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Chimney liners – What you need to know

Chimney liners – What you need to know

If you’re planning to install a high-efficiency furnace, one likely item on your to-do list will be to line your chimney. Chimney liners aren’t just a good idea – they’re required to help maintain the proper performance of your chimney.

Gas-fired appliances need to vent to the outside to avoid a build-up of carbon monoxide. In the past, gas furnaces and water heaters used the home’s chimney to provide adequate ventilation. Newer, high efficiency furnaces may vent out the side of the home’s foundation rather than up the chimney. If they use the chimney for ventilation, the chimney as built may be too big to work properly with a newer gas furnace.

If you plan to vent any appliances through the chimney, a chimney liner may be in order. There are three good reasons to line an existing chimney. First, unlined chimneys actually constitute a serious fire hazard. Studies have shown that heat moves through (not up) an unlined chimney rapidly. This means the chimney can transfer heat from the masonry to adjacent woodwork inside the home. In National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) tests, an unlined chimney caused adjacent woodwork to ignite in less than 3.5 hours! In fact, the standards folks at NIST called unlined chimneys “little less than criminal.” Those are some pretty harsh words, but they can give you a lot to think about. If your chimney is unlined (which would be common for an older home), you may want to invest in a chimney liner even if you don’t intend to replace the appliances that use your chimney.

The second reason to line a chimney is to protect it from your appliances. Combustion is a messy process. It can leave behind some caustic by-products that won’t do your chimney any favors. Over time, these caustic chemicals can eat away at the brick, as well as the mortar that holds your chimney together. Which brings us right back to Reason #1 to line your chimney. If the mortar inside your chimney deteriorates, the chimney will become even better at transferring heat to the surrounding structures. This naturally increases the risk of fire. A liner can both slow and reduce the transfer of heat to nearby structures, decreasing the risk of fire.

The third reason to line your chimney is to ensure that it drafts properly. A chimney is like a big straw that draws exhaust gas from your home. It also drafts air into your home, which your gas-fired appliances need. Big chimneys don’t draft well. A chimney that’s exceptionally large might draft either ineffectively or perhaps not at all. That could cause carbon monoxide to build up in your home. A chimney liner can help size your chimney properly for your appliances and help ensure that your home and appliances are vented properly.

Most chimney liners are made from one of three materials: clay, metal or resin. Clay tiles are the most common type of chimney liner. While they’re the least expensive way to line a chimney, they may not perform well in adverse conditions. (“Adverse conditions” = chimney fire.) They also might not work well with new, high-efficiency gas fired equipment.

Metal liners are usually made from stainless steel or aluminum. Aluminum liners don’t perform as well as stainless steel liners do. In fact, they’re not recommended for high-efficiency applications. Stainless steel performs very well, but it can be expensive. Finally, you can choose a custom-fit resin liner for your chimney. A resin liner is “built in place” and form fits to your chimney. It is lightweight, resist etching and reduce heat transfer. They can also help improve the structural integrity of your existing chimney. Resin liners are permanent and they work well with all fuel types.

An alternative to lining your chimney is to vent your furnace, water heater, boiler and other appliances directly through the foundation wall of your home. This strategy will enable you to abandon your chimney altogether. You can leave an abandoned chimney in place, provided that you cap the holes previously used by your equipment. You may also want to cap the chimney at the top to prevent water, animals and other undesirables from entering the chimney. Before you abandon your chimney, you may want to have it inspected by a professional. If your chimney is in dangerous condition, it may be worth your while to either stabilize it or deconstruct it altogether.

While we don’t do chimney lining, we can recommend chimney professionals as part of a heating or water heater replacement project. Give us a call at Boston Standard Plumbing and Heating at (617) 288-2911. We’ll be happy to set up a consultation!

Photo Credit: Ben Freeman, via Flickr.com

Winter Forecast: Boston Electric Bills Will Soar

If you get your electricity from National Grid, you may receive an unwelcome “gift” from the utility just in time for the holidays. Last week, National Grid announced that its residential electric rates would climb by more than one-third of the current price beginning in November. National Grid customers can expect to see as much as a 37% increase in their Boston electric bills. According to the utility, that will translate to an average increase of $33 per month for its customers.

