In the last article, “Is your boiler stealing your money?“, I discussed why most boilers are ripping you off. Contrary to what almost every HVAC saleperson or tech will tell you, your boiler does not operate at 84% efficiency. It doesn’t operate at 80%! Heck, much of the year, it doesn’t operate at 50% efficiency!
To review, the reasons for this include:
- High operating temperature
- Minimal insulation
- Infrequent use
- → Outrageously high standby losses
In this article, I’m going to discuss how to do it right. But if you’re too lazy to read the entire article, stop right here and go to the Energy Kinetics website.
But first, I’m going to save you $10,000….
What not to do next
Do not do what I did before I knew better. After learning how terribly inefficient my existing boiler was, I talked to lots of sales people, read the literature, and studied all I could about system efficiency. Unfortunately, I got fed a lot of inaccurate information and spent $10,000 on a super high efficiency boiler – the highest efficiency rated boiler on the market. It was supposed to be the most efficient system available with super-low standby losses. Well, they lie, or they’re ignorant. Or they lie and they’re ignorant.
No, the boiler is in fact super-efficient – if it runs constantly. The boiler is indeed 92%-95% combustion efficiency and the indirect heated water tank is very low loss. But the boiler never runs at full capacity unless it’s really cold out. That’s how they’re supposed to run. So it cycles on and off because it has to stay hot all the time just in case. And the warmer it is outside, the more time it spends cycling and the less time it spends heating my water.
So I still turn it off during the non-heating months because it’s wasting so much oil just staying hot. Back to the drawing board!
The HVAC ‘pros’ out there might think that I’ve got it plumbed wrong or have some other problem. Nope. I’ve checked everything. This is pure, old fashioned standby losses (or more accurately called idle losses). If you read the references in my previous article, you’ll know that I’m right. During the non or minimally-heating months when the boiler spends more time idling than it does working, the efficiency plumets to well below 50%. Frankly, it sucks and it’s wasting hundreds of dollars a year doing absolutely nothing.
If I was in power, long ago I would have outlawed this type of boiler, which now comprises almost the entire installed base of boilers, because they waste so much energy. Seriously, millions of gallons a year of fuel oil, propane and natural gas get wasted because of this incredibly stupid and wasteful system design.
Some solutions to the problem
The simplest path
The ‘simplest’ solution is to install a dedicated water heater plumbed in series with your boiler and turn the boiler off during the non-heating season. This may sound drastic, but it can pay off in just a few years.
The advantage of this method is that it’s so simple to do that any competent plumber should be able to do it without screwing it up. It’s an afternoon job. They just set it up so that the water keeps flowing through the boiler during the off season, then goes into the new water heater and then to your home’s hot water lines.
Read that again. The water runs through the boiler then into the new water heater. The dumb-*ss who tried to do this in my home (before I bought it), plumbed it the other way – into the auxiliary water heater first then through the boiler. Why is this wrong? Think about it. You’re heating the water in the auxiliary water heater. The water then goes into the cold boiler, which sucks the heat out of the water trying to heat up a big hunk of iron. So you end up with luke-warm water. Folks – this isn’t rocket science, you just have to think about it a little bit…
The simplest path ain’t so simple
Things are never quite so simple. While this solution works great and eliminates all the waste from summertime use of your system, depending upon the cost of your utilities, it might not actually save you much money. Or, it might save you a ton of money.
I’ll use my area as an example since I know all the fuel costs. Around here, right now (Spring of 2011), oil costs around $3.55/gallon and electricity is about $0.16/kWh. Propane is about $3/gallon and natural gas is $1.55/CCF. What’s this mean?
Let’s compare what it might cost to heat hot water for six months of the non-heating season using a variety of different fuels and heaters. The assumption here is a family of four using 120 gallons of hot water per day.
