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Do you remember your very first career-related equipment repair? I do. It’s etched in my brain forever. I was still in trade school and I was asked to look at a warm, walk-in refrigerator at a local liquor store. I knew just enough to be utterly dangerous; the owner was taking a big risk asking me to get his Heineken and Budweiser back to, well, beer-can cold.
I don’t recall the exact steps I took to diagnose the TXV as bad, inoperable, toast. But I was resolute in my confidence as a technician with a total of no experience. None, nada, zilch.
It was early Saturday morning, so the local supply house specializing in controls would still be open until noon. Plenty of time to get the part, return, blow the charge (it was 1980), pipe in the TXV, evacuate and recharge the system before the weekend warriors started showing up for their favorite hops and grains beverages.
Fast-forward to the part where the cooler is up and running and cooling. Really. The thing worked. At least, at that point, it worked. But I was young and very inexperienced. And my mention of confidence earlier really wasn’t accurate because I went back at 11 a.m., noon, 1 p.m. and every two hours after that to make sure it was still working. Techs with confidence don’t do that.
The thing is, it really was a success. It worked that day and every day after that. I know. I bought my beer there and when I got home, my Guinness and Harp were the perfect 40 F.
But this isn’t about beer coolers at all. This is about the thrill of victory when we succeed at something for the first time. I never had an experience quite as satisfying as that one day, ages ago, until I did my first snowmelt job.
Come on, we’re all on the same page on this one. Every single one of us went back to our first snowmelt job on the very first flurry, no matter how light it was. And then you were amazed just as I was. The driveway is wet while everything else in sight is covered with snow. We’re in Big Dawg country now. Heavyweights and A-Card Techs, the lot of us.
I wish they all turned out like that. Ten years ago, I had one that didn’t. And hindsight being 20/20, I should have run away from this one as if I was being chased by starving wolves.
A problem system
It wasn’t your typical snow and ice melt project. The homeowner roughed in the tubing eight years prior. Yes, I said homeowner. He made a few mistakes; OK, more than a few mistakes. But I told him about every one of them in detail. I even put it in writing. Because then, I was experienced. I knew this would come back to bite me if I missed crossing one T or dotting one I. It’s been a decade since then, but I remember the system’s faults vividly:
• No under-slab insulation.
• No edge insulation.
• Undersized gas meter and undersized, underground gas line.
• No snow/ice sensor socket was installed.
• Tubing was not pressure-tested before the concrete pour.
• The unsealed tubing was left at the side of the driveway, buried in a pile of dirt and leaves. It took me a long time to dig out the tubing and identify which ends belonged to each other. Finding deeper tubing chewed up by squirrels didn’t make it any easier.
• A two-foot-wide path down the middle of the driveway without any tubing coverage. I guess it’s better than a car tire path, but still.
There’s more, but I’ll get to that later.
The homeowner and I had lengthy discussions about these flaws, what they meant and to what degree they could be addressed. At first, he was reasonable, but it was still October and the only thing on the ground were autumn leaves. He acknowledged my concerns, read the document I gave him and, for the most part, took a let’s-wait-and-see-what-happens approach.
So far, so good — but my spidey sense was on high alert. Something about this guy just made me uneasy.
The sensor debate
I sized the boiler according to what was given to me; downward losses and all. You could land a small airplane on this driveway; it was that long. I piped it in such a way that made me proud: a 500,000 BTU/hr. water-tube, modulating-condensing boiler piped primary-secondary, a monster Taco circulator (the customer’s, used), flow meters for each of the two manifolds, low water cut-off and a flow switch. The whole nine yards. In for a penny, in for a pound, right?
After excavating the 3/4-inch PEX tubing from the soil and rubbish, I leak-checked every loop before hooking them up to manifolds encased in two different vaults. They held at 60 psi for two weeks. We had time before the snow would be flying, so I wasn’t in any hurry to get this one in operation. I wanted to be as sure as I could be.
Using my 1/2 horsepower cast-iron pump, I injected a 40 percent propylene glycol mix and purged the system. Gas pipe — check. Wiring — check. Flue pipe — check. Condensate drain — check.
Here is where things started to take a turn for the worse. As I mentioned, there was no sensor socket installed at the bottom of the driveway before it was poured. From day one, I told the homeowner it would be an issue that should be addressed. We had a few options as I saw it. We could use an alternative sensor such as the tekmar 095, an aerial-mounted sensor that can’t measure slab temperature and could be inadvertently triggered by the environment it’s in.