So what does that mean for you? Efficiency is the name of the game when it comes to electricity, and when you consider all things, electricity just isn’t as efficient as some other fuels. For the 2014-2015 season, making changes that reduce electricity consumption will help you survive the rate increase.

If you have a hot water/boiler heat system, consider retrofitting your system with a new ECM circulator pump. Making this change alone could offset the rate increase for electricity for the entire year! The $100 instant-rebate available through Mass Save makes the cost of the pump comparable to a traditional circulator pump and enables you to start saving immediately.

You can also take advantage of some incentives to replace an inefficient electric water heater with either a qualifying high efficiency tank water heater or a qualifying tankless natural gas water heater.

If you have a natural gas, forced-air furnace, upgrade it to a high-efficiency (AFUE 95%+) model. Reducing your operating costs for a natural gas furnace can also help you offset increased electrical costs for the other appliances in your home.

If you use baseboard heat to supplement your primary heating system, replace these old-school energy hogs with a ductless mini-split heat pump. Electric baseboard heating costs about 2.5 times as much as a heat pump does. They’re also a good solution for addressing chronic cold spots in your home.

If you’re just getting ready to fire up the furnace, have Boston Standard Plumbing & Heating perform annual maintenance on your system now. Cleaning and inspecting critical system components like the heat exchanger can not only increase the operating efficiency of the system, but it can also allow you to head off serious problems that will take your system out of service when you need it most!

If you haven’t already done so, install a programmable thermostat. This type of thermostat can save you money on heating and cooling costs because it never “forgets” to adjust the temperature in your home when you leave. Boston Standard Plumbing & Heating is a certified Nest installer, and you can also take advantage of current rebates on both programmable thermostats and Wi-Fi thermostats.

Weather experts are divided on what kind of winter we’re going to have, but many think that this winter will be a repeat performance of last year. In any case, October is the beginning of the heating season, and there’s no reason to spend more of your hard earned money on heat and electricity than you have to.

For more information about ways to cut your heating and cooling costs, please call us at Boston Standard Plumbing & Heating at (617) 288-2911 for a consultation. We’ll be happy to assess your current equipment and let you know how you can save money this winter.

MassSave Offers 2014 High-Efficiency Rebate Programs

Some of the federal tax credit programs that have been active in recent years are no longer available, but MassSave still has rebate programs that you can take advantage of. These programs can help lower the cost of replacing or updating your heating, cooling and hot water delivery systems, and they’re worth taking a look at.

New, high-efficiency heating equipment can reduce your operational costs by as much as 30%. By itself, that will help you save money immediately and provide a faster return-on-investment. Currently, these rebates are available to utility customers served by Berkshire Gas, Blackstone Gas, Columbia Gas of Massachusetts, Liberty Utilities, National Grid Gas, NSTAR Gas and Unitil Gas. Western Massachusetts Electric customers may also qualify for certain MassSave rebate programs.

Residential High-Efficiency Heating Equipment Rebate Program

MassSave’s current rebate programs for home heating equipment include:

$1,600 Rebate Integrated Water heater/Condensing Boiler with a boiler rating of >95% AFUE (Must be considered one unit by manufacturer)

$1,500 Rebate Forced Hot Water Boilers >95% AFUE rating

$1,200 Rebate Integrated Water heater/Condensing Boiler with a boiler rating of >90% AFUE (Must be considered one unit by manufacturer)

$1,000 Rebate Forced Hot Water Boilers >90% AFUE rating

$600 Rebate Warm Air Furnaces >97% AFUE rating equipped with Electronic Commutated Motor (ECM) or equivalent advanced furnace fan system

$500 Rebate Heat Recovery Ventilator

$300 Rebate Warm Air Furnaces >95% AFUE rating equipped with Electronic Commutated Motor (ECM) or equivalent advanced furnace fan system

$225 Rebate After-market Outdoor Boiler Reset Controls

$25 Rebate 7-Day Programmable Thermostat

$100 Rebate Wi-Fi Thermostat

Water Heating Equipment

In addition to rebates on high-efficiency heating equipment, you can also claim rebates for the purchase and installation of the following qualified water-heating systems.

