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All I wanted to be when I was a kid was a writer — a sports writer. But not just a sports writer; I wanted to be a beat writer for the Chicago Blackhawks hockey team. I imagined myself in a smoke-filled newsroom, chomping on a cigar, my fedora tipped back, crumpled-up pieces of paper strewn across the floor after being ripped from my old Corona typewriter and finger-punching letter keys that would soon become a story.
You see, back in the day, then-owner William Wadsworth “Dollar Bill” Wirtz would not televise any home games because he was certain it would hurt ticket sales at the gate. To make things even worse for us stay-at-home fans, he wouldn’t even allow radio coverage of the first period for the same reason.
Nobody loved the Blackhawks more than I did and I listened to every minute available; every Lloyd Pettit call went straight from his mouth to my ears and my job would be simple. I would tell the tale of every Bobby Hull slapshot, Stan Mikita maneuver, Keith Magnuson fight and every great save by Glenn Hall or Tony Esposito to everyone who wasn’t fortunate enough to visit the venerable Chicago Stadium at 1800 W. Madison St. I was just a little kid but my mind was made up. I was going to be a writer.
The best-laid plans
The best-laid plans of mice and men often go astray, or so I’m told. Grade school, high school and a relatively brief stint in college got me no closer to my goal.
Next up was HVAC trade school at Coyne American Institute, an old, brick building on Fullerton Avenue on the north side of Chicago. It was there that my career path was no longer in doubt. My future as a pipe fitter, tin knocker and service technician was secured. I picked up the tools, went to work and liked it so much, I stuck with it for the next 38 years.
I’ve been an installer, serviceman, adjunct faculty at a community college, HVAC technical support specialist and a mechanical contractor.
Eventually, it got to the point where my body could not take one more beating.
Wrenching 3-inch pipe, hauling boiler blocks or sections up and down stairs, loading and unloading, and crawling around in places where old guys aren’t meant to go takes its toll after a few decades or more. I stayed in the trenches longer than most and for that I’m grateful.
I now work for a nonprofit organization in Chicago called Elevate Energy. Our goal is simple and basic: smarter energy use for all.
We implement programs, provide direction, support and oversight of energy upgrades for income-eligible nonprofit organizations, multifamily buildings and single-family homes across all Chicago.
This gig still gets me inside boiler rooms without having to lift anything heavier than a combustion analyzer. I didn’t think I could be happier or more fortunate.
And then PHC News called. They asked if I’d be interested in writing a column for them. What? Me? A writer? My knee-jerk reaction was two-fold. Yes! And are you sure you want me?
PHC News was already my favorite trade magazine. Harvey Ramer is, hands-down, my favorite new writer. Hot Rod and I go way back to the early days of heatinghelp.com and has always been somebody I’ve looked up to and respected as one of the pillars in the hydronic industry. His imagination and ability to think outside the box is second to none.
So here I am writing my second column for PHC News. It feels good and I hope that a young technician or two will learn something from what I share here.
Which leads me to this question: Would you like to differentiate yourself from many hydronic technicians and installers? Good, I thought you would.
We’ve all seen our fair share of botched jobs. They usually start with cut-throat pricing, a lack of knowledge, an unwillingness to learn, no design and a Three Stooges’ “A Plumbing We Will Go” plan of attack. There’s no good way this ends. The completed job is painful to look at, the system doesn’t perform as promised and the customer ends up overpaying for lowball number.
From what I’ve seen through the years, most jobs are acceptable, but nothing that will make the building owner invite friends over, prop chairs in front of the boiler, pop a beer and stare in awe at the beautiful sight before their eyes. It’s a boiler, and it heats the place.
The next type of installation I commonly see is the one where the company does almost everything right.
The proposed cost of the job is fair and profitable. If you want to stay in business, you must make a profit. Profit is not a bad word. It’s part and parcel to keeping your doors open and your company thriving. The design started with a Manual J-based heat loss load calculation so the boiler is sized to match the heat loss of the building, followed by equipment selection, piping strategy and schematic, control strategy and schematic, pump sizing and a clear plan of attack on how the job will be executed.
Three-quarters of the way through the job, everything is looking picture perfect. The boiler is hung level on the wall or set on the floor on a housekeeping pad. The piping is plumb, level, properly supported, with professional-looking soldered joints or clean pipe dope joints. The venting uses the proper pipe with the correct pitch and is terminated per the manufacturer’s recommendations and local code.
The boiler’s condensate line is piped with PVC and includes a condensate neutralizer kit. The gas pipe is sized correctly and is plumb, level and secure. It has a gas shut off, union and a drip leg. The relief valve is piped vertically with a discharge pipe within inches of the floor. If they stopped right, now the job would be considered grade A; maybe one that John Seigenthaler would include in the next edition of Modern Hydronic Heating.
Wiring for hydronics
Unfortunately, it’s not finished yet. One seemingly simple task still needs to be completed. It’s the one that comes near the end of the job, near the end of the day when everyone’s tired.
It’s the one where the ball gets dropped more times than not. The electric. Line voltage to the boiler(s), pumps and relays. Low-voltage control wiring to or from the thermostats, sensors, relays and safety-related devices.
It’s here where we see extraordinary lengths of BX, Greenfield and other various forms of flexible cable weaving in a dizzying, crisscross, over-under sort of way. There’s usually no rhyme or reason as to why it was done that way. It just was. And there’s seldom a piece of 1/2-inch electrical metallic tubing in sight. Black Sharpie lettering is the preferred method of labeling and if a mistake is made, no worries; scribble it out and start again.
All the line voltage wires are black and white as if blue, yellow, orange and red wires didn’t exist. The low-voltage control wiring is a rat’s nest of unlabeled, 18-gauge wire (see Photo 1). When you remove the boiler’s cover and see this, all you can offer at first is a thousand-yard stare of sadness knowing what you’re up against.
It doesn’t have to be like that.
There are much better, cleaner methods of wiring to make installations and future troubleshooting easier. Proper wire management, the ability to make a few simple bends with 1/2-inch conduit, following the National Electrical Code, professional-looking labels, using zone valve controls and pump controls, a few tips and tricks — and your electrical work will be on par with your incredible boiler design and piping skills.
It’s also a great way to differentiate yourself or your company from others who are comfortable with the bar not being held so high. We’re all wired differently but our boiler rooms don’t have to be. Most of my jobs have looked very similar to one another. Once I find a way that works, I tend to stick with it until I find a way to improve on it.
Figure 2 is from an apartment building job we did a few years ago. It’s about 95-percent complete at this point. I opted for a wire trough — the long, horizontal box beneath the circulators — on this one because of the number of pumps. I knew it wouldn’t look good without it and for the little bit of extra cost, it was an easy choice for me. A second pump relay, not pictured, is at the upper left of the hydraulic separator. It was much easier to do this than to have long lengths of Greenfield cable and 1/2-inch conduit. I loved the way it looked, too.
Next time, I’ll continue talking about wiring and wire management, sharing some of the things I’ve learned through the years to help you take your electrical work to the next level. Unless, of course, the Blackhawks’ organization calls.