Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Advice On Picking A New Boiler Brand

I've read the sticky on the heatloss calcutions and done some basic research for replacing our 1983 Weil-McLain boiler. We have a few good bids in the $5,500 range from some top rated Angie's List companies, and they are all within a few hundred dollars of each other and all seem like good, trustworthy companies.
However, I still have a few questions I can't find any easy answers to and wondering if anybody here has some advice.
1. Does the brand or model really matter?
My main concern here is whether one brand or model is going to be noticeably louder than another, and whether the long-term service and cleaning expenses will be dramatically more for one brand vs. another.
All of the local companies seem to sell only one preferred brand, and I can not find any place on the web to find objective info on one brand versus another. My gut tells me they are pretty much the same, but then again, one guy told us our current boiler brand (1983) was very, very difficult to clean compared to other brands and gave us a $1,200 estimate for cleaning. If I can choose now I'd obviously prefer a unit that will be cheaper to clean in 10 years.
(For the record, our two favorite estimates sell the Crown Aruba 3 and whatever the comparable Burhnam model is (I forget). Given the negligible price difference we obviously want to choose the best, quietest, least expensive to maintain unit.)
2. Should we install an indirect water heater at the same time?
Of our 3 estimates so far, only one even mentioned the idea of replacing our water heater (also very old) at the same time with an indirect heater powered by the furnace. This seems smart, but what do I know? I'm wondering if it is an option on all or most brands, or if the other two reps did not mention it because their brand of boiler does not support it? Also is it something you can add later or is it dumb not to do it at the time of install?
3. Is it okay and/or normal to go with 80% efficiency?
I always assumed that most new furnaces were of the high efficiency variety, but when inquiring about a local energy rebate we were told that we would not qualify because our unit would only be rated at 80% efficiency. The sales rep said a 90% unit would it double the quoted price AND result in much higher long-term costs due to the annual service required. The doubling in price is due to the fact everything would have to be moved and re-piped so that it could vent outside instead of out the roof.
Just want to verify that this seems like legit reasoning . . .
Thanks for any help!

The very first thing you should do is a heat loss calculation. It is very common for boilers to be 2-3 times as large as need be.
Read this sticky:
After doing the heat loss, please come back we'll be glad to help where we can.

1. Does the brand or model really matter?
Brand matters, so does model. Some are easier to maintain and clean than others. However, the thing that matters most is the installer. Even the best equipment in the hands of a hack can quickly be turned into inefficient junk. Somewhere around here is a somewhat recent thread by ladygolfer that has a bunch of tips for shopping for an installer.
So you want a good product, but you also want an installer who stands behind his work and will be there for future service/maintenance.
2. Should we install an indirect water heater at the same time?
There is not a better time to do this than new boiler time. Indirects are among the most efficient ways to heat domestic hot water.
3. Is it okay and/or normal to go with 80% efficiency?
These days, I would say absolutely not. 80% efficiency boilers are dinosaurs. Given how rapidly fuel prices are increasing, the payback on the added cost for a 93+% efficiency boiler is fairly short (7 years, perhaps even as short as 4).
Yes, they cost more. Yes, they require annual service (the cost of which takes a small bite out of the annual savings). However, a good boiler is a long-term appliance decision. You don't like the 80% unit in five years, you're stuck for another 15 years due to the huge cost of replacing it (again). Either way, it's money up the chimney....
IMHO, it's worth it up front for a high-efficiency boiler for real savings down the road.
There are also some very good rebates and other incentives for going with the higher efficiency units. Check out DSIRE: DSIRE Home for a list of federal and state incentives, as well as utility rebates that apply to you. Note that the federal energy efficiency tax credit is returning in 2009 (it was reauthorized in the financial bailout legislation, of all things...). Here in MA, for example, you can get a $1000 utility rebate for a high-efficiency boiler, $300 for an indirect, $25 for each new thermostat, and a bunch of other stuff.
If the installers you like suggest Crown or Burnham, ask for a quote on a Burnham Alpine or a Crown Bimini. (FWIW, I'd go with the Alpine over the Bimini.)
But first, do or have done a heat loss for the house, and figure out approximately what size indirect you need/want. Keep searching around here. There's threads on all this stuff.
Plenty of opinions here on installer model/brand and other options (zoning, pumps vs. valves, tempering the indirect output, etc. etc.) when it comes to the nitty-gritty of installation specs. Good luck and keep asking questions.