$800 Rebate On-Demand, Tankless Water Heater with an Energy Factor of 0.94 or greater

$500 Rebate
• On-Demand, Tankless Water Heater with an Energy Factor of 0.82 or greater, or
• Condensing Gas Water Heater with a 95% Thermal Efficiency or greater (75 to 3000 MBH)

$400 Rebate Indirect Water Heater Attached to a Natural Gas Boiler

$100 Rebate ENERGY STAR-labeled Storage Water Heater with an Energy Factor of 0.67 or greater

If you would like more information about these rebate programs, which are available through December 31, 2014, please contact us at Boston Standard Plumbing & Heating at (617) 288-2911 for more information about the programs, or to get started with a home energy assessment.

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High Efficiency Furnaces, Oil-to-Gas Conversions Can Cut Heating Costs

Last year’s mild winter may have been a blessing in disguise since it reduced the demand for heat significantly, but for homeowners in Boston, heating has come to the forefront this winter. Heating assistance programs in Boston are struggling to meet requests for help from families who simply can’t afford to heat their homes this winter.

According to the United Way, last year in Boston, heating assistance factored into about two-thirds of the agency’s 3,100 requests for help from area families. The agency budgeted about $750,000 for heating assistance (during last year’s unseasonably mild winter) and still saw unmet assistance requests of nearly $500,000. This year, federal fuel subsidies have been cut, leaving many states and private agencies to fill in the gaps. Those programs are running low on fuel assistance dollars largely because of the high cost of heating oil in Massachusetts. The current average price for heating oil in Boston is about $3.81 per gallon, while some suppliers have broken the $4.00/gallon mark.

When meeting basic necessities is a major priority, most homeowners don’t contemplate major home improvements like heating and cooling system replacements. For homeowners who are in a position to do so, upgrading to high-efficiency heating equipment or converting from oil to natural gas heat right now can pay dividends down the road. Reducing heating costs and fuel consumption now may help cushion the blow of an unexpected job loss or loss of income in the future.

In 2013, homeowners can take advantage of some exceptional rebates, tax credits and 0% financing programs that can help reduce the cost of upgrading or converting to natural gas. In some cases – particularly with oil-to-gas conversions – homeowners can start to reap the return on investment right away.

Natural gas is plentiful, and can slash winter heating bills by half or more during an average winter. Moving to a natural gas furnace or boiler makes a lot of sense for homeowners who are still working, but who are either contemplating retirement or approaching retirement age. By making major upgrades now, these homeowners can help ensure cost-control for winter heat once they’ve transitioned out of the workforce and into retirement – when their household income may be both reduced and fixed.

Natural gas conversion or upgrades may also make a home more attractive to prospective buyers, and may reduce the amount of time it takes to sell the home. A recent Massachusetts real estate survey, which we discussed recently on this blog, shows that the majority of prospective buyers strongly prefer a home that is heated with natural gas.

There’s no reason to continue using low-efficiency heating equipment or spending thousands of dollars more than necessary on old, expensive-to-operate and potentially hazardous heating equipment. If you are considering an upgrade to your low-efficiency (less than 80%) heating equipment, or an oil-to-gas conversion, please contact us at Boston Standard Plumbing & Heating at (617) 288-2911. We’ll set up an appointment to inspect your current heating equipment and let you know about programs that are designed to help reduce the cost of upgrading to less-costly and more environmentally friendly heating options.

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Massachusetts Tops List Of Most Energy-Efficient States

In a new report authored by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE), Massachusetts was named the most energy-efficient state for the second year in a row. The report ranked states in six major areas, including utility and public benefits programs and policies; transportation policies; building energy codes; combined heat and power (CHP) policies; state government-led initiatives around energy efficiency; and appliance and equipment standards to determine which state should receive the top honor. The ACEEE also recognized California, New York, Oregon, Vermont, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Washington, Maryland, and Minnesota as highly energy-efficient states.

Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick cited the state’s efforts to reduce dependence on foreign energy sources and its pursuit of sustainable energy sources as key factors in the state’s overall efficiency rankings. In addition to making the state more energy-independent, the governor also stated that the Green Communities Act is contributing to the state’s employment rate and the overall health of its economy.

