Keep the boiler, replace the burner

New designs offer increased efficiency, more turndown


Today’s boiler burner controls are sophisticated and allow a wide range of options, including using boiler exhaust gas analysis to optimize combustion. Photo courtesy Cleaver-BrooksToday’s efficient natural gas boiler is an amazing blend of traditional heat exchange technology and sophisticated design improvements. With metallurgical improvements and computer-aided design tools, the boiler structure itself has been made more efficient and reliable. But the most striking advancements have been made with the burners and their associated controls. In many cases, a sound older boiler can be dramatically improved in efficiency and turndown capability by replacing an obsolete burner and control system. Further, taking this step can reduce boiler emissions.

Opportunity for Savings

According to the DOE, there are more than 45,000 industrial and commercial boilers larger than 10 MMBtu/hr in the United States with a total fuel input capacity of 2.7 million MMBtu/hr. A report by DOE’s Federal Energy Management Program states, “Efficiency of existing boilers can be improved in three ways; replacement with new boilers, replacement of the burner, or installation of a combustion control system. While installation of a new boiler or replacement of the burner can lead to the greatest efficiency gains, the higher costs associated with these measures typically leads to longer payback periods than installing a combustion control system.”

The report notes that many combustion control systems lack continuous oxygen, carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxide emissions monitoring capability as well as the automated controls needed to improve fuel performance. This prevents continuous adjustments of the fuel-to-air mixture to maximize efficiency while controlling operation to ensure emissions levels meet regulatory requirements.”

Linkage Slop Hurts Efficiency

Older boilers use mechanical sensors and linkages to adjust fuel and air flow to the burner. Commonly, these don’t allow a turndown to much more than 35% load. For steam or hot water demands below that, the boiler needs to cycle. With the required purges and reheat cycles, this can be highly inefficient.

Further, where the fuel-air mixture is controlled by mechanical linkages, the response is slow and often inaccurate. The system needs to be regularly checked and rebalanced to account for changes in the linkage controls (linkage joints can wear and set screws can loosen). Alan Silver from SCC Inc. (Siemens) was recently a presenter at a Technology & Market Assessment Forum sponsored by the Energy Solutions Center.

By updating the controls on all of the boilers, sophisticated strategies can be used to optimize the mix of units on line, and hold them near their peak efficiency. Photo courtesy Siemens Combustion Controls.Silver notes, “Eliminating mechanical linkages minimizes the “hysteresis” associated with the burner operation. Hysteresis, or “linkage slop” as it is commonly referred to, can cause burners to operate in a rich condition or a lean condition or both.  These conditions impose inefficiencies in fuel consumption.” As the controls incur mechanical wear, hysteresis increases, even where the control is calibrated as closely as possible.

Parallel Positioning Advantages

He explains, “Reducing this hysteresis allows the burner technician to set the burner operating condition closest to its design, thus maximizing efficiency.” Siemens, like many other current control providers, uses a parallel positioning system for boiler firing control.  With this feature, a positioning control mechanism, usually servo activated, moves to a preset position in response to system needs. The system uses a master control signal to control the boiler system, causing a change in both the flow of fuel and air when there is a needed change in steam flow.

Silver notes, “Parallel positioning systems typically allow for greatly increased repeatability and much less hysteresis than linkage-based systems due to direct coupling of the actuators with the drive motors. A typical parallel positioning system will have 900 positions of movement through 90 degrees of rotation.” With this level of precision, getting an ideal match of fuel and air for the required steam load is possible.

Stack Oxygen Monitoring

Another aspect of newer control system is their adaptability to stack oxygen monitoring. This allows for digital feedback of stack oxygen levels, allowing oxygen trim for optimum combustion even with changing atmospheric conditions or fuel pressure variations. Silver explains, “This is similar to what happens in newer automobiles with oxygen sensors in the vehicle exhaust.”

With newer controls that have parallel positioning features and exhaust oxygen feedback, it is possible to achieve stable lower firing levels. This allows greater turndown ratios and reduced need for boiler cycling. This in turn promotes energy savings and reduced emissions.

