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03/22/2013

Boilers: Types, applications, and efficiencies


Engi neers shoul d understand whi ch boi l er i s appropri ate for the appl i cati on, and then know how to maxi mi ze i ts use.
By Michael E. Myers, PE, LEED AP, WD Partners, Dublin, Ohio
Learning objecti ves
Understand the various types of fuel-fired boilers. 1.
Learn about specific boiler types and applications. 2.
Know how to maximize heating water systems efficiency. 3.
Boilers are the basic foundation of heating and domestic hot water in many commercial, industrial, institutional, and education
facilities. The term boiler can be a misleading because in many applications, the boiler does not produce water at boiling
temperatures of 212 F or above. This article will begin with the various types of fuel-fired boilers for a general description then
focus on specific types and applications.
There are two types of efficiencies with fuel-fired boilers: combustion efficiency
and thermal efficiency. Combustion efficiency is the percentage of chemical
potential energy of the fuel that is converted during the combustion process to
produce thermal energy. Thermal efficiency is simply stated as the percentage of
potential fuel energy that is converted to thermal energy leaving the boiler in the
form of heated water or steam. It is thermal efficiency that the consulting-
specifying engineer should be most concerned with in the equipment selection
process. Please reference the BTS-2000 test standard from The Hydronics
Institute Division of AHRI for heating boilers for additional boiler efficiency testing
information, or the 2012 ASHRAE HandbookHVAC Systems and Equipment for
more information.
Boilers, in general terms, fall into two main categories with each main category having several types based on type and
purpose for each design. The main categories are hot water and steam. Table 1 includes most types of boilers, applications,
and range of typical efficiencies.
Boi ler control labil ity and system effi ci ency
To maximize boiler and ultimately the heating system efficiency, the boiler controllability or turn-down ratio must be carefully
considered for the individual project application. Boiler systems should be selected and sized to allow for a wide fluctuation in
the heating load of the building, thus allowing the system to closely match the building heating requirements at any given
time.
Traditional training of many HVAC engineers and designers is to provide two boilers each sized at two-thirds of the total
heating load. The thought behind this method considers the fact that if the heating load calculation was performed properly,
one boiler will be sufficient during a typical winters day. The second boiler will effectively serve as a 100% backup on a typical
day. This type of design also allows for proper heating of the building during the most extreme cold weather (beyond
ASHRAE winter design temperature).
While this is a good conservative approach and has served the industry well over the
years, it may not be the most efficient application due to the controllability of the boilers
selected. Many smaller boilers have high- and low-fire settings that do not allow for
matching of the boiler capacity to the actual building load. In many cases, if the boiler
has modulating firing controls, the turn-down ratio is not great enough to meet lower
heating demands of the system. Unless multiple boilers are used to allow for smaller or
tighter control of the heating water supply temperature, this system will not be as
efficient as it could be.
Hot water appli cati ons
Tradi tional hot water boi ler pri mary piping systems: Traditional hot water
applications typically consist of a medium water temperature system (180 to 210 F) with
a minimum of two boilers piped in parallel in a primary heating water loop configuration
(see Figure 1). Heating water supply temperature is set based upon the outside ambient
air temperature and reset to a certain temperature in a straight-line fashion with a
minimum water temperature at a predetermined outside ambient temperature.
Cast iron, straight water tube, and fire tube boilers require special consideration to avoid
damaging the boiler (commonly known as thermal shock) with return water that is more than 20 F less than the water leaving
the boiler. The reset range for supply water temperature is 210 to 160 F. Return water temperature must remain at a maximum
of 20 F lower than the leaving water temperature of the boiler, and flow through the boiler must remain within close range of
the boiler manufacturers requirements to ensure that flash steam (a knocking sound within the boiler is indicative of flash
steam and low water flow) is not produced.
Flexible water tube boilers cause much less concern about thermal shock than
their cast iron or straight tube counterparts. Flexible water tube boilers typically
consist of an upper and lower water drum with a series of bent steel tubes
designed to absorb the stresses of thermal expansion (see Figure 2).
The overall efficiency of this application can be relatively low when compared to
other types of boilers and piping configurations. Inefficiencies include
maintaining the temperatures of the boiler and water mass along with
maintaining the temperature of the distribution piping system based on limitation
of the boilers. Modular boiler types, which will be discussed later, reduce these
overall losses.
Another disadvantage of the traditional primary-only boiler loop piping is the
constant flow or partially variable flow required in the supply loop piping system.
Constant flow primary-only systems do not maintain water temperature differential (supply minus return water temperature)
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during the full range of load conditions. Maintaining the design water temperature differential, over the full range of load
conditions, is a major efficiency objective.

