High-efficiency boilers are changing commercial heating

With condensing technology, modulating consumption, and even built-in redundancy, the latest generation of commercial propane space heating and water heating systems offers a leap forward.

By Jeffrey Lee

Staff Writer

Boiler rooms across the country are starting to feel a lot emptier.

Modern propane and gas boilers used for commercial space heating and water heating have been revolutionized over the past 15 to 20 years, shrinking in size and improving in efficiency. The changes are creating the opportunity for businesses to achieve significant energy bills savings in both retrofit and new-construction applications.

"Gone are the days of filling up a huge boiler room with something the size of an Army tank, that lights off at full fire and is just burning gas," says Trey Willbanks, president of Willbanks & Associates, a commercial heating systems equipment and support provider in Texas. "Everybody's looking to go to the condensing, high-efficiency equipment. We're using much smaller, refrigerator-size cabinets, lining them up, and modulating them down. That is absolutely the biggest trend in our industry."

The energy savings come not just from the improved efficiency of the equipment, but also from modern boilers' modulating capabilities. Older boilers essentially operate at one speed, Willbanks says, either full-fire or off. "Now one of my products has 33:1 turndown," he says, referring to the ratio between full boiler output and low fire. "I just did a project where I lined up three 1-million-Btu units and cascaded them. Essentially it's one system with 99:1 turndown. Back in the day, we would have been firing up the full 3 million Btus on every call for heat."

"Any project with older equipment, we can without a doubt pick up 20-plus percent [in cost savings]."

The energy costs savings in those retrofit applications is "phenomenal," Willbanks says. "Any project with older equipment, we can without a doubt pick up 20-plus percent [in cost savings]. There are some applications that are more extreme and we can pick up 50-plus. What we're seeing a lot of is the ability to go in and retrofit equipment and get ROIs that pay for themselves in 1 or 2 years, with the gas savings alone."

The space savings that can be achieved with high-efficiency propane or gas boilers is also an important advantage in new construction applications. Willbanks says his multifamily customers are changing their traditional designs from individual electric water heaters in each unit to a central propane or natural gas boiler system. The central hot water heating systems provide reliability, redundancy, capital and operational savings, and open up space in the units, all appealing options for developers. "If you can pick them up a closet and a few square feet, then that gets their eyes open," he says. "Square feet is dollars for them."

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