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    This Blog entry could alternately be entitled “Keeping the Plumber out of your House”. You may also benefit from our prior blogs related to specifics in this topic.

    Times are tough, both in maintaining what you have as well as ascertaining ways to reduce your expenses. We can certainly affirm this contention from our own activities. You can’t just wait for the phone to ring and forward quotes for work at your leisure. The work that should be or must be done is still out there, but you must approach it very differently indeed.

    As a consumer you must know what DIY (Do-It-Yourself) options are available, and in particular when you have access to and can contribute complimentary resources to the task. Specifically relating to Zoning Regulations, Licensing Requirements, Energy Standards and Permits, in particular there is no substitute for doing your homework. What can you as a Homeowner do vs. that required by Licensing, etc.? Specific to Heating Systems, if you are “Replacing in Kind” (Upgrading) it can be as simple as calling in your rural Fire Chief to inspect your work after installation is completed to following a multi-stepped Permit and Inspection Process in larger jurisdictions. So firstly, ascertain exactly what the “ground rules” are.

    Next, determine the scope of your task. What are your motives and exactly what do want to accomplish? Is it a short vs. a long term improvement? A capital improvement has to be weighed not only from your interest as owner and potential seller, but that of the future buyer when applicable. Heating efficiency has become a primary factor in housing sales and can ultimately “swing the deal”, particularly on older “affordable” properties. Generally:

    1. Select your heating fuel objectively, i.e. by cost/efficiency/availability. (Refer to our blogs on fuel selection, pricing and cost calculators.)
    2. Combine your total (heat) energy requirements and look at it again. You may want to go with two fuels, particularly for cooking and possibly DHW (Domestic Hot Water) — but don’t allow secondary usage drive your primary fuel decision. Run the numbers!
    3. Do a Heat Loss Calculation to determine system sizing. (See Blogs) Size it based on where you are going to be at the time of installation. We can guarantee you that if you have already made energy improvements to your facility your current boiler is now too large as a result. Standby Losses (the unusable energy between heat cycling) going up the chimney and boilers kept heated solely for seasonal DHW demands are very wasteful. Note: Factor in a poor chimney that needs upgrading into the equation. Bypass it by design or lower your flue temperatures very significantly to accommodate it.
    4. Look at your lifestyle in relationship to your energy usage. This will aid in heating appliance selection and configuration.
    5. Evaluate your heat distribution issues. Hot or cold rooms, heat usage patterns that may suggest re-zoning to save energy, etc. List and sketch them onto a floor-plan, however crudely.

    Now you have the information necessary to configure a system.

    Here we must interject our relevant and unabashed observations on heating system practices at the risk of being rash but hopefully not rude.

    ‘Plumbing & Heating’ are somewhat complimentary but not necessarily convergent trade disciplines. Virtually always coupled on service vehicles and advertising, they are increasing becoming more divergent due to the sophistication of both heating components and control systems. The heating programming, controls, wiring and “smart” components are increasingly becoming more difficult and daunting to the plumber. In fact we can quickly identify a ‘plumber’s boiler’ by its characteristics:

    1. Poor hydronic (heating water) manifolding and distribution, characterized by:
      • Improper proportioning of supply (out) and return piping sizing to distribution.
      • Too many fittings, choices of materials and excess piping for the task.
      • Poor planning, layout and execution. Subsequent hydronic efficiency losses result.
    2. Indirect Water Heater supply piping from a boiler is both logistically poor and subsequently less efficient, energy-wise.
    3. Presence of “add-on” relays for additional expansion zones and not correctly wired electrically to the system operating aquastat.
    4. Similarly, very basic controls, components, diagnostic or function displays, etc.
    5. Improper component selection, sizing and placement.
    6. Resultant poor serviceability. Component locations impede efficient service and subsequently costs.

    The preceding observations provide us and potentially you the customer with an opportunity.

