Published: August 13, 2015 - by Ray Wohlfarth

Categories: Commercial Heating

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My children attended a local elementary school that was affiliated with the church we also attend. My company does the heating service for the church and school.

For years, a custodian with a name consisting of only consonants, who was simply call Lou, worked as the custodian. He spoke in broken English with a thick accent. I used to refer to him as the Heat Tyrant because he would shut off the boilers as soon as the school warmed above 60 degrees F or the sun peeked from behind a cloud. He did the same for the church and rectory where the priests slept and worked.

"What is wrong with the heat?" my wife or I would hear asked when we attended a school function. With four children, there were many school functions. I would respond that the boiler is working fine and the principal would wrap her refrigerated hand around mine and ask, "Does this feel like the heat is working? You know, the temperature could affect the grades of some children." Everyone was afraid to ask Lou for more heat because he would go into a tirade about what life was life in the old country. I think the old country was Siberia. Even the priest would make a gesture like he was shivering from the altar, would look at me causing the entire congregation to glare at me.  Fearing eternal damnation, I decided to talk with Lou about the heat. He shook his head and said, "No need heat. It warm enough. Brains work best when cool."

When Lou retired, the parish council decided they would replace the old cast iron boiler with a new efficient system. I was tasked with the replacement. We installed three new boilers that were   "far" more efficient than the old cast iron boiler with the atmospheric burner.  The system also had a new microprocessor control that would reset the water temperature according to the outside air temperature.

The boilers worked well the first winter. There was heat everywhere. The teachers were happy and the grades for my children were better. The priest postponed my condemnation. Yes, life was good until the business manager of the facility called and said that they did not save any money with the new boilers. Actually, their fuel costs were higher than with the old inefficient boiler. Thinking it must have been a cooler winter, I asked for copies of the fuel costs for the past few years and locked myself into my office to run the numbers. After several frustrating hours, the business manager was right. The fuel consumption was higher than the last year with the old boiler.

I checked the gas meter to see if it was replaced. I had a few projects in the past where the fuel costs rose after the meter was replaced. An engineer for the local utility told me that when gas meters age, they sometimes lose some of their accuracy and will not register the proper consumption of fuel.  When they are replaced with new meters, the customer may see increased gas consumption.

On another project, we estimated a savings of 25% when replacing their old boilers. After the first heating season, the heating costs were slightly higher than the fuel costs with the old boilers. When I reviewed the utility costs, the facility had a 30% increase in price per cubic foot due to a long term contract for gas expiring. When I showed that to the facility manager, he agreed and liked my boilers after that.

After verifying that the gas meter was not changed and the cost per cubic foot did not raise, I had to admit that that the actual consumption had increased. I racked my brain trying to see why. I walked the whole system and went into crawl spaces filled with spider webs looking for a piping leak. Without answers, I told the business manager that I would get back to him. I had lunch with a control guru and told him what happened. I explained that this was my church and really wanted to help them cut their costs. He smiled and told me something I never forgot, "An off switch will beat the best controls every time." He went on to advise that I was trying to compare apples to oranges. He suggested that if Lou was operating the new system the way that he operated the old system, you would see the savings.  I went in and told this to the business manager and he agreed. He then said something that floored me. "Ray, I knew the costs would be higher because this place was an icebox* before and now we have heat.  I was simply making an observation. Thanks for looking out for us. " *If you are under 30, you would not know what an icebox is. Just consider it like a manual refrigerator.

I offer to review the fuel consumption of all the buildings where we sell boilers. This helps to endorse to the client that they made the proper decision to use our company. It also helps in sales as I could show a potential customer all the savings we have helped our clients achieve. If you choose to do this for your clients, it will separate you from the other competitors. A simple way to do a calculation is to divide the gas usage by the heating degree days in your locale. The heating hours can be found at www.degreedays.net. You enter your location and it will generate a spreadsheet showing the degree days per month. To calculate a degree day, you take the average temperature for that day by adding the high and low temperatures and dividing it by 2. If the average temperature is above 65, there will be no degree days for the day. If the average number is below 65, you subtract that number from 65 and this is the amount of degree days for that days . For example, if the high temperature was 600F and the low was 400F, the average temperature for that day was 500F. When you subtract 50 from 65, you will have 15 degree days for that day. Good luck with your next boiler replacement. 

Want to learn more? Check out my books, Lessons Learned in a Boiler RoomLessons Learned: Connecting New Boilers to Old PipesLessons Learned: Servicing Boilers, and Lessons Learned: Brewing with Steam.