Can Super-Cold Weather Possibly Be Good For Your Furnace?

Boston has warmed up from the super-cold temperatures leading up to the weekend, but this week promises to send temperatures back into a downward spiral. Colder temperatures mean that your furnace works harder, but is that bad for the furnace?

Hard Working Furnace Doesn’t Mean Furnace Repair

Furnaces are designed to work, and they’re designed to work hard! In fact, they actually work better and run more efficiently when they work for long stretches. Short cycling – when the furnace turns on and off repeatedly for short periods of time – is actually harder on your furnace than running for long periods of time with a solid rest between heating cycles.

Furnaces aren’t designed to short-cycle, so when your furnace repeatedly turns on and off, you will want to consult a qualified heating professional. There are many things that can cause a furnace to short-cycle, but here are some common causes.

Your furnace and ductwork need to be sized properly for your home. Having an undersized furnace or ductwork can put a lot of stress on your furnace, increase operational costs, decrease efficiency and shorten the life of your furnace. Likewise, when your ductwork is oversized, the blower doesn’t generate enough velocity to push air adequately through your ductwork, causing poor heating and air circulation in your home. Your home may feel cold all the time, and cause your furnace to work harder to heat your living space. A qualified heating professional can properly size the ductwork for your home and ensure that your furnace and ductwork are up to the task.

A major air leak in the home can cause the living space to cool much more quickly than it should. Major air leaks – something along the lines of a broken window or open door – should be obvious! If you can find and seal major air leaks, this should prevent the furnace from short-cycling.

Thermostats monitor the temperature in the space around them, so drafts and air leaks around the thermostat can cause it to turn on the furnace prematurely. Check the area around the thermostat carefully for drafts. You can also remove the thermostat from the wall and check for drafts in the wall space around the thermostat that might interfere with proper operation. You can safely insulate around the thermostat, and should consider that if you find a hidden draft in your wall. Also, consider relocating the thermostat to avoid outside walls, heat sources (like fireplaces and kitchens), direct sunlight and other conditions that can “fool” the temperature sensors in the thermostat.

Your new high-efficiency furnace may not work so well with your old thermostat. If you have installed a new furnace recently, consider installing a new thermostat to go along with it. Thermostats are relatively inexpensive, so if a new thermostat isn’t part of the package, consider upgrading to a Wi-Fi thermostat, like The Nest.

If your furnace is short-cycling or doesn’t keep your home warm and comfortable, contact us at Boston Standard Plumbing & Heating. We can inspect your furnace and ductwork, test your furnace for proper operation and correct any problems that can cause short-cycling. We can also help you take advantage of programs designed to lower the cost of replacing your old furnace with a high-efficiency furnace. Contact us at (617) 288-2911 anytime. We offer 24-hour emergency service and can repair most makes and models of residential heating equipment.

Ventilation Is Important For Heating Equipment

Last week, I discussed the need to keep plumbing ventilation free from obstructions, and what can happen to vents that are blocked, disconnected or improperly installed. This week, I want to focus on proper ventilation for heating equipment. Boston has had an unusual amount of snow this winter, and that can increase the need to provide maintenance for your heating vents.

Home heating equipment is designed to work with ventilation of some type. Most heating fuels create toxic gases as a byproduct of combustion, and these noxious gases are vented safely out of the home through the chimney. Preventing accidental exhaust escape is key to keeping a home and its occupants safe.

High efficiency heating equipment must have both intake and exhaust ventilation ports. These ports must be kept free of debris and must not be obstructed by the buildup of snow, ice, or stored objects. Reducing the airflow into and away from the heating unit can cause operating problems, decreased efficiency, unexpected equipment shutdowns, and improper venting of exhaust gases back into the living space.

Keep all heating vents clear of obstructions at all times. Maintain a 3′ clear, unobstructed space around any heating vents that exit the sidewall of your home. During heavy snowfalls, make sure that the vents are open and unobstructed. This may involve clearing away snow and ice that could be accumulating around the vent pipes. If you find that you are often required to clear accumulating snow and ice away from your heating intake and exhaust ports, you may want to consider moving the ports to a more sheltered location, or venting your heating equipment through the roof of your home.

