Boiler Systems Buyer Guide
Our Complete Boiler Systems Buyer Guide: Everything you need to know about buying a boiler system: top brands, prices, different types and the pros and cons of each, maintenance tips, and more!
Buying a new boiler system is like buying any large appliance in that it’s an investment, so it’s a good idea to do some research before choosing a new system for your home.
We’ve put together this comprehensive buyer guide for boiler systems, including how boilers work, different types, pros and cons, key considerations and features, pricing, fuel sources, and how to choose the right one for your needs.
Boiler Systems Overview: What They Are and How They Work
A boiler system is a home heating method that uses hot water or steam to warm your house. These systems are sometimes referred to as hydronic systems, and this heating method can even be used to warm swimming pools or de-ice driveways in winter.
Here are the basics of how the process works:
- Water is housed in a boiler and then heated
- The heated water or steam is then pumped around the house within a closed-circuit system of pipes connected to radiators, coils, or a radiant floor system
- As the hot water circulates through the system, it transfers heat to the air or floor, thereby warming the house
- After circulating through the system, the cooled water is pumped back to the boiler to be reheated and recirculated
Most boiler systems use propane, natural gas, or oil as their fuel source to heat the water, but electric systems do exist as well. There are also combi-boilers on the market that serve the dual function of heating your house while also providing your home’s hot water.
Boiler Systems vs. Forced-Air Heating Systems
The main alternative to boiler systems is a furnace, which heats your home by warming air and distributing it through the house via a duct system. Boilers and furnaces heat in a similar way, with the main difference being that boilers distribute hot water through pipes and radiators, while furnaces heat the air directly and then circulate it around the house.
Most homes in North America are heated with a forced-air furnace, though there are still plenty of homes (especially older ones) that have boiler systems instead.
Pros and Cons of Boiler Heat
Even heat: One of the best things about boiler heat (especially compared to forced-air systems) is they distribute heat evenly throughout the house, so you won’t find yourself contending with cold spots, chilly rooms, and fluctuating temperatures around the house. They also tend to maintain a more consistent temperature, as forced-air furnaces are known for sometimes causing peaks and dips as the furnace cycles on and off.
Silence: Newer hydronic heating systems are extremely quiet, to the point where you probably won’t even know the system is running. However, it should be noted that if you have an old system in your home, then the radiators can be quite noisy as they heat up and cool down, and they may ‘clang’ at times.
Zone control: Even if you don’t have zone control set up already, it’s simple and easy to add this feature to your system, allowing you to manage and customize how heat is distributed throughout your house. Simply shutting the valve for a radiator in a given part of the house can work as well.
Clean air: Hydronic systems don’t rely on air to heat your home, so they provide a cleaner living space in terms of air quality. Furnaces can push dust, dirt, allergens, and other particulates around your house, so boiler systems are ideal if air quality is a top concern. That being said, forced-air systems with advanced air filtration systems can actually help keep your home’s air cleaner.
Economy: For the most part, boiler systems are cheaper to run than forced-air ones, and this means you can keep your family comfortable for less during the cold winter months. (Note there are obviously many variables to the cost of heating a home, including its size, insulation, fuel type, where you live and local climate, and personal preferences and useage, among others)
Maintenance: Boiler systems require very little maintenance, including that you don’t have to replace filters regularly.
Comfort: Although this is a matter of personal preference, many people find the heat from boiler systems—including from radiators, baseboards, or in-floor systems—is more comfortable than the heat provided by furnaces. Forced-air heating, especially with a cheaper or single stage furnace, and a poorly-insulated home can have a tendency to cause temperatures to fluctuate.
Installation costs: Boiler systems can be a bit more expensive to install than forced-air ones, and this is especially true if your home needs to be outfitted with all the piping, radiators, and other infrastructure.
Replacement costs: If anything ever malfunctions or breaks with a boiler, the cost for replacing parts tends to be somewhat more expensive than with a forced-air system.