    The necessary elements of a hydronic heating system design and installation are:

    1. A Heat Loss Calculation and Distribution Plan.
    2. Heating Fuel and System Type Selection.
    3. Boiler Hydronic Manifolding and Distribution Configuration.
    4. Controls Installation, Wiring & Testing.
    5. Utilities Hookups (Exhausting, Fuel Pipe-in, Water Service, Distribution Piping, Electric Service, Thermostat Wiring).

    The first two (2) elements are preparatory, defined by designer or consumer — or they should be. The remaining are usually executed by tradesmen, on-site — but not necessarily so.

    The system elements referred to above can present opportunities however.

    1. Heat Loss Calculation and Distribution Plan provided by consumer and/or resource using Web Tools.
    2. Heating Fuel and System Type Selection by consumer.
    3. Procure a Pre-Built and off-site tested boiler assembly.
    4. Transfer to customer site.
    5. Utilities Hookups executed selectively on-site by customer/resources and licensed tradesmen, per local requirements.

    The benefits of reallocating these task elements are:

    1. A low to no cost project definition by consumer to do a proper RFQ (Request for Quotation) from source(s).
    2. Skilled Tradesman Labor and Materials Costs moved to an off-site Specialty Provider.
    3. Simple installation tasks are left to customer/resources.

    Now for our sales pitch. (Refer also to our prior Blogs)

    Mercier Engineering pre-builds Weil-McLain Ultra Series Oil and Gas (LNG/LPG) Boiler Systems ONLY. These two (2) particular “state-of-the-art” appliances are 87% Oil and 95% Gas AFUE, respectively. They lend themselves uniquely to pre-building by their attributes. We have learned to also maximize their field performance not only by employing our own “tricks” but those solicited of Weil-McLain Design Engineering. Engineers talking to Engineers. (Click on our Home Page Links for Weil-McLain Ultra details.)

    A Heating Proposal will typically run about 50% Materials, 50% Labor. Ours run about 65% to 75% Materials, 25 to 35% Labor, depending upon fuel type — gas is materially higher. Pre-building skews the materials/labor ratio positively. Functionally you get more materials for your money, despite our using a higher cost appliance and accessories to attain this performance. Ultimately you buy a heating system performance package. This is what pays you back, not labor. (All of our customers to date are relating 40% minimum fuel savings on all fuels — but don’t quote us on it. We like surprises.)

    We are hesitant to describe or detail our “tricks” (like the “Iron Cross Manifold” TM) due to piracy. Protecting intellectual property is a challenge in itself. Suffice to say that we use the correct part(s) in the correct configuration(s), in the correct relationship(s) to maximize performance, minimize service and operating costs, packaged to efficiently transfer and assemble on site.

    In conclusion, look over your requirements, ascertain your local restrictions, summon your local resources (cash in your “rain checks”?) and then give us a call.

    Last Edit: 10/10/2012 pdm


    If there is anything to promote about a steam heating system is its absolute simplicity, reliability and durability. How many 50 to 100 year old boilers have we pulled that looked half that age and indeed much less? Can’t remember ever replacing a radiator. Fix a cracked fitting once in a great while (usually from someone banging into a radiator), pack a valve stem that is hissing. Usually it is replacing radiator vents that were hit, breaking the mounting stem or that have become stuck over years and the radiator doesn’t operate properly.

    Otherwise it is problems arising from bad water supplies and longer-term neglect that ultimately are the Achilles Heel of “Steamers”. Sludge and sedimentation accumulates untreated and then plugs particularly the return lines and obstructs boiler controls, and in particular affecting water level control.

    By definition, a “Steamer” consumes some water in making steam that must be both incrementally replaced and regulated in doing so. This can be done manually or automatically. The “old timers”, both residential and commercial steamers were replenished manually, hence the occupation “boiler tender” or “fireman”. Fortunately few manual examples remain, but there is yet an issue of reliability that must be addressed with “automatic” water feeders. Specifically the Float Style vs. the Electronic Immersion Sensor Style.