Primary/secondary boi ler pi pi ng systems: Decoupling the boiler piping flow loop from the building flow loop has become
more common in the past several years. The concept of primary/secondary pumping has been around since the 1950s. It has
been primarily used in chilled water systems. The advantages include the ability to have non-equal flow in two loops that are
connected by a common decoupler section of piping (see Figure 3). This is a similar arrangement to a primary-secondary
chilled water piping system. The primary loop allows for constant flow through the operating boiler while allowing the
secondary building loop to act semi-independently of the primary loop. The helps avoid many of the flow issues with
primary-only piping arrangements (such as low flow, flash steam in tubes, and increased fouling of the tubes due to low tube
velocities).
All of the hot water boilers listed in Table 1 can be applied successfully in a primary-secondary piping arrangement. Special
care, as previously stated, must be used when applying cast iron, straight water tube, or fire tube boilers to ensure the
maximum water temperature difference (between supply water and return water to and from the boiler) is not exceeded
throughout the boilers operating range.

Caption: All efficiencies are typical and based on natural gas as the fuel. The efficiency ranges are typical based on a multiple
manufacturers published data.

Maximizing efficiency in fuel-fired hot water boiler systems is dependent upon a few key design points. These points, for
consideration by the system design engineer/designer, are as follows:
Accurate heating load for the building based upon conduction loss without credit for lighting, people, and equipment.
Determining the minimum heating load for the system during the shoulder months (late winter through spring, late fall)
for the particular location. This can be accomplished by modifying the computer based heating load calculation to
provide a typical energy model for the building or by specifying the month to determine the lowest heating requirement.
This is relatively easy to accomplish using Trane TRACE 700, Carrier HAP, or similar software that allows for typical-year
or full-year energy modeling.
Selection of high-efficiency or ultra-high-efficiency boilers to match the full range of the calculated heating load. In many
cases, the use of more than two boilers is suggested to allow for a good range of boiler turn-down capacity to meet the
instantaneous heating load of the building. An example is to use three boilers each at one-third of the required system
capacity. This will allow for the traditional two-thirds capacity reserve or back-up while allowing for greater controllability
of the heating water system. Additional boiler(s) may be required for full redundancy to meet the building owners
requirements for N+1 or greater reliability.
Consider the modular boiler approach (noncondensing type or condensing type) with lower boiler mass and minimum of
5:1 turn-down ratio.
Use nontraditional controls to manage staging of multiple boilers to match the instantaneous heating load. Boiler
staging should be accomplished by trending and matching the supply water temperature required in the secondary loop
at any given time.
Monitoring heating coil control valve position versus required supply air temperature. Use this information to
determine the secondary loop supply water temperature setpoint.
Enable and disable each boiler based on the building energy management system calculation of the required
system heating load. Once enabled, allow each boiler to fire and modulate on its own controls. Many packaged or
modular boiler manufacturers have optimization hardware/software to maximize the efficiency of their equipment
and that can be provided with energy management system interfaces or nonproprietary communications protocols
such as BACnet. This writer suggests the use of optimization programming provided by the boiler manufacturer in
multiple boiler design installations with the use of rolling sequence control (1,2,3,4; 2,3,4,1; 3,4,1,2; etc.) to
maximize/exercise the use of each boiler in the system If this control/programming is not available from the boiler
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manufacturer, it can be readily accomplished by the temperature control contractor.
Use flow meters and temperature difference in the secondary supply and return main piping to calculate the
current boiler capacity required by the heating system. This is a simple yet extremely effective method of matching
the boilers to the instantaneous building heating demands.
Provide automatic boiler isolation valves to allow non-required boilers to be isolated from the primary boiler loop. This
works only for boilers capable of withstanding thermal shock. Do not use this on cast iron, straight water tube, or fire
tube boilers without using the previously mentioned thermal shock prevention techniques. (Individual boiler circulation
pumps with blending valve to allow for slow warm-up.)
Provide boiler stack dampers to reduce heat loss of non-firing boilers.
Use individual primary pumps dedicated to each boiler. The use of automatic balancing valves may help ensure proper
flow through each boiler over the entire load operating range of the system.
Use variable flow secondary system to reduce system pumping requirements.