Slower temperature response: When most people change the thermostat, they expect instant results from their heating system, but boilers can take longer to adjust to new temperature settings as the radiators are filled with hot water, thus taking longer for heat to dissipate than the air from a forced-air heating system.
Over-heating: This is more of a problem in apartment buildings or other situations where you may not have direct control over the system, thus sometimes leading to the system heating your living space beyond what is comfortable. Although this can also occur in a single-family home because as mentioned above, boiler and radiator heating systems tend to respond more slowly and therefore it can take longer to lower the ambient temperature. This can also be wasteful as people may resort to opening windows in the middle of the winter to cool rooms down.
No cooling option: Boilers can’t be combined with a home cooling system, nor can they be used to cool your home during the summer months. Because of this, you will need a separate infrastructure like ductwork for an air conditioning system, or relying on ductless systems.
Potential for water leaks: While this problem is rare, boilers do come with a risk for water leaks.
The Different Types of Boiler Systems
There are three main types of boiler systems: conventional, combi, and system boilers. These three boiler systems all have their own advantages and disadvantages, and choosing the right one is all about comparing your needs with the pros and cons of the different systems.
Understanding these different types and how they work can help you make the right choice when it comes time to select a new unit.
The conventional, regular, or open-vent boiler is among the most common type of boiler system, though it should be noted that combi-boilers have been growing in popularity over the past few years. These systems have a water tank and a water cylinder for hot and cold water.
The cold water is stored in the water cylinder, then heated and transferred to the hot water tank for storage. When the thermostat kicks on, the water is pumped from the hot water storage tank through the boiler system to heat your home.
Storage and capacity: Conventional boilers have a large storage tank for hot water, and this means it’s uncommon for the hot water to run out, so your house should always remain at a comfortable temperature.
Single-function: Because conventional boilers are separate from the water heater used to provide your home with hot water, you can heat your home, have a shower, do laundry, and otherwise use the hot water at the same time without worrying that your shower will run cold halfway through lathering up.
Independence: Although conventional boilers occasionally need topping up, for the most part, they can function independently of the water main, so you’ll still have heat in the event of a problem with your water line.
Overhead Cost: For a lot of homeowners, the biggest downside with conventional boilers is that they can be somewhat less efficient given that they heat a large tank. This is especially the case if the tank is poorly-insulated. This means you may end up paying more in the long run to heat your home.
When you consider that heating your home accounts for the largest portion of your energy bill, you can see the impact a lower-efficiency unit might have on your monthly costs.
Space: Another drawback with conventional boilers is they require the most space, so they’re often not suitable for apartments, condos, and other small dwellings that don’t have a lot of extra storage space. The radiators themselves also take up space in a room.
Capacity: Even though conventional boilers do have a substantial hot water tank, it is still possible that the tank is not sufficient to keep up with heating demands, especially during a cold snap when you may want to raise the entire home’s temperature in a short amount of time.
For the most part, this shouldn’t be an issue as long as your boiler system is properly sized for your home.
Cost: Conventional boilers are larger and have more parts than the other boiler styles, so even though they’re less efficient, they’re also more expensive to buy.
As the name suggests, combi-boilers combine the work of two major appliances into one: the boiler and the water heater.
These units draw cold water in directly from the mains as needed and heat it on-demand, so there’s no need for a storage tank. Once the water is heated, it is either pumped through the boiler system to heat your home or distributed to the faucets and water lines as needed to provide your kitchen, bathroom, utility, and laundry rooms with hot water.
Although storage tanks aren’t required with combi-boilers, they can be purchased separately (and then the system becomes a combi-storage boiler) if your hot water needs exceed the on-demand capabilities of the boiler.
Unlimited hot water: Combi-boilers work using the same principle as on-demand water heaters, so you have access to as much hot water as you need for your heating system and your household tasks as you need it.
Space-savings: Because combi-boilers don’t need additional space for a storage tank, they take up significantly less room than both conventional and system boilers. These units are very compact and can fit in a space as small as a kitchen cupboard, making them ideal for smaller homes and dwellings.
