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Church Boilers - Is this safe? Thoughts?


These pictures are of one of two boilers servicing our church, which is a fairly large stone building several hundred years old up here in New England. I am a member and work in financial services. I do not have any specialized knowledge in plumbing and just I'm trying to help out my congregation.

Our boilers were installed in 2005, and one of them has started to see a lot of scaling. The holding tank for both boilers was replaced a few weeks ago because it was in danger of failing. We've had four plumbers in and received three bids via RFP to replace the boilers, with two stating that the scaling was an indication of failure in the near future and that at least the one needs to be replaced, while the third plumber said that it's not that old and - while he can replace one or both - it may not be necessary.

These boilers are supplied by city water. We did have one plumber of the three mention that we might want to treat the water before it reaches the boiler to increase their longevity going forward.

This is a major expense for a small congregation, so we need to know if one is really in danger of failing and, since they were installed at the same time, if they both are likely going to fail. If we're doing all the work to pull one out, I'm thinking we should probably do both. That said I am open to contrary opinions.

In fact, I'm open to every opinion. I am hoping to get some unbiased feedback and thoughts on the best course of action to ensure that we have safe and reliable heat for the building and - if we have to spend money from our endowment to replace the boilers - that it is for a more long-term solution that 16 years.

Thank you all in advance for your thought and input.


  • Steamhead
    Steamhead Member Posts: 15,510
    Based on what you've posted, it sounds like that system is losing a lot of water. Large quantities of fresh make-up water will cause scaling and premature failure.

    You need a Steam Man. Try the Find a Contractor page of this site to find one. Where in New England are you located?
    All Steamed Up, Inc.
    Towson, MD, USA
    Steam, Vapor & Hot-Water Heating Specialists
    Oil & Gas Burner Service
  • The Steam Whisperer
    The Steam Whisperer Member Posts: 999
    edited April 2021

    Before replacing anything, make sure that a full radiator inventory has been completed to see what you actually need to heat the building. The starting point for sizing steam boilers is the heating capacity of the radiators connected to the boiler. I just replaced the main heating plant at my church and we went from a 2, 100,000 input btu boiler to a total of 850,000 btu input over 3 smaller boilers. This is to heat about 12,000 sq ft in Chicago. The sanctuary seats about 275, has 35 feet uninsulated ceilings and walls, built from 1930 to 1941, with a fellowship hall beneath. The other spaces are a mix of poorly insulated, leaky older buildings and a tighter, but poorly insulated addition from the 50's. If you have two pipe steam, you may be able to go quite a bit smaller if the radiators are modified to work with a smaller heating plant.

    That build up is a pretty clear indication that the boilers are leaking. 16 years is a very short life for these very beefy, if inefficient boilers. Looks like you may have a lot of leaks out in the system that need to be addressed.
    Leaking boilers do become more an more dangerous as you end up relying on the safety controls more and more and eventually the flames can come rolling out of the boilers into the room. CO can also become a serious problem.

    Here's some pics of the 2x 350,000 btu/hr input high efficiency steam boilers we just installed ( the Hot water boiler is behind these) to handle nearly all the building load. A single steam boiler heated the whole complex with the temperatures set back right down to about -10F outside.
    To learn more about this professional, click here to visit their ad in Find A Contractor.
  • Jamie Hall
    Jamie Hall Member Posts: 19,394
    Is this steam? Or hot water? It isn't completely clear, and unfortunately I can't see quite enough of the boilers and piping to be certain...

    In either event, scaling, as has been noted, is an indication not that the boilers are in danger of failing, but that you are putting in a lot of fresh water -- which means you have water loss. Most likely some serious leaking somewhere(s). That's the first thing you need to address.

    If the system is steam, a plumber is unlikely to be able to assess the boilers correctly, nor install new ones properly -- although, before someone yells at me, I hasten to add that there are a few plumbers who can. So -- if it is really steam, you need a good steam man, not a plumber.

    Now I'll grant that it is possible that the addition of enough fresh water to cause a scaling problem may also have caused enough corrosion to damage one or both of the boilers. But again, you need to find the leaks before your start worrying about the boilers.

    Where are you located? I know personally of two very fine steam men in New England -- and several very fine more general heating contractors -- but none of them serve all of New England.
    Br. Jamie, osb
    Building superintendent/caretaker, 7200 sq. ft. historic house museum with dependencies in New England
  • motoguy128
    motoguy128 Member Posts: 394
    A peerless should last 30-40 years.  Not 16.  You clearly have a lot of leaks that need to be addressed.  

    If you can’t reasonably or affordable repair then, then start bidding gas furnaces or hot water boiler feeding fan coils.  
    EBEBRATT-Ed Member Posts: 12,337
    JMHO but the first ting to do is to determine if the boiler(s) are actually leaking. Possibly what you are seeing is flue gas condensation
  • nicholas bonham-carter
    nicholas bonham-carter Member Posts: 8,565
    edited April 2021
    To verify a leak, perform the overfill test when the boilers are only warm, and the auto fill has been valved off. Boiler leaks will be seen by water on the floor, under the boiler. If the water level continues to drop, then the wet returns are suspect.
    These Peerless 211A boilers can have their sections replaced, if necessary.
    Calculate the EDR of the current radiators to verify that the boilers were the right size.—NBC
  • ethicalpaul
    ethicalpaul Member Posts: 3,759
    That gauge glass looks to be in bad shape. Is there any water in this boiler? I feel there has been poor or no maintenance of these boilers.