Applying condensing hot water boi lers
Condensing water boilers are increasingly desired by many building owners. This is due to the very high efficiency of these
devices. Typical thermal efficiencies range from 90% to 98%. Many building owners are asking their consultants to use these
devices for new, replacement, and retrofit applications. However, this can present a challenge for all of these applications
unless the consulting engineer/designer and the owner fully understand the limits of using a boiler designed for condensing
temperatures.
Condensing boilers are low water temperature devices when applied in the condensing temperature range. (Note: There is at
least one boiler manufacturer that is currently advertising a condensing boiler with 160 F minimum return water temperature.)
In order for the flue gases to be in the condensing temperature range to achieve the maximum heat transfer of the fuel energy
to the water, the supply water temperature is 130 F with return water temperatures as low as 80 F. As with any counter-flow
heat exchange device, the leaving temperature of the heated fluid (water in this case) cannot be greater than the leaving
temperature of the hot side or heating medium (combusted fuel in this case). The lower the fuel gas temperature, the more
efficient the boiler becomes as more heat is extracted from the combustion gases.
The drawback of this low water temperature is applying these in a replacement
or retrofit application. Due to the low supply water temperature, most heating
coils that were selected at a higher entering water temperature will not perform
well at this lower water temperature. This is the case with many replacement and
retrofit projects. Therefore, thoughtful consideration must be given at a minimum
to determine the performance of these older existing coils with the lower water
temperature. Replacement of at least some of the coils will be necessary. This is
especially true of heating coils in small zone devices such as variable volume
terminal boxes, cabinet unit heaters, finned tube radiation, and convectors as
these devices are usually designed for 180 to 200 F entering water temperature.
However, condensing boilers can be applied in existing systems designed for
higher water temperatures if the boilers are applied in a hybrid
condensing/noncondensing design. This allows the boilers to function in the
condensing range during the partial heating load periods (when condensing
water temperatures can be used) while allowing the boiler to produce noncondensing supply water temperatures (typically
130 F) during the higher heating load periods. The boilers will then function at a lower efficiency, but greater water
temperature at a reduced overall heating output. A word of caution is required related to boiler flue material: The boiler flue
material must be capable of withstanding the corrosive effects of condensed flue gases as well has flue gas temperatures
produced when operating out of the condensing temperature range.
New heating water systems using condensing boilers must take into account the requirement for larger than normal heating
coils required in all air handling equipment. Variable air terminal boxes and finned tube radiation must have the lower water
temperature accounted for in the sizing selection process. Hot water coils in terminal units, in this writers experience, are a
minimum of two rows and typically 3 to 4 rows to provide more surface area for heat exchange.
Modular condensing boilers are almost always applied in a primary-secondary piping arrangement with each boiler requiring a
dedicated return water pump to ensure proper flow within the boiler. As previously mentioned, the use of automatic flow
balancing valves should be used for each boiler in the supply water (leaving side) piping to further help ensure proper flow
throughout the operating flow and pressure range of the entire heating water system.

