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Water Heaters

What is a steam boiler, and what does one do?

If you’ve Google searched ‘What is a steam boiler?’ then you’re probably thinking of having one installed. But before you do, it’s vitally important that you actually understand how they work and what their advantages and disadvantages are. That’s because steam boilers aren’t all that common here in the U.S., so they can be something of an unknown quantity, unlike furnaces and heat pumps.

So before you go ahead and have a steam boiler installed, go ahead and read our ‘What is a steam boiler?’ guide first! Here’s everything you could possibly need to know about steam boilers. Starting with…

What is a steam boiler?

There’s no better place to start than jumping right in. What is a steam boiler?

A steam boiler is basically a larger version of a steam kettle. The idea is so basic and easy to understand that it’s been around for a couple of hundred years already. Steam boilers were actually one of the first home heating solutions! The boiler heats water to higher than its boiling point, so that it produces steam. But where a steam kettle would release steam into the atmosphere, a steam boiler doesn’t. Instead, the steam is routed around the home, and released through convection heaters- also know as radiators.

A steam boiler is therefore not so different to a common furnace. But whereas the furnace releases warm air directly into your home, steam boilers normally don’t. The hot steam is always kept contained inside the pipes and radiators used to distribute the heat around your home. Well, that’s a lie- it’s vented outside through an outlet. If it wasn’t, the pressure would keep building and your boiler would explode. But what we’re trying to say is that the steam is never released into your home, so no, it won’t be like having your own sauna. If you don’t have an outlet outside your home, you may have release valves on each of your radiators, which work periodically and automatically.

What is a steam boiler

Steam boilers are really simple to understand. The same mechanism for producing power and heat was used in all sorts of applications, from steam trains to factories. Free photo: Steam Locomotive, Passenger Train – Free Image on Pixabay – 1352338 : taken from – https://pixabay.com/en/steam-locomotive-passenger-train-1352338/ https://creativecommons.org/licenses/publicdomain/

How does a steam boiler heat your home and water?

Like we said, steam boilers heat your home through a system of pipes and radiators. The pipes are simple for a technician to install around your home. There are two kinds of piping system: one pipe and two pipe. In a one pipe system, one pipe delivers steam to the radiator and also collects condensed water. Two pipe systems use two pipes to do the same thing.

Steam boilers were a common solution to home heating in older houses. So, if you do have an older house, you may already have had them installed when you moved in. But for more modern houses, you would have to install both pipes and radiators so that a steam boiler could heat your home.

Is a steam boiler a safe option?

Alright, now that we’ve covered ‘What is a steam boiler’, we can move on to ‘How can I control my steam boiler, and is it safe?’ Well, aside from being able to set the temperature, there isn’t much you can do to control your boiler. Or, perhaps more accurately, there isn’t much that we recommend non-experts trying to do. But there are four basic safety controls which make boilers as safe home heating option.

  1. A pressure gauge and a pressure regulator, which monitor the amount of pressure in your system. It will shut of the supply of fuel to your boiler if it detects too much pressure.
  2. A pressure relief valve, which is separate to the regulator, and is intended as a fail safe. If the gauge and regulator fail, the relief valve will release pressure once it gets dangerously high.
  3. A water level sight glass, which will allow you to check the water level inside the boiler, to see if it’s too high or too low.
  4. A low water cutoff system which will stop your boiler from burning fuel once the water level is too low.
What is a steam boiler

Steam boilers need radiators in order to spread heat around the house. The radiator itself is heated by the movement of steam. Ornate Cast Iron Radiator – Brian Eno Speaker Flowers Sound Installation | Flickr : taken from – https://www.flickr.com/photos/dominicspics/4626123560 Author: Dominic Alves https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/ 

What are the advantages of having a steam boiler installed?

‘What is a steam boiler’ was easy, but now we should think about why you should actually have one. Well, there are a few reasons why steam boilers are better for your home than furnaces. The first is that boilers are generally safer than furnaces, especially when it comes to carbon monoxide and other toxic fumes.

Boilers are also less likely to break down. There are very few moving parts in a steam boiler, and there is no fan or pump which can break down like in a furnace.

Are there any common problems with steam boilers?

There are a few reasons why boilers aren’t perfect. Starting with:

  1. It takes longer to raise or lower the temperature in your house using a steam boiler. That’s because the water which turns to steam can hold onto heat for a long time.
  2. Steam boilers are typically more expensive to install and maintain than furnaces. That’s because most plumbers aren’t used to dealing with them (although we are!), and parts can be more difficult to obtain. They are also more expensive to run, since boilers operate at a higher temperature than furnaces.
  3. This might not be too important to you… But boilers can be noisy! Unless you have a modern and well maintained system, your radiators and pipes will occasionally decide to clank. This can be the case if your boiler isn’t in full working order.

