If customers opted for a preseason tuneup, this complaint could be prevented. However, in many cases there is no preseason checkup, and you’ll be getting the calls. Let’s take a look at what happens.
The weather turns cool and your customer activates the inside thermostat. The thermostat sends a signal to the heater that it should turn on in order to increase the temperature so that the room temperature matches the thermostat. The heater then opens the gas valve. This signals the igniter which, when it hits the gas, turns into a flame. The flame continually burns the gas until the thermostat tells it to turn off. A sensor indicates to the controller that the flame has been lit.
However, if for some reason the flame doesn’t light, the heater automatically closes the gas valve so that the gas will not continue flowing without a flame to burn it off.
When you get the service call, the first thing you should test is whether or not the flame is present. There are a few ways a direct ignition system can confirm the presence of a flame, including a thermocouple, pressure-sensing bulb, fire eye, and flame rectification. This article focuses on flame rectification.
The controller applies alternating voltage between the flame-sensing rod and the base of the flame (ground). The ions in the flame provide a high-resistance current path between the two. Because the surface of the base flame is larger than the sensing flame rod, more electrons flow in one direction than the other. This results in a very small DC offset current.
If a flame is present, the DC offset is detected by the controller, which tells the gas valve to remain open. If there is no current flow, the controller will close the gas valve and the system will purge itself of any remnant gas before trying to re-ignite or lockout. The DC offset is small, measurable only in microamps.
It’s very important that the flame-sensing rod works properly. Dirt, corrosion, and bad connections in the flame-sensing circuit can trick the controller into thinking the flame didn’t ignite. The gas valve will be shut down prematurely. Controller manufacturers publish specifications for the flame diode DC offset current. You can measure the current in the flame-sensing rod by putting an instrument in series with the flame-sensing rod. The instrument must be capable of measuring 1 to 10 microamps DC and have a resolution of 0.1 microamps.
Before you connect any meter to the flame-sensing circuit, you must determine if the system uses a separate flame-sensing rod or uses the hot surface igniter as both the igniter and sensing rod. Typically in hot surface ignition systems, the flame-sensing rod is separate from the hot surface igniter, in which case it’s easy to connect to the circuit.
For the more common type of direct-ignition systems, where the flame rod and igniter are separate, a milliamp head (such as Fieldpiece Instruments’ AUA2, or any other Fieldpiece meter with microamps) can be connected in series between the controller and the flame-sensing rod. (The AUA2 comes standard with quick connects for easy hookup to already existing male plugs. The AUA2 milliamp head and the AQK3 flame diode test adapter kit includes a pair of adapters for connection of the AUA2 or a meter to quick connects, plus an adapter for controllers that require a mini-plug connection.)
When the flame is on, there should be a measurable mADC signal, typically less than 10mADC (mA = microamps). Compare this to the manufacturer’s spec.
Note: When these systems use the same hot surface igniter for sensing and ignition, you could put yourself and your equipment in danger. Many amps go through the hot surface igniter during the ignition part of the startup cycle. The hot surface igniter will only perform the function of a flame-sensing rod after the ignition cycle is finished. In practice, one instrument cannot conduct both very high and very low currents without mechanical switches.
Robertshaw makes an adapter (Model 900-041) with a switch that is normally open and routes the flame-sensing circuit through your multimeter when pressed. This should be done only after the ignition cycle has been completed.
Always follow the manufacturer’s specifications, requests, and suggestions. While working on a furnace, never do anything that could potentially put you or anyone else in danger. Never leave the equipment unattended unless you have properly disabled the system or completed and tested the job to ensure proper safety requirements have been met.
Wurts is a research specialist at Fieldpiece Instruments and is a field-certified HVACR technician. He may be reached at Fieldpiece Instruments, Inc., 580 W. Central, Ste. A, Brea, CA 92821; 714-257-9060; 714-257-9069 (fax); www.fieldpiece.com.
Sources for this article include:
Publication date: 09/15/2003