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boiler tips

They may not be the most common heating systems in the Baltimore and Dover area, but when well cared for, boilers can keep you as warm as any furnace. While boiler operation and boiler maintenance are different from running and maintaining a furnace, much of the basics are still something you as a homeowner can handle. Read on to learn more about boiler operation and boiler maintenance in your home. 

Boiler Inspection

At this point in the year, you've likely already started up your home's boiler system, and it's been running for several months now. However, you may not have given it a good inspection when you started it up at the beginning of the season. If not, now is a good time to give it a good once-over before the coldest part of the year begins. Here are some steps to follow: 

  • Perform a visual inspection – Look the whole boiler system over for cracks, dents, loose joints or anything else that may be damaged or out of place. Also keep an eye out for leaking water, which could indicate a hidden crack. Using a flashlight can help you find irregularities you might miss in a dimly lit basement.
  • Inspect for good airflow – Take a look at the boiler's ventilation openings. Are they clear of dirt and debris? Next check the combustion air openings and the louvers covering them. These, too, should be clear of any debris to allow sufficient air to flow through.
  • Test the stack damper – A boiler's stack damper is a cylindrical device attached to the exhaust flue pipe. Its job is to regulate draft pressure. Make sure it isn't stuck, wired shut or otherwise difficult to open. A stack damper that doesn't open freely can cause excess pressure to back up.
  • Check the water level – Look at the boiler's water gauge or water level indicator to be sure the equipment contains a sufficient amount of water. If there's too much or too little, you'll need to drain some or add more for optimal boiler operation.
  • Look at the manual fuel valves – These valves should be shut while the heating equipment is taking its summer break. When you're ready to start the boiler up again, however, make sure the valves are open.
  • Inspect flue passes – Check around the fuel-burning components and the boiler's flue for any fuel residue. Clean all residue before starting up the system.
  • Look for foreign objects – Over time, anything from dirt and leaves to kids' toys could have fallen onto or near the boiler. Because this equipment reaches high temperatures, such items are fire hazards. Do a quick check to be sure there's nothing around that boiler that shouldn't be there.

Starting the Boiler

Once you're sure the boiler is clean, in good repair, and ready to begin the heating season, it's time to start the system back up. Water boilers require different startup procedures from steam boilers, and these procedures vary from model to model. For the exact procedure you should follow, you'll need to consult your owner's manual. 

There is, however, a startup sequence that's typical for most boilers. The procedure below will give you an idea of what starting a steam boiler entails.

  • Start the draft fans – Running these fans first clears out any leftover fuel or exhaust fumes.
  • Close the slides – The only slide panel open should be the one where the main burner will be lit.  
  • Light the burner – The main burner should be lit to a low firing rate.
  • Adjust the fuel flow – The flow of fuel should be optimized for the fan speed. You'll know they're correctly matched when you see the burner flame burn steadily.
  • Close the header vents – The superheater header vents should be closed once the boiler has started up and steam is flowing from the superheater vents.
  • Close the air drum vents – The air vents on the boiler drum should be closed immediately when the pressure reaches a point specified by the manufacturer.
  • Adjust the pressure – Bring the working pressure up slowly. A rapid pressure increase can damage the boiler.
  • Close the drains – Wait for the main and auxiliary steam lines to warm up, then close the drains.
  • Close the superheater circulatory valves – These valves should be closed once the boiler is running at the correct operating pressure. Other vents and drains should be closed at this point, as well.

Boiler Maintenance

With the boiler back up and running, you'll need to check on it periodically to catch any developing problems.

  • Check the pressure – At least once a month, take a look at the pressure gauge to make sure it's within the manufacturer's recommended range. Incorrect pressure should never be ignored.

    Low pressure could indicate a leak, while high pressure suggests the system is overheating. Your owner's manual should provide guidelines for how to address pressure problems. If you can't solve the problem on your own, contact a heating and cooling technician.

  • Keep an eye out for leaks – After you've checked the pressure, look around for trickles of water or wet patches. Evidence of even a minor leak should be addressed immediately because a small leak can become a big one overnight.
  • Clean up the area – Foreign objects are just as likely to accumulate around the boiler in winter as they are during summer. During your monthly inspection, look around for any items that could catch fire, including papers, furniture, spray cans and gas cans. Try to keep an area of several feet away from the boiler completely clear.
  • Schedule a regular professional inspection – Your home's boiler should be inspected by an HVAC professional every year, preferably before the heating season begins. Although September and October are ideal times, December still isn't too late if you haven't done it already. Alternatively, consider scheduling an annual boiler inspection for the end of the cooling season in late spring. This is a somewhat less busy time for heating and cooling professionals, so you'll have an easier time getting an appointment with your preferred technician.

Is It Time for a New Boiler?

The average boiler has a life expectancy of between 15 to 25 years. As it reaches the end of that period, however, a boiler may start to run less efficiently and have more frequent breakdowns. To avoid a sudden breakdown on a cold winter night, it's wise to start looking for a new boiler before you're forced to replace yours. If you're wondering whether or not to upgrade your home's heating system, there are a few signs to look for.

  • Your boiler has a standing pilot light – This isn't a problem in itself, but a standing (constantly burning) pilot light does mean your system is an older, mid- or low-efficiency model. Modern boilers have ignition systems that save energy by not using fuel to run a pilot light when it's not needed, in addition to other energy-saving features. Upgrading to a modern system will almost certainly lower your heating bills.
  • Your boiler gives off a lot of heat – If the boiler room or the area around the boiler is uncomfortably warm, it's a sign your system has high "idle losses." That means it's running inefficiently because it's losing heat to the surrounding area instead of sending that heat toward your rooms. A new system will run without such high energy losses.
  • Your boiler turns on and off frequently – Known as "short-cycling," this problem happens when the boiler is too large for the home. It impairs the system's overall efficiency and places excess wear on the components. If your boiler is already old, you'll benefit from replacing it with a new, correctly sized system.

If you're having trouble with the boiler in your home, need professional boiler maintenance or are interested in upgrading to a new model, contact Griffith Energy Services. We provide friendly, reliable services around the Baltimore, Hagerstown and Manassas areas, as well as in Dover, Delaware, and Martinsburg, West Virginia.

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