    An undetected and unregulated low water condition under a heat demand condition is the death knell of a steam boiler. Every failed steam boiler we have replaced, some as low as five years old has been “cooked” in heating jargon. The burner kept firing with low water until the top of the boiler castings glow red, then warp, seals fail and finally the unmistakable acrid smell of hot cast iron. This is always catastrophic and the first thing we look for is the reddish, rust orange color and dusting on the top castings. More importantly is why does this always occur with a supposedly “automatic” water feeder, specifically a “float style” feeder?

    The “float style” feeder is easy to recognize, typically an external, black casting extending from the boiler near the water sight glass that indicates boiler water level. Note also that there is also a handle on or very near the device with an open pipe or port used to move water through the float chamber, flushing out sediment and residue. This is a much overlooked feature and maintenance requirement of a steam boiler. READ THE MANUAL — IT MUST BE DONE PERIODICALLY AS STATED! Unfortunately if the feeder is ultimately flushed, even then regularly, the damage may have already been done by the prior negligence. The sure test is to shut off the boiler water feed, drain down the boiler using the boiler drain at the bottom of the boiler until the low water switch cuts off the burner circuit. Refill the boiler “automatically” and verify its functionality. Then repeat the test.

    Alternatively speaking, an Electronic Immersion Probe Low Water Cutoff is a “no-contest” option. Not only does it note low water, interrupting burner operation but can provide additional features, depending upon the individual model such as accurate foaming compensation, “settled down” water level delay measurement before and during operation, water feeder control and control external alarms. On the minus side the immersion probe should be periodically cleaned per the manufacturer’s recommendation. This can be readily done on your service cycle when the technician checks boiler water condition. Note: Many manufacturers now provide the Float vs. Electronic Low Water Cutoff Option in new boiler offerings. There are two (2) major cutoff suppliers, Honeywell and Hydrolevel, the latter being our personal preference. They can and should be upgraded to minimize boiler damage potential.

    Along with this must be considered the external “Automatic Water Feeder” itself. There are again several functional variations offered, ranging from a “dumb” turn-on-turn-off valve to more sophisticated programmable devices that can adapt to any system water usage, condensate return patterns and elimination of the resulting potential boiler “flooding” conditions. We obviously prefer the latter type. It compensates for all conditions during installation and eliminates any unnecessary future service calls. Our personal preference again is the Hydrolevel VTX Series Automatic Water Feeders.

    In conclusion:

    1. If you’re upgrading by simply replacing a steam boiler, specify an Electronic Low Water Cutoff System.
    2. If your existing boiler has a “float style” cutoff — retrofit it to an Electronic Low Water Cutoff System.
    3. In either case, also consider a Programmable Automatic Water Feeder.

    Save the gambling for Las Vegas.


    Reviewing all of our installations in recent years, every customer has reported fuel usage reduction of 40% and more. Impressive — and yet humbling. More importantly is how we have achieved these and sharing our experiences with others.

    Predicting the economics of an energy efficiency product, whether you’re proposing insulation, window or heating upgrades is a difficult and potentially an “egg-in-your-face” task. It would seem that claims range from the modest to the scientifically unachievable, qualified only by the sales skill of the presenter. Ultimately, putting it down on paper is the only real documentation. Admittedly we are conservative as well, opting on the side of caution, but predictable. In reality all of the energy product upgrades in combination must be considered.

    It has also become apparent that we personally are in a niche market by default. The predominant activity of “swapping boilers” by dealers and service tradesmen eludes us. We seem to get the “tough ones”, and love it! This also provides us with a developed and unique skill-set to apply. Watching the online forums and fielding direct questioning reinforces this contention. Also consider that our commitment is to efficient, high-end hydronic (hot water) oil, propane and natural gas heating systems by Weil-McLain ONLY, and more specifically their Ultra Series. Reading our prior blogs on this website will clarify and further detail our activity.

