Old boilers - a cause for concern?

William Kibbel III, The Home Inspector

Dear Home Inspector: What exactly would an inspector look for when examining a boiler in aCirca 1800 home? Does anyone even work on those anymore? What if it broke down?

A boiler is a general term for a central heating system that heats water thendistributes the heat to the living areas of the home. Boilers are stillmanufactured for gas, oil and coal fuels, and even electric. They can bereliable systems if maintained properly.

I am guessing you are concerned about an old boiler. Usually these are madeof cast iron, and are often converted from coal-fired systems. Cast iron boilerscan last indefinitely with regular maintenance. If a service contract has beenmaintained on the system, the contractor may have detailed records of previousrepairs and components that have been updated. They may also be able to offerinsight into life expectancy.

Newer boilers do offer several advantages over these old systems, includingincreased efficiency and updated safety features. They are also generally muchsmaller.

At a minimum, an inspector should:

  • visually examine the boiler for failures and installation standards,
  • verify that it operates to the provided controls, and
  • verify a heat source in each room of the house.

Proper venting of combustion by-products should also be confirmed. A moredetailed inspection would include additional evaluations, such as:

  • viewing the combustion chamber,
  • monitoring of system pressure,
  • measuring for carbon monoxide and combustible gases,
  • determining if materials suspected of containing asbestos are used in the boiler,
  • verifying the presence of safety controls, and
  • providing advice on future maintenance needs and potential remaining service life.

The condition of the visible distribution piping and individual heat sourcesshould be included.

During warm weather periods, it can be difficult for an inspector todetermine the adequacy and uniformity of the heat distribution.

To give a short answer to your question, the age of a cast iron boiler itselfis not my primary concern. The physical condition, as determined by past andfuture maintenance, is my focus when evaluating each individual system. Aservice contract with an honest and knowledgeable contractor has always been mypolicy on my own system to obtain maximum service life. Service contracts oftencover unpredictable repair needs throughout the heating season and annualcleaning and adjustments.

About the Author
William Kibbel III is a home inspector and restoration consultant specializing in historic residential and commercial buildings. He is vice president of Tri-County Inspection Company, serving Southeastern Pennsylvania and Central New Jersey.

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