is more interesting than many people’s Victorian parlors.
What Happens After I’m Gone?
One of my main concerns was that if anything happened to me and the house was sold – what happens?
The new owner would most likely get rid of this beautiful antique. They will replace it with a boring looking new furnace that has no personality – probably similar to its owner.
I restored this house not for my amusement but for the purpose of preserving a bit of history for the future and so others can learn from and appreciate my beliefs – what you are now learning from this website.
My efforts are rewarded by the look on my guests face when I take them into my basement to see the furnace.
Show someone a valuable work of art hanging on a wall and an old octopus furnace and see what they remember of their visit.
Heating Options to Protect this Furnace for the Future.
One way I can preserve this old octopus furnace is by converting it to gas and make it more appealing and affordable for future owners.
Oil is environmentally bad and is very expensive. An oil to gas conversion would be a big improvement. However I was told it can’t be done for the system is not sealed enough.
I joined Angie’s List (when it used to be good – avoid it now) and talked to one HVAC person who suggested putting a new high efficiency furnace behind the old octopus furnace and route the heat from the new furnace into the old.
I thought this was a great idea but never heard back from them and all other HVAC people did not want to do that.
After some time the final decision was to convert from oil to gas and install a new high efficient furnace.
The old octopus furnace will be disconnected but kept as a show piece. An easement will be put on the house preventing future owners from removing it.
When you make modifications to anything historic or potentially historic you need to consider its future and making your changes reversible.
In the future, it is possible that this old octopus furnace can be used again. It would need an oil tank and oil line and new ducts. The original fabric and mechanics have not been compromised.
While a new oil tank etc would be an expense, you never know what the future brings and how the rarity of this furnace will increase.
Preparing the Old Coal Burning Octopus Furnace for a New Gas Furnace
The first step was removing asbestos. All my asbestos ducts had been safely encapsulated with paint making them appear like new.
They were removed from the old octopus furnace and new duct work was installed on the new furnace.
Now a new 95% efficient Rheem Gas Furnace heats the house.
On the old octopus furnace the asbestos ducts that were removed were replaced with new short metal caps to show where the ducts were originally. New non-asbestos ducts can be connected if needed.
One of the giant size returns measuring about 20 inches wide was removed and capped off. Electric and oil were disconnected. This can all be reconnected if needed. The furnace is still connected to the chimney.
It is possible the future owners may be shallow minded and think I was crazy for saving it and prefer to have the extra space. However, I am sure after more years, owners after them will appreciate being stewards of something so unique.
A preservation easement (you should really read this link) will assure my wishes are carried out. As easement such as this is something everyone should think about for life is short and our legacy should live on.
Do any of you still heat with coal?