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Pilot light question

First I admit that I know very little about our boiler and hot water heating system. I like to understand how things work, but it has been 13 years since our system was explained to me and all of that knowledge has gone away with a growing family.

The boiler is circa 1904, and according to the last pro that looked at it, it is working well and we should not let anyone talk us into replacing it until if/when it completely shuts down. It was originally coal, then oil and now gas.

Finally onto my question: how can i ignite the pilot on this system? I will try to attach a picture, as I don't know the proper termonology etc... There is a place in the firebox where I know it should be lit - is the thermostat somehow supposed to kick the pilot in? Sorry for the ignorance, and please let me know what other information you may need. Thanks so much for any input!


  • STEVEusaPA
    STEVEusaPA Member Posts: 6,378
    Before I try to help you re-light...

    Let me ask you a few things. First, did you have the gas turned off, and that's why you need to re-light it, or was it working fine, and the pilot went out? Is this boiler for heat only, or heat and hot water?

    If it was working, and the pilot went out, more then likely, you're going to need a tech to come out and repair it.  I wouldn't even try to re-light it before then.  It's probably a good idea anyway to have the tech come out and do an annual service on the boiler.  It appears you know a good service guy, so give him a call.

    If you just had the gas off, for vacation, or off for the summer, that's a different story.  But I would still recommend having the tech come out.  If your boiler is cold during the summer, who knows what could've made a home in your chimney/boiler.  The usual suspects, birds, mice, baby owl (once), bats.  I'm sure you could understand I would hate to show you how to re-light it, then because of poor combustion, or poor draft you end up filling your whole house with either natural gas, or worse, carbon monoxide.
  • Fanner
    Fanner Member Posts: 9

    Thank-you, that was exactly the kind of advice we were looking for! It is for heat only, not our source for hot water. And the gas has not been shut off - it just sat cold through the summer. And I do totally agree that it is well over due for a good once-over! Thanks so much again ~ when we find out what the problem was I will follow-up and let you know.
  • lchmb
    lchmb Member Posts: 2,997

    I'm just curious as to what your normal fuel usage is for the winter and what size your home is (roughly)...
  • Fanner
    Fanner Member Posts: 9

    The house is roughly 2400 sq ft, we spend $ 1600/year for gas - including a hot water heater that is gas. And no, we are NOT in a position to be buying a new furnace ;-) despite any long term savings we might achieve.
  • Slimpickins
    Slimpickins Member Posts: 335
    40-50 years

    oh yeah, you got at least another 40 - 50 years of service life left.
  • Jean-David Beyer
    Jean-David Beyer Member Posts: 2,666
    If everything were the same...

    Just out of curiousity, I looked up my gas bills. I heat with gas, both my hot water (all year) and home heating during the "heating season." My house is 1100 square feet cape cod in New Jersey with design temperature of 14F and I keep inside temperature at 69F. My bill for the last 12 months was $759.00 (gas, delivery, and meter charge). If everything were the same except floor area, I would be paying $1656 per year for a house your size. I have a mod-con with outdoor reset. So it seems you get pretty much the same gas expense as I do with whatever heating system you have.

    Of course, everything is never the same. Our gas bill rates may be different, your design temperature may be different, insulation and infiltration rates are probably different. I am actually amazed they come out as close as they do.
  • Slimpickins
    Slimpickins Member Posts: 335

    I was being sarcastic in my earlier reply. You've gotten your money's worth out of a 107 yr old boiler for sure. But the big reason in updating is all the new safety devices they've come up with in the last 100 years and thats huge for the safety of you and your family and neighbors. Plus, if you're going to have failure or a major leak its going to be the coldest day of the year when its working the hardest. Then you won't be able to shop around or make a good decision. I've heard lots of people say the same thing, "I can't afford a new boiler now" when I'm at their house at midnight with a catastrophic failure. They always seems to come up with the money.

    You may get by this heating season but I'd start saving and planning on replacement. Not sure how qualified your service guy is but of course its not me making a sale, just trying to give advice which is why you're here. I would make sure you have a good CO and gas detector in good working condition. Most of them have a 5 yr life cycle. Good luck!
  • Fanner
    Fanner Member Posts: 9
    edited September 2011

    I most definitely appreciate your feedback, concern and expertise!  We will have a technician at the house this afternoon to assess the damages, and as I mentioned I will post a follow-up so you all know what comes of all of this. 