Conventional boilers (this is what we’re comparing others against)
- Oil: $730
- Propane: $930
- Natural gas: $440
Storage tank heaters (you’re typical cylindrical tank type heaters)
- Electric: $665
- Oil: $597
- Natural gas: $360
- Propane: $758
Other technologies, with storage tank
- Heat-pump water heater: $299
- Geothermal heat pump: $199
- Cold-start/finish oil boiler: $391
The first thing you notice is that natural gas is really cheap compared to oil or propane. In fact, currently, there’s an economic imbalance because we get gas domestically and there’s been a ton of reserves discovered whereas with oil, well, you don’t have to be reminded about oil…
But propane is complicated. If you own your own tanks, propane costs fluctuate wildly throughout the year. It might be $3/gallon in winter and half that in the summer! So, in theory, if you had big tanks, you could buy it cheaply during the summer and cut your energy bills in half. This is a story for another article….so let’s get back to the point.
The point is, you can’t just rush out and buy the cheapest tank water heater and expect to save hundreds on your summer water heating bill. If you augment that inefficient boiler by installing a conventional electric water heater, you’ll only save $65/year if you live around here where electricity costs $0.16 per kiloWatt-hour. On the other hand, if you live somewhere with electricity at $0.10 per kWh, you’ll save over $300 per year! You’ll have to figure out the numbers for your own actual utility costs.
On the other hand, if you have natural gas available and you’re currently heating with oil, even at the expensive cost we have here, you’ll save $370/year by installing a relatively cheap gas tank water heater. But, if you have a gas boiler and you install a gas tank water heater, you’ll only save $80/year. It’s enough to boggle the mind!
The right solutions
Take a look at the “other technologies” section. This is where geothermal heat pumps and heat pump water heaters really shine. They extract a lot more heat out of every Watt put in than does a normal electric water heater. So a heat pump water heater will save you $430/year and a geothermal based water heater will save $530/year. Those are some serious savings.
The last device listed is a “cold start/finish boiler.” This looks just like a normal boiler and is a drop-in replacement for your existing boiler, but it actually works intelligently. Rather than sitting around hot all day long, after it’s done heating your water, it turns off. The best example of this is the Energy Kinetics System 2000 (pictured at the start of this article).
I’m going to sound like a salesman, but try to ignore that. I’m not. I get nothing from Energy Kinetics. I did tour their factory because it’s close to my house, and I think I got a few brochures, but that’s it. So much for my disclaimer…
Anyway, the EK2000, as it’s called, does something that all boilers should but almost none do. Say it’s heating water during the summer. The electronics in the boiler detect when the boiler is done heating up the water tank. Then, it turns off the burner but keeps the circulator pump going that’s heating up the water tank until as much of the boiler’s heat has been transferred to the tank as possible. This still isn’t perfect because the water tank is kept at 120-130 degrees, so there’s still some losses. But it’s much less than a conventional boiler. Plus, the EK2000 won’t keep on cycling on and off when there’s no need to. Using this simple technique, it obtains a real efficiency that’s vastly higher than conventional boilers in months that don’t require much or any space heating.
So if you’re looking to replace your existing boiler, it will behoove you to check out the EK2000. However I’ll warn you, the competitors will badmouth it because “its not like the ones they’re used to.” They’ll hand you a lot of misinformation (it’s called FUD – fear, uncertainty and doubt) to scare you out of buying it. Then they’ll sell you their shiny cast iron boiler using technology from the 19th century that they make a big profit margin on.
But here’s the truth. I’ve talked with techs and users of the EK2000 from around the country and they swear by it. It actually works and it doesn’t suffer from the problems that the competition complains about.
From a practical standpoint, you have to look at your specific situation. If you’re building a new house, you might choose to go all geothermal for heating and hot water, whereas in many cases, this wouldn’t be practical as a retrofit. In some cases, it will make sense to use a dedicated heat pump water heater while in others, you might not want to do anything. It’s complicated…
Hopefully this has clarified more than it’s confused. There really are a lot of parameters that you have to consider. But if you get nothing else out of these articles, I hope you understand that the common and familiar way of doing things with boilers is horrendously inefficient and every year you do things the same old way, it’s probably costing you hundreds of dollars in wasted energy.
