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Automatic water feeders. Why so polarizing?

JohnNY
JohnNY Member Posts: 3,229
As many of you know, I have heating (plumbing, fire suppression, etc) shops in New York and New Jersey.
This is very much steam country around here and we repair and replace steam boilers and systems all week long and have been for decades. All that is fine.
What I find incredibly odd is the polarized perception of the automatic water feeder.
There is no such thing as installing a boiler in New York without an automatic water feeder. Absolutely no homeowner, in any borough, social status, ethnicity, age, mechanical capability, etc, will entertain the installation of a new steam boiler without a new automatic water feeder included.

Cross the river to NJ and I CAN NOT GIVE THEM AWAY.
Absolutely everyone is convinced they are piped into the system for the sole purpose of flooding your home. Some people get instantly hostile at the mere suggestion they might want to have one installed or if they see it listed as an option on the proposal.
I sometimes try to explain that they are absolutely not prone to failure, can be disabled any time, and in the unlikely event they do feed unwanted water, it is most often a failure to maintain the low water cutoff which is the only place from which they receive a feed command.

Contact John "JohnNY" Cataneo, NYC Master Plumber, Lic 1784
Consulting & Troubleshooting
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Comments

  • Dan_NJ
    Dan_NJ Member Posts: 247
    I'm in much greater jeopardy of a flooded basement from a burst washing machine hose (washer dryer in the basement along with boiler) than I am from anything to do with the boiler. Especially since the steam heating system is pretty much designed to keep water *in*. I did once have a leaking boiler fill valve during the off season. Noticed a puddle by the kitchen radiator. The washer on the other hand could be dumping many many gallons on the basement floor before anyone noticed it.
  • clammy
    clammy Member Posts: 3,111
    I m of the opposite opinion . Even a vxt feeder will never take the place of manually feeding water to your steam boiler being when u manually feed it u know it needs water w a feeder it’s all automatic so when u have leaks the feeder nicely keeps things going Andy all is great until the meter is flashing and you need a new boiler. I install if the customer insists but when I’m faced w a flashing vxt and the home owner needs a new boiler for the 3 rd time in 20 years I feel installing a auto feeder is the issue . Without a auto feeder they will be tied to adding water all the time or do the right thing and get the leaks repaired . This is just me I sometimes say if you want everything automatic then it’s time to switch to a heating system which requires less maintenance like hot water and in some cases it s the wiser choice being they need a lot of system work like steam main repairs ,wet return ,dry return repairs re pipe the boiler for proper service and cleaning and let's not forget pipe insulation main air and rad venting just to square stuff away .i know it’s a little off base w the autofeeder question but I feel it’s all about what’s best for the customer benefit and over time and prolonging there boilers life span . On one other note the water in north jersey is horrid w extremely hard water w tds up to 550 ppm that’s my reasoning in a nut shell for no auto feeders plus the fact that some home owners hold on to main and radiator vents like family heirlooms even though they spit steam and condensate ever cycle , like a bad habit they refuse to let go of them and replace, penny wise dollar foolish . Peace and good luck clammy
    R.A. Calmbacher L.L.C. HVAC
    NJ Master HVAC Lic.
    Mahwah, NJ
    Specializing in steam and hydronic heating
    ethicalpaulJohnNY
  • BobC
    BobC Member Posts: 5,477
    I dislike them because they encourage people to ignore their steam boilers and they are another point of failure. Steam boilers are simple and I like to keep them that way. If you have to visit a boiler every once in a while you are much more likely to notice something is wrong with it before it causes a real problem.

    I've lived without one for 74 years and will continue to do so.

    Bob
    Smith G8-3 with EZ Gas @ 90,000 BTU, Single pipe steam
    Vaporstat with a 12oz cut-out and 4oz cut-in
    3PSI gauge
  • ethicalpaul
    ethicalpaul Member Posts: 5,701
    edited December 2021
    My old boiler here in NJ had one when I bought the house and the boiler had been experiencing excess water loss and replacement probably for a decade or more. I believe the auto feed allowed the former owner to become complacent.

    I had @Dave0176 out to look at my old system when he was still in business and he expressed disdain for the autofeeder, matching your NJ hate theory. He also didn’t like the way my main went down a size in the 2nd half.

