Joe Geraghty, business development manager at manufacturer’s rep firm Sweeney Rogers Geraghty Inc., Raynham, Massachusetts, noticed a near-constant background noise last winter in the four-bedroom home he shares with his wife in Westborough, Massachusetts – and it wasn’t the relaxing kind of white noise that some find enjoyable.
It was the home’s 10-year-old, cast iron, oil-fired boiler. And it wasn’t just running off and on — it was running all the time.
“It’s a new house for us, so it was hard to tell what was going on at first,” Geraghty explains. “It’s not like we had to adjust the thermostat – the house was keeping its temperature but the boiler was working hard to keep it steady.”
He tried adding insulation to the house, thinking it might alleviate the problem, but to no avail. The boiler just kept turning on.
“With it running all the time, we were using a lot of oil,” he says. “When the weather really got cold, our oil bill spiked up to almost double what it had been in the fall.”
Geraghty soon found that instead of filling his home’s oil tank with No. 2 fuel oil every four to five weeks as he had expected, it required filling every two to three weeks. As fuel expenses mounted, he began to suspect what might be the origin of the problem.
He decided to ask Steve Milligan, a former heating contractor and now a hydronic specialist trainer at SRGI, to carry out a thorough check of his system to figure out what was going on. As a full-service manufacturers rep organization specializing in plumbing and HVAC products, SRGI trainers and techs are well versed in problems such as this one.
Unraveling the mystery
Upon inspection, Milligan confirmed Geraghty’s suspicions: There was a blockage in the ECM pump. The cause of the blockage was iron oxide sludge, also known as magnetite.
“I’ve seen this problem plenty of times,” Milligan explains. “Many homeowners just assume it’s an issue with the boiler, heat exchanger or the circulator, and often end up buying costly replacement parts [that] fail again and again.”
But Geraghty and Milligan knew better because this wasn’t the first time the ECM pump had failed. The system in Geraghty’s house has two pumps, one ECM and one traditional.
“I knew the previous owners had replaced the ECM pump about two and a half years ago,” Geraghty says, and it was already clogged again. “Looking back, I would attribute that first failure to magnetite in the system. It’s just not good water for a boiler system.”
Luckily, working for SRGI, Geraghty and Milligan had the answer to the problem sitting right on the company’s shelves: a MagnaClean Professional2XP magnetic dirt filter, manufactured by Adey Innovation.
Milligan hadn’t found a tremendous quantity of magnetite inside the clogged ECM pump. But it doesn’t take much to foul up one of these high-performance pumps, which contain magnets as part of their variable-speed motors.
These magnets pull damaging iron oxide from the system’s water right into the circulator. Milligan knew he had to get all the magnetite out of the system.
“After training contractors about this product, and comparing it to other brands, I knew the MagnaClean Professional2XP was the right filter for this job,” Milligan notes.
Following the manufacturer’s best-practice protocol, he cleaned the system with the Adey MC3+ cleaner, flushed the system and installed the filter. The 1 1/4-inch NPT fittings of the filter were a match to the home’s pipe size.
After installing the dirt filter, Milligan ran the boiler for 15 minutes to ensure the filter collected any magnetite and scale remaining in the hydronic heating system before testing and switching the system back on.
“What we found in that short run-time was incredible,” he says.
Milligan added Adey’s MC1+ protector to limit the formation of iron oxide and completed a test of the system’s water quality using Adey’s Engineers’ Test Kit.
“It’s unusual to find a kit that allows you to test for pH, copper, chloride, iron and water hardness all at the same time,” he notes.
Geraghty underscores the importance of using all the steps in the process to get the best results.
“The cleaner going through the system is what’s going to break up the magnetite in the cast-iron radiators,” he says. “It’ll stir the system up so the magnetite can be collected when it gets to the filter. Then the inhibitor [protector] helps keep magnetite from coming back.”
Poor water quality
Because Geraghty’s situation didn’t unfold quite as one might expect, with cold spots in the baseboards and cold rooms in the house, finding the source of the problem required some detective work and insider knowledge.
But the problem – iron oxide sludge – isn’t unique. In fact, the problems caused by iron oxide and other water-quality issues are becoming more prevalent as high-efficiency equipment becomes increasingly popular.
“Take high-efficiency wall-hung boilers, for example,” Geraghty notes. “They have lower tolerances for improper pH and bad water because they have stainless-steel or aluminum heat exchangers. They’re also much smaller than the old cast-iron boilers, so they’re more prone to fail under poor water conditions. Manufacturers are starting to feel it in their wallets.”
As a result, many boiler producers now require water testing when problems come up. What’s more, they deny warranties if the water quality is not up to par.
And it’s not just boilers that are negatively affected by poor water quality. As in Geraghty’s situation, magnetite can have a devastating impact on ECM pumps.
“Nearly 70 percent of circulator pumps returned to manufacturers fail due to iron oxide damage and other water-quality issues,” says Dr. Neil Watson, Adey chief technical officer.
These increasingly prevalent issues caused by poor water quality make magnetic dirt filters essential to any new or retrofit installation. Installing the device ensures that warranty issues don’t come up later and may extend the life of expensive, water-using equipment.
Immediately after Milligan completed the installation, things began to improve around the Geraghty home. Geraghty estimates he’s saved between 5 to 10 percent on his oil bill since installing the filter, as well as doubled the lifespan of the pumps.
“It’s a huge savings compared to the cost of the filter,” he adds.
Milligan intends to return to the home when summer is over to check the filter. The systems should be cleaned, flushed and protected to be made ready for the cooler months ahead.
“Many of us have been in these situations before and often paid for emergency service call-outs, when in fact we could’ve just prevented the cost by being prepared and on top of our annual system service,” Geraghty says. “It gives me peace of mind knowing that my system is now fully protected.”
Tom Tonkins is the business development director for ADEY Innovation LLC, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He can be reached at Tom.Tonkins@adey.com.