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Contractor Frank Spadacenta recently had an unusual customer request for a boiler replacement project.

While most homeowners just ask about project cost, anticipated energy savings, and duration of the project, the homeowner in Clinton, Connecticut, wanted to learn about the details of his new propane heating system.

“What intrigued him most was boiler modulation, lack of a pilot flame, and the minimal standby heat loss of today’s water heaters,” says Spadacenta, who owns Royal Plumbing and Heating in East Haven, Connecticut. “You can tell he really likes to wrap his head around stuff, and it was fun discussing it with him.”

The analytical homeowner’s attention to technology is an exception to the rule. But the story highlights the remarkable advances boiler technology has made in the 20-year lifespan of a typical boiler that now needs to be replaced. And for contractors and plumbers looking to increase their boiler replacement business, it underscores the importance of staying well-trained and up to date on the latest technology and installation practices — so your homeowners can simply enjoy their improved heating performance.

33 Percent Savings

While the curiosity of Spadacenta’s customer was unique, the project was fairly typical. The 2,000-square-foot, 18-year-old home was still heated with the original oil boiler through fin-tube baseboard in four zones. The boiler was operating at about 75 percent efficiency, and the customer wanted to get a higher-efficiency system before another brutal winter set in. The customer already used propane for a room heater and fireplace insert, and after learning that a neighbor’s high-efficiency gas condensing boiler was running at 95 percent efficiency, he decided to replace his oil boiler with a condensing propane system.

Spadacenta, who specializes in commercial and residential hydronic heating, installed a 150,000 Btu/hour Alpine condensing boiler from U.S. Boiler Company. He projects the new system will save at least $1,500 a year, or 33 percent of the homeowner’s heating bill.

While 85 percent efficient cast iron boilers remain an economical choice for homes converting from oil to propane or natural gas heat, condensing gas boilers like the Alpine provide the best system efficiency with optimized plumbing, radiation, and intelligent zone controls, says David Hansen, residential product marketing manager for U.S. Boiler.

The intelligent zone controls are a prime example of a high-tech feature that can make a big difference in efficiency and comfort, Hansen says. “We believe that the trick to this whole thing is to try and keep the firing rates as low and as steady as possible. And the first step in that is having the system understand what the demand is.” Intelligent zone controls such as U.S. Boiler’s Sage Zone Control can calculate the demand from one zone or multiple zones, measure supply water temperature, and adjust maximum firing rates starting at low fire.

 “Consumers expect and get superior comfort from properly installed hydronic heating systems that maintain the most consistent temperatures.”

With features like zone controls, condensing propane boilers can make heating a home not just more energy efficient, but also more comfortable and reliable. “The key to all this is consistency,” Hansen says. “Consumers expect and get superior comfort from properly installed hydronic heating systems that maintain the most consistent temperatures, preventing unwanted cool periods and hot flashes in the home.”

Proper boiler sizing, as well as other technologies like high modulation turndown and outdoor temperature monitoring, help extend boiler run times and lower heating water temperatures, Hansen says. That increases temperature consistency, optimizes comfort, and reduces fuel usage. Consistency also reduces the wear and tear of excessive boiler on/off cycling and increases reliability.

While the latest technologies can make a big difference in performance for homeowners converting to propane from oil, another factor plays an important role in customer satisfaction. “Perhaps the best technology is the skill and knowledge of a good heating contractor that stays well-trained on the equipment and practices that provide the best value to consumers,” Hansen says.

One resource contractors can use to stay up to date is the Propane Training Academy. “Heating Oil Conversion: Exploring Propane as a Viable Alternative Energy Source” covers some of the considerations that building pros should be aware of for customers converting to another energy source. The course is a valuable year-round training opportunity, but there’s additional incentive to take it now: Complete the course by Dec. 1, 2015, and you’ll be automatically entered into a drawing to win a $250 gift card. That’s a win-win for you and your customers.

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Jeffrey Lee