Murder in the boiler room
BY DAVE YATES
IT'S BEEN SAID that Dead Men tell no tales, but the gang of murderers I was investigating just might not be dead — yet! View to a kill: I was invited to investigate the murder scene and determine the cause of death. She'd obviously been mistreated and neglected during her short life.
It was plain to see that gluttony had been one of her vices. Her guts were strewn across the basement floor. With a normal life expectancy of 50 to 100 years, 14 was much too young an age to die.
It would be far too easy to have history repeat itself and subject the next victim to the same abusive forces of nature — after all, that's what others had already proposed to do. No one would be the wiser, except for me, and life would go on as the new gal would silently suffer until she was at death's door.
The owner of the property and I stared at the disemboweled body parts and she wanted to know, "Can she be saved?"
"No, and I'm not sure you'd want to save her. She's costing you an arm and a leg to keep alive?" I asked.
"You have no idea! She practically ate us out of house and home. Why'd she have to die so young?"
The answers required us to visit the three apartments above. I'd already eyeballed enough mechanical mayhem in the basement to determine things done with murderous intent:
- Failure to read the manufacturer's instructions by not following the drawing for near-boiler piping;
- Steam pressure set way to high;
- Bellies in the one-pipe steam branches from main to risers; and
- A Btuh input that appeared to be twice what I'd expect for this three-story, three-apartment row house.
I'll need to survey the connected load and I explained what that meant as we moved from basement to foyer. On the first floor, the little old lady who greeted us with a deep pneumonia-like cough was alarmed that I'd think her apartment a mess.
"I've been in hospital, mister plumber," she said with a thick accent. " My son and his wife took all my money, my house and left me with nothing. I do the best I can, but I've been too sick to clean."
Funny how in the blink of an eye you're suddenly involved in someone's life and how much he or she appreciates a kind word or two. If she'd known a murder took place in the basement — while she slept — she'd have come unglued!
As we talked, I measured each radiator for its style, height and number of sections. My Burnham Heating Helper Booklet would later reveal each radiator's square footage of equivalent direct radiation. On this floor, unwitting accomplices to murder lurked in almost every room: air vents missing their adjustable caps; one-pipe radiators pitched the wrong direction; and more than one valve partially closed in a failed attempt to regulate heat.
The second floor was vacant with the system's thermostat located in a room where the radiator was covered by a thick curtain, and my instincts told me it was too small for such a large room. Huge single-pane windows, with drafty hollow wood sashes that house counter-weights, rattled in the light fall breeze. Things you can't know unless you get out of the boiler room and visit all the crime scenes. Antique non-adjustable air vents were the norm on this floor.
"Having a tough time balancing the heat between floors?" I asked.
"Oh my, it's been a real nightmare," she answered. "No one ever seems happy and the tenant on this floor ended up using the windows to regulate the heating!"
The third-floor radiators had vents with missing caps with one turned upside-down and more radiators tilting away from their single feed/return.
"Sound like a coffeepot percolating when the heat's on?" I asked.
"Exactly, but how'd you know that?" she asked.
As we returned to the basement to gather the final measurements, I explained that now I was ready to determine how she died and why those fuel bills had been so outrageous in past years. I also explained that we'd be replacing the near boiler piping to allow the new boiler to live and breathe properly with dry steam being sent in ounces, instead of pounds, to the outlying radiators that would be balanced and silenced.
"No one else bothered to go upstairs, measure radiators for what you called the connected load or ask me so many questions about problem areas," the property owner said. "How soon can you let me know how much this will cost to fix?"
Did that take longer than simply repeating the murderous history the previous installer(s) inflicted on a beautiful cast-iron beauty? It did. I won't deny it takes more time to get the facts straight, but it's a forensic journey that offers challenges and opportunities that are rewarding in many ways.
The connected load and corresponding pick-up factor (to bring all the steel piping up to temperature) was less than half the deceased boiler's net I= B= R rating. The deceased had overeaten and never exercised properly. Sustained flue gas condensation, caused by short cycling, rotted out her belly and she bled to death. The new gal will be fit and trim with excellent prospects for a very long life.
Doing your homework separates you from the knuckle-dragging, low-ball bidders who compete on price alone. You can be the highest bidder and still get the work.
Dave Yates owns F.W. Behler, a contracting company in York, Pa. He can be reached by phone at 717/843-4920 or by e-mail at [email protected]
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