Oil Heat Cares

Volunteers help NAOHSM's program deliver a holiday miracle. BY Dave Yates Special to CONTRACTOR Two weeks before Thanksgiving, I received a call from Patricia Carey, a real estate agent with Century 21, who had a client in a real jam. The would-be homeowner was a young, single about-to-be-mother who had exhausted all her savings and retirement accounts in order to scrape together the down payment

Volunteers help NAOHSM's program deliver a holiday miracle.

BY Dave Yates Special to CONTRACTOR

Two weeks before Thanksgiving, I received a call from Patricia Carey, a real estate agent with Century 21, who had a client in a real jam. The would-be homeowner was a young, single about-to-be-mother who had exhausted all her savings and retirement accounts in order to scrape together the down payment on an affordable home in a nice neighborhood where she could raise her child, due on Dec. 23, 2004.

“We’re one week away from settlement and the home failed its required York city inspection,” Pat told me. “If we miss the settlement date, the deal will fall apart and Crystal’s dream will fade into oblivion.”

The seller wasn’t willing to assist in any needed repairs, which basically left Crystal in a take-it-or-leave-it position. When the York, Pa., city codes officials arrived for the inspection, everything went well until the heating system was activated. Smoke billowed out the door on the front of the furnace and an awful odor emanated from the floor grate above. The smoke detector immediately went off; the inspectors shut down the furnace and called the fire department. Upon arrival, the fire department and inspectors decided the furnace was not safe to operate and the property inspection failed.

“Unless we can obtain a certified approval of the heating system, Crystal’s dream will go up in smoke too,” Pat said.

Call to action

By now, I was hooked and caught up in Crystal’s dream. Most of us turn to emotional mush around the holidays, so there was no question about getting involved. Being the owner of a center-city 105-year-young plumbing and HVAC firm has its advantages, not the least of which are knowing the inspectors well and their knowing our work and its quality.

The heating system was a very old furnace that had been converted from coal to oil. A single heating grate was directly above it that’s about 30 in. square. Upstairs, all the rooms had electric baseboard heating elements.

Not only was this young woman facing a deadline less than a week away, she was facing a lifetime of heating bills sure to keep her bank account devoid of cash. I agreed my firm would see what we could do to get the existing system to pass muster. I also told Pat about Oil Heat Cares, a charitable heating assistance program administered by the National Association of Oil Heating Service Managers.

I knew about the Oil Heat Cares program from having participated in one of its fund-raising events last October in Baltimore. As I came to discover, the idea for Oil Heat Cares grew out of a meeting between heating expert Dan Holohan and NAOHSM Executive Director Judy Garber who discussed ways in which the industry could raise the bar while promoting the professionalism of oil heat service companies.

I e-mailed Judy with the details, and she responded favorably. One thing that distinguishes NAOHSM’s Oil Heat Cares program from other charitable assistance programs is that no donations are solicited from manufacturers. Instead, NAOHSM raises funds via seminars and their membership in order to purchase needed products.

“Throughout our industry, manufacturers have been more than generous when donations are requested for schools and charitable events,” Judy said. “We want Oil Heat Cares to be different and decided from the beginning that the program must support the manufacturers as well as promote the industry, while providing much needed assistance for those truly in need.

“We felt that if we were dunning manufacturers continually for free products, then Oil Heat Cares would suffer and not be able to sustain its forward momentum. And, as it turned out, we were correct. Oil Heat Cares has been a huge success so far and has grown rapidly to a point where we are studying ways to take it mainstream, which will permit us to apply for public grants and funding.”

She asked when we’d be visiting the property to perform the certified combustion analysis, and Bob Hopkins of Weil-McLain stopped by while we were there to survey the property for a possible conversion from hot air to hot water. Not only would this result in greater comfort, it would avoid exposed ductwork running to the four rooms on the second floor!

While Bob began measuring the home to calculate the heat loss, we headed for the basement. An old coal furnace with Timken Wallflame conversion was in the center of the floor and its upper cast-iron burner door no longer fit over the combustion chamber’s opening.

If you’ve never seen a Timken burner in operation, imagine one of those circus hoops the lion tamer sets ablaze and then turn it until it’s a flat horizontal ring of fire. The heart of the Timken burner is a rifled motor shaft that lifts raw oil up to a slinger-ring. The slinger-ring tosses the oil to the outer striker plates where an electrode ignites the oil.

In their hey-day, Timken burners were the high efficiency conversion of choice. With parts no longer available, they can be very difficult, if not impossible, to repair.