According to the report, most states are making some progress toward improving energy efficiency, with electricity efficiency receiving the most funding. Another area of interest to consumers and one that contributes significantly to improved energy efficiency is oil-to-gas conversion. The cost of heating oil is expected to rise significantly over the 2012-13 winter heating season, with many analysts predicting a per-gallon fuel price that will approach $4.50. In contrast, an abundant supply of natural gas has driven the price of that commodity to a 10-year low. Consumers in Massachusetts could not only improve their energy efficiency by switching to natural-gas fired heating equipment, they could also save an average of nearly $2,000 in heating expenditures over the winter.

Boston-area homeowners can still take advantage of 0% financing programs offered by MassSave on the purchase of certain high-efficiency furnaces. MassSave will make as much as $25,000 available to qualified borrowers on a “same-as-cash” basis. Earlier this year, homeowners were also offered the opportunity to receive huge rebates on high-efficiency gas-powered replacement boilers.

If replacing your heating equipment isn’t in the cards, you can still improve the efficiency of your current system with a program of regular maintenance and inspections. Clogged filters and dirty heat exchangers can significantly reduce the efficiency of forced air furnaces. Boilers should also be inspected and should undergo routine maintenance to ensure proper operation before every heating season.

If you would like more information about high-efficiency heating equipment, 0%-financing through MassSave or an oil-to-gas conversion, contact us at Boston Standard Plumbing and Heating at (617) 288-2911 anytime. We can arrange an on-site inspection of your current heating equipment and explain all available options. We also perform regular seasonal maintenance and provide repair services for most types of heating equipment.

MassSave Still Offers 0% Financing On Qualified Boston Heating Improvements

Recently, I wrote about a program designed to help homeowners cope with the cost of replacing an old boiler. That rebate program, which provides between $1,900 and $3,500 in cash to homeowners who are replacing hot water boilers or steam boilers, expires July 31. If you plan to take advantage of that program to replace your boiler, Boston Standard Plumbing & Heating can help.

What if you don’t have a boiler, but you are contemplating a major improvement to your heating and cooling equipment? Well, you’re not out in the cold! MassSave offers 0% financing on qualified energy-efficient improvements. Homeowners and business owners can borrow as much as $25,000 on “same-as-cash” terms. Qualified improvements for residential borrowers include the installation of high efficiency heating and domestic hot water equipment; solar hot water systems; ENERGY STAR® qualified replacement windows; and weatherization. Loan terms are over 7 years, so if you borrow the program maximum, your payments would be less than $300 per month.

Highly efficient heating equipment, combined with weatherization and/or replacement windows can save you hundreds (or even thousands) of dollars in operating costs each year. Old heating systems may be as low as 20%-30% efficient, meaning that for every $100 you spend on fuel, you could be sending $70-$80 up the chimney. With highly efficient systems – those rated at 90% or better – the majority of what you spend on fuel is converted to heat for your living space. The system turns on less often, uses less fuel and makes your home more comfortable. As an added benefit, weatherization and window replacements will help keep your home more comfortable year-round.

Boston Standard Plumbing and Heating specializes in replacing old heating systems, including oil and gas equipment. We’ll come to your home, do a complete energy assessment and help you determine which improvements can help you make your home more energy-efficient. Contact Boston Standard Plumbing and Heating today at (617) 288-2911 for more information about 0% financing through MassSave or about how you can make your home more energy efficient.

Finding A Reputable Plumber

Let’s face it: no one calls a plumber until they have to, but when you need plumbing help, you generally need assistance fast! How can you find a reputable plumber? Boston residents have a lot of plumbers to choose from, and that can make finding a good contractor even more difficult. Here are a few suggestions for finding a plumber in Boston that may make your life easier when it comes time to calling for help.

1. Do your homework. Look for plumbers, heating and cooling contractors, and general handyman services before you need them. You can use referral services like Angie’s List to find recommended Boston plumbers. Check references, verify the business’ standing with the Better Business Bureau and verify that any prospective contractors are licensed and insured. When the pressure is off, call for information about pricing, after-hours services, and regular maintenance services that you might be interested in.

2. Figure out what you’re most likely to need. You may have immediate needs for maintenance, replacement or repair on your major systems, or you may not know exactly what services you may need from plumbing, heating or cooling professionals. Once you’ve found a contractor you might want to work with, invite the contractor to your home for a system inspection. The contractor can give you a better idea of the age and condition of your plumbing, heating and cooling systems.