    For what it's worth, the person who did the servicing for us initially was specifically appointed to our house due to his experience with "antiques" in the field of furnaces.  I was expecting an elderly gentleman, but he was instead middle aged - proving that "experience" does not equal "age" - but even still, I imagine that he was beyond competent.  Additionally, the Heating and airconditioning company that we use has been "in the business" for over 40 years, so there too I trust they know what they're doing (one would hope, anyway!).

    So if I may, I would like to continue to tap into your un-bias advice.  Your mention of the 107 year old furnace certainly struck a note - seeing it that way has nudged me into the mind-set of preparing to replace the furnace at some point.  If it be this year (please Lord, no!) or in the next few years, it will be inevitable at some point...  so, where do I start with that decision.  As my inital post so clearly indicates I know nothing of boilers or furnaces in general...  and I would love advice from folks who have nothing to gain (literally) from giving advice on the subject.  I'm sure there are tons of facts that you would need to know in order to make specific recommendations, but just in gerneral where can I start to get an idea of what we will eventually need?  You already know the basic square footage of the house.  It is hot water heated, and we will not get rid of our lovely old radiators (again, so far no problems there - don't fix it if it ain't broke?) so it would need to be compatible there... what else do we need to consider?

    Thanks so very much again for the time and consideration!

    Edit to add: thanks for the reminder on the CO etc detectors ~ I didn't realize they were good for only 5 years... we have a brand new one in the kitchen/pantry area (nearest the entry to the basement) but I think the one in our upstairs is going to need to be replaced... adding to "to do" list...  Dumb question #7 here:  should there be a CO detector closer to the actual furnace?  I'm thinking so, just want to make sure that isn't supurfulous...? 
  • Fanner
    Fanner Member Posts: 9
    A little more

    The service technician came and re-lit the pilot for us. He also showed my husband (I was at work) the reset button and how to go about re-igniting in the future. Apparently the system is designed to run at 80%, and is measuring (?) at 78% - to which he expressed astonishment... However he did caution that it has repaired cracks in it which will eventually fail, if the whole system doesn't go sooner. We will be placing a CO monitor down there in the near future, per his insistence - we have been admittedly negligent there. They are going to have their boiler specialist (this was not the same person who was here several years ago) contact us with insights and recommendations for future replacement options. So, all in all I guess it is functioning well - we just have been advised to replace in the near future for safety purposes. Just like suggested here. Thanks again and I welcome more feedback!
  • Fanner
    Fanner Member Posts: 9
    More confused than ever...

    Well, now I am more confused than ever. First, there is no pilot (a little tid-bit that hubby didn't mention until last night) but instead a spark ignition. All well and good.

    However, we had their district manager of sorts come today to get some idea of what we may need for replacement options. Both he and the fellow yesterday have been referring to this is a *steam* boiler. My memory isn't 100% but I have always had it in my head that we had a water system. I will add yet another set of pictures for opinions on this, please? I'm probably just being stubborn but I can't wrap my head around the idea that this is a steam system. It has been my understanding that the valves at the top of each radiator - that will release a continuous stream of water indefinitely when opened - used to bleed the system each year were one indication of a water system. He stated that this was just condensation. Also, there is a holding tank near the ceiling in one of the 2nd floor bedrooms (let me know if a picture of this is needed) that has a clear glass tube on the front. The repair and maintenance man that came when we first bought the house said the water level in that tube should always be about in the center, which it always is. This would keep the water levels up in each of the radiators... Again, I mentioned this to the man here today and he said something again about condensation. If that is so, then why is it a solid level of water - I would expect to see steam.

    Bear with me here, please. As mentioned earlier I really do like to understand how things work. If this is a steam system than I have a lot of homework to do - and it will affect greatly our choices for a new furnace as apparently steam systems are pretty rare? Thank-you!


  • Tim McElwain
    Tim McElwain Member Posts: 4,597
    From the pictures

    you have an Midco E-20 power gas conversion burner. It uses a Piezzo igniter to light the pilot, older versions used a lighter tube with a red button (called a Rutz Lighter.