    ALWAYS CONSIDER YOUR HEATING REQUIREMENTS AS PART OF A SYSTEM. By a system we mean all of your energy requirements, typically heating (and cooling), domestic hot water, pool heating, spas, etc. Firstly,

    1. You must define where you are now, heating-wise
    2. Where do you intend to go, then
    3. How are you to get there?

    In simplistic terms, your heated space is a “box” to be maintained at a comfortable temperature regardless of external influence. The influences to the “box”, in general order of importance are:

    1. Infiltration: Air leakage is the most significant robber, moving both warmed and exterior air into and out of the structure. Seal these as much as possible. The technical measure is ACH (Air Changes per Hour) and is difficult to field measure, requiring substantial equipment. An ACH of 1 is considered good, 2 or more poor and below 1/2 or so requiring air exchange. Things can get too tight — and unhealthy!
    2. Cap Insulation: Heat rises and consequently the ceiling level temperatures and hence losses are significant.
    3. Windows & Doors: Energy efficiency of these has improved significantly in the last 25 years or so and can substantially improve things. Note that Infiltration (No. 1) is a significant consideration of these as well.
    4. Sidewall Insulation: The remainder of the vertical heated exterior wall structure.
    5. Sills and Floors: Tightened structure to the ground (and below) level, including basement windows & doors.

    To determine where you are (or plan to go) requires measuring the “box”, hence using a Heating Loss Calculator.  (Refer to our prior blog on its use.) In so doing you can “play the numbers” by changing values therein to determine effect(s) and hence a strategy. This is the standard tool of Heating Professionals and some free software is available on-line. Don’t let it scare you. If you can use a measuring tape, fill out a form or translate a recipe you’ve got it made. If you’re still bashful let that geek kid loose at it.

    The Heating Calculator not only tells you where you are but where you are going, as prior mentioned. Remaining then is how do we get there?

    AGAIN OUR TENET: ALWAYS CONSIDER YOUR HEATING REQUIREMENTS AS PART OF A SYSTEM. You have many tools to work with, not just replacing a boiler or a furnace to satisfy all of your energy requirements. Again consider ALL available tools to meet your heat energy requirements and maximize efficiency. Generally, they are:

    1. Furnace — A fuel fired appliance that heats and circulates warmed air to maintain comfort.
    2. Space or Unit Heater — A self-contained gas or oil-fired heated air appliance dedicated to a room area.
    3. Air Handler — A furnace that utilizes an internal heater (electric, hot water or steam) supplied by an external energy source (wired or piped to it).
    4. Boiler — A fuel fired appliance that heats and circulates heated water (or steam) through radiation to maintain comfort.
    5. Heat Exchanger — A device to transfer heat from a differing medium to another without mixing and therefore isolating them. (Useful for special environment applications and situations that we will detail.)
    6. Tankless Heater — A coil immersed internally into a boiler to also provide domestic hot water service.
    7. Indirect Heater — A detached water storage tank heated by a boiler to provide domestic hot water service.
    8. Demand (Instantaneous) Heater — A gas-fired appliance that heats domestic water on demand (no storage).
    9. (Common) Water Heater —- A fuel fired (electric, gas or oil) appliance that heats domestic hot water directly.

    As you review your requirements in lieu of these tools, you will note that there are two (2) distinct scenarios:

    1. Separate appliances for heating and hot water. (A furnace or space heaters with separate demand or common water heaters in combination to suit your local and peculiar fuel economics.)
    2. A combination system utilizing a single fuel source boiler providing all demands.

    First, determine fuel selection. Referring to our other blogs you will note that we are in the higher heating demand New England, and are further restricted by available fuel options and economics. Briefly, in cost order:

    1. Electric rates are very high and not considered for efficient area or domestic hot water heating.
    2. Propane (LP) is generally available but of significantly higher cost as a heating fuel. It is considered a fuel-of-choice, typically providing cooking and/or hot water requirements.
    3. Natural gas has limited availability but is currently the lowest cost heating fuel option. Where available, its choice is obvious with a single caution: Get an actual billing estimate! As a distributed fuel (like electricity) its total delivered cost will be higher than the mere cost of the “fuel”.
    4. Fuel oil is predominant and is a low cost option, competing with natural gas only. Note: Heat pumps, photovoltaic, geothermal, wind and solar are very economically protracted options and not considered currently competitive.

