Yes, we have an oil-wood (or coal) central heating system in our home that can fully function without ANY electrical power through outages and uses less power in normal operation as well. How? Gravity induced convection heating. It was initially installed in 1975 and been incrementally improved to date.
We are unabashedly Weil-McLain Heating System Designers and Installers. This does not mean however that we kowtow to the heating fuel suppliers and pay-as-we-go! Living in rural, frosty New Hampshire our economic fuel options are limited to oil and wood only. (Propane is a substantial premium and Natural Gas is not available.) So it is not surprising that many of us use wood or a mix of fuels to survive economically. Therefore, wood, wood pellet, coal stoves and wood boilers.
Particular evidence of this heating trend is the recent popularity of external wood boilers (Metal Storage Sheds with a smokestack sticking up out of them) that occupy many rural yards, next to a large woodpile. (Not to mention the well worn path from the house to the wood boiler!) As a facet of our enterprise we mention interfacing our Weil-McLain FHW Boilers and converting our Steam Boilers to accommodate them. Not surprisingly we get inquiries by sometimes frustrated users to assist in making the wood boiler work well with their central heating boiler. The stories can be a bit humorous, in fact.
Let us first describe our subject system with the intent to provide you with the principles and applications we employed and from which you may benefit in your application(s).
We have two (2) single-fuel boilers, centrally located in the basement level of a large split entry home that we built in 1970:
- A Weil-McLain Model 568 Oil-Fired Boiler, installed in 1995 and subsequently “tweaked” for performance.
- A 1935 Vintage National Heating Co. Economy No. 64 Wood Burner. Found, reconditioned and installed in 1975. A museum-piece that still runs very well.
- A 40 gallon “Hot Roc” Stone-lined Storage Tank coupled to the Old National that prevents a boil-off if it is overcharged with wood or used (carefully) for extra hot water (heating) storage.
These boilers are commonly coupled to an overhead supply manifold and on-the-floor piping between return manifolds, physically separated by ten (10) feet. This layout provides for a simple, pure convection loop between them. NO CIRCULATOR IS REQUIRED!
There are three (3) circulator driven heating zones off the Weil-McLain manifolds. These are FloChek Valved off the upper supply manifold with circulators on the return manifold.
The two (2) upper (main) level Living and Bedroom Area Zones are of Split Loop Configuration (reference our recent subject blog for detail) and the lower level Office and Garage Loops are a Split Perimeter and Unit Heater configuration, respectively.
Gravity Hot Water Central Heating has been around for over 150 years but was never too popular due to its restrictive design attributes. It is functionally a single zone, single level system where building characteristics allow. There is significant lag in response to a temperature change demand and if boiler control is not absolute, temperature control suffers as well. Nonetheless, where and when you can employ convective heating it can be beneficial from a distribution energy perspective (or a lack of it available).
Our Split Loops are fed by 1” center tapped supplies and returns that feed conventional series 3/4” radiation loops on each halves. The loops are configured with conventional 1” FloChek, manually controllable seat, opening valves on the supply manifold taps. These FloChek Valves are always included in a hydronic (hot water) system to prevent natural continuous convective heating. If one fails you have continual heating in degree regardless of thermostat setting. Note: FloChek valves may also be incorporated within a supply side circulator.
So we can use natural convective heating to our advantage. By employing a modest upward pitch to our Split Loop supply and return lines we augment gravity convection (hotter water rises, cooler water sinks) and opening the FloChek valves we have a “controllable” energy-free heating zone. The adjective “controllable” has to be qualified by trial and error settings over varying indoor and outdoor temperature demands.
Let’s go through the four (4) Operational Modes available in our system:
- Powered, Oil-fired FHW “conventional” heating only.
- Powered, Oil and Wood-fired dual fuel heating.
- Powered Wood-fired heating only.
- Powerless Wood-fired heating.
Powered, Oil-fired FHW “conventional” heating mode is conventional in all regards. There is an “open on rise” aquastat (adjustable) on the wood boiler that performs two (2) functions:
- Inhibits the oil burner boiler primary control when the wood boiler temperature setting is reached.
- Opens a motorized valve to enable the inter-boiler convection loop to operate.
“Set it and forget it” applies.
Powered, Oil and Wood-fired dual fuel heating is enabled when the wood boiler aquastat engages and disengages the oil burner and the convection loop valve as wood burning proceeds. There is a second aquastat on the wood boiler supply pipe that “closes on rise” as water temperature approaches the boiling point (set at 200F). It opens a zone valve that initiates a second close-coupled convective loop allowing room temperature (or above) water in the “Hot Roc” Tank to temper the boiler water temperature. So if you overfill the wood boiler and walk away there is no consequence. Works beautifully! This feature is referred to as a “Dumping Zone” – getting rid of the excess energy.
Powered Wood-fired heating only operation is similar to the oil and wood mode excepting the oil burner is fully disabled by moving the wood boiler aquastat to its lowest setting nearing ambient room (and therefore water) temperature. We have another option on our particular oil burner primary control of a built-in switch-off feature. (A common switch could also be employed to open this wood boiler aquastat to primary control circuit.)
Powerless Wood-fired heating is merely emulating the operation of the powered mode while adjusting FloChek Valves on your heating zones and maintaining your wood boiler temperature range. In fact you can strike a boiler charging pattern that can free you from full-time babysitting the “dragon”. Our Samson 5D (Expansion Slug Type) Boiler Controller will maintain a temperature setting reasonably well on the Old National excepting when you seriously overcharge the beast — then things start happening! When the pipes start banging you have to “expeditiously” open the “Dump Zone” Tank Valve manually to temper it down. You learn this lesson in a hurry!
To summarize, we used the wood only mode (powered and powerless) continuously for nine (9) consecutive years, providing full-home corner to corner heating and providing our domestic hot water for our large family. (The summer season requires a little lifestyle scheduling.) Annual wood consumption was four (4) to four and a half (4-1/2) cords per year.
Since that time our lifestyle changes have precluded wood-only operation, but it’s there if we need it. Evidencing a severe ice storm a couple years ago that crippled most of New England for over a week, it was a mere inconvenience to us.
Unfortunately gravity convection heating has little applicability to the current external wood boiler rage. They require electrical power for operation. The internal wood boiler is another matter, such as is employed in our case. Hopefully some of our experience can be used in configuring your system or trimming a little operating cost from it.
Author’s Update: 11/28/2020
We have incorporated our gravity heating experience into what we believe to be the first, practical, efficient and affordable pre-built “Neo-Gravity Delta-T ECM Hydronic Heating Appliance”. An extensive U.S. Patent 10,690,356 was issued to us on 06/23/2020 with all our Fourteen (14) Claims allowed. A Canadian Patent is to follow. Check it out at BoilersOnDemand.com.