Thanks for your very detailed response.
1. For the installer, we have picked three that get excellent reviews on Angie's List and who have been in our local market for decades. We would be happy with any of them. Now it is a matter of picking the one with the better brand and model:
a. Crown Aruba III -- 80% efficiency
b. Burnham boiler -- 85% efficiency (not sure of model, will check it out)
(ETA: still waiting on a call but based on specs I'm assuming it is either the Model SCG gas water boiler or the Model PVG gas water boiler.)
c. (?) still waiting on the actual brand and model from candidate 3
I'm assuming that all other things being equal, the Burnham is the better choice unless it costs twice as much to maintain or something or is noticeably louder.
2. All of our estimators seemed to agree that we may be opening up a large can of worms by re-piping and moving things around for a 90% efficient model, and none of them seemed very enthusiastic about the idea. We live an a house built in 1922, with the boiler in the direct center of the basement venting out the roof three stories above.
Do you still think we are crazy not to pursue a 90% model, or is the 85% Burnham mentioned above good enough?
ETA: I checked that site you linked, and for boilers, anything over 80% qualifies for the $200 incentive (not much, but still). So the Burham at 85% would qualify . . .
3. All three have agreed to do a heat loss calculation prior to the actual install so I'm not worried there.
Mainly just worried about getting the best boiler for the best price at this point, and whether to push harder on the high efficiency question.
Thanks again -- very helpful to get advice from people are not also trying to sell me one of these puppies.

I do have one quick follow-up for anybody still reading:
One of the installers (for the Crown Aruba III) included an outdoor temp sensor in his bid, which he says will help compensate for the lower efficiency. Basically he described it as a way to regulate how hard the boiler has to work, based on the actual temperature outside.
Are these common and/or recommended?
Only one of the three even mentioned it as an option, which leads me to wonder.

Outdoor temp sensor likely means outdoor reset. He has my attention. Search around the forum for more discussion on this. Also known as ODR.
If you don't want to get into the serious repiping and venting, you might also consider the Burnham Revolution (RV-4). It has built-in piping to take advantage of a greater range of outdoor reset supply water temperatures and will easily integrate with existing near-boiler piping. Not huge flexibility in venting, but pretty good.
IMHO, it is worth it to look very seriously at the higher-efficiency boilers (modulating/condensing gas boilers). Even to the point of costing out a full install and comparing the added up front cost to the savings over the years, using a fuel price increase of some % per year. It adds up.
Plenty of old houses around here, including ones more than 100 years older than your place, with high-efficiency systems. It's not hard, but complexity and time to upgrade is a strong function of the specifics of your house and existing system. It does cost, but again, consider how the economics work out in your situation.

The installer we are leaning toward is a well-known local company in business since the 1940s still run by the same family. I spoke with the owner for half an hour just now, and he lives in the same bitter cold part of Minneapolis that we do.
He recommends:
1. Burnham Series 2 (84% efficiency) -- $5,800 installed minus $200 rebate sized to fit after a heat loss calculation that he will do personally. He says that this is the exact model he has in his house, and that they are proven beasts in terms of reliability and easy maintenance. He says that they rarely install the high efficiency boilers in homes in this market, because they break down frequently and require much more maintenance. His basic argument is that if everything goes perfect then the HE units are great. But if anything goes wrong, you can quickly lose your savings. Therefore they always recommend the tried and proven Series 2 with less moving parts, easier to fix and clean, less potential for breakdown.
2. No outdoor reset. He says they usually only install these in apartment buildings and 2-3 plexes, and that the cost and potential for problems are not worth it in most single unit homes. He also said it means that the boiler is always on and therefore cancels out the efficiencies unless you are in a zoned situation like a triplex.
3. Amtrol Boilermate 41 gallon indirect water heater -- $3,600 installed He said he has this same set-up in his home, and that we can do it later if we don't want to commit right now.
My final question to him will be to find who will supervise the actual install, but otherwise does this seem reasonable? It is $400 higher than another bid, but with a better furnace and a I guy that I trust more.
ETA: This same company is the one we called for our last winter check-up and also who we called when our furnace went out the other night, precipitating this situation. I left a voice mail on their machine Sunday night at 10:30, and my phone rang at 7:00 on Monday morning and a tech was here by 7:30. They did not charge us with the service call fee, due to the fact that it was the same problem they had been out to fix a month earlier. So I already feel like they are treating us right . . .

Would like to have a Buderus GB142 installed, but worry about water chemistry problems in the cast aluminum heat exchanger. Have any forum readers experienced any such problems? If so, how were they resolved.
My other selection would be the Buderus GA124 Sealed Combustion. Any options, comments on either choice.

The series two is the least efficient boiler sold by Burnham. The SCG or PVG would be a better choice. With a home as old as yours you probably have cast iron radiation. This makes the 90%+ efficiency boilers a better choice. The New 90+ boilers include ODR which is a good application for all boiler jobs larger or small.
I would avoid chimney vented boiler as the sidewall vented boilers are more efficient.
The heat loss is the most important step here. They need to do the heat loss first to get a proper bid.

Tags: advice, picking, boiler, brand, heat loss, brand model, water heater, around here, better choice, Crown Aruba, efficiency boilers, heat loss calculation, high efficiency