    Scenario 1 (FHA Furnace & Separate Water Heater) can be well executed particularly where natural gas is available and used in “Demand Appliances” i.e. Condensing Gas Furnaces @ 95% and “On-Demand” Water Heaters @ 83%. Propane (LP) efficiencies are of course similar, but at a significant fuel cost premium.

    Scenario 2 (Single-source FHW Boiler) offers the most viable option both economically and physically and is the basis for our system configurations. Selecting the most cost-effective fuel, an efficient appliance to convert, the best medium to distribute and the appropriate devices to transfer energy equate to a “win-win” solution. Using water as the heating medium is ideal for efficient and flexible distribution. Specifically:

    1. A Condensing Gas Boiler @ 93+% or a Triple-Pass Oil Boiler @ 87% providing the heated water.
    2. An Indirect Water Heater providing Domestic Hot Water efficiently and on-demand.
    3. Conventional Radiation to warm full usage areas.
    4. An Air Handler to adapt existing FHA (Forced Hot Air) ducting and distribution without alteration, or to heat an occasional usage area where cold and/or freezing is not detrimental in the off-use cycle.
    5. A “Plate” Heat Exchanger to adapt heated water to physical conditions:
      • Freezing applications such as deep cold areas, selective seasonal shutdowns, snow removal and some pool applications by using glycerol (anti-freeze) as a medium without passing it through the boiler.
      • Adapting zero-pressure sources (steam and exterior wood boilers) to deliver to pressurized systems.
      • Couple a cold-environment source such as an external Solid Fuel Boiler (Wood/Coal/Corn/Peat, etc.) to hydronic (hot water) distribution.

    Existing Systems vary widely in configuration and so must be approached individually. However there are a few distinct patterns and approaches:

    1. The existing Scenario 1 above, i.e. a Forced Hot Air System and Conventional Water Heater. Consider a High-Efficiency Boiler, an Air Handler and Indirect Water Heater combination. This is typically a one-step option — all or nothing vs. individual unit upgrades.
    2. Let’s call this Scenario 2A. An older, inefficient boiler system in poor condition and in need of replacement. Upgrade in entirety when the existing boiler (the high-ticket item) is in jeopardy and fuel efficiency is poor.
    3. Scenario 2B is an existing stand-alone boiler in fair shape with either an internal Tankless Heater or a detached Conventional Water Heater. This common combination offers a step approach to higher efficiency. Consider replacing your Domestic Hot Water Source (Internal Coil or separate Heater) with an Indirect Water Heater and converting your boiler to a “Cold-Start”, On-Demand System. This requires additional plumbing and wiring but you now have attained most efficiency gains minus the boiler efficiency gain itself. Stand-by heat losses are now minimized. You’ll love the savings.

    A story to make our point. We replaced an old, terribly over-sized boiler recently with raves from the customer — with one exception. An adult daughter had moved into an open room next to the “Old Dragon” in the basement. Now she is cold. The next step is to finish off the basement and provide heat only where it is needed (and more efficiently).

    This analogy brings us to our last point. As you make energy improvements to a structure you do two (2) things:

    1. You improve its energy efficiency, the desired result. But,
    2. You also effectively increasingly oversize your boiler for your heating application, an undesirable result. Considering that the Old Dragon was likely over-sized by practice initially, you are now incurring very substantial “stand-by losses”. These energy losses up the chimney, into the surrounding area and poorer energy conversion become substantial indeed, inviting the greater improvement opportunity. Change the boiler.

    We trust this is of some help to you in assessing your energy needs and determining a course of action.

    Last Edit: 10/12/2012 pdm