My Dear Watson: I think it’s dead

Here in Minnesota it’s cold outside. Most likely, wherever you are, winter has also taken hold with a grip akin to that of my youngest son’s grasp onto his iPod when threatened to have it taken away. While most of my days are spent repairing broken boilers or their components, I occasionally find myself on the receiving end of an opportunity disguised as an unsolved mystery. You’ve probably been there.

Here in Minnesota it’s cold outside. Most likely, wherever you are, winter has also taken hold with a grip akin to that of my youngest son’s grasp onto his iPod when threatened to have it taken away. While most of my days are spent repairing broken boilers or their components, I occasionally find myself on the receiving end of an opportunity disguised as an unsolved mystery.

You’ve probably been there. A call comes in from a potential customer looking for answers as to why their heating system isn’t working, even though they’ve had countless companies out to diagnose the problem with little or no success. I recently had such a call that took some twists and turns that even the most experienced contractor might not have seen coming. Opportunities like this usually have me excited in anticipation of gathering clues and closing the case like my favorite English detective.

Now I don’t have a sidekick with a doctorate in hydronic medicine, but I do listen to a lot of old-time detective stories on satellite radio for entertainment while traveling all over this frozen tundra of the Midwest. If there’s one quote by my favorite super sleuth that applies well to our business it’s this: “The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes.” You see, we are all guilty of looking past or dismissing the obvious when presented with a problem unless we take the time necessary to properly diagnose it. In this case it seems as though the handful of contractors to visit this particular customer’s home fell victim to this all-too-familiar situation. This time it was up to me to navigate beyond that same roadblock and solve my client’s problems, hopefully gaining a new customer in the process.

The case

My initial phone conversation with the owner didn’t seem that much out of the ordinary. The  explanation of how he had originally hired a friend of a friend to install in-floor radiant along with a small amount of under-floor “staple-up” tubing for an upper level of his large home during the new construction phase had seemed to be like many other situations I had encountered before. I hardly even flinch after all these years of hearing the horror stories relating to the overall experience he had gone through dealing with the original contractor. So often is the case with radiant systems installed 10 to 15 years ago in my area, the original contractor had installed the system or parts of the system incorrectly. Radiant, for us at this time, was just taking hold and had not seen the popularity it has since experienced. Therefore, many of the contractors installing such systems were either under qualified or had been given bad information, leading to many poorly installed or poorly performing systems. 

I asked all the usual questions... What type of boiler was installed? How many square feet was the house? Was the garage heated as well? How many zones? It didn’t take long to determine there was some problems I might be familiar with, and I offered to schedule a meeting time to take a look at what was going on.

“The game is afoot!”

While walking into the home’s mechanical room it was very clear the boiler had seen its better days. The boiler, one of those small, plastic box types that sit on the floor (name withheld on purpose, but its namesake brethren might be akin to those creepy characters in a mystical land with yellow brick roads and gutless scarecrows) was making a peculiar screeching noise and producing steam intermittently. The steam was rearing its ugly head by thrashing against the opening in the system created by the relief valve. I quickly shut the power off to the entire system, boiler included, out of fear the thing would take the owner and me out at the knees. This is a hot water boiler: they only make steam when they’re angry!

And this boiler was angry, and for reasons at this time that seemed to be related to a flow problem — usually a lack of flow problem. The next 30 minutes was quickly devoured as I looked over the system, taking notes of obvious problems and documenting each with a quick snapshot on my camera phone. 

I’ll stop there for now in an attempt to leave you wondering what happens next. We’ll start next month hot on the trail of what is making this boiler so angry in the conclusion of this detective story.

Eric Aune started Aune Plumbing LLC, in 2004, and to carry on the tradition of family members before him, he has specialized in residential and small commercial hydronic heating systems and service. He is a graduate of Dunwoody College of Technology and Plumbers Local 15, Minneapolis Apprenticeship Training Program.  Aune is currently a United Association Instructor and teaches for the Plumbers Local 15 JATC.  Eric Aune is also founding partner and vice president of mechanical-hub.com. Contact him at: [email protected].

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