Choosing the right kind of boiler — whether for a new facility or a retrofit - is an important decision. Many plants and facilities rely on steam for applications like heating, cooking, hot water, sterilization and much more. By choosing the right boiler, you will notice significant savings in energy, space, money and time.
Although a good steam boiler lasts for many years, boilers have evolved over time and there are now more benefits to newer, updated models. Sustainability, environmental responsibility and energy efficiency are top-of-mind across all industries and, as a result, boiler manufacturers are perfecting strategies to become more energy and fuel-efficient. Boilers using coal to operate are quickly becoming a thing of the past as natural gas, propane, biogas and fuel oil are all on the rise.

Investing in new boilers can be pricey, but the right choice can significantly impact the bottom line through decreased utility costs, a decrease in utility plant size and lower life-cycle costs. These systems are used in a variety of industries such food-processing plants and breweries and each choose their boilers based on the work they set out to accomplish. Therefore, a beer brewery may not be interested in the same kind of boiler as another type of facility, or the same boiler may need to be tuned completely differently for each application.

When designing a new or retrofit boiler room, the following tips will help you make the best decision for your facility:

1. Consider Space Requirements

Does your company value space? For engineers, it’s an attractive way to pitch the idea of creating a smaller boiler room; freeing up a great portion of square footage to utilize in other ways.

A recent bulletin on commercial boilers from the Federal Energy Management Program (FEMP) states, “If building loads are highly variable, as is common in commercial buildings, designers should consider installing multiple small (modular) boilers. Modular systems are more efficient because they allow each boiler to operate at or close to full-rated load most of the time, with reduced standby losses.”

Modular boilers only need about half the space as a traditional, bulky boiler, meaning that instead of one large unit, you could fit multiple smaller units that don’t have to be powered up all at once. They also no longer have space requirements of standard tube-pull and door-swing designs.

2. Calculate Horsepower Requirements

The majority of facilities have varying steam demands, yet employ fire-tube designs that run at maximum demand at all times. Would you buy a car that needs to run idle all night, or one that takes 90 minutes to warm up before you can drive it? Of course not, and the same concept should apply to your facility’s boilers.

The inclination is for engineers to design for the worst-case scenario, one in which every piece of equipment is at maximum load at the same moment. However, take a step back, and think about what you actually need during various times of the day.

In sizing your boiler system, it is important to know the maximum demand, minimum demand and average demand. The smallest individual module should be sized to meet the minimum demand. Some modular systems may need the same module sizes for best performance. However, newer technology can accommodate different-sized modules to be easily controlled.

3. Know the Efficiency Rating for Your Boiler

Boiler efficiency has a direct impact on fuel savings. Contact your boiler company to see if they can conduct efficiency tests on your current system. Your boiler company should also be able to provide you with efficiency ratings to help you determine whether or not you would need to upgrade your boiler room.

Environmentally efficient boilers should work to reduce emissions, which include nitrogen oxide and carbon dioxide. Modular, on-demand steam units can meet these requirements with a NOx (nitrogen oxide) rating as low as 9 ppm under certain conditions. Facility managers are also encouraged to look into the different LEED certification requirements.

4. Consider the Age of Your Boiler

Boilers have been made the same way since the mid-1800s. However, that’s not necessarily a good thing. Think back to the car example; would you rather buy a classic muscle car that guzzles gas and requires constant (expensive) maintenance or an electric hybrid vehicle that requires little fuel and is designed for maximum efficiency and speed?

5. Do Not Be Afraid of Technology

Look for systems that have sophisticated internal controls that can be managed both by user-friendly interfaces that you control, as well as off-site monitoring by boiler technicians. These features greatly prevent and reduce maintenance and repair costs. Remote monitoring also provides peace of mind to you — the manager or operator — who has so many other things to think about.

6. Think Safety, Safety, Safety

Ever seen a boiler room explosion? It is not pretty, and can be a public relations, human relations and financial disaster. One of the main reasons for a boiler explosion is directly related to the energy stored in high-temperature/high-pressure water. The more water in the boiler, the more time it takes to heat up. If it overheats, that’s thousands of gallons of water in a volatile environment, thus turning the pressure vessel into a projectile. Luckily there are safer alternatives. Look for boilers that specialize in low water content of around 80 to 100 gal, which vastly reduces catastrophic failures.

7. Factor In the Cost to Purchase

The cost to purchase a boiler can vary greatly depending upon brand, type, size, output and other contributing factors. Don’t be afraid of a higher up-front cost, and know how to calculate life-cycle costs. Again, back to the car example; you may have bought that muscle car for a steal, but over time it continues to eat away at your wallet.

What you may think is the cheaper option, may end up being the most expensive throughout the life of the boiler when you consider operational costs. If you’re in the market for a complete system (boiler, feed water tank, chemicals and other ancillary products), then look for a manufacturer who supplies and provides everything you need. They will often have deals or incentives for “a complete boiler room solution.”

8. Know the Costs Associated with Your Boiler

Keep an eye out for savings in fuel, water, labor and maintenance — not just the cost of the unit itself. A low efficiency, traditional boiler purchased for $75,000 can easily waste its purchase price within one year compared to a high-efficiency design.

Savings can be broken down into three general categories: Initial cost, maintenance and boiler efficiency (energy, water usage, fuel, etc.).

The smallest part of an overall boiler investment is the initial cost. While capital expenditure and maintenance costs should be carefully analyzed, running costs will determine the ongoing health and survival of your company. The best method to maximize your investment year in and year out is to understand ALL the costs of your boiler operation.

9. Look for a Warranty for Your Pressure Vessel

This may sound like a far-fetched idea, but there are companies that provide a warranty against damages caused by corrosion and scale. There may be certain criteria to be met, but be sure to do your homework and ask around for the pressure vessel to be guaranteed. Doing so will likely save money in the long run and provide peace of mind.

10. Consider Boiler Suppliers Carefully

Because steam boilers are used for so many different purposes, the importance of finding the perfect boiler for your industry cannot be stressed enough. However, all industries are becoming more aware and concerned with energy consumption, gas pricing and operational efficiency. For this reason, more facility operators are turning to systems that not only address these issues, but also those that can adapt and grow with the needs of the facility.

Ultimately, when deciding to upgrade or purchase a boiler system, the key consideration is the long-term cost savings with regard to space, time and energy. Lastly, never discount the value of choosing a reputable brand, but make sure they offer a support network to meet your current and future needs.