Steam Or Hot Water Boilers: Does It Matter?

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If your home uses any form of radiant heating, then it's likely that a boiler powers the system. While some radiant heating systems use direct electric heating or a traditional water heater, the majority of whole home radiant systems have a boiler at their core. Despite the name, your boiler may not actually boil water at all. Home boilers typically fall into two categories: steam and hot water. As their names imply, these boilers differ primarily in water temperature.

It's All About Energy

When your boiler heats water, it converts energy from its fuel into heat. The water then acts as a transport medium, bringing that heat to each room in your home. Unlike purely convective heaters, radiant heaters do more than just heat the air around them. By radiating heat, they directly warm nearby surfaces. This effect generally creates a warmer, more comfortable environment than more modern forced air systems, which is why some homeowners still prefer this method of heating.

Of course, the level of heating is dependent on the amount of energy transferred to the water by the boiler. Hot water boilers impart less energy into the water than steam boilers, allowing them to provide heating more efficiently. On the other hand, steam boilers heat water to its boiling it. This level of heating requires more energy, but it also allows the radiators to reach higher temperatures.

Why Aren't Steam Boilers More Common?

Steam boilers used to be a standard method for heating both homes and commercial structures, but they have fallen out of favor in recent years. While these boilers still offer several advantages, their high-energy usage and maintenance costs tend to deter many homeowners. The high temperatures and pressures make them compelling options for larger buildings, and radiators can be especially useful for heating large spaces. For these reasons, many commercial structures (especially older buildings) still use steam boilers, even if they are less common in households.

One unique characteristic of some steam boiler systems is the ability to use a single pipe for both supply and return lines. Pressurized steam works its way through this pipe to each radiator, eventually condensing as it cools and dripping back to the boiler.

The Alternative: Hot Water Boilers

Modern homes with radiant systems typically use hot water boilers instead of steam boilers. Hot water units are generally more reliable and they produce enough heat to heat typical residential spaces effectively. Since these boilers do not produce steam, they cannot rely on the single pipe systems that some steam boilers use. Instead, hot water radiant heating must use both a hot water supply line and a cold water return line to bring water back to the boiler. Despite the added initial cost in plumbing, these systems are often much cheaper to run due to their higher energy efficiency.

No matter the type of boiler that your home's radiant heating system uses, proper maintenance is essential for its safe operation and long life. Schedule yearly inspections with an HVAC professional trained in boiler maintenance to ensure that your boiler can continue to serve you for years to come.

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31 January 2020

HVAC System Repair Guides

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