Price and convenience: Thanks to their size and ease of installation, combi-boilers are also the most affordable type of boiler for both upfront purchasing costs and installation fees.
Water Pressure: Although there are certain instances where this can be a problem, combi-boilers typically provide great water pressure.
Energy-efficiency: Most combi-boilers are high-efficiency units, and many even offer an ENERGY STAR rating so you can rest assured that you’ll spend less heating your home and your water.
Water pressure loss: As mentioned, combi-boilers typically have strong water pressure, but this can fluctuate if the demand for water peaks in your home. For instance, if one person is running a bath while another is doing dishes, then you’ll likely lose some pressure at both faucets. Similarly, the water pressure depends on the pressure from the main water line, so if that’s low then water pressure will continue to be a problem.
Sealed system boilers only require a small water cylinder and not a tank as well, and this means they can fit in much smaller spaces than a conventional boiler. They work by drawing cold water in from the mains, heating it, and then using the water cylinder to store the hot water until the thermostat kicks on and the water is circulated through the system.
Space-savings: Although system boilers aren’t quite as small and compact as combi-boilers, they still take up much less space than conventional ones thanks to the smaller water cylinder so they can be suitable for smaller homes and apartments.
Multiple use: System boilers are separate from the water heater, so you can access hot water from multiple faucets at the same time without compromising the boiler’s ability to heat your home.
Ease of installation: System boilers are easier to install than conventional ones, and this translates to faster, cheaper, and easier installation.
Water pressure: These units rely on the main water supply, so as long as you have a strong flow coming in from the mains, then you’ll have great water pressure with these systems.
Hot water when you want: System boilers don’t heat water on-demand, but they do store heated water so that it’s ready and available when you need it.
Cost-savings: System boilers tend to be somewhat more expensive than combi-boilers, but they’re still much more affordable than their conventional counterparts, making them ideal for people on a tighter budget.
Limited storage and reheating delays: Because system boilers have a smaller storage capacity than conventional ones, the possibility of running out of hot water is higher with this type of system. When the hot water does run out, the system will need time to refill and reheat the water, and this can impact the temperature in your home.
Space is required: The water cylinder that system boilers use is much smaller than the storage space needed for a conventional boiler, but you do still need to allocate storage space for the cylinder, which can be tough in smaller homes.
Less energy efficient: Although these systems are more energy-efficient than conventional boilers, they aren’t as efficient as combi-boilers, and that means your energy bills will be slightly higher each month.
Pressure is dependent on mains: If the pressure from your mains isn’t adequate, then the system boiler won’t have the pressure it needs to work optimally.
More expensive than combi: The price range between combi and system boilers isn’t enormous, but you will pay more for a system boiler and more for the installation. That being said, both these boiler types are still cheaper and easier to install than a conventional boiler.
Fuel Type and Lifecycle Cost
One of the most important decisions you’ll have to make when buying a boiler is the fuel type (natural gas, propane, oil, solid fuel like wood or coal, or electric). Fuel accounts for the largest lifecycle cost of a boiler, so you need the information and resources to select the most energy-efficient system for your needs.
To help you with this, here’s a comparison of the advantages and disadvantages of different fuel types.
