What to look for in a new hot water based (boiler) heating system

I got a great question from a reader asking about replacing a boiler and water heater system. After writing a reply, I realized the information might be useful to others, so here goes!

If you’ve got an old boiler that you’re thinking about replacing, you might find all the terminology and technology a bit intimidating. Fortunately, these days, there are a quite a few safe, high efficiency, hot-water generating systems that can provide plenty of hot water for baths and showers as well as heating your home.

I’ve been using this type of system in my home for years, both oil and gas (actually propane, but for this discussion, they’re the same). They can be excellent and cost effective IF configured and controlled correctly.

Let me get something out of the way right away – I would *not* recommend an oil burning system. Even though oil has come way down in price, it’s simply not a great fuel for home heating systems for a number of reasons

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Why Attic Insulation is a Big Deal A properly insulated attic is supposed to have about R-

Why Attic Insulation is a Big Deal

A properly insulated attic is supposed to have about R-40 insulation everywhere. This means that the insulation reduces heat loss by a factor of 40 – pretty simple eh? That also means, R-20 roughly equals twice the heat loss as R-40. R-10 is four times the heat loss and so on.

So what’s the R-value of an area of ceiling with no insulation? As it turns out, bare sheetrock on the ceiling has an R-value of about R-1. This means that every square foot of uninsulated ceiling loses about forty times as much energy as a square foot of properly insulated ceiling! 

Put another way, if you have one square foot of uninsulated ceiling, it’s losing as much energy as forty square feet of normally insulated ceiling. So what happens when you have a hundred square feet that are uninsulated, like in this photo? Well, the energy loss from this section of attic are about what the energy loss of a 4,000 SF attic would be!

The take home message is – details matter! Every square inch of your attic should be fully insulated. And if you’re an electrician, take the time to put insulation back carefully after you’re done running wires in the attic. If you don’t you’re basically robbing your customers.

Find insulation problems this winter

The winter snow can be your best friend – at least when it comes to finding where your home is losing energy.

Take a look at this house. Half the roof is covered with snow, while on the other half, the snow is all melted. What’s going on here?

There’s a serious problem with heat leaking out of the living space and into the attic. It takes a lot of energy to melt snow, so undoubtedly, these people are spending lots more on their heating bills than they should.

The first thing to do is to go up to the attic and check the insulation. Is it missing in this area or is there some other reason why the heat is leaking out? Maybe there are heating ducts running through the attic and they’re leaking badly. If your ducts are leaking, you’ll often find that the insulation around the ducts has turned black. Once you learn what to look for, it’s pretty easy to find problems. You might also find mold growing on the underside of the roof.

Another big problem that might be happening is there may be a bathroom vent that is blowing into the attic. You never want this because it can rot out your roof! Usually, you’ll find that the roof sheathing is black or discolored. If you see that in your attic, you know you’ve got a big air leak from the house into the attic.

The main thing is this – if you see something strange like this, you know that there’s a problem. Go find it!