I remember visiting my grandfather in his basement workshop. To get there, I had to pass through the boiler room, which housed the great iron beast that heated the little bungalow.
It was terrifying. And inefficient.
But contemporary technology is a beastmaster. It’s brought those metal monstrosities down to size and taught them some new tricks.
Robert Boulet, the owner operator at Priority Plumbing and Heating since 1989 (www.priority-plumbing.ca), has seen those changes.
"Radiant heating has always been the more comfortable heating," says Boulet.
"That’s because instead of heating air — which moves — it heats the objects in the room, which absorb the heat, just like the sun rays that are warm and soothing."
Old-fashioned boilers gorged on fuel. When the thermostat kicked in, the gas valve would fire indiscriminately.
"The biggest improvement is condensing boilers with a modulating gas valve, which uses limited gas to raise the temperature," he says.
"With old boilers, when the thermostat called for heat, the gas kicked in full-blast and tended to heat over the desired temperature with wasted fuel consumption."
Smaller boilers mean a lot less water to heat, and pumps move the heated water to the radiators and infloor much more quickly.
"You’re not heating a great big boiler which in turn holds all that heat, thirty per cent of which is wasted by going out of the chimney," he says.
New boilers can do more than ever.
"With the multi-zone boilers, you can heat your domestic water, pool heating, and winter household heating with zones, infloor, with efficiency as high as 98 per cent," he says.
Boilers can even be "connected," allowing registered owners to have their boilers monitored online by the manufacturer. If there is trouble, an email alert is sent. Free apps let you monitor and correct some functions while you are away.
"When I go to my house in Phoenix, I watch my house in Winnipeg and make sure everything’s fine in the middle of winter," says Boulet.
"You can get low temperature alarm systems that alert you if your heat goes off ... which beats an insurance claim if your house freezes while you’re away and we get those calls every year."
How do you know if it’s time to retire your beast?
"Some clues are high fuel bills - which is like throwing money away every year - and fumes which are not healthy, or it could be starting to leak," he says.
Boulet says to start with a reputable contractor licensed and insured for liability; the right questions, and some research.
"Figure out what you need in terms of zones and applications, learn about your investment," he says.
Other tips include:
Check the efficiency rating.
What is included in the warranty? What guarantee is on the installation? Does it cover parts? Labour?
Are parts easily available? How expensive are parts?
Does your old system need to be flushed prior to installation? Built-up sludge causes problems.
Get three different quotes in writing. Make sure someone comes to your property to see your installation. Boulet says he personally goes out to every job to make sure it’s done right the first time.
Get a fixed cost, not an hourly rate and make sure it includes parts and labour.
Avoid a lemon. Research online reviews.
Don’t assume that because you’ve been told you to replace your boiler you must do so. Get that second opinion.
Boulet says the first five years should be problem-free. After that, maintenance every one or two years should be good.
"As long as you’ve got a good installer, you shouldn’t have any problems," he says.
Technology has cut those big boilers and the high cost of running them down to size.
"Depending on the house, they can be just two feet wide, three feet tall, twelve inches deep and they can even hang on the wall like a piece of art!"
Smaller boilers with online monitoring and operation, greater fuel efficiency and enhanced safety features ... that’s a lot more radiant beauty and a lot less beast.
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