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A Guide to Boiler Heating

Boiler heating is an efficient alternative to furnace heating in Chicago area homes. Hot water, or hydronic, systems circulate heated water rather than air throughout a home to provide heat. The initial cost of a boiler system can be higher than the cost of a furnace system, but the cost can be recovered over the life of the system through improved efficiency and comfort. This brief guide to boiler heating discusses some points you need to understand as you choose the heating system for your home.

How Do Boilers Work?

A boiler burns gas or oil to heat water. A circulating pump moves the hot water from the boiler into pipes that deliver the water to radiators, baseboards, or radiant heating loops built into the flooring.

The circulating hot water keeps the house at the thermostat's set temperature. When the temperature of the water in the piping system drops, the burner comes on automatically to boost its heat.

Difference Between Furnaces and Boilers

Furnaces are more common than boilers for residential heating, but boiler heat is gaining popularity, especially with improvements in technology. With a furnace, hot air is blown throughout the home via ductwork that carries the heated air to individual rooms and brings the cooled air back to the furnace for reheating and recirculating.

Forced-air furnace systems are less expensive to install than boiler systems, and their ductwork can do double duty by carrying cooled air during the summer air conditioning season. Despite those factors, a guide to boiler heating reflects several advantages boilers have over furnaces, including:

  • Boilers are quieter than forced air systems. A properly maintained hydronic system will be almost noiseless as water circulates through the radiators or floor heating loops. A furnace can be noisy while it's running and can be annoying to the home's occupants when the fan turns off and on.
  • Boiler systems deliver better home comfort than furnaces. Hydronic systems deliver radiant heat which is more comfortable than the convective heat from forced air systems. Hot water heats rooms more evenly than heated air from a furnace does. With in-floor heating loops, a hydronic system keeps the floor warm, unlike a forced air system which may leave floors uncomfortably cold.
  • Boiler systems are more energy efficient than forced air systems. Modern boilers and furnaces each have high annual fuel utilization efficiency ratings (AFUE), which reflects the ratio of heat the boiler or furnace delivers into the home compared to the amount of fuel it burns. (Modern equipment will have AFUE ratings in the middle 80s to high 90s.) The main reason is that radiant heat is a more effective way to transfer heat than convection. Furnace systems may lose more of their heat to the ductwork than boilers do to the hot water piping. Boiler systems are also easier to set up with zoned heating than furnace systems.
  • Boilers require less homeowner maintenance than furnaces. Boilers don't have filters to change, nor do they have supply and return ducts that have to be kept unobstructed to maintain balanced airflow like furnaces need.

How Long Do Oil Boilers Last?

Boiler heating systems can last many years with proper maintenance. It's not uncommon for a boiler to run for 15 to 30 years before it has to be replaced. Boilers can be fueled with natural gas, propane, fuel oil, coal or electricity. Coal is rarely used for residential heating; most coal-fired residential boilers were converted to gas or oil long ago.

The energy costs of electric boilers are high, so they're rarely used anywhere fossil fuels are available. Electric heat pumps are a better choice than electric boilers.

Older boilers have efficiencies as low as 56 percent, so it makes good economic sense to upgrade or replace any system that predates the modern high-efficiency era. Some steps that can be taken to improve the efficiency of older systems include replacing pilot light burners with electronic igniters, installing vent dampers, resizing burners, installing aquastats for modulating tank temperature based on outdoor temperature, and installing time-delay relays to keep hot water circulating even when the burner is off.

Hydronic floor heating systems are very popular in new construction. A boiler supplies hot water to in-floor loops in different zones in the house, so such as bathrooms and kitchen floors can be warmed up and ready for occupants when they wake up or get home from work.

If you need help designing, installing or maintaining a boiler heating system in your Chicago area home, contact us at today. Our guide to boiler heating can help your home stay comfortable year-round.

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