Amen Brother, why is it hard for people to understand that leaving the boiler on 24/7 (unless it’s an army camp) is extremely wasteful. When will logic become mainstream? After all oil runs out?
Trying to compare efficiency from one year to another is difficult. Too many variables. In Maine, the daily newspapers usually indicate the “degree days” during the heating season. When deliveries are made, keeping track of degree days would seem desirable.
It’s definitely tricky with all the variables. I’ve had pretty good success using degree days then adding fudge factors into the equations based on the home and heating system. Lots of estimates involved!
http://i0.poll.fm/js/rating/rating.jsI have owned a System 2000 for Over 9 years now. I remember researching them and there was not much at the time. When my prior system failed In Aug 2008 needed a quick decision and my installer came out same day and had me with hot water in 5 hours. I have had no problems at all. Really zero. I never think about it. The oil savings we’re significant 40%. It has not lost any efficiency during those 9 years.
I bought the EK2000 EK1 in 2000 (seemed to make numerical sense). Had very few problems until the last few years, when I’ve had problems non-stop, almost all of them related to the control board and relay switches hidden inside the control panel. These problems have been compounded by my service agreement provider, who will send out guys who stare at this thing the way I would stare at the control panel of the space shuttle. Eventually, I’ll get the one tech who knows these things inside out, can diagnose the problem, and effect a solution… and then hand me a mammoth bill. (Such as yesterday’s: $955. New control board and relay. This after five days without hot water, and I’m a service agreement customer who pays his bills on time. Did I mention I’m not happy?). Like you, Ted, I live near EK, and this one knowledgable tech has taken their training course. I guess the owner of the HVAC company is too cheap to send his other guys (and yes, I’m now investigating other prospective service providers in the area). Anyway, I was wondering: My unit sits in an old, damp, leaky environment. I’m theorizing that moisture might be corrupting the control board and is the cause of my problems. Would I be well-advised to put a dehumidifier in that space? Do you have ay other thoughts on the control panel problems?
Wow, Scott that sounds frustrating. It’s pop possible humidity could be affecting the board. Electronics these days are pretty reliable. Maybe bad electrical supply? Sometimes that can lead to flakey electronics. Could also be a bad batch of boards.
I installed a System 2000 Resolute. EK makes incredible oil AND gas boilers. Hands down the most efficient systems out there- you just have to sift through all the installers and misinformation from those who dont want to bother getting trained to install them. The old boilers use old technology! Mine works incredibly well- I am saving close to 40% over my old boiler! Excellent quiet operation and very well built! You can tell its incredibly designed!
2 years now with the 2000 ek1.
‘Well the only thing I will say is, I wish everything I bought worked like this. end of story! We switched from oil to natural gas in nj. Ryan & co in Morristown NJ did the install and again I wish everyone would work like them.
I just bought a new(er) house, built in 2006. We have a ‘hydro-air’ heating system. I was not familiar with this before, but it’s a boiler that heats water, which in turn heats up air in air handler & delivers warm air throughout the house. We have 2 air handlers, one is in the unfinished, unheated attic that only has 9″ of insulation. The house used 1/4 tank of oil in 9 days in March (we did have the coldest March on record though) with the heat set to 60 degrees. Ugh!
Now that the weather has warmed up, I am turning the boiler off after we are done showers. So it’s off at least 12 hrs/day, if not more. My electric bill was $255 with the boiler on all the time (even thought the heat was off!). My current bill just came, and it was $129.
I am having an energy audit next week. We’ll see if the utility co offer a deal on a system 2000. My neighbor is an engineer and he has one. His house is nearly identical to mine and he said he saved 40% off his heating bill. For the summer, I’ll still be turning off the boiler. I’m looking into heating with wood too.
Sounds like there are some definite issues there. A boiler shouldn’t contribute that much to an electric bill. Hopefully they’ll turn up what’s wrong during the audit. It could be that the air handler blower is running the entire time the boiler is on and that the circulation pump that runs the hot water from the boiler to the air handler coil is running. Those could use 300-500kWh per month which would be $50-$100 electricity.
