Boilers boilers boilers
August 9, 2012 7:21 AM   Subscribe

Can you tell me how to buy a boiler?

So we bought a new house, and one of the tasks that fell on my side of the list is 'Replace the boiler' (which was indicated during inspection and subsequent inspection from a boiler guy.)

I have only a trace idea of how boilers work. I've contacted three seller/contractors to come in, take a look, and give me estimates, which I will then compare and try to figure out.

I'm a little bit worried that this is going to be like buying a car, where they just dazzle you with options and things you don't know (or care) about until you find yourself writing a huge check to some guy you don't trust for reasons you don't fully understand just to bring the transaction to a conclusion. I'm not feeling very confidant, in other words.

Can you give me the basic principles of what I want in a boiler, or by all means, pick a boiler for me? It's a 2700 square foot house with zone baseboard heating using oil as a source. We live in New England. Those two sentences encompass all that I know about buying a boiler or how to calculate our needs. We don't want the Finest Boiler In All The Land and we don't want a piece of junk that will fall apart next year.

Is there any way I can make this easy?
posted by A Terrible Llama to Home & Garden (23 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Go to the website of your utlity company (gas company?) they should have a program for rebates for upgrading your equipment to more energy efficient equipment. They will have subcontractors working with them. They are typically great folks who have been vetted up one side and down the other, have insurance, etc. As a subcontractor, if you have an issue, you can always go back to the utility as your advocate.

You may want to replace the boiler with a tankless hot water heater and a new HVAC system.

Are you on a natural gas line? Does it make sense to convert to Electric systems.

Again, start with your utility company.

Here's a page from NSTAR.

Here's a page from National Grid.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:30 AM on August 9, 2012

So, the thing is if you're already on the hook for a new boiler, and you lock yourself into a cheap oil boiler, you've committed to that fuel type for the next 10-15 years. The price of heating oil is only going up. So I you can, it probably would be in you long term favor to convert to natural gas or electric.

There are often pretty cheap loans out there for conversions, and in some parts of Maine here, the payback in your energy savings is sometimes as low as the three year mark.

If you install a new oil boiler now, and convert it over before it is obsolete, you will probably be losing bricks of money.
posted by furnace.heart at 7:35 AM on August 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

You're on the right track. If you know anyone in the construction trade, you might want to get some recommendations for Heating/AC companies in your area and make sure you're dealing with entities that can be trusted.

I agree with those that have stated that a switch to natural gas might be wise if it is possible.
posted by HuronBob at 7:45 AM on August 9, 2012

I'm a little bit worried that this is going to be like buying a car, where they just dazzle you with options and things you don't know (or care) about

Well, not really. The issue with cars is that there are an almost infinite number of options. Boilers in particular and even HVAC systems in general are, by comparison, pretty uninteresting. The main consideration is probably how big a system you need. That's trivial. If you're set on your fuel type, your "options" mostly just have to do with how much capacity you've got. Too little and the place will never warm up/cool down. Too much, and you just spent a lot of money you didn't need to spend.
posted by valkyryn at 7:48 AM on August 9, 2012

Best answer: I can't believe I forgot this!

There are federal tax rebates for upgrading. This is serious money. Between the rebates i got from my gas company and the feds, I paid for the upgrade to a tankless hot water heater! (and let me tell you, unlimited hot water is delicious)

Energy Star
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:49 AM on August 9, 2012

I know nothing about boilers but this is my anecdote: I once lived in a New England apartment that was heated by an ancient boiler which the service guys said it was ridiculous that the landlords refused to replace with a newer model. It had a pilot light and when the pilot light went out you evidently had to call a service technician to re-light it.