    I never bothered to put one on my new boiler so I guess I’m a real NJian now 😂
    NJ Steam Homeowner. See my sight glass boiler videos: https://bit.ly/3sZW1el
    JohnNY
  • Steamhead
    Steamhead Member Posts: 16,826
    The VXT is the best compromise here, since it tracks water usage. And, the valve portion can be rebuilt if it malfunctions.
    All Steamed Up, Inc.
    Towson, MD, USA
    Steam, Vapor & Hot-Water Heating Specialists
    Oil & Gas Burner Service
    Consulting
  • Jamie Hall
    Jamie Hall Member Posts: 23,275
    I think it's very much -- like some other things I could list recently -- down to what the individual has been led to believe is an intolerable risk. Which has astonishingly little to do with what the actual risk is.

    I am very much in the automatic feeder camp, particularly for properties which need secure heat and can't be visited frequently by an expert. Granted, they do very rarely fail to close properly. Granted, the low water cutoff may fail and cause them to feed (a safe failure, by the way) The risk is there. So, as has been noted, is the risk of a washing machine hose failing (a rather higher level of risk -- and consequences). Ao is the risk of a hot water tank leaking. So is...

    If one is unhappy that they lead people to ignore the water being fed, that's OK, and it is a risk. But that risk can be entirely mitigated by using a feeder which has a meter on it, and suggesting people read it now and then. Some even will.

    The best thing to do is to help yourself -- or your clients -- evaluate what the various risks are and then determine how acceptable they are, in a rational way. And go from there.

    Ahd yes, I have automatic water feeders on the properties I look after. Wouldn't be without them.
    Br. Jamie, osb
    Building superintendent/caretaker, 7200 sq. ft. historic house museum with dependencies in New England
    Canucker
  • jumper
    jumper Member Posts: 2,245
    Even with manual water addition on HHW I've had pipes rust out because nobody notices a valve packing leak. So in my perfect world no automatic feed and a record of when water is added. Why not loud annoying low water alarms?

    Of course in my perfect world steam systems would not lose water. We hear about homes working without basement visits!!!
  • EBEBRATT-Ed
    EBEBRATT-Ed Member Posts: 15,513
    Steam is a hands on system.

    If the homeowner can't take the time to do a walk around and check for leaks or check the water then he/she deserves what they get.

    You can't run a car without having oil in it.

    My buddy runs a small engine repair shop. Every year he has people drag in lawnmowers and snowblowers with blown engines because of the lack of oil.

    That being said feeders are ok if someone goes on vacation or for properties where you can't get there all the time, but they shouldn't be relied upon for every day continuous use.

    When I was 8 or 9 years old i was playing in the basement, we had steam heat.

    My mom came down to do laundry and went over to the boiler (old oil fired snowman)

    and I asked what she was dong "checking the water level and checking the boiler"

    delcrossvCanucker
  • WMno57
    WMno57 Member Posts: 1,254
    edited December 2021
    Hot water, not steam here. I have a pressure reducing valve to supply water to the boiler from the domestic water supply. I keep it valved off for the following reasons:
    I'm on a well, and the electric operating the well here in the country can be intermittent. Dan has a story on the site about a home boiler explosion caused by an interruption in a city water supply. My water supply is less reliable than city water.
    My water softener is upstream from the PRV. When I do manually fill my boiler, I bypass the softener to keep sodium out of the hydronic system.
    My 70 year old boiler and 105 year old radiators and pipes are not leaking. I add water once a year when i drain my 24 gallon plain steel compression tank.
    No LWCO. Working 30# relief valve.
    If my system does develop a large leak, hopefully I will have a dry fired boiler, but not a steam explosion.
    I DIY.
  • EBEBRATT-Ed
    EBEBRATT-Ed Member Posts: 15,513
    @WMno57 "If my system does develop a large leak, hopefully I will have a dry fired boiler, but not a steam explosion"

    Hopefully you won't have either one. Most old boilers just start seeping water. If the boiler overheats the high limit should shut it down
    WMno57
  • CLamb
    CLamb Member Posts: 280
    A few years ago one failed open here in a 18th century house used as a museum. The radiator vents sprayed a fine mist of water around for a few days until someone went there and noticed. Many of the artifacts were damaged but nothing which couldn't be fixed.
  • delcrossv
    delcrossv Member Posts: 742
    BobC said:

    I dislike them because they encourage people to ignore their steam boilers and they are another point of failure. Steam boilers are simple and I like to keep them that way. If you have to visit a boiler every once in a while you are much more likely to notice something is wrong with it before it causes a real problem.

