Many Questions about Purchase of New Gas-Fired Steam Boiler

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Posted by Paul on September 30, 2001 at 18:08:36:

My home, which I purchased several years ago, came equipped with a gas-fired, steam boiler. I live in a northern climate where most homes require heating from about late-October through mid-April. With the spike in natural gas rates last year, my gas bills hit the mid-$200 to mid-$300 in the heart of winter. (The only appliance in the home that uses gas is the boiler; all other appliances are electric.) Though it is an older home, it has been relatively well insulated, with new windows and doors, a thick blanket of insulation in attic, and wrapped steam pipes. The current boiler has worked fine since I have owned this house, however, this is my first experience with a steam system and my untrained eye could certainly be overlooking signs of serious wear and tear.

The trusted contractor upon whom I relied on for advice passed away this past spring, prompting me to search for a new heating contractor this past summer. Collecting references from heating supply stores and friends who also own steam boilers, I located two contractors who came highly recommended as having extensive knowledge and talent with steam heating systems. Both individuals came out to inspect my boiler and both recommended that I consider replacing my existing boiler. No specific problem was identified; rather the rationale given was that the current boiler is old and very inefficient. I have been mulling over this advice, as I do see potential benefits in the form of lower gas bills and more modern maintenance and safety features. I also feel there is some value in possibly averting a mid-winter boiler failure - sort of a 'preventative replacement'.

My current boiler is a H.B. Smith No. 1100-1500 (though one of its two manuals is labeled for a Series 15-20-25 Smith-Mills Boiler) comprised of five sections. The former owner told me that the boiler was originally coal-fired and was converted to oil sometime in the 1970's. The boiler was converted a second time in 1980 to natural gas, using an Economite Conversion Burner, Model E20A. The boiler manual states that it produces 485 Sq. Ft. and 116,300 BTU per hour. One of the two manuals is dated 1969, so I assume the boiler is at least 32 years old. (The house was built in 1946, so this is either the second boiler or I have a fifty-five year old boiler in my basement.) I should also note that the present configuration includes a tankless heater, which pipes hot water into an electric A.O. Smith water heater (put in by previous owner).

No major work has been done on the system since I have owned it, other than routinely blowing it down and replacing malfunctioning air vents. The boiler has a manual feed system and receives conditioned water from a twelve-year-old water softener. The most recent major overhaul to the system was back in 1990, when both the low water cut-off and the motor in the Economite burner were replaced. The only other significant change of note is that the former owner, during a kitchen and bath overhaul, removed two radiators and capped off both lines.

I have been researching boilers and have some questions about various features, as well as hoping you can provide me some general tips for how best to proceed with my keep or replace decision. My questions are as follows:

1) Do you think replacing this boiler in the near future makes good economic sense, or should I just run it until it has a fatal failure? If the boiler had a major failure in mid-January, how long could I potentially be without heat in my home? Since I live in a small town, should I assume there will be a lead time of at least a few days for shipping in spare parts or even a whole new boiler?

2) My local contractors work with Burnham, Weil-McLain, and Slant/Fin, all of whom are reputable manufacturers. In researching their respective products, each firm touts unique features as points of differentiation between their product and the competition. Would you comment on any pros or cons associated with the following features and/or product claims: "production of dry steam" (Slant/Fin); aluminized steel burners (Weil-McLain) versus stainless steel burners (Burnham & Slant/Fin); metal push nipples (Burnham & Slant/Fin) versus elastomer sealing rings (Weil-McLain); Speed Skimmer Trough (Slant/Fin); Honeywell SmartValve technology (Burnham); "100% safety shut-off flame supervisor" (Burnham).

3) What are your thoughts on the present tankless heater and electric water heater set-up? Assuming I purchase a new boiler, should I consider switching to indirect fired water heater or keep the current arrangement (the A.O. Smith water heater still has plenty of life left in it)? Would it even make sense to just use the electric water heater and skip the tankless heater in the new boiler. In this way, I would have about half my annual utility costs from electric and half from natural gas. I always though gas was the way to go, but given the insanity of de-regulated electricity and last year's natural gas shortage, maybe it makes some sense to be diversified?

4) Both of the new contractors measured my radiators and convectors and both spec'd out new systems with lower Sq. Ft and BTU ratings. I assume this is OK given the removal of two radiators and since the house has less heat loss now than when it was built due to improved insulation. However, one contractor recommends using a boiler that produces 317 Sq. Ft and 76,000 BTU/hour and the other recommends using a boiler that produces 271 Sq. Ft and 65,000 BTU/hour. Should I be concerned that these two recommendations don't match up? If yes, how can I tell which recommendation is the correct one?

Sorry for the eyestrain, but I assumed more information was better than less. Thank you in advance for any advice you can provide!

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