The one time that this happened for me it was fortunately in the late spring before the summer I moved out so I simply didn't bother. I just feel it necessary to mention the existence of this anti-feature as it seems incredibly stupid to me, since lighting a fire is literally the oldest and most developed form of human technology and were I to buy a boiler I would want one I could light myself.
posted by XMLicious at 8:01 AM on August 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

new boilers no longer have pilot lights, they all have electronic ignition.
posted by HuronBob at 8:10 AM on August 9, 2012

If you live in Massachusetts, my experience is that NSTAR won't recommend anyone - they'll send you to the BBB. I had six plumbers come to my house to replace a tiny gas boiler. With all of the services already in place, they all said the same thing: "about $10,000." None would explain where that estimate came from, why it worked out to anywhere between $200 and $650 an hour (the time estimates were all over the place). They seem to take the blasted rebates into account and just price their services higher to get as much cash out of you as possible. I've asked other homeowners, all of whom (including me) have lived in other states, and we concluded that plumbing in Mass is just a huge mess. Oh, and you're only allowed to buy boilers (and every other kind of plumbing fixtures, even sink faucets) if they're code approved for Mass, something no other state does. Good luck - I'm just going to keep what we have and sell it on, unless it literally stops working.
posted by 1adam12 at 8:11 AM on August 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I live in MA, and as of Monday, my 19-year old cast iron oil boiler has been replaced with a modern, 96% efficient gas-fired Alpine boiler.

I went through the process via a HEAT loan, which is a 0% 7-year loan that covers the cost of the equipment and installation, net any rebates (in my case, about $2k worth). I started that process by calling the folks at Mass Save (, having a free energy audit done, and then applied for the HEAT loan via a local credit union. Within a couple of weeks, I had a plumber secured (happy to give a reference if you're in the Boston/MA area), who provided me with a quote. That quote let me get the loan, and I signed the check over to him. He installed the boiler and indirect hot water system, Mass Save did a final inspection, and that was that.
posted by ellF at 8:20 AM on August 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

I live in MA, and I strongly recommend switching to natural gas if it's available. It will pay for itself in a few years. Also, the natural gas line to your house won't unexpectedly be empty on a freezing Sunday, necessitating an extra expensive emergency delivery, unlike an oil tank if you don't pay attention.
We switched from oil to natural gas when we bought our house. Here are some things I learned:
- In Massachusetts, it's illegal to have an oil tank in your basement if you aren't using it. I assume this is similar in other states. If you switch, you'll have to get it removed. They are not reusable, so you'll be paying someone to come and junk it. Your gas company may subsidize this. For us it would have ended up costing $250, except that our amazing heating company somehow talked them into paying us for it. I have no idea how this happened.
- If you get a high efficiency model, you can get a good rebate. Do it. It more than makes up for the price difference between the expensive and cheap models.
- If, an hour or so after your first oil delivery, your house smells strongly of oil, your oil tank is leaking. Place something under it to catch the oil IMMEDIATELY.
- If your oil tank leaks into your basement, it costs approximately $1k to clean up every gallon of oil that hits the floor. You have to call the EPA, who will send out the fire department to see how bad the spill is.
- We realized that we were never going to have a really deep understanding of furnaces and water heaters. I got a recommendation for a particular company and they told us what size we needed, gave us some advice, we picked out a high efficiency model from Nstar, and then they came and installed it. Basically, instead of trying to learn everything ourselves, we found someone trustworthy and just did what they told us.

If you'd like a recommendation for the company who did a fantastic and very reasonably priced job with our furnace and water heater just north of Boston, MeMail me and I'll give you their info. They guided us thorough the process very well, made sure we understood what were getting, etc.
posted by Adridne at 8:41 AM on August 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I just have heat guys coming over to look at it...Guys from the companies who sell us the oil. People keep mentioning plumbers. Should I be looking into a plumber? (The people I have coming over were recommended by the realtor who just said call these guys, and call a lot of people, so you're less likely to get screwed.

So I guess this tells you how little I understand about the fundamentals: I don't even know why a plumber would be involved.

I sent an email to the power company asking if my home is a candidate for transitioning to natural gas--I kinda doubt it, given how many people seem to have oil deliveries (it's a rural area) but I'll check it out.

