Hydronics 101

May 1, 2006
BY DAVE YATES SPECIAL TO CONTRACTOR Hey, buddy, can you spare a buck?" Get a job, like the rest of us, you think to yourself. But what if it was, "Hey, buddy, can you spare a few hours to share some of your knowledge so we can get a job and become productive members of society?" What would your response be to that question? In 2004, I received the following e-mail from the freshman HVAC professor


Hey, buddy, can you spare a buck?" Get a job, like the rest of us, you think to yourself. But what if it was, "Hey, buddy, can you spare a few hours to share some of your knowledge so we can get a job and become productive members of society?" What would your response be to that question?

In 2004, I received the following e-mail from the freshman HVAC professor with Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology:

Dave, Would you consider giving us an hour or two of your time? I realize this is very short notice. We are devoting the rest of this semester to radiant heating, and I would like to invite you to address the subject with my students. I know I have a lot to learn about this and feel it is one of the more important heating topics I could cover in our program. Would you have time to come some afternoon next week?

Steve Phyillaier, freshman HVAC instructor, Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology

Are you kidding? Hydronics, especially radiant heating, is a passion that has challenged me with a career-long learning curve, which shows no signs of having an end. An opportunity to share that passion was a siren's song not to be ignored.

The hydronics elephant
Although I'd heard about TSCT (www.stevenstech.org), I was not at all prepared for what I'd discover. Nestled among residential and commercial properties and just a few blocks from the square in downtown Lancaster, Pa., I came upon the TSCT campus. In my mind's eye, I had thought I'd be seeing something like an old high school building. Instead, I found myself driving across a sprawling college campus that was impressive in its scope and architecture. I located the HVAC lab and quietly entered from the adjacent parking lot. Inside, I encountered students actively involved in hands-on HVAC work — trouble-shooting various pieces of equipment.

The parable about blind men being presented with an elephant came to mind. Each was positioned at various parts and each, as you'd expect, came away with a different opinion regarding what an elephant was. Each was so adamant his perspective was correct that they came to blows over the issue! If only they'd had someone to give them an overall view of that elephant before the physical encounter.

In two hours' time, I tried to give an overview of hydronic radiant heating. Almost as soon as I began, I realized I could-n't do the subject justice in such a short time-span. Although it went well and the students were attentive, they weren't in a position for a blind encounter with the elephant that is hydronics. More time, much more time, would be required on Professor Steve's part to fill in the blanks and give them sight.

Church lesson
Fast forward two years and another e-mail from Professor Steve:

Will you be available to share your knowledge and experience in hydronics/radiant floor heat again with our class? I am scheduled to go to the ARI HVACR & Plumbing Instructor workshop April 5 & 6. It would be nice to know I would have someone to substitute that has so much to offer our students.

With two days to share and more time to prepare, I felt compelled to say, "Yes, I'd be delighted." The following day, while performing an estimate in a church complex, it occurred to me I was looking at, and walking through, a perfect teaching opportunity.

The owners had two major concerns: a carbon monoxide incident and high fuel bills. The mechanical equipment included: a steam boiler with a very old one-pipe steam system; a steam-powered hydro-air unit; a multi-zone hot-water boiler; and a forlorn, road-weary, copper-tank water heater that was just one year younger than I am!

During the connected-load and heat-loss survey, it was apparent there were imbalance issues. For instance, the pastor's office and study were both hotter than the hinges of ..., well, you get the picture. Other areas suffered too. More than once, I was asked why I was measuring rooms and radiators and, more than once, I was told other firms had not bothered to check these issues, much less ask any questions. History repeaters!

In military jargon, this tangled heating mess would be termed a target-rich environment! A return trip with camera in hand would allow me to use this for a classroom digital fieldtrip and give the students practical lessons based entirely in reality. It would also give me an opportunity to address issues regarding social interaction with the customers they'll face one day and, just maybe, give them insight into why all employees are in sales, no matter their position in a company.

Sales are built on trust and the previous outfit had lost this customer's trust. It would be worthwhile to examine why and what could have been done by the last mechanic that would have salvaged, solidified and bonded that trust. Doubts had been building, but that CO incident and the half-fast repair had sent this group of church administrators looking for salvation.

I began thinking about all the ways to present this to a classroom filled with students who hadn't yet defined what this elephant called hydronics encompassed. Striving to turn back the hands of time some 36 years, so I could remember what I would have appreciated having someone teach me, was more of a challenge than I first thought.

How could I strip away all the things you and I take for granted when viewing the elephants we've come to know so well and begin anew? My plan began to become a nightmare filled with challenge after challenge! Teaching looks much easier than it is, if you're going to be well prepared for dispensing information in a structured and logical manner. So much of what we do is built upon foundations long forgotten and taken for granted. I had to root around in the cellar of my mind to find those support mechanisms and then transfer them onto paper.

Hydronic helpers
One of those foundations was staring back at me from my desk — the Burnham Heating Helper booklet. Chock full of useful information, a copy has been my constant companion for longer than I can remember and a resource I rely on almost daily. In it, I saw lesson plans beginning to take shape.

