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Boiler sizing and indirect water heaters

ROB 1

Boiler sizing and indirect water heaters

What size boiler do I need if I’m using an indirect water heater? Quite a common question, and for the vast majority of residential applications, the answer is: The same size as without an indirect. Whenever boiler sizing is in question, oversizing is never the right answer. The short cycling and reduced efficiency  with oversizing are common knowledge. “Yes, but I’m using a XX gallon indirect and the I&O manual says you need 180K BTU/Hr to get the rated output.” True enough, but how do you know that’s the right size indirect and that you need the full rated output?

Not many do it but the correct procedure is do the math rather than just guessing as to the size indirect tank needed. You need to know the GPM and temp rise needed. The wild card is duration: how long do you want to maintain that GPM flow rate? This where a thorough site inspection and customer interview are vital. Two identical 1,500-sq/ft  Cape Cod-type homes with identical heat losses can have wildly varying DHW loads. A full body shower and a few teenagers in one and a  retired couple in the other  means a huge difference in requirements. In one case, a 30-gallon is more than enough, in the other an 80-gallon may be insufficient, but without doing the math you just don’t know!

Ask the customer what they want and need, and size to that but keep in mind there are many ways to get to the same end result and all of them will be more efficient than over sizing the boiler. What ways can you deliver the required DHW without a boiler larger than the heat loss of the structure? Quite a few! Oversize the indirect for starters. Most indirect manufacturers rate their tanks at varying BTU/Hr inputs. For example, a 30-gallon tank paired with a 160K boiler may yield the same first hour rating as a 60-gallon tank and a 90K input boiler. Manufacturer’s specs are the place to start. Every water heater should have a mixing valve, correct? Absolutely! And what does maintaining the tank temp at 150 degrees vs 120 degrees do for DHW production?  Going from 120 degrees to 150 degrees will increase the effective size of the tank by 25% just like that a 40-gallon tank can give the initial output of a 50-gallon tank, and help prevent Legionnaires as a bonus! If needed, multiple indirects can be used or a storage tank on a single indirect. If none of these will give the desired quantity of DHW needed, a tankless water heater or multiples are the way to go. These will provide their rated GPM output forever and not require a boiler three or four times the heat load of the home.

There is no good excuse to oversize a boiler, and I know many will think this is heresy, but you don’t have to do a full-blown heat loss calculation on every job. After you do quite a few heat loss calculations, you start to realize that similar sized and designed homes have nearly identical heat loads and that this number is usually less than the smallest boilers available. Of course, homes that don’t fit the standard ranch, cape or colonials will require a calculation. Don’t add a “fudge factor” to the inputs or the final number. The software has plenty of fudge already baked in! Oversizing is a disservice to the consumer and the hydronic industry as a whole. Homeowners depend on us to provide efficient solutions to their problems, and it is incumbent on us to do so.

5 Comments

  1. Eric Aune
    Eric Aune08-20-2013

    I totally agree, Robert. However, as the heat loads get smaller and smaller I feel the performance of the boiler/DHW is compromised at a certain point. Some homes have just too low of a heat load to couple the boiler and dhw. This is where tankless water heaters are needed most.

  2. Robert OBrien
    Robert OBrien08-20-2013

    No argument here,tankless water heaters are the perfect solution in some applications. Another tool to get the job done without resorting to over sizing the boiler ! :)

  3. Matt
    Matt03-26-2015

    How does this logic apply to modulating boilers… I have a house project now that only requires about 70Kbtu for the heating system – but the boiler is sized at 120K btu. We have an 80gal indirect that needs 212Kbtu for best recovery. So should i have installed a 212Kbtu modulating boiler instead? – Bottom line: is there a regulation (ACCA Manual S or J) that allows this – the current IECC code is silent on hydronic systems, and I don’t see any other regulation that accommodates the modulating boiler’s capabilities…

  4. Robert O'Brien
    Robert O'Brien03-30-2015

    Good question, Matt. As far as I know no code or organization addresses this issue. Boiler sizing is the same regardless of modulating or not, you want to size to provide the capacity needed for design conditions while still allowing the boiler to modulate down to the expected loads in the shoulder seasons. In your case the 120K boiler with a 4-1 turndown ratio will go no lower than 30K. Anytime the load is below 30K,the boiler is oversized. I assume that 70K load number is calculated? Every heat loss program I am aware of has quite a bit a fudge factor built in, I found this out by sizing jobs precisely and then not having them run 24/7 under design conditions,in fact they barely run 60% of the hours at design. Is the 80 gallon indirect actually needed to meet the GPM/time equation? If it is this one is one of the times that a tankless or a 119 gal indirect makes sense. The bottom line is you have to do the math to determine what size boiler/indirect combination will provide the GPM you need for the amount of time you require.

  5. Condensing Boilers & Baseboards | Mechanical Hub | Hydronics
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    […] serves as the Vice President of the national OESP chapter. See more from Robert in his blog “Boiler Sizing & Indirect Water Heaters“ , “Converting from Oil to Natural Gas“ & “Heat Loss Calculation on Every […]

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