Linkageless Burner Retrofits for Steam Boilers

Going Beyond Carburetor Technology in the NYS Market

Fun Fact #1: Space heating and domestic hot water generation represent two of the greatest energy end uses in New York State.

Fun Fact #2: More than 70 percent of all New York City buildings utilize steam for space heating.


The clear majority of the distribution systems in these NYC buildings are supplied by high mass steam boiler plants. Digging down a bit further, it is important to note that the most common air:fuel control for these boilers is a mechanical linkage that connects a single servo motor to both the combustion air damper and the fuel control valve(s). We know that adjusting one part of the linkage’s movement affects fuel and air rates elsewhere in the range, making accurate adjustment difficult. We also know that modern linkageless controls use separate servo motors to operate the fuel control valves, combustion air damper, and (in some cases) the flue damper, allowing for finer control.

mechanical linkage system and linkageless system

In fact, SWA recently completed a demonstration study (partially funded through NYSERDA’s Advanced Building Program) to evaluate linkageless burner retrofits on two buildings with respect to energy savings and carbon reductions, as well as qualitative or non-energy benefits. The retrofit materials were funded by Preferred Utilities Manufacturing Corp. of Danbury, CT, who also provided manufacturer’s technical support. The study also focused on quantifying the seasonal efficiency of intermediate-sized, high mass steam boiler plants, which had not previously been studied. The demonstration addresses this gap in the industry’s knowledge.

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Over Pressure (Part Two)

Welcome back! In Part One we talked about how steam pressure gets too much attention. Controlling pressure for its own sake should never be the end goal—steam pressure is just a means to an end. In this post we’ll discuss one way that controlling steam pressure can be useful—where it can help you balance the system, control the temperature, and yes, save energy.

Two-pipe Steam

The biggest issue plaguing two-pipe steam heating systems are steam traps. Steam traps are supposed to do just that—trap steam—keeping the pressurized steam on the supply side of the system and allowing air and water (i.e., condensate) to pass through into the returns. Keeping the supplies and returns separate is critical, but steam traps are too failure prone to accomplish this reliably.

Radiator steam “trap” failed open

Radiator steam “trap” failed open

At the start of any heating cycle, the system is full of air, which must be removed for steam to enter the heaters. In most two-pipe systems, the steam pushes the air out of the heaters, through the traps, and into the return piping where it eventually exits the system through a vent in a vacuum or condensate tank. That’s what happens when the traps are working. But a failed open trap is no trap at all. It lets the steam flow into the return piping and, with pressure on both the supply and return sides, air is trapped in the system. This affects those farthest from the boiler—the heaters near the ends of the mains and on the top floors—the most.  (And with air trapped inside keeping the metal cold, are they even heaters?)

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Trying to Be Rational in an Irrational World

Think about the last time you went looking for a new car. What did you look for? I am guessing you started with your needs for a vehicle. Are you looking for a large car/SUV to move a lot of people or equipment, a car for commuting to work, or something to enjoy on the weekends? Next you probably were interested in the looks of the vehicle because it is a large investment and you should like what you drive. I am guessing you glanced at the miles per gallon (mpg) of the car. You even likely went online to see reviews from others on the comfort, crash test rating, and typical maintenance issues of the car. Of course, you will need to look at the sticker price. I am even assuming you asked to test drive the vehicle to make sure that the information that you obtained aligns with how you perceive the vehicle.

Image of animated home Now, what if I told you that you must make that vehicle purchase decision only based on the dimensions of the car, the features (radio, A/C, seat controls, etc.) of the car, some pictures of the interior, and the price. Do you think you could decide on which car you would want? My guess is that you would say I am crazy and that you wouldn’t make the decision on such a pricey purchase with so little information. But, that is exactly what millions of people do when making a significantly more expensive purchase… a home.

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Pathways to Passive House Certification

Passive House logosDid you know that there are two pathways for earning Passive House certification? There’s Passive House International (PHI) and Passive House Institute US (PHIUS). Using an energy modeling software, both programs evaluate a building based on a variety of factors. Despite the misleading moniker, certification is not limited to just housing. In fact, building types from residential and commercial high-rises to industrial factories have earned Passive House certification around the globe. However, the two certification programs are run by separate institutions, using different energy modeling software and standards. However, both ultimately maintain the shared goal for high performance, low energy buildings.

Historically, around 2013, the PHIUS organization developed a new standard called PHIUS+ 2015 with a climate-specific approach and an alternate modeling software. Starting in March 2019, PHIUS projects will be held to updated requirements under the PHIUS+ 2018 program.

PHI also offers project and climate specific cooling demand thresholds, having previously begun offering alternate certification options in 2015. Additionally, PHI created a program called EnerPHit to provide more flexibility for retrofits. PHI recognizes buildings that exceed its standard certification by offering Plus and Premium certification, as well as a Low Energy Building certification pathway for projects that are near PH efficiency.

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The Energy Code of the Future: Modeling and Performance-Based?

It has been clear for some time that energy codes are on course to require carbon-free buildings by 2030. Adoption at the local level will see some areas of the country getting there even sooner. For example, California has set net zero goals for its residential code by 2020. These developments have accelerated the debate about the effectiveness of energy modeling versus performance-based approaches to compliance.

Chart: Improvement in ASHRAE Standard

Improvement in ASHRAE Standard 90/90.1 (1975-2013) with Projections to 2030. Courtesy of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory 2015

Let’s start with energy modeling, where change is coming for the better. In the past, the energy modeling community has been required to continuously respond to energy code cycle updates with new baseline models. That is, the bar for uncovering savings would be increased each and every time a new energy code was adopted. Following a code update, program staff and the energy modeling community would have to go through another learning curve to determine where to set a new bar and how to model the changes. Read more