We checked the chimney for debris; cleaned the combustion chamber and breech; fired off the Timken to verify all its components were functioning; sealed the door with refractory cement to prevent combustion gases or smoke from escaping; and performed a combustion analysis using both Bacharach and UEI electronic analyzers.

The old gal was performing at 78% efficiency! We checked the area above the floor grate for any traces of carbon monoxide to ensure there weren’t any cracks or leaks in the combustion passageways. I drafted a certification letter that would satisfy our city officials. The settlement went off without a hitch! Crystal moved in on Thanksgiving.

NAOHSM to the rescue

To everyone’s delight, the project qualified for the Oil Heat Cares program. Through the local NAOHSM chapter, a call went out and Shipley Energy responded. Barry Jacobs and Tom Sease of Shipley Energy immediately contacted Crystal to survey the property. Barry and Tom met to work out the final design, order materials and assemble a crew of volunteers. Barry produced the original paperwork on the Timken conversion installation on May 8, 1946, and stated he’d only been 6 years old when that work was done.

A spell of mild weather arrived just in time for the demolition work scheduled for Dec. 15, a Wednesday. Tom Sease was first to arrive and found a note taped to the door explaining that Crystal had gone into labor at 3 a.m. and to “do whatever you need to do.”

Within a matter of minutes, Shipley’s Don Reisinger arrived with a truckload of hydronic items and portable heaters to provide temporary heat. Tom explained that they keep a large inventory of temporary heaters on hand for situations like this so that customers are kept warm during installations performed in winter months.

During the demolition, Barry appeared to give more than one wistful glance at the old gal as she was being dismantled. With the old furnace gone, the area swept clean and many new hydronic components now stored in the first-floor living room, the stage was set for Saturday’s showdown with destiny.

Parking is at a premium along the street where Crystal lives, but fortunately, the Shipley Energy corporate offices were close by. Barry and Tom had designated which trucks were to park along the alley and the remainder parked in the corporate lot. A small army of mechanics with toolboxes in hand marched the short distance to Crystal’s home.

Now that everyone was assembled inside the living room, there was barely enough room to turn around. For the first 20 minutes or so, men scurried about to begin their work. Tom was kept busy laying out Slant/Fin baseboard assignments for individual rooms. Both live and “dummy” sections were slated for the upper floor to facilitate wrapping the perimeter.

Another crew was assigned to begin piping up the Weil-McLain boiler and more men were given the task of upgrading the oil tank’s piping and installing a new gauge. As the basement crews busied themselves with varied tasks, the first-floor crew was in the process of raising electrical outlets that had been originally installed in the wooden baseboards. Meanwhile, on the second floor, the remaining crews were drilling through adjoining walls to provide passage of the continuous loop.

Mid-morning, Crystal’s mother and aunt brought the news that Brandon Keeseman had arrived that morning. Everyone was healthy.

By lunchtime, the crews had long since become attuned to their respective responsibilities and had settled into well-oiled precision. It was becoming apparent that this juggernaut workforce would finish in one day’s time! By mid-afternoon, a few were beginning to wrap up their assigned work and began filtering in to assist those still assembling components. Cleanup had begun on the first and second floors and the backyard held the remains of the second floor electric baseboard units. As dusk began to set in, the system was filled for the first time. Purging air and checking for leaks, everyone seemed to be dashing about to ensure all was in order!

There’s always something a bit mystical about firing off a hydronics system for the first time. All the mechanics gathered in the basement for that first breath of life and you could almost hear the collective grunt of satisfaction upon light-off. But the work wasn’t yet complete!

A thorough combustion analysis was next to ensure the proper mix of fuel and air for optimum performance. Adjustments as needed were made and the familiar smells of a new heating system began to waft through the home. The day’s work done, congratulations were exchanged all around and each one left with a warm glow in his heart knowing he’d extended his hand in friendship to someone who needed help.

A few days later, we had an opportunity to meet with Crystal and Brandon in their warm and comfortable home. What a difference in comfort! Gone were the drafty chills and odors. In their place, a Weil-McLain oil-fired boiler quietly and efficiently was supplying warm water to the Slant/Fin baseboard units, which were bathing each room in hydronic comfort.

Tom and Barry thoroughly explained the operation of the system to Crystal and told her of one more thing Shipley Energy was going to do for her.

“Keep your eye on this tank gauge,” Barry explained while pointing out the tank-mounted gauge. “When you see it’s getting low, call us and we’ll be delivering your first tank-full at no charge.”

NAOHSM’s Oil Heat Cares program can’t help but be successful if Shipley Energy’s volunteer work crew is an example of things to come. Christmas miracles may well become the norm for the other 11 months too!

Dave Yates owns F.W. Behler, a contracting firm in York, Pa.