I'm so ignorant I had to Google 'HVAC'.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 8:41 AM on August 9, 2012

Best answer: Gas lines inside your house get installed by plumbers. They also deal with the piping for boilers -- which are water-driven devices.

Don't let a company come in and sell you something. Get an energy audit, then get quotes from well-regarded plumbers. Don't take the cheapest one.
posted by ellF at 8:51 AM on August 9, 2012

Companies that sell oil are obviously going to recommend an oil boiler, which may not be the best choice if you have the option to use gas.

I don't even know why a plumber would be involved.

Plumbers assemble pipes. Gas goes through pipes. Hot water goes through pipes. Steam goes through pipes. All these pipes get connected to boilers.
posted by jon1270 at 9:05 AM on August 9, 2012

Response by poster: The boiler is just this big robot looking thing with pipes attached and I thought the oil company guy would sell me a boiler and then reattach the pipes to a new robot thing, which would be like a shinier version of the old one.

I'm totally in over my head. I'm going to have to give back my Adult Card.

I'm genuinely intimidated by all of this. Also jealous -- Mr. Llama somehow drew 'get the dishwasher installed'.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 9:11 AM on August 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Oil heat way a mystery to us when we bought out new house 2 years ago. Don't feel bad. We didn't even think through the fact that there was an oil tank that needed refilling... till it ran empty. The day before Thanksgiving. When we had a house full of guests.

I'm with the folks above who suggest looking into gas. If you don't already have a gas line to the house there can be an expense there. Call the local gas company and find out if there's a gas line on your street; it may all be a non-issue. If the line needs to be brought to your house there's an expense that depends on distance and terrain. The gas company will likely work up a cost sharing based on your expected consumption. If you're interested in switching your hot water heater/stove/whatever to gas that'll increase consumption and increase how much they'll offset.

If you're really feeling intimidated by this process and picking a company then it might be worth your while to drop the money to get an Angie's List membership. I don't love them - their coupon thing skirts the edge of bias IMHO - but the reviews tend to be honest and when there's a fair number of them you can assume the noise averages out.

Listen, don't get yourself worked up too much about this. A boiler is exactly what it sounds like: something that boils stuff. In this case it heats water which then is circulated around through the baseboards in your house, transmitting the heat. That's it. Don't get yourself in a froth over it - just demand that the people who come through your life WANTING YOUR MONEY answer your questions to your satisfaction.

If they don't then ask again. If they can't or won't answer you to your satisfaction then screw them, there's lots of people out there who would like to have your money instead. And you have the ultimate power to slow down the transaction: you refuse to hand over the money.

You'll do fine.
posted by phearlez at 9:18 AM on August 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Oil is a fuel. Natural gas is a fuel. The latter is going to be less expensive, based on current projections, than the former.

You have a boiler, which uses oil as fuel to boil water for the provision of heat to your home. You need to replace your boiler based on its age and condition. Since you're replacing it, you should consider swapping from oil to natural gas. Natural gas is delivered from the street to your house via an underground pipe. From the exterior of yours house in, it's all piping -- which a plumber would install. Most plumbers are familiar with heating as a result, and can offer you vendor-neutral advice on equipment sizing, brands, and installation.
posted by ellF at 9:29 AM on August 9, 2012

Best answer: If you can't get natural gas, look into electric.

Boilers are worked on by plumbers because they use heated water to heat your house. Plumbers also work on natural gas fittings because the technology/piping is similar.

There are modern, energy efficient boilers, but you may be better off with a heat pump.

I live in the south, we have natural gas. I've never lived in an area where oil was delivered. It sounds like a mess, expense and hassle to me. Whereas, natural gas and electricity are things I've dealt with my entire life. I have a bias.

No matter what, look into rebate programs left, right and center.

I love ellF's suggestion to look into subsidized loans for energy efficiency, I'm going to see if Georgia has such a beast.

