1890 Sunbeam Coal Furnace Meets its Untimely End

1890 Sunbeam Furnace Replacment w/ Thermo Pride Oil-Fired Furnace

Yesterday, I reluctantly, though methodically, removed a relic Sunbeam Gravity Hot Air furnace, installed in 1890 when the house it was installed in was built. After speaking with its owner, who bought the house in 1959, I discovered that the furnace then burned coal, but was soon converted to oil with a gun-type burner.

Prior to Sunbeam Furnace Removal


Notice the wooden rectangular return air ‘duct’ coming down vertically from the floor joists above. There was only one return.

Sunbeam Furnace Removal Progress(?)


Thermo-Pride Lowboy Furnace Installation


The company that converted the furnace from coal to oil was the same company that hired me in 1981 as an oil burner technician apprentice – Tenney Fuels. Tenney was founded by the MaCurda (sp) family in the 1940s as Tenney Coal Company. As oil burners were becoming the new trend, Tenney changed its name to Tenney Coal & Oil and relocated to Pleasant Street, Concord, New Hampshire. As coal faded into the past the company again was renamed, Tenney Fuels, Inc. and moved to 1 Gulf Street – fitting, as Tenney was a Gulf Oil dealer, its competition – Ferns Oil – a Mobil fuels dealer.

Tenney was bought in 1983 by A.R. Wright of Portland, Maine and was a company on the move buying up small Mom & Pop fuel dealers around Maine and New Hampshire. Having miscalculated somehow, a year later Wright sold Tenney to Johnson & Dix, of Ascutney, Vermont who held on to it until the mid 2000s to then sell to the largest fuel company in the region – Irving Energy Marketing & Distribution, from New Brunswick Canada.

I started with Tenney on the bottom rung and learned to clean all manner of oil burning equipment and I cleaned the Sunbeam that I would come to to dismantle 30 years later.

The majority of oil burning equipment that I learned on was old technology, so old that they are among the world’s first oil burners – Torrid Heat; Iron Fireman, Timken Silent Automatic rotary burners; General Electric down-fired burners; Winkler low pressure burners that had a permanent nozzle and dual piston-type fuel pump and weighed nearly 150 pounds. These were all soot factories, as that is the secondary thing to heat that they produced very well.

There were many oil burning equipment manufacturers back then, now there are only a few names in the business. I never thought I would say this, as I grew to really despise oil burners of that era, but I am now glad that I sank my technician roots into Oil Burners Americana back then. Oil burners at the origins of the technology gave me not only great depth of experience to draw from, but puts the quality of todays equipment in true perspective when compared to the ancient predecessors that were built to last indefinitely. Yes, burners today are more efficient and easier to work on, but most of them are not made of the same nearly excessive quality in comparison to their predecessors.

Even the ductwork attached to this Sunbeam was built to last. The metal was tin and the seams were often soldered together, making an air tight connection throughout the duct system – much more than I can say for most of what I see these days. In fact, the term, “Tin Nocker” was applied to sheetmetal workers who worked with tin, often hammering it into form and fucntion.

The Sunbeam furnace was 111 years old when I demolished it in 3-1/2 hours and brought it to Harding Metals Scrap Yard in Northwood, NH.

When I started in the trade I was never told the exact age of the equipment that I worked on. I guess the old timers at Tenney felt no pressing reason to expound on things like longevity of furnaces and boilers. They took that for granted. In today’s terms of technology ever changing, it seems like a big deal that a furnace still in operation after 120 years could be so old and still work nearly flawlessly. Well, almost flawlessly. In reality, the burner was temperamental and originally my customer hired me last year to get it going again when it failed to start last fall. I changed the nozzle (of the modern type) that should be replaced anyway as part of annual maintenance. The Stack Control (primary control/master control) was of a type that sensed heat through a bimetallic coil, which in turn controlled small switches, which energized relays as needed. That type of primary was phased out in favor of the cad cell eye control, which ‘saw’ light rather than ‘felt’ it.

I told my customer that I could virtually rebuild the furnace, as I did plenty of that at Tenney. She hired me to do just that, which entailed replacing the oil filter to a micro style at the tank, the fuel line, oil burner with cad cell primary, all new wiring from the panel to the emergency switch, new chamber and insulating materials. A year had passed before she was ready for me to do my work and we took a second look at the whole system and decided that because the return duct was made of wood and partly concrete – a trench terminated under the furnace in the cement cellar floor which returned air from 1 wooden rectangular trunk and 1 24″ X 36″ floor grille. This return duct was unlined and rather disgusting with its 111 years of dirt, dust, children’s small toys that fit through the return grille, insect carcasses and whatever else started out as one thing  and evolved over time into something unrecognizable. The decision was made to scrap the old in favor of new efficient equipment.

The cast iron, steel and soldered tin supply ducts that I hauled to the scrap yard will undoubtedly be transformed into something with a far shorter lifespan in mind. The scrap will probably be shipped to China and return in the form of something sold back to us at Wal Mart or Home Depot.

Now the new furnace, a Thermo-Pride OL11-105 Lowboy…and, unfortunately, crappy ductwork from China.