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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- A low water cutoff system which will stop your boiler from burning fuel once the water level is too low.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.