Boiler retrofits offer contractors and facility managers a way to make a major impact on a building’s heating and hot-water performance. That’s especially true for buildings in the Northeast or Midwest using boilers powered by heating oil, although such facilities are increasingly becoming an endangered species.
“There are still some oil boilers installed, but we do definitely see the changeover occurring,” says Robert Wiseman, product manager for the commercial boiler program at Lochinvar. “For the most part, the transition is to either a natural gas or a propane unit.”
With boilers accounting for a large portion of a building’s energy use, commercial building pros have a lot to consider when they’re evaluating a boiler upgrade. Here’s a seven-point plan for reviewing your current boiler system and assessing opportunities for a retrofit project that’s worth the capital investment.
1. Is your old boiler providing the performance you need?
For many facilities, efficiency leads the list of reasons to upgrade from an old boiler. Modern propane boilers can offer much higher efficiencies and lower utility costs, especially compared with oil boilers, but that’s not the only reason to consider upgrading, Wiseman says. With older units, facilities will often run into problems obtaining parts or service for their boilers, with some old boiler manufacturers no longer even in business. And while the size of many old boilers would dominate a boiler or utility room, the smaller footprint of newer products can offer newfound flexibility. “There’s places where they really have to say, ‘Do we replace two old units with, maybe, three new ones to get more redundancy?’” Wiseman says. “They have the footprint now.
2. New boilers are optimized for maximum efficiency
Modern boilers have much more sophisticated combustion technology to precisely match your building’s fuel source and heat output levels, says Dave McGowan, a heating specialist at Northampton Plumbing Supply in Massachusetts. The Lambda Pro combustion management system on Viessman boilers, for instance, constantly monitors the unit’s combustion and makes adjustments to the air and fuel mixture to achieve the highest efficiency, making it ideal for buildings fueled by propane. Modern boilers are also a great fit for buildings using low-temperature heating systems, McGowan says. “You end up with a system that is super-duper efficient because you’re wringing every dollar of energy out of that gallon of propane that you put through the thing.”
3. Consider a hybrid mix of condensing and noncondensing systems
When your facility is ready to make the boiler upgrade, you’ll need to make a recommendation between a noncondensing boiler and a higher-efficiency condensing unit. But today, it’s not an either-or decision. At Lochinvar, for example, both the Crest line of condensing boilers and the Power-Fin noncondensing boilers feature connections to promote connectivity so the two products can be used in tandem. It’s an especially good option when a facility doesn’t have the budget to purchase all top-of-the-line condensing boilers, Wiseman says.
During the shoulder seasons, when a building has lower return water temperatures, the building can rely on the condensing boiler to save energy when it’s operating at only 40 percent capacity. In the winter, on cold days, the return water temperature will be running hot enough that the boiler is no longer in condensing mode, so the facility can switch over to the noncondensing boiler.
4. Be aware of new ventilation options for condensing boilers
Older, less efficient boilers generally have much larger vent systems with a B vent metal material. Condensing appliances will require a new vent, but they also offer more flexibility. Condensing appliance vents are much smaller in diameter. And with lower temperature exhaust, they can use less-expensive materials, Wiseman says: AL294C stainless steel or nonmetallic options including CPVC, PVC, or polypropylene.
5. Combi units can be a compact solution for tight spaces
With a generation of older equipment, both oil and propane, now ready for replacement, many apartment and condominium buildings are beginning to retrofit to modern, high-efficiency boilers. Combi boilers, which provide both space heating and water heating, can be an efficient and functional option for buildings with space limitations, McGowan says. Buildings with full basements have more space to consider high-efficiency boilers paired with indirect hot-water tanks.
6. Control upgrades offer better performance and ease of use
Upgrading the boiler usually means upgrading the control system as well, which can offer additional performance and ease-of-use benefits. Whereas older boilers were typically full on or full off, the goal of modern boilers is to stay on and modulate heat for a consistent set point. So boilers like Lochinvar’s Crest will use communication between the boiler pump and system pump to coordinate the appropriate speed, Wiseman says.
Remote connectivity has also become a buzzword for modern building technology, and today’s boilers allow facility staff to monitor their system through a handheld device wherever they have an internet or data connection.
7. Propane offers a clean, efficient, and flexible energy source
While utility bills will always be on any building owner’s mind, many organizations are starting to consider the environmental impact of their system choices as well. From both an efficiency and cleanliness standpoint, propane and natural gas boilers offer a step up from oil alternatives. And depending on the source of a building’s grid power, they may be an improvement over electric sources as well.
“Natural and LP gas are both extremely clean fuels,” Wiseman says. “They are being used in extremely efficient products.”
Although there’s a push in some areas toward electrification, finding the right electric heating system and having an adequate electrical load capacity can be tricky for many buildings, especially so in retrofit scenarios. “I think the electric catches some people off guard,” Wiseman says. “To satisfy their heat demand, they need X product. But X product needs this electrical supply, and they may or may not have it at the building.”
Your local propane provider can work with you to plan the size and makeup of your propane storage system, and secure approvals from your municipality, says Steve Chase, president and CEO of South Hadley, Massachusetts–based FSI Oil and Propane, which performs oil-to-propane conversions for both residential and commercial customers.
“We do all the background investigation for them,” Chase says. “We pull all the permits to ensure that what we’re doing is done properly and that it’s inspected when it’s done. So we know beforehand, by going to the town, what we can do and what we can’t do.”
With propane available in areas that lack access to natural gas, it’s an energy alternative that’s consistent with the goals of many building owners and contractors: to make their facilities cleaner and more efficient, and contribute fewer greenhouse gas emissions to the environment.