10 Things You Should Know About Boiler Systems

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Minneapolis boiler expert David Howland has been a Service Technician at Standard Heating since 2005.

Are you thinking about buying a beautiful old home but worried about the possibly antiquated boiler heating system? Standard Heating Service Technician David Howland is here to help. In this post, David answers common boiler questions such as: How do they work? What is necessary to keep them running optimally? Are they dangerous? When is it time to think about replacing a boiler? Along the way, he’ll debunk common boiler myths.

1. Do boilers actually “boil” water?

No, boilers in operation today do not boil water (myth number one bites the dust!). The term “boiler” is a carryover from the past when steam boilers were common, which boiled water to make steam. Today’s boilers are water heaters and typically use natural gas. Most can heat water in a range from 145-190 degrees, depending on the radiation system.

2. How do boilers provide heat?

Boilers provide radiant heat, which warms objects in a room. In contrast, a forced-air furnace warms the air in a room, which means objects absorb heat more slowly. Some people prefer boilers because they can set their thermostat at a lower temperature and the radiant heat makes the room feel warmer than the actual air temperature. Others say boilers provide more balanced heat throughout the home during the winter months.

3. What are the most important things to know about your boiler heating system?

Here’s the shortlist:

  • Is your boiler a standard efficiency or high-efficiency model? Standard efficiency is vented in metal pipe. A high-efficiency model should be vented in PVC pipe, either off the top or to the side of the boiler.
  • What kind of radiation do you have? Fintube or baseboard, or cast iron radiators?
  • Who will assume responsibility for maintaining the boiler? Are you willing and able to learn to do it yourself, or are you going to have a company do the maintenance for you? The U.S. Boiler Company recommends annual maintenance to confirm that the boiler is working safely and efficiently. Annual maintenance also can identify potential problems and prevent a no-heat situation with your boiler.

4. What are the common reasons that boilers break or stop working?

Pumps fail and electrical components can stop working (controls, thermostat, etc). Also, unnecessary air may get into the system or low water pressure may occur, both of which can result in the system not moving the water so the boiler cannot radiate heat correctly or at all. In rare cases, water can freeze in extremely cold conditions. Minnesota snowbirds should take precautions, such as having a house sitter (or an emergency contact) and always having maintenance performed before leaving for warmer climates. Finally, if using a setback thermostat, make sure to leave the setting at 55 degrees or above.

5. Do boilers prevent humidity problems common with forced-air furnaces that lack a built-in humidifier?

Yes or no, depending on the efficiency of your boiler. Technically, boiler systems do not remove or add humidity, with the exception of cast iron boilers. A low-efficiency boiler, however, will utilize indoor air to make the necessary combustion flame, which can dry out your home.  In contrast, a high-efficiency boiler pulls air from outdoors to achieve combustion and does not affect the indoor air.

Now, one more tip about cast iron boilers, which are designed to use indoor air for combustion. You can improve air quality while using this type of boiler by making sure there is adequate air for the cast iron boiler. Installing a combustion air inlet (CAI), a small flexible pipe that is open to the outside, brings fresh air into your home.

6. What is the risk of burns associated with using hot water for heating, such as with young children around hot radiators?

The risk is relatively low (due to more common baseboard heaters), assuming you keep the water temperature at the correct setting. This is especially important if your home uses the older cast iron radiators, which can become hot to the touch if the water temperature is set too high.

7. Do boilers waste water or energy?

No, they do not waste water because boilers are a sealed system. Modern boiler systems are just as efficient as any gas forced-air furnace.

8. How do you know if your boiler is operating efficiently?

Standard Heating can help by performing a boiler tune-up to assess your system. Boilers require annual maintenance to ensure efficient operation.

 9. Is it possible to retrofit an old boiler to make it more energy efficient?

No. Standard Heating will not alter the original design of a boiler, because they are UL listed/labeled and should not be altered. However, in most cases Standard Heating can replace a boiler with a more efficient unit. If your equipment is 20-30 years old, be prepared to think about replacing the boiler.

 10. What’s involved in replacing a boiler?

Boilers can be simple or complicated systems to install, and require a thorough understanding of a home’s water distribution system. An experienced technician should conduct a complete analysis of your home and distribution system, which will provide you the information you need to make the best choice for your home. Standard Heating encourages customers to think about such questions as “how long do you plan to live in the home?” and “can you afford expensive repairs?” Our boiler consultants will work with you to find the best balance of economy and features that fit your needs.

Do you need to schedule a boiler tune-up? Or, are you ready for a free in-home estimate? 

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