    I've lived without one for 74 years and will continue to do so.

    Bob

    This. They're great if you have a property you don't visit often. Else they're just an excuse to ignore what is inherently a fairly maintenance intensive system.
    Trying to squeeze the best out of a Weil-McLain JB-5 running a 1912 1 pipe system.
    EBEBRATT-Ed
  • cross_skier
    cross_skier Member Posts: 201
    As a customer I think of water as a risk.  I am more likely to pick your company if you offered something to mitigate the risk of water -- deaerator, dechlorider would grab my attention
  • STEAM DOCTOR
    STEAM DOCTOR Member Posts: 1,965
    JohnNY said:
    As many of you know, I have heating (plumbing, fire suppression, etc) shops in New York and New Jersey. This is very much steam country around here and we repair and replace steam boilers and systems all week long and have been for decades. All that is fine. What I find incredibly odd is the polarized perception of the automatic water feeder. There is no such thing as installing a boiler in New York without an automatic water feeder. Absolutely no homeowner, in any borough, social status, ethnicity, age, mechanical capability, etc, will entertain the installation of a new steam boiler without a new automatic water feeder included. Cross the river to NJ and I CAN NOT GIVE THEM AWAY. Absolutely everyone is convinced they are piped into the system for the sole purpose of flooding your home. Some people get instantly hostile at the mere suggestion they might want to have one installed or if they see it listed as an option on the proposal. I sometimes try to explain that they are absolutely not prone to failure, can be disabled any time, and in the unlikely event they do feed unwanted water, it is most often a failure to maintain the low water cutoff which is the only place from which they receive a feed command.
    My findings have been somewhat different. I would say that about 1/2 of my boiler installations do not get water feeders.  Of course, the fact that I strongly discourage them, may be a factor. 
  • JohnNY
    JohnNY Member Posts: 3,229
    @STEAM DOCTOR Do you work in NJ, NY, or both?

    All,
    So several of us have described steam heating systems as being "hands-on", "maintenance intensive", or other descriptors that paint a fairly undesirable picture of steam heat. Thank you for proving the HVAC industry's characterization of the system and why it should be ripped out and replaced with forced air.
    I don't see it this way at all. We run steam boilers for up to 4 months per year. A change in the typical behaviors of the system are often enough to alert a homeowner of a need for attention and an annual service by a qualified service provider is most often enough to bring the system back to baseline.
    VXT feeders are the only device I would consider installing in a residence due to its feed volume options, delay settings, and of course, gallon counter. Keeping a simple record of gallons fed once a month should be enough to prompt service if required.

    Steam heat is a remarkably simple system and keeping track of water usage is a straightforward task. Why not automate the one thing left for a homeowner to do, besides blowing down a float-type LWCO?

    I writing this keeping in mind that many of the non-industry people here are steam enthusiasts and they loooooove to go put water in their boilers. But something as simple as an automatic water feeder is, in my opinion and based on considerable experience, is that feeders make steam heat more palatable and my clients that have them would never consider being without one.

    Also, @clamb In that case, did the feeder fail or did the LWCO have a failure that initiated the feeder for too long. I know the end result is often the same but there is a difference in how that should be presented.

    Thank you for listening to me rant in poorly constructed paragraphs. I have Covid and can't leave my tiny NYC apartment until January 2nd.

