According to Boyd, “As you can see, this unit was completely submerged. If this unit was running with the compressor terminals under water, the unit needs to be totally condemned. Most likely the power went out before the water reached the compressor terminals.” If the compressor is operational, Boyd said the following parts must be replaced: fan motor, contactor, capacitor, wire nuts and connectors, and defrost board and relay (if this were a heat pump). In addition, “all wire ends, ground connectors, etc., must be wire brushed to remove all corrosion. The coil must also be cleaned and checked for damage.” (Photos courtesy of Robin Boyd.)
It was Friday, Sept. 19, the day after Hurricane Isabel demolished much of North Carolina’s Outer Banks and damaged millions of dollars worth of property in that state, as well as Delaware, the District of Columbia, Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia. Robin Boyd was waiting for the phone to ring. The regional technical service manager for Goodman/Amana is based out of Columbia, Md.

“There are no calls — yet,” he told The News.

The heavy workload for HVAC assessments and repairs would begin shortly after cleanup commenced and power returned. Having been through similar situations before, he commented, “Any furnace that has been underwater is trash.”

He also noted that if the furnace was resting on the floor of a basement that flooded, the unit should be considered for replacement because of the damage moisture can cause later.

(Note: The Gas Appliance Manufacturers Association has issued a similar warning. See the sidebar below.)

Between warranty and insurance work, Boyd anticipated a lot of equipment replacements.

“For outside units, as long as the electrical components are replaced, the unit should be OK” after some cleaning and restoration, he said. “On heat pumps, that means the contactor and control board may need to be replaced.” For air handlers, “If it was more than 24 hours underwater, it’s ruined.”

HVACR equipment ruined due to a hurricane is generally covered under the owner’s insurance policy if they have appropriate coverage, Boyd pointed out. Parts might also be replaced under the manufacturer’s warranty, but that would not include labor. “It creates a problem for someone in my position,” he said; “we’re technical geeks. When this happens, I advise people to go to their insurance.

“I will fight for my customers — my contractors,” he continued. “If they need something in writing for insurance, I’ll write it.” On Sept. 19, he described these customers as “all in shock.”

Boyd added that when electrical service is restored, power surges would cause additional equipment damage. “A hell of a lot of people never think to shut their equipment off after the power goes out.”

He anticipated “a rush of capacitor and compressor replacements, because too many techs can’t tell the difference between the one failure and the other.” He also anticipated airflow-related A/C and heat pump problems due to mud and debris on top of the units. “Better get my guys ready to start cleaning ’em off.”

According to Robin Boyd, “This is a newly installed oil furnace that at first glance looks to be undamaged. A closer look finds corrosion on the copper fuel line; the slight horizontal line just below the burner shows that this furnace has indeed been under water up to the burner. Since the heat exchanger or burner did not get wet, the furnace is salvageable. The blower motor and all the controls attached to it should all be replaced to prevent future corrosion. The blower capacitor must also be replaced.”

Getting Organized

Mitchell Cropp, owner of Cropp-Metcalfe Air Conditioning & Heating, Fairfax, Va., said that his company lost power on Sept. 19, and the building was without power until the afternoon of Sept. 20. Generator power kept the phone lines open and computers running, “but we didn’t get a lot of calls because customers’ phones were down,” he said.

As of Sept. 22, some customers still didn’t have power. “We have a number of customers calling because their electrical service is not working. Fortunately we have been able to advise customers over the phone what to do if a circuit breaker is tripped, etc.”

Some of these customers are in Alexandria’s Old Town district, in Mt. Vernon, and in areas around the Potomac that suffered flood damage. “People have been in pretty good spirits,” Cropp said. “They have been very understanding, even in situations when we haven’t been able to get to them because of downed trees.”

Customers who needed help were prioritized according to their service contract with Cropp-Metcalfe. “We’ve been backing off from some of our fall maintenance work and taking care of emergency service as it arises.”

These four young entrepreneurs sold water and sodas to drivers waiting to return to their properties.
Jeff Marl heads up the Retail Department for Mechanical Service Co., Virginia Beach, Va. “In preparation of upcoming work, we will move up several apprentices to maintenance, shift maintenance people to service if ready, and/or at least one with prior experience in retrofit back to replacements,” he said. “New construction will probably see a lag in demand because of other delays, so we foresee a gap in our rough-in crews and will use them to replace duct systems.”