Copies would be needed and time was growing short — I needed help! Glenn Stanton, one of this industry's best resources and a trainer for Burnham, has a well-deserved reputation for service above and beyond the call of duty. I emailed Glenn to request a dozen copies of the HH booklet, and he responded that he'd be delighted to help.

The following day, Glenn contacted me to say he only had a few copies and that company-wide none was to be found. The new printing wouldn't arrive until the week following my class. He promised to see if he could find some additional copies.

True to his word, a package arrived two days ahead of class with the promised Burnham Heating Helper booklets. When I dispatched hearty thanks by e-mail, Glenn simply said he was just doing his job.

Dan Holohan, no stranger to helping those in need, read a post I'd put up on The Wall, the active and educational bulletin-board maintained on his www.Heatinghelp.com Website, and volunteered to donate anything needed for the students. I asked for copies of his "Pumping Away" book, which is a great introduction to the world of hydronics. They too arrived just in time for class.

The students arrived on time and settled in for what must have been a bit of a surprise. Instead of launching into the mechanical lessons, we spoke about customer relationships, how to build trust and how trust leads to sales. We spent the first hour discussing how your looks, mannerisms of speech, smell, breath and overall listening skills can make or break a customer relationship.

Following an overview of the digital fieldtrip they'd be taking, I laid out the basics of the boiler room and they saw each of the components — just as I did on my first visit. We started with the steam boiler.

Real-world scenario
First lesson: a timed dial-test of the gas meter, conversion calculations and a comparison to the boiler's rating plate, which revealed it was being force-fed gas at twice its rated input! Digital pictures revealed the telltale soot streaks where pressurized combustion gases sought escape.

"Can you say CO?" as Mr. Rogers might have intoned?

We talked about digital combustion analyzers and why testing would have revealed the CO issue before it could kill a customer or the trust they had built. The pressure controls were set to deliver steam at 6 to 9 lb. in a system originally designed to operate with ounces of pressure.

Boyle's Law tells us that volume is halved as pressure is doubled: the higher the pressure, the greater the volume of steam required to fill the same space. More steam equals higher fuel bills. The connected-load survey required to properly size a steam boiler was accomplished with a combination of digital pictures, a scale drawing of the church and equivalent direct radiation calculations using Burnham's Heating Helper booklet.

Bare steel piping output (utilized to heat the basement youth hall) was included in the lesson plan and added to the accumulative sheet for connected-load totals along with the system pickup factor. That gave them the ability to "see" the total system and that it was grossly oversized.

By getting out of the boiler room, they also "discovered" a long-neglected and forgotten condensate receiver/pump unit that was buried under a pile of junk. By all appearances, the last time it was checked might have been around 1920! They were beginning to see that it pays to get out of the boiler room and be observant if they're going to be betterthan-average technicians.

But they weren't finished with this steamer — not yet. Back in the boiler room, they next checked the feed-water tank and observed it puking heated condensate to the floor drain — for minutes during every heating cycle. Given the gallons lost and fluid temperature, their next worksheet required them to calculate how many wasted Btu were disappearing down the drain.

A hot-water boiler in this mechanical room had many issues too. Before they could "look" at it, however, they needed to consider one remaining item connected to the steam system: the hydro-air unit serving the basement recreation hall, a 40-by-65-ft. space. The two steam zones utilize proportional zone valves — a very expensive repair item should either of them require service. Switching to hot-water thinking mode, they were given a worksheet to calculate the heat loss, rather than connected load. It was a real delight to observe these bright and energetic students as they became aware of their potential in real-world scenarios.

They next performed additional heat-loss calculations and some oddities in system performance by virtue of questions asked during my initial survey/interview with the occupants. You can't know if you don't ask! After all the surprises discovered in the steam system, they seemed to anticipate the litany of issues "seen" during the digital odyssey from boiler to pump manifold to heat emitters and back again. Holohan's "Pumping Away" book helped them understand why the pumps should be relocated and that the water-feeder was connected at the wrong spot.

So much to learn, so little time! My two days flew by in the blink of an eye, or so it seemed to me. You wouldn't think you'd get to see the measure of a man in such a short time, but I did and I was very impressed by these young men. They're beginning a journey that will be filled with adventure, never-ending challenges, life-long learning and opportunities none of them can imagine.

I know their potential, and you do too because we've walked along the same path they're just beginning. Years from now, I hope, they too will take some time to give a group of young men and women a glimpse into their potential future, challenge them and give back to the industry. Dan Holohan understands that well. The week following my teaching experience, a case of "The Lost Art of Steam Heating" books arrived — unannounced! They were given to the students a few days later and will serve to drive home the lessons learned in class as well as challenge them with much more than we covered in class.

You too can have a positive influence in the lives of those who want to learn about and have a career in the trades. You know how to do the work; they need you to share that knowledge. Straightforward practical lessons based on actual jobs you've performed can (with a little thought and work) be turned into classroom lessons. Live, learn, teach.

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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