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“Sean, I just received a call from a customer who is having trouble with his heating system,” my father said to me over the phone. “He mentioned that the bottom zone was not getting hot, but all the rest of the heating loops were working just fine.”
“OK, no problem,” I responded. I finished up my lunch in the truck and then quickly jumped into the back to ensure I had everything I could need for the job.
“Zone valves? Check. Circulating pump? Check. Thermostats? Check. All right, should be good to go,” I whispered to myself.
I hopped back into the front seat and hit the road. I arrived at the house or should I say, the mansion. This place was huge!
“They must have a beast of a boiler down in the basement,” I thought to myself.
I parked the truck and grabbed my heating tool bag and drop light from the back and made my way to the front door. I went through the usual greetings with the customer.
“Wow, this is some house you got here,” I said.
“Yeah, and it cost a fortune to heat this place,” he responded. “Come this way and I’ll show you to the boiler.”
We made our way through several massive rooms and winding staircases until we reached the basement.
‘Never had issues … ’
“So here she is,” he said as he pulled the string for the light fixture above. “I’ve never had issues with this boiler in the past. I always just flip the switch and the system runs great all season. No one ever comes down here to fiddle with it and no one has ever serviced the boiler.”
“OK, no worries,” I replied. The customer returned upstairs.
“Let’s have a look here,” I whispered to myself.
I went through all the possible suspects that could be causing no circulation of heat on the bottom loop. I had power at the circulating pump for the basement zone and the thermostat was activating the boiler. My supply-side piping, which feeds the basement loop, was getting hot from where I could feel, before disappearing into the ceiling. I traced most of the piping that I could see or get to and was able to find the return line where it came back into the boiler room.
“Great! I found the return and it’s piping hot,” I thought to myself. “But why are the radiators not receiving the heat?”
The likely answer was that the loop is air-locked. I got my radiator key from my toolbox and started to bleed air from each radiator. I wasn’t getting much air, if any at all. After going around and eliminating whatever air I could, I went back into the boiler room and fired the loop back up.
After 10 or 15 minutes, I started to go around and feel all the radiators again. But nothing was circulating. I then noticed a 5-foot section of baseboard heating mixed in with the system with radiators. At the bottom of the baseboard element was a drain valve.
“Ah-ha! This is probably where all the air is building up and preventing the heating loop from getting warm,” I thought.
I got my hose and attached it to the drain valve and began to blast the water with a little bit of air through the hose.
“This is definitely the problem here. The air is getting locked up in this baseboard heating and not circulating properly,” I thought.
After about five minutes of purging the baseboard, I continued back to the boiler room to start the firing process again.
Several minutes had passed, but I was still not getting circulation throughout the entire basement loop. I started to become frustrated, as now my phone was receiving alerts from other customers with no heat. I then stopped, took a deep breath and calmed down.
“OK, this is not brain surgery, Sean. Think about it,” I whispered.
I then went to the other thermostats in the massive house and turned them off so I could isolate the basement zone.
After about two minutes, the boiler reached the high-temperature limit and shut down.
“Hmm, something’s not right here,” I thought. “Let me go and get Mr. Smith down here and ask him a few questions.”
I went upstairs and asked if he had a moment to talk. He followed me to the boiler room and I began to ask him a few questions: “When did you notice you weren’t getting heat down here? When was the unit last serviced? Did you or anyone else work on the boiler before you called me?”
He looked down at the floor and answered, “Well, I had a good friend who’s handy come in here a few weeks ago to change the thermal couple.”
“He didn’t touch anything else or change anything else?” I asked.
“Well, he only changed the expansion tank, feeder and relief valve, but that’s it. Nothing major,” he said.
Fantastic! I thought to myself. Now I have to play detective and find this “handyman’s” screwup. After another half hour or so of investigating, I found two old gate valves in separate closets that were both defective and were on the basement loop. They looked to be open, but they were closed or barely open. I drained the system, installed two new valves and finally had the heat working properly.
I learned a few things on that afternoon heating call. We have to deal with do-it-yourself handymen who think they know what they are doing. I should have known better and picked up on the homeowner acting unusual. I should have asked my questions before touching anything.
Now, I try to pick the homeowner’s brain before I dive into anything. If I would have known someone was in that basement tinkering with the heating system, I may have had a different approach to my diagnosis. We live and learn in this industry. We have to think on our toes and sometimes fix the mess of a handyman special.
We all feel the stress of this industry, sometimes. We all get frustrated and sometimes panic on the inside. But when it comes down to it, we all know what we’re doing. We need to take a step back, breathe and re-evaluate the situation.