HVAC Commercial Market / Boilers & Hydronics

Communication is a Contractor’s Best Tool

Don’t Be Afraid to Share the Ins and Outs of a New Wet Heat System

April 28, 2014
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Tom Tuohy
Tom Tuohy

As warmer weather becomes more the rule than the exception, we begin to realize the end of the heating season is just around the corner. This is the time when we all step back, catch our breath, and reflect on the fine work done by one and all over the past six months. It is also the time to think about the jobs that drove us nuts.

With rare exception, every residential hot water boiler we touched was up and running flawlessly at the end of a long day filled with sweating pipe, turning wrenches, and cutting our hands on smoke pipe. After the boiler is installed, we can usually bleed the system and feel confident we won’t hear from this customer until we return next year to perform annual preventive maintenance.

This is not the case when installing a residential steam boiler, especially if you install an automatic water feeder. Unfortunately, over the past 10 years, automatic water feeders are being installed more frequently when older, inefficient steam boilers are replaced with new, more efficient steam boilers. Think about that for a moment. In most cases, we remove a 50-year-old monster that holds 40 or more gallons of water and replace it with a smaller boiler that only holds 8-12 gallons of water. What’s wrong with this picture? Let’s take a moment and have a closer look.

• Potential Problem No. 1: You just charged your customer what they consider an arm and a leg for a new steam boiler. The old boiler, being dragged out of the house on its way to the scrap yard, is probably 50 years old or older. Guess what? The return line is probably just as old.

It’s now 5 p.m. The customer has a shiny new boiler in his basement; you fire it up, pack up your tools, and head home. For the second time in as many months, you sit down to a hot home-cooked meal. As you take your first bite, the phone rings. It seems that shiny new boiler you installed only a few hours ago is no longer producing heat. So much for a home-cooked meal. When you arrive at the customer’s home, they tell you there was no water in the boiler when they called you, but, since then, it’s managed to partially refill itself.

If the return line is partially blocked — or, in some cases, almost completely blocked — the condensate is slow to return to the boiler. With the old boiler, this didn’t make a difference because the boiler held more water than it needed, so it kept running until the condensate eventually made its way through the blocked return line back to the boiler. With the new low-water-content boiler, if the condensate is unable to get back to the boiler in a timely fashion, the boiler will shut off on low water (hopefully). When this happens, the customer gets cold and calls you for help. This is your opportunity to diagnose and resolve the problem without damaging his home or your reputation.

On the other hand, if the same scenario had occurred but you installed an automatic water feeder (AWF), when the condensate was unable to get back to the boiler fast enough through the blocked return line, the AWF would have added more water to the system.

Now, the water trapped in the partially blocked return line makes its way back to the boiler and the system is now overfilled. On the next call for heat, this vicious cycle continues, possibly two or three more times before the boiler shuts off on pressure, blows the relief valve, or turns every air vent in the house into sprinklers, thereby damaging the customer’s house and your reputation.

• Potential Problem No. 2: You just charged your customer what they consider an arm and a leg for a new steam boiler. The old boiler, being dragged out of the house on its way to the scrapyard, is probably 50 years old or older. Guess what? The main vent or vents in the basement and the air vents on the radiators are probably just as old.

It’s now 5 p.m., the customer has a shiny new boiler in their basement, and you fire it up, pack up your tools, and head home. Low and behold, at about 3 a.m., your phone rings.

The answering machine picks up and you hear your customer making rather suggestive remarks about your mother because his shiny new boiler is no longer producing heat.

You reluctantly drive back to the job only to find the boiler is out of water because there isn’t a single vent in the house that has closed at any point in the last 10 years.

This is your opportunity to diagnose and resolve the problem as well as restore your mother’s reputation.

On the other hand, if the same scenario occurred but you installed an AWF, the system would have refilled and the customer would never know they have a problem. That is, of course, until the boiler cracked prematurely due to sediment build up from the introduction of excessive amounts of makeup water into the system.

• Potential Problem No. 3: A leaky underground return line that probably continues to go unnoticed. If this condition exists, just reread Potential Problem No. 2, the outcome will be the same.

The moral of the story is to do the complete job, from the start. This means explaining to the homeowner ahead of time what you are going to do and the potential problems that could arise after the installation is complete. Explain the difference between old and new boilers and why every air vent in the house, including main vents, may need to be replaced. Make the customer aware of the possibility of unseen leaks, such as risers in walls and ceilings and buried return lines.

Even tell them of the potential for new leaks because suddenly they have a boiler that can actually build up pressure. Make the customer aware of the importance of draining water from the boiler on a regular basis, especially if they have a 67 LWCO. Finally, make the customer aware of the importance of maintaining the proper water level in the boiler.

An AWF cannot periodically drain water from your boiler or refill it to the proper operating level. If your customer is an absentee landlord, or winters in Florida, sell them a good AWF.

In most other situations, good old-fashioned boiler maintenance by a well-informed contractor is everyone’s best bet.

Publication date: 4/28/2014

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