The Many Challenges of Winter 2015
How One Contractor Overcame One of New England’s Harshest Winters
I’m sitting here in my kitchen looking out at a beautiful ocean covered in sea smoke thinking about the harsh winter we’ve experienced this year here in Maine.
The 35°F ocean water and minus 5° ambient temps create a beautiful scene, but it has its down side.
There are freezing pipes above and below ground that — among other things — put heating equipment to the ultimate test, with maximum design conditions pushed to the very edge on many occasions this year. We haven’t seen a winter like this ever before, with record cold temperatures coupled with record snowfall. It was a long, tough winter.
Many of us are aware of the growing popularity of mini-split and central system heat pumps. They have a place and a purpose, but, here in Maine, especially during this winter, too many home and business owners were dealt a terrible blow when the limitations of this equipment became all too apparent.
Extreme conditions tested the toughness of HVAC technicians many times this winter while trying to keep these systems operational. Many condensing units are installed at the ground level or off the ground by just 18-24 inches. But, when you have blowing and drifting snow that can accumulate to heights of 10-12 feet, nothing’s going to prevent the failure of these units.
We manned the shovels many times this winter, pulling drifted snow from many pieces of outdoor equipment, and replacing electronics that may have been touched by blowing snow that entered “sealed” units. Hey, 50-70 mph winds will put snow in places you never thought possible. Replacing a board or fan on an outdoor unit when it’s minus 20° is not for the faint of heart. It takes tough individuals with one goal in mind — service for the customer.
Direct-vent gas appliances have been another challenge for technicians this year. We received countless no-heat calls because blowing snow had covered vents and intakes. We even serviced equipment where snow was blown right into boilers and furnaces. This creates a Pandora’s Box of safety issues, from poor combustion to carbon monoxide dangers.
Fortunately, the news media in our area have done a fantastic job of getting the word out about the dangers of carbon monoxide and how to prevent catastrophes. Still, every year we hear about people being hauled off to emergency rooms due to inadequate, faulty, or bad battery monitoring devices. When the warning of hazards is removed, homeowners are completely vulnerable.
Rooftops are another very dangerous maintenance problem during cold, snowy winters. Recently, I received a call from a rep at the local YMCA. He said one of their units was down. Just getting onto the roof was a challenge. The access hatch had 3 feet of snow on top of it. Of course, that meant 3-4 (drifted) feet of snow across the entire roof which, by the way, didn’t have a very aggressive pitch. To think of the weight of that snow, when temperatures warmed, is daunting.
Just last month, two horrific accidents involved people on flat or near-flat roofs. One was an HVAC tech who fell through a skylight he couldn’t see; he was severely injured. On another building, a roofer fell to his death through an unseen roof window.
We’ve seen many roof collapses here in Maine. It’s not uncommon for them to cause personal injury, to say nothing of the property damage and disruption these create. Thinking of these incidents, I decided a few weeks ago not to walk across 50 feet of roof to reach an inoperable rooftop unit, opting instead to give the customer temporary heat. We’d wait for safer conditions to work on the rooftop equipment.
One of the most frequent calls we’ve received lately is for leaks in places where there’s absolutely no piping. In low ambient winter conditions — with homes that are poorly insulated — trouble merely awaits an opportunity.
Even using both hands, I can’t count how many calls we received where homeowners have discovered giant ice formations inside and outside the home — with ice they attribute to a cracked plumbing or hydronic pipe.
Through the years, our experiences with winter conditions have educated each our staff members on the value of proper insulation. It’s a two-fold need: Homes and buildings that are insulated properly will save energy and eliminate the nasty problems that stem from ice dams — formations that grow as heat escapes the eaves and rooflines only to melt snow and re-freeze. There’ve been many instances where we essentially sell against ourselves — recommending a customer not buy new mechanical systems but invest in better insulation instead. Needless to say, these interactions create strong relationships of trust.
As frost continues to go deeper (4-plus feet) in areas not covered by insulative snow, we’ve seen a lot of frozen water mains and sewer lines, especially common to second homes — structures where they are heated all year, but aren’t occupied. Sewer lines freeze from condensing boiler or furnace condensate that drains at a slow pace into sewers with ice that gradually builds up.
Many of the homes on our shoreline must adapt to construction methods stipulated in FEMA standards, meaning flow-through foundations with exposed sewer and water lines. Today’s technology has offered ways to eliminate frozen water lines, such as with immersion heating tapes. But, sewage lines continue to give us challenges.
How do we thaw water and sewer lines? Typically by pumping steam or hot water under high pressure into lines. Water must remain on, once thawed, for the balance of winter and, yes, this wastes energy and precious resources.
Maintaining good morale is another winter challenge. Jobs may come to a standstill, or move at a snail’s pace due to weather. Yet, paychecks and business must continue forward. It can be a struggle for business owners and managers to stay on our “A” games; to retain a positive attitude and remain positive in all interactions with the public. The weather can and will reduce production and cost serious amounts of money — from snow removal and the need for temporary heating on projects to a lack of enthusiasm and sick employees.
All this said, I must say the people in Maine are very hearty and can overcome every challenge set before them. The rigors of winter can make for a tough fight, but my wife, Lynn, occasionally reminds me, with a smile, that flowers will be coming up through the ground before we know it. So, we remain positive, knowing that to live in one of the most beautiful areas of the country, we must also accept the challenges as they come.
Publication date: 5/18/2015