INTEGRATING A WOOD OR COAL BOILER WITH FHW (HYDRONIC) SYSTEMS

Making that wood or coal fired boiler perform well when coupled to your gas or oil fired FHW heating system can be a challenge. They just operate differently. Only by knowing their characteristics and utilizing them to advantage can we affect positive system behavior.

An automatic, powered FHW system necessarily attains a high water temperature (just below boiling) during heat demand for heat transfer efficiency. The heating system is pressurized (like your automobile) to enhance circulation and increase the boiling point. Controls adjust burner operation to compliment demand levels (instant on-off). Your radiation is sized to compliment its heat generation capability.

A coal or wood boiler has a far different firing (heating) profile. Their fuels have “burning stages”, typically ignition, charcoaling (wood) and gasification. Each stage increases combustion temperature (and efficiency). Maintaining a fire necessitates replenishment (mixing) of new fuel, continually changing the heating profile. This can be moderated and controlled in degree by sizing, i.e. wood pellets vs. split firewood or rice coal vs. chunk. In either case, the fire is modulated by air and draft control.

Note: Exterior Coal and Wood Boilers are typically “Zero Pressure”, necessitating a water-to-water heat exchanger to couple to the typical 12-15psi FHW System. This will require an additional controlled, properly sized and powered circulation loop.

The major control element of an integrated system is the FHW Boiler Master Aquastat, controlling powered system temperatures and burner operation. It is typically designed to operate in a narrow and high temperature range for efficiency. This must be widened to accommodate the fluctuation in solid fuel delivery or your burner will be cycling often and shortened cycles. (Tough on equipment as well.)

You will have to check the specifications of your Master Aquastat as they vary widely with your system type. Briefly,

  1. If you have an Immersion Coil to generate DHW in your boiler, your Aquastat is a “Triple Action” or “Ranging” Type that maintains temperature with a modest, adjustable temperature differential.
  2. If not, your boiler provides only heated water for area heating of your home or structure. It has (or should have) a “Cold Start” Aquastat that only fires the boiler when heating is required. Otherwise the boiler cools down between cycles, approaching ambient temperature. Additionally,
    • Older systems will likely have narrower, fixed differential controls.
    • The newer, high efficiency boilers will have adjustable or programmable digital controls. Check specifications again.

Your Master Aquastat should have a fully adjustable temperature range, wide, adjustable differential(s) and mode switching to compliment coal or wood boiler interaction. We employ the Hydrolevel Model 3150 Universal Aquastat exclusively:

Specifications: http://www.hydrolevel.com/pages/new.html

Installation: http://www.hydrolevel.com/pages/pdf_files/HydroStat.pdf

It does everything, and well. You can “range” up to 30 deg F on the high and low ends, inhibit burner within high range and cut off at low limit (mode). Nice, visible display!

Check one of our site photos for interfacing and general piping details (powered boiler).
Link: http://www.merchantcircle.com/business/Mercier.Engineering.603-588-2333/picture/view/2875310

This provides your basic interface, but more is required, particularly hydronically.

Particular attention must be paid to the operational habits of your coal or wood boiler, particularly in ultimate temperature control. Can you fully fuel it when the boiler is red hot and walk away unconcerned? If over-firing is undesirable, you must dissipate this excess energy somehow. Options:

  1. A “Dump Zone” – Actuate heating zone(s) automatically through an in-line high limit “make-on-rise” Aquastat. They can be normally or optionally heated zones. Result is an overheated house, basement or garage, or all. Wiring this option can be tricky, however. Watch your control wiring. Add isolation relays if in doubt.
  2. A “Dump Tank” – Configure a storage tank in parallel with the feed lines to the FHW Boiler. Depending upon your physical layout and attributes it could also be behind and near the solid fuel boiler to act as a direct “Tempering Tank” to it. Between the boilers it can function as extra heating capacity, in degree. Again, take care with your circulator circuit and temperature sensors.

Note: Reading our blog entitled OUR UNPOWERED FORCED HOT WATER (FHW) GRAVITY HEATING SYSTEM may be of some help in this regard, where applicable. Employing gravity elements used in our personal system takes some expertise and effort. BE CAREFUL!

To further control inhibiting the burner at a lower temperature than the 3150 ranging allows may require placing an immersion style (where boiler provision is available) or a “strap-on” style Aquastat on the inter-boiler loop. This would be a “make-on-rise” Aquastat configuration.

Another option is a manual one – placing a switch in series to the burner wire and located conveniently. Just don’t forget to turn it back on before you go on vacation!
Operation requires “tweaking” of controls and in particular of temperature and differential settings. Heating demands vary widely with external temperature, lifestyle patterns and solid fuel firing schedule. If you still find that your FHW Boiler is cycling too often despite your best efforts, look at your total boiler water capacities.

EXAMPLE: We have a client who is attempting to supplement in a larger home using a Chunk Stove with an internal water coil. The system has such low water capacity that if he delivers water at a reasonable heating temperature it is short cycled. Water temperature is either too cool, correct for a short period and tripping the “Dump Zone”. The quick patch is to install a “Dump Tank” with circulator-loop controls to accumulate energy along with aggressive firing of his chunk stove. Even then it will only be modestly effective – unless he wants to fully occupy himself in the basement.

We alluded early on to radiation capacity as a concern. Radiation is designed to operate at a high, normal FHW heating temperature of 180-190 deg F. Lowering this temperature necessarily lowers heat delivery significantly. If your FHW System was slow to warm your home, it isn’t going to get better with a solid fuel boiler’s varying, if not lower delivery temperatures!

Newer homes we find are radiated so closely to peak cold expectation as a cost constraint that a solid fuel boiler supplement may be disappointing. Older home FHW Systems on the other hand tend to be better radiated by design – and – home energy improvements have reduced their heating demands, effectively increasing radiation capacity! Their original boilers if still in use also exhibit this over sizing effect, coupled with the earlier tendency to oversize them more aggressively by design.

So, if you are having difficulty maintaining warmth you have a few options:

  1. Increase the water capacity of your system with a “Dump Tank” to hopefully provide a damping effect against deep day/night fluctuations.
  2. Qualify pipe sizing and routing compliments boiler capacities.
  3. Verify that capacity of your solid fuel system is adequate.
  4. Increase the radiation capacity of your home, proportionately for maximum comfort. You can always close registers to cool selective areas, but not to increase others.

Note: Use a Heat Loss Calculator to qualify items 3 & 4 above! (See our Blog.)

We have purposely omitted piping and electrical diagrams from our discussion. There are just too many factors and system configuration details to present generic solutions. This is where a qualified heating technician or engineer should assist you to obtain a successful outcome.

An integrated system while offering a likely significant benefit in heating cost reduction does present its own operating characteristics:

  1. Circulator run time is significantly increased due to lower average system temperatures. Expect a modest increase in electric cost with more wear and tear on circulators and controls over the longer term. Keeping a spare circulator on hand is probably a good move for a DIY.
  2. If you use Setbacks with a Programmable Thermostat, be prepared to adjust not only the setback temperature but the times to “lead and lag” for comfort. Experimentation here.
  3. If you don’t utilize the wide differential range of the recommended Master Aquastat and install a second Aquastat to inhibit your FHW Burner at a lower temperature, you may exhibit significant heating lag. Adjust your temperature set point upward to moderate this condition (or listen to the “cold blooded” complain).
  4. Exterior Boilers in particular are vulnerable to power outages. A small backup generator in any case might be a judicious move.

Hopefully this introductory discussion will help toward this end. You may also wish to read our other blogs to fill in more detail and explanation.

Last Edit: 10/10/2012 pdm