The three (3) basic elements of hydronic heating are heat generation (boiler), distribution of energy (pumps) and conversion to area warmth (radiation). Of these hydronic distribution is typically the least understood, generally misapplied and desperately needs revisiting!
What is a Gravity Heating System? A century ago all water-based hydronic heating (hot water and steam) employed the natural gravity attributes of heated water and water vapor (steam) to distribute energy. NO DISTRIBUTION ENERGY WAS REQUIRED! These were effectively single-zone systems that could only be modulated by varying the energy input of the boiler and the radiation outputs using register dampers or steam radiator vents, respectively. Natural (gravity) convection of heated water underlies all hydronic distribution, yet is never considered in contemporary practice. So, check-valving is installed to negate its less desired effects.
The introduction of electric circulation pumps in the 1920’s enabled forced hot water heating (FHW) and changed hydronics forever. Gone was the large, pitched piping and radiators, replaced with zoned heating and finned radiation. The heating market never looked back, and justifiably so. Lost however was “free” natural gravity convection effect that now had to be also controlled by using check-valving within the system.
Early electric circulation pumps (circulators) were large, power consumptive and constructed of discrete components, i.e. motor to coupling to pump. We “old-timers” have vivid memories of failed couplings of varied types, seized and leaking pumps and smoked motors. The advent of wet-rotor circulators was like manna from heaven, reducing circulator issues with greater longevity and reduced power consumption benefits.
Now the evolution to and introduction of in particular Delta-T (differential temperature sensing) ECM Circulators projects hydronic distribution management to an entirely new level. Additionally, the inherent integral instrumentation features and operational data display of delta-t circulators also provide us with finite attribute identification and application control.
The focus of our work has been to optimize the innate, but hidden contribution of natural gravity convection as both a distribution energy saver and a selective fail-mode feature in hydronic heating. As such the Delta-T ECM Circulator has been the crucial tool in the development of our “Neo-Gravity Delta-T ECM Hydronic (FHW) Heating Appliance™” (U.S. Patent 10,690,356, Canada to follow). We claim optimization of natural gravity convection within our boiler, near-boiler distribution piping with distribution energy requirements using a single, dedicated Delta-T ECM Appliance Circulator. Citing an automotive analogy, we refer to it as “putting an Automatic Transmission on a Boiler™”. This intelligent, variable speed circulator is effectively a hydronic CVT (Continuously Variable-Speed Transmission) in practice.
Let’s go back again to that old gravity hot water heating system of a century ago. By comparison, contemporary hydronic heating systems have smaller piping with multiple zones for heating flexibility. The old “gravities” employed high-mass cast-iron boilers with larger piping to modulate heating supply, otherwise control was particularly difficult when using solid fuel firing such as with wood or coal. Generous boiler sizing, distribution piping sizes and radiation elements gravity convection worked fairly well, and again with NO distribution power requirements!
Properly piping a contemporary FHW system using a dedicated “Delta-T Mode” system circulator with complimentary low-energy ball-type zone valves vs. flow-checks yields great results! Transpose this onto the old gravity system layout and you functionally emulate its performance as depicted in the following figures.
The advantage is in applying natural gravity circulation (aka “free energy) to the contemporary upgrade. We have seemingly lost all trade skills in managing or enhancing gravity convection. No consideration is ever given to pitching, compacting and minimizing distribution piping in particular to advantage “Mother Nature”. Additional gains are available in radiation layout by using properly sized and configured perimeter series and/or split radiation loops. The 45° elbow fitting for example saves 30% of piping and reduces head pressure significantly over a 90° elbow run. All this increased pipe volume and head pressure reduces the natural gravitational convection effect, not to mention increasing materials, labor and lifetime energy and maintenance operating costs of the system.
Our Delta-T Mode Circulator measures this head effect well via its wattage indicator. All of our single, dedicated system circulator Beta Site installs (currently up to 3,000 sq. ft. structures) exhibit an 8 to 13 watt distribution power consumption with typical 4 GPM flow upon a 20° delta-t (adjustable) differential attainment. Compare this to 80 watts minimum for each contemporary fixed-speed circulator. With delta-t stabilization established, you then witness circulation wattage steadily decay to half or less as natural convection contributes. We refer to this effect like “paddling your canoe with the current”. Takes a lot less effort ….. and power!
A secondary effect of gravity convection seems to be radiation heating profile modification, smoothing demand amplitude variation and increasing comfort. Some of the extended fuel savings we observe and the delta-t manufacturer claims seem to be due largely to this radiation profiling effect. Another contributor is the lowered system operating temperatures of using a very high mass cast-iron boiler vs. contemporary low-mass units. Burner operation cycles are significantly less frequent than the systems they replace, increasing component lives and lowering maintenance costs.
A personal cast-iron boiler observation: This author has never replaced a “cold shot” cracked or magnetite impaired cast-iron boiler in over sixty-five years of hydronic and steam installations! Perhaps a discussion for another day, but have we also “thrown the baby (cast-iron boiler) out with the bath water” to cite the old adage? Commentary in the recent 2019 Annual Boiler Report would seem to support our contention. Read our “reading between the lines” blog on this report.
Finally, the combination of higher boiler thermal mass with enhanced gravity convection extends selective fail-mode heating continuity substantially. Recently and four years prior our Beta Site #3 experienced a fail-safe circulator interruption. The latter an over-current condition from a voltage surge “fail-safed” its operation. In both instances the condition was not discovered for an estimated 2 to 3 days, despite significant heating demand. Neither living area heating nor indirect DHW generation were affected. Second level heating reduction was eventually noted, as it was prior. The customer called and we reset the power switch over the phone to resolve. It is also noteworthy that we have had no system related service calls in over forty aggregated-operating-years and 100,000 operating-hours on our multiple Appliance Beta Sites!
In closing, the contemporary excesses and misapplication of hydronic distribution are troubling to this author. If tradesmen are promoting their prolific system distribution piping efforts as efficiency measures they are most sorely misdirected and possibly even deceitful. Witnessing customers proudly showcasing excessively installed systems or trade supplier contests for the “prettiest system” installation pics are also particularly disconcerting. Trade practices and hence consumer perceptions need challenging. Are we selling parts and labor ….. or performance?
Perhaps it is time for our engineered “appliance” approach to rein in “The Plumber’s Playground©”.
Updated 12/11/2021 P.D.M., Sr.