Let me know what the audit turns up. I’d be very interested to hear what they discover.
Drainback systems are freeze protected. The heat transfer fluid (could be water or propylene glycol) drains back out of the panels and associated piping when the system is not in use. Drainback systems are used in this area. Maybe what you’ve seen in Puerto Rico and other tropical areas are thermosiphon systems where the tank is located above the panel.
Thanks for the clarification Mark! My mistake – that’s exactly what I was thinking of!
I’m glad you’re paying attention and happy to be corrected. 🙂
I’m in New England, so even with a drain back system, I use a propylene/glycol mix just to be safe. The risks with water in a drain back system are minimal even in a cold weather climate, but the consequences of even one failure are devastating, so we play it safe. The drain back design completely eliminates any of the potential overheating problems with propylene/glycol in a typical closed system design. The advantages of a drain back overwhelm any other system, but the manufacturers are going to try to sell the designs that they already have on the shelf.
Ted, I considered
Turning off my system 2000 in the summer after I installed solar hot water, but EK recommended that I not do this because the computer might need to be reset in the fall, requiring an additional service call, negating any summer savings. Any thoughts?
I’m jealous – I’d love to have that setup. The EK is so efficient and intelligently designed, you probably would not gain anything by turning it off. I have to put mine (not a System 2000) on a remote switch to get it to work like your system and it cut the energy use in half.
Good suggestion on using a dedicated water heater in series with your boiler. Would it make more sense to install a by-pass rather than piping it so the water runs through the boiler first then to the water heater? So during the heating season, when the boiler is relatively efficient, you would turn off the electricity to the tank. In the summer, you’d turn off the boiler, turn on the water heater and open the by-pass so the hot water flows straight from the tank to the house.
That sounds right Mark. I’ll have to go back and revise my notes.
In fact, I subsequently set up a system that is exactly like this. I put another water heater after the boiler, dedicated to our radiant heater. With this setup, I can turn off the boiler during the warmer months and use the heater to directly run the radiant. Seems to work great!
I made my EK 1 even more efficient by adding a solar hot water heater system with heavily insulated storage tank. I chose a drain back system rather than the system sold by Energy Kinetics because a drain back system requires almost no maintenance, has fewer problems, and lasts longer. But the best thing I did was to upgrade my jone’s insulation. By the way, I love my System 2000.
Great idea – your system probably barely runs at all.
We have hard freezes in my area so drain back systems typically aren’t used. But where they can be used, I totally agree – it’s a great, simple system. I saw them all over Puerto Rico and other warm climates when I’ve travelled.
We installed a System 2000 last January to replace the aging Weil-McLean boiler in our 27 year old house. I was sold on the energy saving theory behind System 2000, along with a number of positive reviews I read on various heating forums.
Obviously, the winter of 2011-12 was a mild one here in southern NH, so it can be a bit tricky to figure out our oil savings on an apples vs apple basis, at least until another couple of years go by.. However, we had an oil delivery at the end of March 2012, so I can compare our fuel usage from then to our most recent filling on Nov.10.
I keep records of all our fillings, and compared this recent period since we started using the System 2000 to several earlier years, estimating consumption for the several days difference between deliveries in one year vs another. On average, we are saving 30-32% over the April thru mid-November timeframe– (about 300 gallons on prior system vs 205 gallons on System 2000). A good chunk of this is obviously used for hot water.
One big advantage of the System 2000 is that it’s unbelievably quiet. It sounds like a microwave when it runs, as opposed to a hairdryer. Since the boiler is right under our living room, that makes a difference!
Thanks for the feedback. That’s great performance that people can bank on.
Thanks so much for this informative article and the previous one as well. I was just sitting here wondering why on earth the boiler is running so often when the heat is not turned on. You have solved that mystery & given me so much to mull over. We have been debating changing out our at least 25 yr old boiler with a new “more efficient” one, but after reading this we will be doing a lot more research.
In particular, check out the Energy Kinetics System 2000. This one has special electronics to avoid running when it’s not needed.