Advantages of Natural Gas Boilers:
- Natural gas is the cleanest of the fossil fuels in that it emits lower levels of greenhouse gasses
- This fuel is completely odourless
- There’s no need for a storage tank because the gas comes from the grid
- Natural gas boilers are cheaper to operate than electric or oil ones
- Not being tied to the electrical grid means you’ll still have heat in the event of a power outage
Disadvantages of Natural Gas Boilers:
- You do need to be connected to a gas line, and this will require professional installation if you don’t already have the infrastructure in place
- Gas prices are continually rising
- You need a reliable source of fuel and need to be connected to the gas grid
- Annual servicing and maintenance are required for safety reasons
- Even though extremely rare, the fear of a gas leak makes some people apprehensive
Advantages of Propane Boilers:
- Propane only has a faint odour, especially when compared to oil
- These boilers are highly efficient
- You don’t have to be connected to the gas or electrical grid
- Propane can be stored as a pressurized liquid, so storage requirements are minimal
Disadvantages of Propane Boilers:
- Installation of a new unit will be more expensive than with a gas or electric boiler
- You have to monitor your fuel level and reorder as necessary
- Propane prices are also on the rise
- Propane has more of an environmental toll compared to gas or electric boilers
- Annual servicing and maintenance are required
- A large storage tank needs to be installed on your property
Advantages of Oil Boilers:
- You don’t have to connect to the gas or electrical grid
- Oil boilers are cheaper to run compared to electric ones
- Oil prices are more stable than natural gas and propane so you can budget more effectively
Disadvantages of Oil Boilers:
- Oil isn’t as affordable as natural gas, it produces more greenhouse gas emissions than gas and propane, and it has a strong odour
- You have to monitor your fuel levels and reorder stock
- Oil tanks require more space than propane
- Oil suppliers may require payment on delivery for bulk quantities
Advantages of Solid Fuel Boilers:
- Wood-burning is carbon-neutral when burned properly
- Wood is flammable but not explosive
- Wood doesn’t leak
- You don’t have to connect to the gas or electrical grid
- Wood and coal are cheaper than other fuel sources
Disadvantages of Solid Fuel Boilers:
- You have to contend with smoke and be wary of carbon monoxide emissions
- Coal is not an environmentally friendly fuel
- Wood and coal need to be picked up or delivered to your home, and you need space to store them safely
- You have to monitor levels and restock fuel as needed
- Maintenance is required much more frequently (sometimes daily)
Advantages of Electric Boilers:
- Efficiency ratings are as high as 99 percent
- They’re compact and easy to install
- There aren’t any greenhouse gasses or other dangerous emissions
- These units don’t need a flue or air intake system
- There’s no need to connect to the gas grid or store fuel
- There’s no risk of fires, leaks, or explosions
- Electric boilers can be more environmentally friendly, depending on the power/fuel source that your utility uses
Disadvantages of Electric Boilers:
- Electricity typically costs more than combustible fuels
- You do have to connect to the electrical grid
- Your home won’t have heat in the event of a power outage
- Electric units can’t heat water to as high a temperature as combustion boilers
- These units can only heat small amounts of water at once, so they’re not suitable for large homes
The final cost of a boiler will depend on many factors, but the average price including installation can be anywhere from $3,000 – $5,000+ for a combi-boiler, and all the way up to $5,000 or more for a conventional boiler. Note this is for a residential boiler system. Commercial boilers for apartment buildings and other large-scale applications can cost far more. Either way, it’s best to speak to a professional for a custom estimate.
Some factors that can affect the final cost of your new boiler system installation include:
- The style, make, and brand
- Fuel type
- Installation costs
- Boiler capacity and output (based on your home size)
- Special or additional features and technology
- Current heating system infrastructure (and whether it’s compatible with the new system)
Top Boiler Brands
When it comes time to purchase a new boiler system, knowing the top brands can help narrow your search and give you peace of mind that you’re choosing a reliable and top-quality system that will last for many years. With that in mind, here’s a breakdown of the top boiler brands that have been keeping Canadians warm throughout the winters.
IBC Technologies is a Canadian manufacturer of wall-mounted condensing boilers, and they pride themselves on using only the highest quality materials and components in their boilers.
They also take the construction of their products very seriously, and this results in boiler systems that are reliable, durable, and energy-efficient. To help you get the most from the money you spend heating your home, IBC Technologies boilers incorporate combustion controls, advanced burners, and precise fuel-air mixing technology into their systems.
Viessmann is a family-owned company that’s headquartered in Germany, but that also has a home base in Waterloo, Ontario. With over 100 years in the HVAC industry, they have carved out a name for themselves as one of the top manufacturers in the field, specializing in residential boilers and hot water heating.