Home heating repair: what to expect when you need help

Has something gone drastically wrong with your home heating system? Are you wondering how on earth you can get it back in working order without a call to your local maintenance man? Well don’t worry- we don’t bite. You can always try DIY home repairs– but the problem might not be as simple as it first appears.

The good news is that there’s always going to be someone out there who can help you. The point of this post is to let you know what to expect from home heating repair.

Diagnosis: what’s wrong with your heating system?

Even if you do your best to save on your water heating bill, and hardly use your heating system at all, problems can still occur, and even if you get regular maintenance. There’s nothing you can do to prevent an Act of God!

The first thing your repairman will do is to actually diagnose what’s wrong with your heating system. Home heating repair is easy if the problem’s obvious- a blown pipe, for instance. But electronic fixtures are less easy to fix. That’s why the first thing we’ll do is to take a look at what might have stopped your heating from working. The service provider should follow a clear, precise and thorough set of guidelines in identifying what’s gone wrong, so that the exact problem can be pinpointed and resolved.

Your repairman may have to check every part of your heating system to find the issue. But once they have, they should be able to offer you a quotation for both parts and labor. If you accept their offer, they can get straight to work, so long as they have the parts- more on that later.

home heating repair

Low hot water pressure is often one of the first signs that your heating system isn’t working properly. Free photo: Shower, Douche, Bathroom, Clean – Free Image on Pixabay – 1027904 : taken from – https://pixabay.com/en/shower-douche-bathroom-clean-water-1027904/ https://creativecommons.org/licenses/publicdomain/

What are some common problems with home heating?

There are a number of common home heating accidents that can damage the heating system, or even your entire home. There are also a number of common problems that stop your heating system from working as it should.

  • You’re not getting any hot water. Obviously, if your boiler or furnace isn’t producing hot water, there’s something wrong with it.
  • Your boiler itself is leaking water. This isn’t a healthy sign. A common reason is that some internal component, like a seal or a pressure valve, has either broken or corroded away. The cause could be either ageing or broken components, or it could be that the pressure is too high. Either way, it’s not wise to deal with this problem yourself.
  • Some kind of strange noise, like banging or gurgling, is coming from your heating system. Again, this could be because of a pressure problem, or it could be that there’s air stuck in the pipes.
  • Your heating system turns on and off at random times. If your heating is electronic, well, it’s most likely an electronic problem! But it could also be because of low water pressure, or a thermostat issue.
  • The pressure keeps dropping. Common sense should tell you that if the pressure in your heating system keeps dropping, then there’s a leaky pipe somewhere that needs to be fixed. But it could also be an issue with your pressure gauge, which might be giving an incorrect reading, and forcing your heating to act strangely.  

Furnaces should receive regular maintenance, but even if they do, they can still break down.

Can they fix the problem with my heating there and then?

Some home heating repair jobs can be done straight away. If you have an old fashioned boiler or furnace, one that isn’t even electronic, then your repairman might be able to fix it immediately. Older models more commonly rely on readily available parts like nuts and bolts than chips and circuit boards. That might mean they’re less efficient, but it also means they’re much easier to repair in some cases. Your repairman might have the parts in their truck, or might even be able to source them from a local hardware store.

The main reason why your repairman may not be able to complete a job is because they need to send off for parts. This is especially the case with electronic boilers which sometimes use brand-specific parts. If the model is particularly rare, or has been discontinued for a long time, then your repairman might not have the part to hand. In fact, they may have to replace your boiler or furnace in its entirety. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing: new, modern heating systems are often far more cost-effective than their older counterparts. So you’ll be saving money in the long run, anyway.

Your repair man should clean up after themselves!

Good repairmen are always respectful of the house they’re working in, and the client they’re working with. That’s because most repairmen are sole proprietors, and run their own local business. Word would quickly get around if they aren’t pleasant to work with! So, after the job is done, your repairman shouldn’t leave a huge mess for you to clean up.

Most home heating repair men are polite, patient and easy to work with. Their business depends on it, after all. So if you do need to call someone out for home heating repair, don’t worry- we’ll be gentle! And in the future, to prevent any more accidents, you should schedule regular ‘tune up’ visits that will keep your heating system in top condition.

My tankless water heater is making noise and shutting off, why?

   If you’ve lived in Colorado for more than a year you are familiar with the annual invasion of the Miller Moth.  Some years seem to be worse than others but even the mildest infestation seems to be too much.