3. Shop around and ask questions about the contractor’s on-call services, hourly rates, dispatch times, staff credentials and more. When you call the contractor after hours, do you speak with the contractor or do you get routed to an answering service? Does the contractor offer any package services or service plans that can help reduce your costs, especially in an emergency?

The best approach is to make decisions about contractors when you have no immediate or urgent need for services. That way, you can take the time to review a contractor’s credentials, reviews from other customers, and ask friends and neighbors for their input. You can also take time to think about what you need (or might need) and make your choices accordingly.

Boston Standard Plumbing & Heating is a proud member of Angie’s List, and was voted the Best of Boston 2010 for heating and cooling services. We offer a wide range of plumbing, heating and cooling services in Boston. Call us at (617) 288-2911 for a consultation on all of your heating, cooling and plumbing needs. Friend Boston Standard Plumbing on Facebook and learn why we’re one of the best in Boston!

Heating Oil Versus Natural Gas Heat in Boston

As the fall weather turns cooler, for some homeowners in Boston, heating their homes in winter is becoming a big concern. The cost of home heating oil continues to rise, and many people who use it are considering the switch from oil to gas. How do oil and gas compare, and what are the options for homeowners who are considering a switch?

From an emissions standpoint, oil and gas compare quite favorably. Both fuels release about the same amount of carbon into the air – not much. Both oil-burning and gas-burning devices are chimney-vented. The potentially harmful emissions are routed up the chimney and into the air, away from the home. Chimney concerns do motivate a lot of conversions, and I’ll talk about that next week.

From a cost standpoint, natural gas is the big winner. The price of home heating oil is currently about $3.35 per gallon in Boston. Heating oil is a commodity, so this price varies daily throughout the season. While there have been periods of time where home heating oil was less expensive than natural gas, we haven’t seen them anytime recently. Home heating oil costs have risen about 35% in the last 12 months, while the cost of natural gas has actually dropped by about 2%. For a given space, heating with natural gas will cost about 2/3 as much as heating the same space with heating oil.

From an environmental standpoint, each type of fuel poses its own dangers. Heating oil can be very dirty, and a leaking tank can cause a lot of environmental damage. Tanks must be inspected periodically, and a leaking tank must be replaced to avoid further contamination. Oil is considered a toxin and exposure to petroleum-based oils and vapors can cause respiratory and skin problems. Natural gas is explosive, and leaks can be deadly if the leaking gas is accidentally ignited.

Maintenance on oil-burning heaters is an absolute requirement to preserve the efficiency of the device. Even a small amount of soot or residual material on certain components in the system can significantly reduce their efficiency, which translates into higher operating costs.

Gas-fired heating equipment also requires regular maintenance and inspection. The highest rated equipment can be about 95% efficient under optimal conditions. Very high efficiency furnaces have a relatively short life expectancy, so proper maintenance is critical.

Heating oil is regularly available in the northeast. Homeowners usually buy oil from a service company, or have an oil contract that provides for periodic refilling. Natural gas is also readily available from utilities in the Boston area. Gas is delivered via the gas company’s infrastructure, so no gas reserves are stored on the premises.

Overall, natural gas is significantly cleaner to work with, cheaper and environmentally more friendly than heating oil. Next week, I’ll talk about chimneys and the benefits of direct venting. In the mean time, if you have questions regarding home heating oil, natural gas or would like a consultation on oil-to-gas conversion, please contact us at Boston Standard Plumbing & Heating at (617) 288-2911.

Boston Furnace Replacement Considerations

The decision to replace a furnace can be difficult. If the decision to replace hasn’t already been made by circumstance, cost is the usually primary factor in the decision. Can you afford to replace your heating equipment, or can you get one more season out of the old furnace? Boston homes need heating equipment that can tolerate a tough winter, so what should you look at when considering replacement?

The cost of the replacement is certainly a consideration. Many homeowners choose to upgrade (or install) their central air conditioning unit at the same time they change out their heating equipment. While this isn’t strictly necessary, depending upon the type of heating system in the home, homeowners can save thousands of dollars by redoing the heating and cooling at the same time.