Let me explain. This is a neighborhood with 100-year-old houses and 100-year-old trees everywhere. If it weren’t for the houses, it would be a forest. Why does it matter? If a slab sensor had been installed initially, it wouldn’t. This airport runway of a driveway didn’t have any tree overhang above it, but every other inch on that property was so densely populated with trees that you could barely see the sky in the summer.
Do you see where I’m going?
Think about the morning after a snowstorm. The driveway is clear, the skies are blue, the sun is bright and the temps remain in the 20s. And every branch of every tree from here to eternity is covered in snow. And every time the wind blows, snow falls off the tree branches and right onto the remotely mounted aerial sensor. The boiler fires because it’s being told there’s snowfall. There is, but not on the driveway and it’s not coming from snow clouds.
When these types of things happen, you can bet the farm your phone will ring.
Seeing this as a future problem, I suggested going to a manually operated on/off system — of which the homeowner wanted no part of. He wanted me to core-drill the concrete to install the slab sensor and then drill laterally across the driveway and all its 3/4-inch tubing for the wiring.
I said I would be glad to, but it will cost him x amount of dollars and he’ll need to sign a waiver absolving me from the fallout should I hit a piece of tubing, resulting in a chunk of his driveway being torn out. He complained, ranted and raved before deciding on the aerial sensor, knowing what might, and most likely will, happen.
The dreaded middle-of-the-night call
Two months later, we get our first substantial snow. I get a call at 2 a.m. because the boiler is firing and making funny noises. The homeowner described the noise to me and told him I’d only come out if someone from the gas company meets me out there. I knew what was happening and I told him it would happen. He hemmed and hawed, moaned and groaned, but I stuck to my guns. I’m not going out there without a representative from the gas company to greet me.
At 5 a.m., we met. All three of us — me, the gas man, and the guy who was summoning my evil doppelganger. The gas man checks the boiler data plate, the size of the gas line, the capacity of the meter, looks at my manometer on the gas line, and listens to the huffing and puffing sound coming from the intake and exhaust pipes.
“Your gas line and your gas meter are not large enough to meet the needs of your new half-million BTU/hr. boiler,” the gas man says. “The gas pressure drops too much on a call for heat and the volume can’t meet the demand.”
Admittedly, I had a bit of a smug look on my face as I looked at the guy who woke me at 2 a.m. for something I forewarned him about. The gas man scheduled the work to be done in two weeks. Not long after, we got 19 inches of snow; this time, the boiler fired as smooth as silk. I have videos of the boiler firing and its flue pipe venting before and after the upgrades, a stark difference between the two.
And then, two days later, I get the call for the boiler firing due to the snow being blown off the trees and dropping onto the sensor. Everything I said would happen is now happening. I remained patient with him, even though he was trying to pin all this stuff on me. We ended up going to the on/off method of control. He wanted to keep the 095 sensor and get a credit for it at the same time; I told him there’s no chance of that happening. I still own that sensor and the 654 control.
Moving forward, things didn’t get much better. I had quoted and installed a Jomar filter ball valve because I was concerned with what might still be in the PEX tubing, even though I blew them out with a compressor. The boiler locked out three times because the filter screen kept filling up, requiring me to come out and clean it each time. Eventually, it ran clean after a couple of days.
In early spring, I get another call from this guy asking me to come out and take a look at something. We meet and walk the driveway as he pointed out all the “new” cracks that were my fault because of the snowmelt system. I don’t say anything until he’s done and, even then, I remain quiet for a while as I scroll through my phone.
He gets irritated and tells me to listen to him. I listened to him and was still listening to him as I showed him pictures of his driveway and all its cracks, pictures that I took in October before even starting the job. The date and time, in all their glory, there for him to see. I had a bad feeling early on, but I love snowmelt jobs, so I saw it through. Plus, there was a good chance I misread him. I didn’t.
Snowmelt systems were always the operating beer cooler for me. And try as he may, that guy didn’t ruin it for me. Before I moved west and whenever I was working in the area, I’d drive by the house on snowy days just for the bit of happiness it gave me, knowing it was another job well-done, despite all the obstacles.
Trust your instincts, guys and gals.
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