In addition, the contractor is falling back on its industry contacts. “We have already contacted several MIX Group members and kicked around the idea of using their manpower if they are slow enough to rent them out.”

Ray Clary is a building automation and energy management specialist for Colonial Mechanical, Richmond, Va. “A lot of the area is still without power,” he reported on Sept. 22. “Some areas may be out until the middle of October.”

The day after Isabel blew through, he was called to a government building when facility managers discovered that not as much mechanical equipment was linked to backup generators as originally thought. Clary modified the system so the chillers would start without main power.

He said other problems in the area relate to water pressure regulated by building automation, and the need to reset alarm systems so when equipment does come back on, it does so without alarms going off.

This outdoor unit’s protective top trapped debris, which must be cleaned out before the unit can be used.

Nature’s Might

When Martin Pool of Martin Mechanical Inc., Virginia Beach, was driving through the area, he saw “two air conditioning units [that] had blown off a condo.” It would be a few more days before he could start repairs.

It took four days before power was restored to his business and at that time, there were still 500,000 customers without power in Virginia Beach. “Until the power gets back on, we are not going to know the real impact of the damage,” he said. Of special concern to Pool, whose two-person shop does primarily light commercial A/C, are areas where storm surges totally submerged mechanical equipment.

Debbie Risher, owner of Belair Engineering and Service, Co., Inc., Upper Marlboro, Md., had one word for the experience: “Wow!”

She continued, “We prepared, we duct taped the windows, sand bagged the bays and front foyer windows, purchased a generator and waited, but never did I think a Category 2 hurricane would do the damage it did to our area hundreds of miles away. Ninety percent of my workforce has been without power at home since Thursday late afternoon or evening. Most of my workforce has power today or tonight [Sept. 22].

Another potential danger to service techs after a flood (and a good reason not to smoke on the job) is leaking gas lines. Here, a crew from the propane company shuts down leaking propane tanks that had been tossed off of their pads and turned over. The tank on the left was still leaking when this picture was taken.
“We were swamped with customers,” Risher said. “I still can’t believe it. Even the sales guys can’t believe it.

“We worked hard to make sure the building was a place to come back to, thanks to my husband — whom I thought was going overboard — and we worked hard to get it all back to normal so that our employees would feel back at home.”

Next time a hurricane is predicted for the area, “I’d buy ice two days ahead and put it in everyone’s freezer,” she said. “I’d figure out what/how to earmark these service contracts that have now been drastically changed by Isabel. I have a list and it will grow and we will continue to learn.

“The stress, the workload to prepare for the worst, and retrieval have been exhausting,” she said. “I can only pray for those in the direct path of Isabel and hope that ACCA and the HVACR community in general can help them rebuild.”

News staffers John R. Hall and Peter Powell contributed to this report.

Sidebar: Safer To Replace, Warns GAMA

ARLINGTON, Va. — All flood-damaged plumbing, heating, cooling, and electrical appliances and related systems should be replaced, rather than repaired, warned the Gas Appliance Manufacturers Association (GAMA). This national trade association represents manufacturers of appliances, components, and related products used in space and water heating, commercial food service, and power generation.

The association warned that not only gas equipment is at risk, but also units using oil or electricity as the energy source.

“Controls damaged by flood water are extremely dangerous,” noted GAMA President Evan R. Gaddis. “Attempts to use equipment with defective gas or oil control devices can result in fires, flashbacks, or explosions. And in the case of electric appliances, the result can be injury or even death from a powerful electric shock.” Devices at risk include water heaters, furnaces, boilers, room heaters, and air conditioners.

The association stressed that the repair of flooded appliances and related systems (including damaged venting and electrical connections) is not a job for the do-it-yourselfer, no matter how skilled. This is particularly true of control valves, according to GAMA officials. These components are manufactured to extremely close tolerances. Once submerged in floodwater, they must be replaced. The homeowner should never attempt field repairs.

Even when controls appear to be operative, the unit should not be used after floodwaters recede. “It may work for a while,” Gaddis explained, “but it will deteriorate over time. It might take a week, a month, or a year, but once any control has been under water, it presents a serious hazard — fire or explosion in the case of gas controls, fire or shock in the case of electric equipment.” It’s usually cheaper, and always safer, to replace rather than repair, Gaddis said.

Government aid may be available to help consumers finance the replacement of flood-damaged heating equipment. For more information, contact the offices of the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) at

Publication date: 09/29/2003