One special note about chimneys: chimneys are generally designed to reduce or eliminate the possibility of obstruction by organic materials and debris that might otherwise enter the opening at the top of the chimney. Chimneys can become blocked or obstructed over time by the build-up of ash, creosote and other physical by-products of combustion. They can also be obstructed by the deterioration of the chimney itself. If your heating equipment vents out of the chimney, have your chimney inspected periodically for signs of deterioration, and correct any problems you find.

If you have a fireplace or wood-burning stove that you use for supplemental heat, pay special attention to your chimney(s). Creosote, which is a product of the incomplete combustion of wood or coal, can accumulate inside a chimney over time. The accumulation of creosote in the chimney reduces the chimney’s ability to draft air upward. This, in turn, reduces the overall amount of air available to the wood/fuel, which lowers the temperature of the fire and promotes the production of creosote. Over time, it creates the conditions that lead to chimney fires. Before each heating season, have your fireplace or wood-burning stove inspected. Check the flue for proper operation, and monitor the build up of creosote.

Replacing older, low-efficiency heating equipment with high-efficiency models can reduce or eliminate the need for supplemental heat, and can make your home safer during the winter heating season.

For more information about high-efficiency home heating equipment, rebates, special financing programs and tax credits that you may be able to take advantage of, please contact us at Boston Standard Plumbing & Heating at (617) 288-2911. We’ll be happy to assess your current heating equipment and show you how you can save money on your winter heating bills.

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High Efficiency IBC Boiler Can Make A Big Difference

If you need to replace your condensing boiler, here’s an attractive option you should consider. IBC makes a line of high-efficiency condensing boilers that offer exceptional performance and durability.

One of the nicest features of this line of boilers is the stainless steel heat exchanger. Because the heat exchanger is made from stainless steel, you’ll get the long-life performance you’ve been looking for, as well as outstanding efficiency. Stainless steel offers significant protection against corrosion and deterioration, which means you replace the heat exchanger less often and enjoy high efficiency operation longer than you would with a traditional heat exchanger design.

Using a properly sized boiler can help you manage your heating costs. Unfortunately, most older boilers aren’t properly sized for the space they heat. An undersized boiler can’t keep up with your need for heat. An oversized boiler not only works harder and less efficiently, it also performs less consistently and negatively impacts the comfort of your home. IBC residential boilers come in a range of sizes, so you can increase efficiency and lower the cost of operation by installing the right boiler for your particular application.

Because IBC boilers offer such a high efficiency rating, they qualify for some very attractive rebates and incentives. Residential IBC boilers are rated with an AFUE of 95.7% or better and qualify for some rebates through the State of Massachusetts.

In addition, IBC’s residential boilers are all designed with built-in outdoor reset controls, so the boiler will operate at peak efficiency and give consistent performance, no matter what the temperature outside is doing. Outdoor reset controls help to maintain the efficient operation of your boiler based on the differential between the outside air temperature and the inside temperature of your home. The outdoor reset control acts like a fine-tuning adjustment to ensure that your boiler heats only to the temperature required to heat your home. The outdoor reset control prevents your boiler from heating to maximum temperature unnecessarily.

IBC residential boilers are wall-mounted units, so they offer a compact profile, multidirectional piping options for maximum installation flexibility, and quiet operation. Homeowners can expect reliable, long-life performance from an IBC boiler. IBC boilers can operate on either natural gas or propane, and can be vented directly or through an existing chimney. IBC boilers also have a limited lifetime warranty.

If you would like more information about IBC boilers, their stainless steel heat exchangers, or even outfitting your existing boiler with an outdoor reset control, contact us at Boston Standard Plumbing & Heating at (617) 288-2911 anytime. You can also like Boston Standard Plumbing on Facebook!

Heating Season Can Bring Added Hazards

We’re in the middle of heating season in Boston, and with the economy being as tight as it is, this information bears repeating: carbon monoxide (CO) dangers are sharply increased, so it makes sense to pay attention to what you may not see, feel or even recognize!

CO is a colorless, odorless gas. It can be a natural by-product of combustion and it will kill you, your family or anyone else it comes in contact with. CO is usually vented out of homes through the chimney or other direct-vent system. You’ll encounter it wherever you burn natural gas or other fuels (like wood, charcoal, kerosene or oil) for heat.

In the winter, some people attempt to use their gas stoves as an alternative, supplemental or even a primary heat source, especially during power outages. They rationalize that it should be safe, since the gas that flows from the burner is “completely” consumed, doesn’t require additional venting and shouldn’t pose a hazard to humans.

