Factcheck: How Wasteful are Steam Boilers?

Vintage boilers are common in older apartment buildings and homes, complete with their delightful clanking radiators. (As anyone who has tried to sleep in a room with a radiator going full bore can testify, it's not the most fun noise in the world.) Sure, in an ideal world we'd replace them all with more efficient heating systems, but if that's not an option, how bad is it to run a steam radiator, and is there anything you can do to make it better for the environment?

You may have heard the claim that it's better to just leave a boiler going full steam ahead, because it takes so much energy to bring it to temperature. We're pleased to report that this is just a bunch of hot air: just as with other kinds of heat, it takes energy to make heat, and the warmer the heater is set, the more energy is needed.

Photo: xlibber/FlickrIf you turn your thermostats down, the heater's energy use will decrease, and guess what? When you turn them back up, there's not a sudden spike in energy demand as the boiler comes back on line again. Over time, you can achieve significant energy savings by turning the boiler down when you're sleeping or not at home. (All the way off can be a bad idea because your house benefits from being kept at a minimum temperature -- too cold and mold, wood warping, and other problems can develop.)

There are lots of ways to make your boiler more environmentally friendly. Consider going for a programmable thermostat so you can set your home temperatures to be warm when you need them and cool when you don't; as for example when you're getting up in the morning and could use an incentive to leave the covers. Radiator reflectors are also a great idea, because they'll push heat into the room. Furthermore, get your heating system checked annually and perform any recommended routine maintenance -- it will increase efficiency and extend the life of your boiler.

You should also, of course, make sure you have good weatherstripping as well as good air circulation in your home (to carry warm air throughout). One upgrade you may want to add to the list of things to do eventually if it hasn't been done already is double-paned windows for heat conservation, and heavy drapes will also help in the cold winter months. Your Minneapolis renovation company can help you determine which energy upgrades you should tackle first for your home.

If your radiators are not warming up fairly quickly when you turn the boiler back up, that's not some inherent flaw in the system. That's a sign that something is going wrong, and you need to have a boiler technician come and take a look. The problem may be relatively easy to fix, or it might provide the final death knell in your boiler's long and illustrious life. You can talk to the repairperson about the options available to you and what kinds of affordable, energy-efficient heating systems you can consider to replace the boiler.

Katie Marks writes for Networx.com.

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