    What is that ancient-looking globe of cast iron? Is it a mechanical LWCO or pressure safety maybe? Why is it on a boiler installed in 2005? Why is there what looks like some kind of vent above it?
    1 pipe Peerless 63-03L in Cedar Grove, NJ, coal > oil > NG
  • Jamie Hall
    Jamie Hall Member Posts: 19,394
    The black globe thingy with the arm off and up to one side is a McDonnel Miller low water cut off. They work fine.

    But I repeat my (and @Steamhead 's!) earlier comment -- you really do need someone who knows steam heating to come by and look at this thing. Where in New England are you?
    Br. Jamie, osb
    Building superintendent/caretaker, 7200 sq. ft. historic house museum with dependencies in New England
  • dopey27177
    dopey27177 Member Posts: 873
    Your boiler is equipped with with flow gaskets between each section and draw rods to make a water proof seal.

    Based on what I see it is possible that the leak is between sections or a section.
    Before you replace the boiler or boilers try doing a pressure test to see if you have an actual water leak between sections.

    The problem may be attributed to condensation that is occurring because of poor venting of the boiler due to dampness in the basement.

    If you do not have a leak between the sections a good clean up of the boilers internals is needed.
    I would call PB to see if they can check out the boiler and do the clean up and tighten the draw rods with the appropriate torque on the draw rods.

    Cast iron boilers generally last more than 25 years and some with proper water treatment can go 50 plus years.


  • retiredguy
    retiredguy Member Posts: 618
    edited April 2021
    I am not going to comment on the boiler or it's integrity since the experts have spoken about it but I will add that that black globe thing is a McDonnell Miller #157 combination pump control and low water cut off and that that brass thing on the top of the piping is a vacuum breaker which does not have to be there. That vacuum breaker may be from a "test-n-check" blow down assembly made by McDonnell Miller.

    As the other experts have stated that you need a good steam person to assess your whole system since steam boilers usually last many years and your system is in need of someone who knows steam. I have seen steam boilers last 50+ years when they are well taken care of and serviced properly.
  • RayWohlfarth
    RayWohlfarth Member Posts: 982
    There are a couple of things that jump out at me. The first is the evaporated water (white powder) on the front of the boiler. The powder is not normal and could be caused be either a leak inside the boiler, underfiring the boiler, or something pulling the flue gases from the boiler. I agree with the others above. The system should be pressure tested to see if there is a leak ( I would wager there is) I would suggest installing a water meter on the makeup water pipe to monitor how much water is lost. If the boiler is not leaking, get a qualified tech who could see if the boiler venting properly. Always a good idea to check for carbon monoxide inside a boiler. Another way to reduce scale is to install a water softener on the makeup water. Another suggestion is to find a qualified water treatment company which can implement a plan for water treatment. All boilers, especially steam, need water treatment. Good news is this is the right time of year to have a leaking boiler as repairs can be done without worrying about whether the building will freeze. Good luck

    Ray Wohlfarth
    Boiler Lessons
  • Anonymous_Handle
    Anonymous_Handle Member Posts: 2
    Thank you to everyone for the responses. I am reading everything and, as someone that works in financial services, feeling a little out of my depth. You are all appreciated more than you know.

    @Jamie Hall We're just north of Boston. I'm absolutely open to recommendations.
  • bkc
    bkc Member Posts: 31

    I am a trustee of small church (likely smaller than yours) that only a year or two ago was asked "here's our new boiler, can you please look after it?" As a software developer I knew nothing about it. I've since come to appreciate that steam heat is a system in which the boiler is only one part.

    If you have not already done so, I suggest you check out some of Dan Holohan's youtube videos or his book "the lost art of steam heating". As you found, this heatinghelp forum is a great place to get feedback, but in-depth on-site guidance from a steam professional (if you can get it) sounds like a worthwhile investment.

    I encourage you to not feel too overwhelmed as you begin your journey through the wonderful world of steam. I am still on that road myself as I begin to tackle decades of no-maintenance..


  • Jamie Hall
    Jamie Hall Member Posts: 19,394

    Thank you to everyone for the responses. I am reading everything and, as someone that works in financial services, feeling a little out of my depth. You are all appreciated more than you know.

    @Jamie Hall We're just north of Boston. I'm absolutely open to recommendations.

    Your man is Ryan Curran, of @New England SteamWorks . (401) 954-3510. They're in Foxborough.
    Br. Jamie, osb
    Building superintendent/caretaker, 7200 sq. ft. historic house museum with dependencies in New England
  • If you click on this link above and enter your zip code, you can find contractors in your area.
    I see ones in Medford, Stoneham and Arlington.
    Often wrong, never in doubt.
  • Zipper13
    Zipper13 Member Posts: 223

    If you click on this link above and enter your zip code, you can find contractors in your area.
    I see ones in Medford, Stoneham and Arlington.

    I had Codette Plumbing from Medford (he's listed on this site) do some residential steam work for for me in southern Essex County. He seemed knowledgeable with steam and cleaned up well when he left which I was happy and surprised by.

    New England SW told me I was just barely too far north for them, at least for the minor work I needed at the time. Don't quote me, but I think they will do Suffolk and Middlesex (inside of 95?) Counties if that's where your at.

    Garrity out of Springfield comes well recommended and he's told me he'll make the drive east for a job, but I have believe that drive costs a bit extra.

    At any rate can't hurt to get some in-person eyes on it
    New owner of a 1920s home with steam heat north of Boston.
    Just trying to learn what I can do myself and what I just shouldn't touch