Nothing is farther from the truth. Gas stoves used as heat sources can certainly cause carbon monoxide build-ups in the home and should never be used for anything other than cooking. Your kitchen should also be equipped with ventilation equipment to prevent CO buildup from cooking. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has determined that CO in concentrations as little as 100 parts per million is hazardous to human health. In other words, it doesn’t take much CO to put you and your family at risk.

New building codes now require CO sensors to operate in close proximity to unvented gas-burning appliances (like stoves), but these rules don’t apply to existing structures and existing gas-burning equipment.

A common misconception about CO poisoning is that it happens over a long period of time. Actually, CO poisoning can happen in a matter of minutes. Long-term exposure to CO can cause permanent heart and neurological problems. The very young and very old are also at increased risk of experiencing permanent physical damage from CO exposure.

You should recognize the symptoms of CO poisoning and make sure your home has working CO detectors at all times. The most common symptoms of CO poisoning are dizziness and nausea, shortness of breath, mild headaches, light-headedness, chest pain, confusion, agitation, visual changes, hallucinations and impaired judgment.

If you begin to experience any of these symptoms, or encounter someone else who is, it’s important to get that person outside immediately. If the symptoms improve with exposure to fresh air, do not return to the building. Instead, call 911 for medical assistance and have the affected person(s) medically evaluated at a hospital. Your local fire department will vent the affected space and attempt to locate the source of the CO leak.

If you have experienced a CO leak, have all of your fuel-burning appliances checked by a heating and cooling professional before returning them to service.

CO leaks in appliances can happen without warning, or they can be the result of deferred maintenance over a long period of time. The heating and cooling professionals at Boston Standard Plumbing & Heating can help you maintain your heating and cooling equipment and avoid CO mishaps. Contact us at (617) 288-2911 to schedule an inspection of your heating and cooling equipment today.

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.

Dual Flush Valve Great Plumbing DIY Project

The good news is that I’m not in the shower this week, but I am still in the bathroom. Virtually, that is. A couple of weeks ago, I profiled a couple of low-flow showerheads that are designed to save water. This week, I’m featuring a dual-flush valve kit that can work with any conventional toilet. For homeowners in Boston, plumbing may not be a specialty, but this DIY project can certainly save water (and money) with each flush.

Water-saving toilets will play an increasingly important role in urban water-conservation efforts. If you live in an area where fresh water is relatively plentiful, you may not think much about water conservation. On the other hand, if you live in the desert, your water bill may be as much of a concern to you every month as heating in Boston would be in the winter.

Enter the HydroRight dual flush valve, designed to fit to conventional toilets. The valve replaces your standard flush handle with a two-button control. Use the upper button when you want to flush away liquid and paper only. This empties the holding tank just halfway and still clears the bowl adequately. For clearing solid waste, the lower button provides the standard full flush. Using this approach, you can reduce the water usage of an average toilet by about 30%.

This is the ideal DIY project. Installing the HydroRight valve requires no tools, no tank removal and is a done deal within about ten minutes. It also eliminates the dreaded chain and handle – common failures in standard flush toilets – and replaces the flapper valve – one of the usual suspects when it comes to leaky tanks. You can also find the HydroRight valve at your favorite home improvement stores for about $20. Depending upon how much you flush, you can recover the cost of the dual flush valve in less than a year, and you’ll be doing your part to help the environment, too.

Draining A Boiler In Your Boston Home

In my last post, I talked about winterizing a property that will be vacant/unheated over the winter. In this post, I’ll talk about how to drain and winterize a boiler-based heat system in your Boston home.

If you have a boiler, you’ll need to turn off the heating source and drain the water from the system if you expect the home to be vacant during the winter months. Turn off the main circuit breaker that powers your boiler controls and if needed, extinguish any gas or fuel feeding the burner by closing off the appropriate valves, or extinguishing the pilot light. You’ll need to let the water in the system cool for two to three hours before you drain it. Turn off the main water supply for the boiler.

At the base of the boiler, you’ll find a drain port that looks like a garden faucet. Attach a garden hose to the drain and direct the water to a floor drain, utility tub or sump well. Because a hot water or steam heat system is pressurized, you’ll need to open the bleeder valve on the radiator located at the highest point in the house. Make sure all of the other radiators in the system are able to drain. Depending upon the size of the tank, the draining process may also take a while to complete.