ACV Triangle Tube
ACV Triangle Tube has been manufacturing home heating systems since the 1940s, and they have a wide range of wall-mounted and floor-standing condensing boilers.
Furthermore, their blog is also a great resource for consumers who are looking for helpful tips and tricks about energy and costs savings, improving the efficiency of your HVAC systems, and more.
What Boiler to Buy: Choosing the Right System
When it’s time to buy a new boiler, the best place to start is by examining the needs of your home and family, including factors like the size of your house, the number of people in your family, your daily hot water requirements, how many bathrooms you have, and even the reliability of the water pressure from your mains.
To help you out with your decision here’s some more information about the different boiler types and when they’re ideal.
Conventional boilers are ideal when:
- You have a large family
- Hot water is often required from multiple faucets at the same time
- Your family has high hot water needs and uses hot water for extended periods throughout the day
- You have available space that could be used to house the storage tank and water cylinder
- Your house has three-plus bathrooms
- The water pressure coming from your mains tends to be low
Combi-boilers are ideal when:
- There’s limited storage space in your home (maybe you don’t have a large basement, don’t have an attic or loft, and don’t otherwise have anywhere to store a large tank)
- Your family tends to use a lot of hot water throughout the day
- Your home doesn’t have more than one bathroom
- Hot water in your home is usually only required from one or two faucets at a time
- The water pressure from your mains is ample
System boilers are ideal when:
- You need hot water from several taps at the same time
- You have a smaller home and family
- You don’t use a lot of hot water, nor for extended periods
- There’s some storage space available for the water cylinder (you don’t necessarily need an attic or loft)
- There are no more than two bathrooms in your home
- The water pressure from your mains is reliable and high
Key Considerations When Choosing a Boiler
Air-Intake and Flue Gas Systems for Combustion Boilers
All combustion boilers (ones powered by natural gas, propane, solid fuel, or oil) require uninhibited air intake and flue gas systems for safety and efficiency.
Because of this, you also have to be mindful of location when you want to install or move a combustion boiler: there needs to be good airflow, a fresh-air supply, and nearby exhaust to vent emissions produced during the combustion process.
If you are looking at a combustion boiler, you might also want to consider outfitting the unit with an electronic ignition technology that can eliminate the need for a pilot light that’s always burning.
Size and Output
The size of your home is an important factor to keep in mind when selecting a boiler. For instance, compact combi-boilers wouldn’t be effective for large homes with multiple bathrooms and several family members. Conversely, a large conventional boiler wouldn’t be a suitable option for a small apartment or studio, simply because you won’t have the storage space required to house the tank and cylinder.
If you’re not sure what capacity your boiler should be, there are many online boiler size calculators you can use as a reference.
Water pressure is another thing you’ll have to keep in mind when determining your boiler type, because both combi-boilers and system boilers both require high and reliable water pressure from the main water supply to perform optimally.
Only conventional boilers are suitable if your mains water pressure is low, but there are solutions if water pressure is an issue in your home. For one thing, if you have low water pressure and don’t have the storage space for a conventional boiler, then you can opt for a combi-storage boiler system.
On the other hand, if you do have adequate water pressure but don’t want a conventional boiler, a system boiler will be cheaper to buy and install, and you’ll still have a reliable capacity even if you have a large household.
Energy Efficiency and Condensing Boilers
Energy efficiency is a key consideration for most homeowners looking to buy new appliances, and in general, the more efficient a boiler is, the more it will cost up front. But it’s important to remember that energy-efficiency will translate to long-term savings as far as energy and fuel use are concerned, and it won’t take long for you to recoup the additional money you spent for the better boiler.
Pro tip: When looking for energy-efficient boilers, look for features like condensing flue gas systems and modulating burners.
Moving a Boiler
There are many reasons why you might need to move a boiler, including that you’re doing some renovations or that you have to relocate the system for safety reasons.