    From the photos it looks like you could have a gravity hot water system just not very clear from the photos. Are there any circulators on this system (forced hot water). Take some pictures of the controls.

    Did anyone do a combustion analysis on this system as you mentioned 80% combustion efficiency in one of your posts I believe.
  • Fanner
    Fanner Member Posts: 9
    Gravity system YES

    I was doing some serious googling last night and came across a really great article that both described and diagrammed a gravity system. I am quite sure this is what we have. Thanks for the explanation on the igniter. Forgive me if I am repetitive here, I have been posting on an old home forum as well and am not remembering what is here and there already.

    We have had 3 different gentlemen here now to look at the system itself. Yesterday they sent someone higher up in the food chain who was supposed to know more about boilers. They are hoping to make recommendations in the even that we decide to replace the boiler. He too felt that this is a steam system. I am certain it is not. Even after I told him about the holding/pressure tank in the upstairs bathroom that has a verticle glass tube half full of water on the front of it - he thought it was probably condensation. There was talk of a fourth person - his boss- coming to have a look too as they just are not sure what we would need as a replacement. And to be honest, I haven't been happy with the lack of knowledge that has looked at it thus far.

    The first crew did some type of test that resulted in the "78%" efficiency number, unfortunately I was not here to get the exact terminology. Their biggest concern is the presence of the CO. They did not do anything with the exhaust system, as far as we know, does that seem wrong to you? Couldn't that be a main cause for the high CO readings, instead of just jumping to the conclusion that it is all from the old boiler? I am still having a hard time thinking that we have to replace this boiler that is working very well- as they have said.

    Thanks so much for your help!
  • Slimpickins
    Slimpickins Member Posts: 335

    Where are you located? Someone on here may be able to look at it or refer you to someone. Also at the top of the page is a Find a Contractor tab, click that and you may find someone who knows something. Glad you're being proactive!
  • Tim McElwain
    Tim McElwain Member Posts: 4,597
    Beware of those who

    can't even identify the system.

    All that may need to be done is a good cleaning and a tune up by a qualified gas combustion technician who understands power gas conversion burners.

    Do you have a working CO detector in the house? If not please get one and get someone there who knows what they are doing.
  • Tim_Hodgson
    Tim_Hodgson Member Posts: 60
    I always agree

    with men named Tim...Get it cleaned and tuned up. and GET a CO detector!

    Your service technician should check the burner, firebox, heat exchanger, flue and chimney for condition and cleanliness. They should also check on the combustion air supply and anything(s) that would depressurize the house.

    Good Luck,

    Tim Hodgson
  • Fanner
    Fanner Member Posts: 9
    Many thanks

    We have had a CO detector in one of the kids' rooms for at least the past 5 years - I didn't realize that they would expire... so we have added one new detector to the hallway in the upstairs, outside all of our bedroom doors. We also put the analog type in the kitchen above the door to the basement. Our next move will be to have the exhaust system cleaned - I wonder if they would give us a "sorry we were clueless" discount. Sadly, I think we will be going with a new company. We typically like to support the local businesses, but this experience has been pretty ridiculous. You all have been a most valuable resource, many thanks!
  • Ironman
    Ironman Member Posts: 7,224
    edited September 2011
    Gravity Flow Hot Water

    From everything you've described, and what I can see in your photos, it appears to be a gravity hot water system. If it were a steam system, the condensate tank would be at the lowest point in the piping, not the highest (Duh). That was for the contractor, not you.

    You've made the right decision to send that contractor packing when he can't even tell what type of system you've got.

    Your system is a perfect candidate for a modulating/condensing boiler when you choose to replace that relic that you've got. Dan has a very informative article on gravity systems under the "Systems" tab above. It's well worth your time. And after you've read it, you'll know a lot more about gravity hot water than most heating contractors. :)

    If you'll give your city/state, someone on here may be able to recommend a knowledgeable hydronic contractor in your area.
    Bob Boan
    You can choose to do what you want, but you cannot choose the consequences.
  • Fanner
    Fanner Member Posts: 9

    I am in western Wisconsin, near LaCrosse - we may not have a lot of knowledgable options around here. That was exactly the article that convinced me this was a gravity system. It has gone into my old home renovation file!
This discussion has been closed.