    Contact John "JohnNY" Cataneo, NYC Master Plumber, Lic 1784
    Consulting & Troubleshooting
    Heating in NYC or NJ.
    Classes
    PC7060delcrossvethicalpaulCanucker
  • WMno57
    WMno57 Member Posts: 1,254
    One more thing to consider. Maybe the customer really likes to go down into the basement and add water. What happens as they age, and can't go up and down stairs? And for you younger guys, maybe that's a long way off, but what if you break your leg skiing, rock climbing, etc? You might have 6 weeks where you can't use the stairs.
    I DIY.
    JohnNY
  • Dan_NJ
    Dan_NJ Member Posts: 247
    Personally I don't have one because it hadn't occurred to me. Since my installer couldn't be relied upon to set a pressuretrol or pipe a correct header, I'm not surprised the subject never came up. When properly installed it can be isolated/disabled. So I see no reason not to have one for the reasons mentioned above. Or if the house will be unattended for some length of time in winter for example.
    JohnNY
  • Jamie Hall
    Jamie Hall Member Posts: 23,275
    I with @JohnNY on this... he's absolutely right, in my book.
    Br. Jamie, osb
    Building superintendent/caretaker, 7200 sq. ft. historic house museum with dependencies in New England
    Canucker
  • DanHolohan
    DanHolohan Member, Moderator, Administrator Posts: 16,523
    I used to work for the McDonnell Miller rep in NYC/NJ. We told customers that a feeder was NOT a convenience item, but a back-up to the low-water cutoff. This goes back to the days before we had probe-type LWCOs. The concern was that, with an automatic feeder, the customer would think the steam system was now fully automatic, and they wouldn't blow down the LWCO each week (or at all).
    Retired and loving it.
    Hap_Hazzard
  • JohnNY
    JohnNY Member Posts: 3,229

    I used to work for the McDonnell Miller rep in NYC/NJ. We told customers that a feeder was NOT a convenience item, but a back-up to the low-water cutoff. This goes back to the days before we had probe-type LWCOs. The concern was that, with an automatic feeder, the customer would think the steam system was now fully automatic, and they wouldn't blow down the LWCO each week (or at all).

    Warning: thread drift!

    This statement begs the question... Should be we "blowing down" boilers with prob LWCOs? People ask me all the time and my answer always begins with a shrug and a lame explanation of why it's probably best if they do, but draining a bucket of water from the ½" or ¾" hose spigot on the bottom probably isn't doing a heck of a lot besides creating a reason to add more fresh water.
    Is this heresy?
    I know when my guys open a 2" valve or cap on a steam boiler's return, what we get out of it is pretty clear evidence the bi-weekly flushing from boiler drain does next to nothing.

    Contact John "JohnNY" Cataneo, NYC Master Plumber, Lic 1784
    Consulting & Troubleshooting
    Heating in NYC or NJ.
    Classes
    STEAM DOCTOR
  • Jamie Hall
    Jamie Hall Member Posts: 23,275
    edited December 2021
    I don't see any point to blowing down a heating boiler from the bottom drain more than once a year. A process boiler, consumptive use, yes indeed. A nice closed heating boilter? Why. Now a float type LWCO, yes. Every week or two, yes -- and check to see that the float really does drop and come back up. There's not much clearance in there, and it doesn't take much gloop to hang it up. Or down... Doesn't take much to blow it clear, either, though.

    Oh and I agree -- unless the auto feeder has provision for delay and volume limit, I can see how it might cause trobule.
    Br. Jamie, osb
    Building superintendent/caretaker, 7200 sq. ft. historic house museum with dependencies in New England
    delcrossvJohnNYSTEAM DOCTOR
  • DanHolohan
    DanHolohan Member, Moderator, Administrator Posts: 16,523
    MM told us to remove the probe and clean it once a year. That's all.

    And what Jamie said.
    Retired and loving it.
    JohnNYethicalpaul
  • mygardenshed
    mygardenshed Member Posts: 51
    Just finished installing a new boiler in our home and am on the fence about weather I need one as I’m always in the basement tinkering.
    I then read a Reddit post asking the household maintainers, “What’s your ‘hit by a bus’ plan?” My wife has no idea what I do to maintain the mechanical parts of our home nor would I expect her to. With that said I think I’ll install a VXT after the heating season ends as part of my ‘hit by a bus’ plan.
    JohnNY
  • delcrossv
    delcrossv Member Posts: 742
    edited December 2021
    JohnNY said:

    @STEAM DOCTOR Do you work in NJ, NY, or both?

    All,
    So several of us have described steam heating systems as being "hands-on", "maintenance intensive", or other descriptors that paint a fairly undesirable picture of steam heat. Thank you for proving the HVAC industry's characterization of the system and why it should be ripped out and replaced with forced air.