Moving a boiler requires expertise that only professionals can provide, and the cost for this service can range anywhere from $500 to $1,500 or more. It’s hard to provide firm estimates as each home and situation is different, and things like how far it’s being moved and how much labour is required, will affect the final cost.
The total cost will depend largely on the components that have to be moved, as each has its own approximate cost associated with it:
- Boiler flue: $120 – $200
- Extension flue pipes or flue bends: $70 per meter
- Magnetic filter: $170 – $200
- Controls: $120 – $1100
- Pipework or fittings: $500 – $1,000
Helpful Tips to Get the Most from Your Boiler
Your boiler is an investment, and you want to make sure you get the most life out of your system, not only so you can save money, but also so you can keep your family comfortable for longer. Here are some great tips to help you maintain and optimize your boiler system:
- Insulate the pipes: By insulating the hot water pipes coming from your boiler, you can save money by reducing heat loss and increase the speed with which your system can warm your house and respond to temperature adjustments
- Bleed the air: Sometimes radiators get air bubbles, so it’s a good idea to bleed the air from them every six months. That way, you guarantee the pipes are properly filled with water, and this will maximize the system’s efficiency and functionality.
- Vacuum the radiators: Dirt, dust, and other particulates can build up on the radiators and make them less efficient, and you can combat this by vacuuming the radiators regularly.
- Check the water: Water expands when heated, so to keep the pressure from building up inside the system, boilers are equipped with expansion tanks. It’s important to check the water level in the expansion tank regularly to ensure it’s correct.
Glossary of Common Boiler Terms
Allowable working pressure: This is the maximum pressure a particular boiler can withstand.
Combustion: Refers to the act or process of burning. Technically, it’s characterized by rapid oxidation that’s often accompanied by heat and light.
Condensate: Water that condenses after you remove the heat from steam.
Corrosion: Destruction or damage to metal as a result of chemical action.
Flue: A duct that allows smoke and waste gasses to vent safely from the house.
Natural gas: A flammable gas (often methane and other hydrocarbons) that occurs naturally underground.
Pilot/pilot light: A small gas burner that’s always burning to light a larger burner when needed.
Radiant: Refers to heat transmitted by radiation instead of conduction or convection.
Safety valve: A valve that automatically opens and vents when the pressure reaches a certain level.
Frequently Asked Questions About Boiler Systems
What’s a condensing boiler and how is it different from a non-condensing one?
Any type of boiler can be a condensing boiler. The characteristic that sets condensing boilers apart from non-condensing ones is they’re designed to recover heat (in water vapour) that would otherwise escape through the flue. Because they capture and reuse this heat, condensing boilers tend to be more efficient.
What’s a steam boiler and how is it different from a hot water boiler?
Steam boilers aren’t as common these days because they’re an older and less efficient technology. They function very much like hot water boilers, but the difference is steam boilers heat the water to the point where it becomes gas, and then circulates the steam through the system to heat the home. Because you have to heat water to a much higher temperature to produce steam, these boilers use more energy.
What’s the difference between a boiler and a water heater?
A typical boiler (not combi-boilers, which serve both purposes) only heats water for the heating system in your home, whereas a water heater provides hot water for your daily needs, such as bathing, washing, and cleaning. Because boilers don’t provide water for human use, they usually run at higher temperatures than water heaters.
How can I tell if I have a boiler system?
If your home has a boiler instead of a furnace, then you’ll have a system of pipes and radiators throughout your house. On the other hand, if you have a furnace, then you’ll instead have ductwork and vents that circulate air throughout the house.
How often should I get my boiler serviced?
Most boiler manufacturers recommend annual servicing and maintenance. This ensures both safety and reliability.
Can a boiler cool my home?
In theory, radiators could be used to cool your home. However, boilers aren’t equipped to chill water, and even if you had a separate cooling system, you would encounter problems like humidity, corrosion, condensation, and a compromised radiator lifespan.
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