Getting the Flue Gas Right

Cleaver Brooks offers a broad line of both boilers and boiler burners with digital controls. According to Rakesh Zala from that company, flue gas monitoring is important for burner efficiency, and accurate oxygen monitoring is critical. “A lot of the burner controls now include an O2 sensor. Typically, the sensor requires periodic calibration. Control systems are sometimes designed to perform automatic calibration. Check with your control system provider to confirm this.”

Most boilers have a “sweet spot”, where they operate most efficiently. Especially if your plant has multiple boilers, it is valuable to stage them to keep as many as possible operating at peak efficiency. Modern controls with stack gas monitoring can help you find that sweet spot and hold the boiler in that area. Zala says, “Typically steam boilers operate at peak efficiency when firing at 60%-80% rate. Condensing hot water boilers operate at peak efficiency when at lower firing rates.”

Range of Retrofit Options

Cleaver Brooks and other manufacturers offer retrofit digital control packages for boilers as well as other control options. In addition to the boiler burner controls, owners often choose to install packaged boiler water controls to monitor and maintain condition of feedwater and makeup water. Another important offering is master boiler controls. These tie together individual boilers and other boiler room equipment for optimum operation together. These controls can be remotely located, allowing regular adjustment and observation of boiler operations without a trip to the boiler room.

Paybacks Can Be Short

Because boilers are such significant users of energy, the payback for a boiler burner/control upgrade can be short – sometimes less than a year. If the boiler structure is sound but the controls predate the digital control age or are otherwise inadequate, it will pay to look into a control or burner upgrade. Be sure to include stack gas monitoring and oxygen trim if available. It could be a brilliant investment. 

More Info:


ESC Boiler & Burner Efficiency

DOE Calculator for Boiler Efficiency

Siemens Combustion Controls

This story appeared in the Summer 2013 Gas & Technology supplement. See additional stories below.

No comments
Consulting-Specifying Engineer's Product of the Year (POY) contest is the premier award for new products in the HVAC, fire, electrical, and...
Consulting-Specifying Engineer magazine is dedicated to encouraging and recognizing the most talented young individuals...
The MEP Giants program lists the top mechanical, electrical, plumbing, and fire protection engineering firms in the United States.
High-performance buildings; Building envelope and integration; Electrical, HVAC system integration; Smoke control systems; Using BAS for M&V
Pressure piping systems: Designing with ASME; Lab ventilation; Lighting controls; Reduce energy use with VFDs
Smoke control: Designing for proper ventilation; Smart Grid Standard 201P; Commissioning HVAC systems; Boilers and boiler systems
Case Study Database

Case Study Database

Get more exposure for your case study by uploading it to the Consulting-Specifying Engineer case study database, where end-users can identify relevant solutions and explore what the experts are doing to effectively implement a variety of technology and productivity related projects.

These case studies provide examples of how knowledgeable solution providers have used technology, processes and people to create effective and successful implementations in real-world situations. Case studies can be completed by filling out a simple online form where you can outline the project title, abstract, and full story in 1500 words or less; upload photos, videos and a logo.

Click here to visit the Case Study Database and upload your case study.

Protecting standby generators for mission critical facilities; Selecting energy-efficient transformers; Integrating power monitoring systems; Mitigating harmonics in electrical systems
Commissioning electrical systems in mission critical facilities; Anticipating the Smart Grid; Mitigating arc flash hazards in medium-voltage switchgear; Comparing generator sizing software
Integrating BAS, electrical systems; Electrical system flexibility; Hospital electrical distribution; Electrical system grounding
Cannon Design’s blog is a place for the many voices of the firm to share thoughts and news related to current projects...
As brand protection manager for Eaton’s Electrical Sector, Tom Grace oversees counterfeit awareness...
Amara Rozgus is chief editor and content manager of Consulting-Specifier Engineer magazine.
IEEE power industry experts bring their combined experience in the electrical power industry...
Michael Heinsdorf, P.E., LEED AP, CDT is an Engineering Specification Writer at ARCOM MasterSpec.