    I don't see it this way at all. We run steam boilers for up to 4 months per year. A change in the typical behaviors of the system are often enough to alert a homeowner of a need for attention and an annual service by a qualified service provider is most often enough to bring the system back to baseline.

    And that's the source for my "maintenance intensive" remark. If the service providers actually did the annual maintenance, I'd be with you.

    But they don't, because they're more interested in selling new equipment than keeping existing systems going, so it falls to the property owner.

    I have a VXT on one of the boilers I'm taking care of. Two "qualified" service providers, a new unnecessary LWCO and 312 gallons of feedwater later, All it took to set it right was opening some radiator valves and setting one dip switch- thanks to this board.
    Trying to squeeze the best out of a Weil-McLain JB-5 running a 1912 1 pipe system.
  • Steamhead
    Steamhead Member Posts: 16,826
    JohnNY said:

    This statement begs the question... Should be we "blowing down" boilers with prob LWCOs?

    If the probe LWCO is mounted on an external manifold, as with Hydrolevel's 711/724, 1214 or FOEM series, it still has to be blown down once a week to keep the manifold clear. But if the probe is located directly in the boiler section, no.
    All Steamed Up, Inc.
    Towson, MD, USA
    Steam, Vapor & Hot-Water Heating Specialists
    Oil & Gas Burner Service
    Consulting
    JohnNY
  • JohnNY
    JohnNY Member Posts: 3,229
    delcrossv said:



    And that's the source for my "maintenance intensive" remark. If the service providers actually did the annual maintenance, I'd be with you.

    But they don't, because they're more interested in selling new equipment than keeping existing systems going, so it falls to the property owner.

    You're describing a need for having a word with your service provider, or getting a new one. This does not justify condemnation of a widely used mechanical device.
    Contact John "JohnNY" Cataneo, NYC Master Plumber, Lic 1784
    Consulting & Troubleshooting
    Heating in NYC or NJ.
    Classes
    KC_Jones
  • EBEBRATT-Ed
    EBEBRATT-Ed Member Posts: 15,513
    My take is a water feeder (at least with the foat operated controls) maintains a safe MINIMUM water level and does not maintain an OPTIMUM water level.

    As far as I am concerned they are a backup and not intended to maintain the proper water level.
    delcrossvHap_Hazzard
  • STEAM DOCTOR
    STEAM DOCTOR Member Posts: 1,965
    JohnNY said:
    @STEAM DOCTOR Do you work in NJ, NY, or both? All, So several of us have described steam heating systems as being "hands-on", "maintenance intensive", or other descriptors that paint a fairly undesirable picture of steam heat. Thank you for proving the HVAC industry's characterization of the system and why it should be ripped out and replaced with forced air. I don't see it this way at all. We run steam boilers for up to 4 months per year. A change in the typical behaviors of the system are often enough to alert a homeowner of a need for attention and an annual service by a qualified service provider is most often enough to bring the system back to baseline. VXT feeders are the only device I would consider installing in a residence due to its feed volume options, delay settings, and of course, gallon counter. Keeping a simple record of gallons fed once a month should be enough to prompt service if required. Steam heat is a remarkably simple system and keeping track of water usage is a straightforward task. Why not automate the one thing left for a homeowner to do, besides blowing down a float-type LWCO? I writing this keeping in mind that many of the non-industry people here are steam enthusiasts and they loooooove to go put water in their boilers. But something as simple as an automatic water feeder is, in my opinion and based on considerable experience, is that feeders make steam heat more palatable and my clients that have them would never consider being without one. Also, @clamb In that case, did the feeder fail or did the LWCO have a failure that initiated the feeder for too long. I know the end result is often the same but there is a difference in how that should be presented. Thank you for listening to me rant in poorly constructed paragraphs. I have Covid and can't leave my tiny NYC apartment until January 2nd.
    Queens, Brooklyn and Nassau. I agree with a lot of the above. If you travel, have tenants,  are elderly or too busy, then by all means, install a VXT(the only feeder that I ever install, and I install a lot of them). If you are young and don't mind running down to your basement every once in a while, then I recommend against. But it's always  the customer decision. I only work in residential homes. 
  • DanHolohan
    DanHolohan Member, Moderator, Administrator Posts: 16,523
    Ed, that’s correct. Safe minimum. 
    Retired and loving it.
    delcrossv
  • STEAM DOCTOR
    STEAM DOCTOR Member Posts: 1,965
    The vxt sort of takes that out of the equation (to a certain extent). You can program feed amount. Have it set up to feed to normal water level. Obviously,  there is gap between time it starts at NWL until LWCO is triggered. 
  • EBEBRATT-Ed
    EBEBRATT-Ed Member Posts: 15,513
    It;s the same as your car. Protect your investment. If you fill it with gas and never check the oil and only bring it to the dealer once a year to have it serviced and that works for you fine. It's the chance you take.