Once you've done this, you'll be an expert. Besides, learning about new stuff is awesome!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:30 AM on August 9, 2012

I would seriously look into Gas. Oil can even be more expensive if the oil tank leaks. I have seen it cost up to 50k to clean up an oil tank leak. Specially if its an underground oil tank leak.

I seriously would look into natural gas . My parents converted from oil to natural gas and their bills got reduced by HALF every month. We live on long island so the heat gets used once November rolls around.

Its worth converting to natural gas since you have to get a new boiler anyway.
posted by majortom1981 at 10:31 AM on August 9, 2012

Best answer: What state are you in? Lots of New England states have energy programs. MA has one called Mass Save. They will do a FREE energy audit and help you figure out how to proceed. There are some insane rebates right now for switching to more efficient and green heating options. I lived in a house with heating oil, and in my experience, it's a giant hassle, extremely expensive, and everyone I know has started to replace their system if they haven't already.

Plus, if you're installing a new system, it'll be more attractive for buyers if the oil situation is already cleaned up. We purchased our house with a gas boiler, but it had an oil tank before and had evidently had a TINY leak at some point in the past. We got an estimate to have it cleaned up -$5k at minimum. We got that knocked off the purchase price, and I know it was a huge headache for the previous owners during the selling process. I'd be dubious of buying a house with a NEW oil heating system. That would mean the replacement was already reflected in the price (as opposed to an old system that clearly needed replacing) but I'd really want to switch to gas or electric.

For what it's worth, our house has a Slant/Fin gas boiler and we've had a great experience with them. Their systems are still made in the US and the company is still managed by the same family. When you call the company, you get an actual employee on the first ring and they all have their photos and names online! I was so shocked the first time I called that I thought I'd dialed the wrong number.

And yes, it sounds kind of weird at first, but plumbers install gas pipes and systems.

Let me know if you're in the Boston area and need a recommendation.
posted by barnone at 6:27 PM on August 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Okay, we've got an energy audit guy coming Friday, and I sucked it up and called to find out about natural gas, which isn't an option in our area (rural, Western MA.) Our next option is electric, but I kind of have a feeling that won't be an option either, because no one around here does it and in the years I've lived here, I've never had electric heat or known anyone who did, although I did when I lived in California.

I'm still a bit freaked out about the oil company guys coming next week to give us estimates, when it kind of seems like I should be calling a plumber, but that is still less ignorant than I was yesterday.

Thanks everyone.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 10:24 AM on August 10, 2012

Ah, that makes a bit more sense in a rural area.

The oil guys might be plumbers too! Or they'll work with one. Not all independent plumbers would source new boilers anyway. If you join Angie's List, you'll find heating/cooling/plumbing companies on there too. Good luck!
posted by barnone at 3:18 PM on August 10, 2012

Response by poster: Holy cow you guys, we had the energy audit done through Mass Save and we got rebates for the boiler and a new refrigerator and a huge subsidy (75%) for adding insulation where we didn't even know we needed it.

We went into it thinking 'this is going to be the most horrible two hours ever' but it was totally worth doing.

I have also found me a boiler, gotten a good estimate on a high quality one, and we're getting a rebate on the feature where they have the outdoor reset thingy that automatically lowers the circulating water temperature in the heating system when it gets warmer.

Thanks to all who recommended the audit--I had no idea programs like these even existed.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 10:48 AM on August 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Wooo!! That's awesome. Yeah, I have no idea if the same programs work as well in other states, but we've been really impressed with them. They actually seem on the cutting edge of green energy programs -- they're even doing some trial projects with subsidized solar panels on houses!

Don't forget to keep super detailed documentation for the rebates. Mark the deadlines on your calendar. Sometimes the rules for these things are really stringent and might include barcodes on boxes, receipts, dates of installation, license number for the installer, etc. The forms you have will have all the info - just look at it ahead of time and make note of what's needed.

Happy housewarming :-)
posted by barnone at 1:53 PM on August 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

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