Steam boi lers
Steam boilers are applied in many applications for building heating and many
forms of process heating and humidification systems. The use of steam boilers
has dropped in recent years, but they still remain the choice method of
distribution energy for heating in large facilities such as hospitals, campuses,
and some downtown areas of major cities.
Steam boilers can be classified in several ways; however, they are either low
pressure (15 psig or less) or high pressure (greater than 15 psig). They can be
fire-tube Scotch marine with wet- or dry-back design, cast iron, or water tube
design. Steam generating boilers require large volumes for the phase change of
water to steam to reduce operational issues related to small water to steam
interface area.
Steam boilers also require proper water chemistry for proper operation. Boiler
feed water/makeup must be low in hardness (typically 2 grains/lb or less) with
low total dissolve solids in order to reduce water surface tension. Water surface tension is a primary cause of water spouting
within the boilers water to steam interface area. Increased water spouting can result in rapid fluctuation of the water level in
the boiler, which is indicative of water carryover from the steam generation volume of the boiler into the steam piping header.
Water carryover from the boiler to the steam header usually leads to the boiler shutting down on its low water safety. If the
steam header becomes partially or fully water-logged, complete shutdown and drainage of the system is required.
Steam boilers and steam piping systems are large thermal flywheels. The system requires a substantial start-up time for
boiler and piping system warmup. Large piping system usually require warmup in multiple sections to avoid or minimize
vacuum (sub-atmospheric) pressure forming during the warmup process due to steam condensing back to water. Steam
systems cannot react to rapidly changing system demands if the boilers are staged on from a cold state. Therefore, steam
boiler staging is based upon weather, steam header pressure, and the boiler operators experience rather than the staging
controls used in hot-water boiler systems.
While steam is an extremely effective method of transporting thermal energy (considering the latent heat of vaporization) and
requires no pumping on the vapor side of the system, steam boiler systems are inherently inefficient. Recent experience
indicates the natural gas to steam plant output (thermal efficiency) to range from 55% to 65% based on measured usage data
for an 180,000 lb/hr plant.
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Summary
Boilers and water-based heating systems are available in a wide variety of types and configurations. Determining the boiler
type for a specific application is the responsibility of the consulting engineer in conjunction with the owner or operator of the
facility. Applying the boiler in most efficient configuration is the responsibility of the consulting engineer.
The table of boiler types included in this article is not intended to be complete, but only a reference to basic types and
configurations available. Fabrication materials vary between manufacturers along with patented designs.
The most efficiently designed boiler-based system uses the most efficient boiler and system configuration for the application.
Controlling the system to meet the system demands is the major key to overall efficiency. Using the simplest but most
effective boiler plant/system staging controls with the feedback of building heating requirements on a minute-by-minute basis
is the key to optimizing any hydronic heating systems efficiency. System feedback input includes continuous monitoring of
flow requirements and supply-return water temperature differential, using this data to calculate real-time requirements of the
facility, and then making decisions on the staging of entire heating plant.
Variable primary-only boiler systems can be accomplished. However, this must be achieved with the input of the boiler
manufacturers engineering/applications group. Special attention must be given to maintain minimum tube velocity required
by the boiler manufacturer.
Condensing boilers offer the greatest energy efficiency if properly applied. Small terminal coils (such as terminal boxes,
finned tube radiation, cabinet heater, etc.) are not designed for low temperature water. Therefore, special care must be used
in selecting these coils. Condensing boilers can be applied to existing systems if proper precautions are realized by the
consulting engineer and the facility owner/operator. If the existing system is to take full advantage of the efficiency potential of
these boilers, every coil must be evaluated for performance at the lower water temperatures. The alternative is to apply these
boilers with the proper controls to allow for noncondensing water temperatures during peak heating periods.
Michael E. Myers is senior mechanical engineering manager at WD Partners in Dublin, Ohio, where he is responsible for
managing and directing the mechanical engineering division. He has more than 33 years of experience in HVAC, plumbing, and
fire protection engineering. He is a former ASHRAE distinguished lecturer, former ASHRAE chapter president and a previously
published co-author on HVAC design.
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