    Like the old Fram oil filter commercial "pay me know or pay me later"
  • JohnNY
    JohnNY Member Posts: 3,229
    Why is McDonnell-Miller still making that dinosaur Uni-Match feeder? Is anyone still buying that thing? Haven't they gotten the message by now to add some features to it?
    Contact John "JohnNY" Cataneo, NYC Master Plumber, Lic 1784
    Consulting & Troubleshooting
    Heating in NYC or NJ.
    Classes
    STEAM DOCTOR
  • ratio
    ratio Member Posts: 3,623
    Seems like the electronic feeders need two additional features:

    1. A manual reset lockout based on total gallons fed (from last reset). This would capture the leaky pipe failures before they became terribly damaging.
    2. A loud audible alarm if flow is detected when the feed is commanded off. This would capture the valve leaking by failure.
  • JUGHNE
    JUGHNE Member Posts: 11,060
    One blow down on a probe type LWCO boiler system, that I feel would be beneficial would be to drain some water out of the wet return below the HL.
    That wet water trap would be collecting the most sludge and keeping it out of the boiler water....to a certain extent.

    Even running until clear or empty. Manually filling while draining would help loosen any sludge.
    Then fill, assuming the fill pipe is connected into the wet return as many are, and fire to boil.

    FWIW
  • DanHolohan
    DanHolohan Member, Moderator, Administrator Posts: 16,523
    John, I once asked that same question about the B&G Series 100. The factory responded, “Because people buy them.”

    Occam’s razor?
    Retired and loving it.
  • JohnNY
    JohnNY Member Posts: 3,229
    John, I once asked that same question about the B&G Series 100. The factory responded, “Because people buy them.”

    Occam’s razor?
    I hate it when things are that simple. Means I gotta think about something else. 
    Contact John "JohnNY" Cataneo, NYC Master Plumber, Lic 1784
    Consulting & Troubleshooting
    Heating in NYC or NJ.
    Classes
  • DanHolohan
    DanHolohan Member, Moderator, Administrator Posts: 16,523
     :D 
    Retired and loving it.
  • delcrossv
    delcrossv Member Posts: 742
    edited December 2021
    JohnNY said:

    delcrossv said:



    And that's the source for my "maintenance intensive" remark. If the service providers actually did the annual maintenance, I'd be with you.

    But they don't, because they're more interested in selling new equipment than keeping existing systems going, so it falls to the property owner.

    You're describing a need for having a word with your service provider, or getting a new one. This does not justify condemnation of a widely used mechanical device.
    Fair 'nuff. But good luck finding a competent and honest service provider here. Note, I'm not dissing autofeeders per se, but they do provide an opportunity for neglecting maintenance- which is a gold mine for service providers.
    Trying to squeeze the best out of a Weil-McLain JB-5 running a 1912 1 pipe system.
  • delcrossv
    delcrossv Member Posts: 742
    edited December 2021

    John, I once asked that same question about the B&G Series 100. The factory responded, “Because people buy them.”


    Occam’s razor?
    HEY! No dissing the B&G 100!! 😀
    Trying to squeeze the best out of a Weil-McLain JB-5 running a 1912 1 pipe system.
  • CLamb
    CLamb Member Posts: 280
    JohnNY said:

    Also, @clamb In that case, did the feeder fail or did the LWCO have a failure that initiated the feeder for too long. I know the end result is often the same but there is a difference in how that should be presented.

    Good question. It was fixed by the municipality before I knew about it. They own the building. I'll ask around and might be able to find out.