At Boston Standard Plumbing & Heating, we add anti-freeze to boiler systems to prevent residual water from freezing and to inhibit corrosion of the empty system. We can also assist with refilling a formerly inactive system and bleeding the air out of the radiators and pipes.

As a side note, boiler water doesn’t smell very good. This is not unusual and doesn’t indicate a problem, but it is the sign of a biologically active process. (Yes, some water-borne bacteria can survive boiling.) The smell may be stronger if the boiler water has been stagnant for awhile, such as might be the case during the summer. If the smell of the water is bothersome, open a window or use a fan to provide fresh air during the draining process.

Regular boiler maintenance is important. You should be draining a boiler about once each year. Doing so will give you the opportunity to spot corrosion problems, and will also allow you to refresh the rust inhibitor in the system. Proper boiler maintenance can extend the life of your tank, too.

When you need to drain the boiler for winterization, you don’t need to do anything special, however you may want to provide a little extra attention to the system when you refill and restart it. Rust inhibitor is a must, and bleeding the air out of the system will help reduce noise and uneven heating throughout the home.
At Boston Standard Plumbing & Heating, we’re trained to maintain, winterize and restart boiler heat systems. If you want help or a consultation, please call (617) 288-2911. We’re available around the clock to help you with all of your heating needs.

Winterizing Your Home, Part 2: Carbon Monoxide Kills

In my last post, I talked about winterizing your Boston home from the outside. Making sure that water can get away from your home is key to preventing leaks. Draining sprinkler lines and faucets can help prevent freezing damage to valves and lines. Winterizing the outside of your home is only half of the battle. There’s plenty to do inside to get your Boston home ready for winter.

On the inside, your first priority is safety. Have your furnace or heating plant inspected annually by a trained, licensed heating and cooling professional. This is essential, especially if you have a high-efficiency furnace. In the grand scheme of things, high efficiency furnaces don’t have a very long life and problems can arise without warning. Carbon monoxide (CO) leaks can kill in a very short period of time. A furnace inspection, along with the installation (or testing) of carbon monoxide detectors can mean the difference between life and death.

Having a lower-efficiency furnace or boiler doesn’t mean you’re safe, though. These systems can also develop dangerous problems that can allow carbon monoxide to leak into the living space. If you do not know how to inspect your furnace or heating system for problems, please contact Boston Standard Plumbing & Heating. We’re always happy to help keep your home safe and comfortable in the winter.

Any gas-burning appliance (furnace, boiler, gas dryer, gas stove) can create carbon monoxide. CO is a sign that natural gas is not burning completely. Gas stoves burn natural gas almost entirely and do not normally require any special ventilation. If you notice that your “blue flame” is yellow or orange, your stove may be having a problem. If you smell natural gas when the stove is not in use, ventilate your kitchen immediately. Turn the gas valve off and vacate your home. Contact the gas company or Boston Standard Plumbing and Heating. We can locate and correct gas leaks around your major appliances.

Gas dryers, water heaters, furnaces, and boilers must all vent to the outside. Do not attempt to heat a basement or laundry space with venting from a gas dryer. You’ll end up with pretty wet air (which can encourage mold and mildew growth), and you could unknowingly allow CO into your living space.

Also, do not run a fuel-burning generator of any kind in or near your living space. This includes basements, utility rooms, and attached or closed garages. Kerosene and diesel generators must be vented to the outside, because like other combustible fuel burners, they generate lethal amounts of CO.

If you have any questions about your heating plant, gas-fired appliances, or back-up generators, please contact Boston Standard Plumbing & Heating at (617) 288-2911. We can inspect your heating plant and gas appliances, and correct any issues, add or replace safety valves and help you ensure that your home is ready for the heating season.

Winterizing Your Boston Home Can Save Money, Time

As the fall temperatures turn colder, most Boston homeowners are thinking about winterizing their homes. This post has a few tips for helping to reduce heating costs by winterizing your Boston home. In future posts, I’ll help you winterize a home that is (or will be) vacant during the winter months.

The first step in getting your home ready for the winter is to take a good look at it, from both the inside and the outside. From the outside, you want to spot areas where cold air, snow, ice or water can enter your home. Damaged vents, cracked windows or windows that don’t fit well in their frames, leaks or holes in the roof can all cause your heating system to work harder than it needs to. Fix any damaged vents, but don’t cover them completely. The purpose of the vent is to remove moisture from your home. Sealing a vent will trap moisture in your home and cause mold and other air quality problems in your living space.