The cost of operation is also a consideration. For homeowners with oil furnaces, or oil-fed boilers, the cost of heating oil has risen sharply and steadily while the cost of other heating fuels has remained relatively constant. Heating oil is nearing $4 per gallon now, and this rise in price is stirring bad memories of 2008, when the price of heating oil (at times) was nearing a whopping $5 per gallon. Natural gas furnaces can heat the same space for about 2/3 the current cost of heating oil, and the cost of natural gas is expected to remain steady. (In fact, it’s dropped about 2% in the last 12 months.)

Electric heaters are also very cost-intensive, and because most electricity is produced from coal-fired plants, the carbon emissions related to electric heat make it one of the least green options for heating. You’ll pay about twice as much to heat a given space with electricity as you would spend on the natural gas needed to heat the same space. The cost of electricity is not likely to decrease sharply enough to make it cost-effective in the foreseeable future.

Aside from the cost of the equipment and the cost of operation, another consideration is safety. Very old furnaces (30+ years) normally have asbestos linings in or around the combustion chamber. These linings are considered safe as long as the asbestos doesn’t become “friable” or airborne. (Asbestos can also be found in some old ductwork.) Friable asbestos releases microscopic particles that can remain suspended in air. If asbestos particles are inhaled, they collect in the lungs and the body cannot clear them out. Long-term exposure to asbestos can lead to a particularly difficult form of lung cancer known as malignant mesothelioma.

The potential for health problems is real when the asbestos lining in a furnace deteriorates. New furnaces do not contain asbestos, so this kind of hazard would be mitigated by furnace replacement. In addition, very old furnaces are highly inefficient. By replacing the furnace, homeowners can recover the cost of the new heating equipment in just a couple of years!

An added consideration is that most high-efficiency furnaces vent directly to the outside, bypassing the chimney altogether. Exhaust gases from conventional gas furnaces and oil-burning heaters are vented up the chimney and can damage the interior of the stack over time. To repair this, the chimney may need to be rebuilt or lined, which can represent a significant expense.

In the next few weeks, I’ll look at oil-to-gas conversions, including reasons to convert, the benefits of direct venting for heating equipment, and the environmental considerations of oil heating. In the mean time, if you’d like more information about oil-to-gas conversions, or replacing old furnaces, please contact us at Boston Standard Plumbing & Heating at (617) 288-2911 for a consultation.

New Water Heater? Boston Homeowners Get A Tax Credit For That

As I mentioned last week, the federal government has extended the tax credit available for the installation of non-solar water heaters in Boston homes. The credit, which applies only to certain high-efficiency water heaters will put as much as $300 back in your pocket, if you claim the credit by December 31, 2011. What qualifies? Any gas, propane, or oil-fired water heater with an energy factor of at least .82 or a thermal efficiency of at least 90% (including tankless models) qualifies for the break. Electric heat pump water heaters with an energy factor of at least 2.0 also qualify. This program falls under the federal cap of $500 for energy efficient improvements made between 2006 and 2011, so if you’ve already claimed certain expenses under this program, your credit may be reduced or eliminated.

Note that standard electric water heaters and solar water heaters are specifically excluded from this program, so check the rules at http://www.energystar.gov before you buy. As with last year’s tax credit program, even highly efficient electric water heaters don’t generate enough energy savings to qualify for the credit. Solar water heaters are also exempt for the same reason, but if you want to install a solar water heater and you can go without the tax credit, contact us and we’ll be happy to talk about your options.

To claim your credit, you’ll need to put the device in service in 2011 in your primary residence. New construction, rental properties and second homes don’t qualify. You’ll also need to file IRS Form 5695 when you prepare your taxes next April. Don’t forget to save your receipt(s) and the Manufacturers’ Certification Statement with your records!

If you’re ready for more tax-friendly home improvements, consider adding a natural gas, propane or oil furnace. You can claim a tax credit of $150 if the furnace you install has an Annual Fuel Utilization Efficiency (AFUE) rating of 95 or better. If your home uses a boiler, you can get the same $150 credit for any gas, propane or oil boiler with an AFUE rating of 95 or better.

Of course, the experts at Boston Standard Plumbing & Heating are ready to help with any repair, installation or maintenance issues you may encounter with your home heating, cooling or plumbing systems. Whether you need an emergency repair or just some good advice, contact us at (617) 288-2911 and we’ll be happy to help.

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