The new residential boiler efficiency standards just went into effect in September, with gas-fired hot water boilers now having to be a minimum of 82 percent AFUE. Other changes required with this slight increase in efficiency is the elimination of a standing pilot, as well as an automatic means to adjust the temperature of the water based on the demand load (often accomplished through the use of an outdoor air reset control).

Many in the industry are welcoming these modifications, noting that sales of higher efficiency boilers have been trending up, so homeowners are already expressing interest in better efficiency. In addition, the changes are small enough that they should not result in large price increases that could cause sticker shock for consumers. And any change in price, noted manufacturers, should be more than offset by decreased operating costs for consumers.

A Good Start

The new boiler standards have been a long time coming, and manufacturers have had a lot of time to prepare. As Mike Hook, marketing communications specialist, U.S. Boiler Co., noted, “Our company didn’t have to raise prices significantly due to these changes, as we already had a control strategy in place that was easily adaptable to the new efficiency standards.”

Hook is a fan of the new standards, noting that he believes they will be good for the industry. “These mandates require that older, less efficient products will no longer be available and will be replaced with those that have better efficiencies, as well as more efficient operation overall (e.g., no standing pilots).”

Ian Lindsay, director of product management, Viessmann, believes the new standards are a step in the right direction, but he notes that they are not likely going to have a major impact on the industry. “It’s more the fact that the cost difference will be reduced between the noncondensing boilers (with outdoor air reset and no standing pilot) and the condensing boilers in the marketplace. Anything that decreases the cost differential between the two technologies makes it easier for the contractor to upsell the benefits and justify the higher cost of a condensing boiler to the end user. To really change the face of the industry would require a program similar to that put in place in the United Kingdom in 2005, which legislated the use of condensing technology.”

While condensing boilers may not yet be mandated in the U.S., they are a definite benefit for homeowners, said Jeff Vallett II, product manager, Lochinvar LLC. “If a 20-year-old boiler is replaced with a new modulating condensing boiler, the user will be surprised by the amount of fuel savings the new boiler delivers. In addition, that user will probably be amazed at how quiet the boiler operates, how much less space is required for installation, and how easy the boiler is to operate.”

While end users are leaning towards high-efficiency condensing boilers, said Lindsay, they are looking at the various levels of equipment available before choosing what unit to have installed.

“Without a doubt, the economy is weighing on the minds of the consumers. Whether the concern is in regards to employment stability in the home or availability of funding or credit for large-ticket items, homeowners are thinking twice before investing in a completely new system versus repairing and waiting out one more winter. Federal and state incentives for condensing boilers helped to alleviate some of the costs through 2009 and 2010, but with much of that now gone, the decision is harder to make.”

In the end, boiler replacement is still based on need rather than desire, noted Hook, and it’s just not a purchase that people want to make unless they absolutely need to do so. “We have seen a significant uptick in high-efficiency (85 percent) cast iron gas boiler sales over the past two years. However, we feel that is something of a reaction to price (less than a condensing boiler), as well as the removal of the federal rebates for ultra-high efficiency boiler upgrades.”

Not Your Father’s Boiler

Today’s boilers bear little resemblance to those from yesteryear, as most have much smaller footprints and many can even be hung on a wall. Combination boiler/water heaters are also becoming more popular in the industry, as they free up space that would otherwise be taken up by a separate boiler and water heater.

“Decreased installation costs are also driving this trend, as it is typically more cost-effective to install a combination system with a single gas and vent connection as opposed to a separate boiler and water heater, which will require multiple connections,” said Vallett.

Boiler controls have also been greatly improved, with Hook stating that U.S. Boiler Co.’s new controls offer expanded features, efficiencies, and diagnostic capabilities that are also very easy to use. “This is very important, because no matter how great a system is, if it’s not able to be understood by installers and service technicians, it doesn’t do much good to anyone. Some of our control systems give the ability to add complex boiler features simply by plugging a cartridge into a board — no splicing, no wiring, the system does the rest.”

Lochinvar has also spent a lot of time developing and fine-tuning its integrated control platforms to make them easy to use and perform well. “With standard features such as a navigation dial, at-a-glance diagnostics, cascade sequencer, and efficiency optimizers, our products will meet the needs of end users and installers alike,” said Vallett.

To complement its outdoor air reset control, Viessmann incorporated Lambda Pro technology into its Vitodens 200 boiler. Lindsay explained that as the outdoor air reset communicates with the boiler to adjust the flow temperature, the Lambda Pro combustion controller works alongside the burner to constantly monitor the air-to-gas ratio. “Instead of the gas mix remaining fixed from start-up, the mix is adjusted as required to maintain the correct ratio for maximum efficiency at all times — in a similar way to the fuel management system in a car engine. It minimizes on-site start-up time for the contractor and, if required, converting to propane takes just a few seconds with no changing of any parts.”

Going forward, Lindsay noted that the economic situation will continue to put downward price pressure on boiler manufacturers, and balancing this price pressure with the technical demands of higher efficiency and more inclusive controls will be key.

The good news, said Hook, is that many first-generation condensing boilers will soon need to be replaced. The question remains as to whether homeowners will opt for another condensing boiler, or if they will choose a more traditional, less expensive noncondensing cast iron boiler. “It will be interesting to see.”

Publication date: 10/22/2012