Check the vent stacks that exit your home through the roof or walls. Make sure the vent lines for your plumbing and heating systems are open and completely free of debris. High-efficiency heating units rely on outdoor ventilation to operate properly. Some vent stacks have mesh caps that prevent small animals, and debris from accumulating in the vent stack. If you have stack covers, make sure they’re in good shape.

As long as you have the ladder out, clear out the gutters and downspouts. This will help melting snow drain away from your home’s roof and foundation, and can help prevent leaks, ice damming and other water problems throughout the winter. It will also discourage the collection of moisture in or near the foundation of your home, which can lengthen the life of your heating and cooling equipment, your plumbing and your water heater.

If you have a central air conditioner unit, remove any leaves or other organic debris around the unit. Most central A/C units are designed to stand up to the cold weather, but keeping debris and drain lines clear can never hurt. If you have window air conditioners, remove them if you can. You can purchase covers for the units to keep snow and ice out, but for the sake of energy efficiency, the units should be removed, cleaned and stored for the winter.

Winterize your outdoor faucets. To do this, close the shutoff valve, usually located inside the home, near the spot where the faucet line exits the home. Disconnect the hose, if one is attached. Drain the hose and stow it away for the winter. Open the faucet valve from the outside and let any remaining water drain away. If the faucet handle is detachable, you may want to remove the key and store this for the winter, too. If you have a water supply line for an outdoor pool, shut this off at the valve and drain it by opening the faucet to let standing water escape.

If you have underground sprinklers, shut the water off at the inside valve and drain the system. You may have to blow air through the system to remove the water and dry the lines out. Do not leave standing water in your sprinkler system over the winter. You can damage the lines and heads if you do.

If you have storm drains on your property, keep them free of leaves and other organic matter that may accumulate in the fall. This will help melting snow drain away when the weather warms.

In the next post, I’ll give some suggestions for winterizing the inside of your home. In the mean time, if you have any questions or concerns about your plumbing, or need repair work done in advance of the colder weather, please contact us at (617) 288-2911.

Time To Start Thinking About Furnace Inspections In Boston

This summer’s heat in Boston has been intense, to say the least, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to put off furnace maintenance. As hard as it is to believe, we’re less than two months away from the start of the heating season, so now is a good time to start thinking about furnace maintenance and furnace inspections in Boston.

Regardless of what type of heating plant you have in your home, inspecting the system while the weather is still warm is a great idea. If a major problem is found, you’ll have time to get second opinions, make careful decisions and plan how to pay for the repairs. This entry will concentrate on gas forced-air furnaces, but I’ll also cover other heating systems (like hot water and steam boilers) in my next posts.

Gas forced air (GFA) furnaces should be inspected yearly for signs of mechanical wear and damage to the heat exchanger. High efficiency furnaces are especially vulnerable to problems like cracks forming in the heat exchanger. A cracked heat exchanger can cause carbon monoxide (CO) to seep into the home, placing everyone in the home at serious risk of illness or even death.

A basic furnace safety inspection should include an evaluation of the furnace’s heat exchanger for signs of damage. This is one repair that cannot be put off. Do not use your furnace if an inspection reveals a cracked or broken heat exchanger. The safety inspection should also include an inspection of the chimney for signs of debris or fouling. Debris should be removed because it will impede the release of CO from your gas appliances. Finally, the safety inspection should include an evaluation of the piping and shut-off valves that control the gas flow to the furnace.

The pilot light (if your furnace has one) and the thermocouple should be inspected and cleaned if needed. The thermostat operation should be verified. (If you have an old mercury-based thermostat, now would be a great time to consider upgrading to a programmable one.) The burners on the furnace should be checked, cleaned (if needed) and set properly for ignition and combustion.

The motor, fan and blower should be cleaned, checked and adjusted, and all belts should be inspected for wear. Finally, the filter should be replaced. As a tip, stock up on filters and replace them monthly. Clean filters will improve the efficiency of the furnace by keeping the mechanicals clean, and will improve the air quality in your home.
Boston Standard Plumbing & Heating can assist with furnace inspections and repairs of all kinds. If you would like more information about our inspection and maintenance services, or would like to schedule an inspection, please contact us at (617) 288-2911.