Utility costs have risen in recent years, prompting many homeowners to look to more efficient ways to heat their homes and domestic water.  One solution that has been well accepted is the use of Tankless High Efficiency Water Heaters.  These heaters only heat the water that is being used at any given time.  They are typically direct vented and sealed so that they are very safe to the homes occupants.  Most of the time they work wonderful with just an annual cleaning and maintenance regiment.  What does this have to do with the Miller Moth?

Unfortunately, tankless water heaters on Colorado’s Front Range in the spring and summer months have an enemy to their efficient operation.  What is it? That dreaded Miller Moth! (http://www.chieftain.com/news/region/no-place-is-safe-from-miller-moths/article_c7997f20-8e92-11e1-b5c2-0019bb2963f4.html)

Why do these otherwise harmless creatures cause so many problems with tankless water heaters?

Because they are attracted to warm places and light, they tend to gather around the exhaust vent of the tankless water heater where they are often sucked into the combustion air intake during the units operation.  When this happens they are chewed up and fill the orifices of the burner chamber with their dead bodies.  This causes the combustion fan to make excessive noise and may even damage the burner preventing it from operating normally.

Once this happens the only solution is to disassemble the unit and give it a thorough cleaning and inspection.  This can be quite involved and costly.

The better solution is to be proactive against these small nuisance insects.  This can be accomplished by having a bug guard installed on the intake of your tankless water heater to prevent bugs of this size from entering and causing all the problems.  The water heater manufactures have begun to develop these screens that work quite well and do not hinder the operation of the unit.

If you are having problems like this give Patterson Plumbing & Heating a call and we will be glad to evaluate your situation and correct it by cleaning the unit and then installing a bug guard to help prevent the problem and inconvenience in the future.

Call us at 719-544-4922.

Are you having problems keeping your waterheater lit?

 

Since mid 2005 most residential water heaters sold in the US have been equipped with a safety device to keep flash back fires from leaving the burner chamber.

The technology prevents such fires by trapping and burning dangerous gas vapors inside the heater while preventing ignition of the vapors in the room.  The new water heaters incorporate new technology that helps accomplish the requirements of the new ANSI Standard.

This technology consists of:

  • A device to prevent ignited vapors from passing out of the combustion chamber
  • A one way intake system to control the movement of makeup air into the combustion chamber
  • An inner door and burner assembly to create a sealed junction with the combustion chamber, preventing combustion air and flammable vapors from entering the chamber through the front of the water heater

Each manufacturer accomplishes these tasks by incorporating slightly different technology, but in most cases a screen of some sort is generally used. Also each unit generally has a device that will shut the gas off to the unit if the combustion chamber becomes over heated called a thermal cutoff switch.

This newer technology on the surface can be a very advantages safety feature, but it also can create additional service issues that many home owners are not prepared to deal with.

The most common issue is the intake that controls the movement of makeup air into the burner chamber can become clogged with lint, dust or pet hair. As this happens it can affect the combustion process in the burner chamber, causing the flame to burn dirty creating soot build up and eventually shutting the burner down all together. Cleaning or keeping the intake screen from clogging can be one of the most important maintenance task, check with your manufacturer for recommendations as to how to accomplish this, generally if not described in the owners literature you can find a phone number and or web site that will describe the process specific to your brand and model.

Another issue we have run into is the venting process itself. Many older homes still use a brick chimney of some sort to vent the combustion gases out of the home. This is a simple process based on the fact heat rises, but if the chimney on cold days becomes too cold it can resist the flow of the flue gases out the chimney until the chimney can warm up enough to vent properly.  With the old technology some flue gas role out would occur, which is not a good thing, carbon monoxide concentrations around the unit and in the home often occurred during times of initial start-up. With the new technology and the sealed nature of the burner chamber more times than not the cutoff switch will register an over temperature issue and shut the gas valve off, requiring that the pilot be re-lit.

Another service issue can be caused by inadequate ventilation. Newer homes and often older homes are being better sealed to make the home more energy efficient; this however, can cause ventilation issues with atmospherically vented appliances like your water heater. As homes are sealed up to prevent the loss of heated indoor air, combustion air vents must be provided to gas burning appliances like your water heater.

In the end, what used to be a relatively simple system of heating water for your families use has now become quite complex with a lot of maintenance and service requirements to keep things running smoothly.  We recommend at least annual inspections and cleaning but in some dustier locations this maintenance could be required more often.  If you feel like this is beyond your capability or desire give Patterson Plumbing & Heating a call and we can put you on a routine schedule to keep things heating the way they were designed.