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A case of arrested development

July 2, 2012
The neighborhood presented an idyllic scene: well manicured lawns, flowerbeds, and neatly trimmed shrubs, giving each three-bedroom home a welcome appeal. Right smack in the middle of this scene, the destination for a geothermal estimate appeared as I rounded the curved roadway: a case of arrested development!

The neighborhood presented an idyllic scene: well manicured lawns, flowerbeds, and neatly trimmed shrubs, giving each three-bedroom home a welcome appeal. Right smack in the middle of this scene, the destination for a geothermal estimate appeared as I rounded the curved roadway: a case of arrested development!

The yard was a warzone where no grass had yet been sown, mounds of rain-washed dirt had been left the day the excavating contractor finished digging for the basement — weeds flourished, and three geothermal boreholes with open HDPE tubes stabbed the air. A plywood gang plank passed over the gaping gap between the home and yard. The owner was waiting on the front porch.

The owner greeted me with, “I was afraid you wouldn’t agree to look at this job if I told you what has happened. The well driller has refused to return and my mechanical contractor has walked off the job. I was trying to save money by contracting separately.”

In for a penny: in for a pound. Curiosity was getting the better of me while reality and past experience whispered in my ear, “Run, run, run!”

Oddities, surprises

The first oddity upon entering the home was a floor register in the direct pathway of foot traffic. The owner led me through semi-finished rooms where floor registers (where dirt, animal dander, and anything dropped on the floor goes to die) were peppered about. Most were under windows, as you’d expect, but more than a few were located inside walls or several feet out into the room.

The basement held even more surprises. The ductwork certainly appeared to be undersized and it was not assembled well: duct-board joints misaligned, trunk ducts not squared, and tape joints did not reveal any indication of staples being used. (The builder installed the ductwork in all of his homes to save the high cost charged by HVAC contractors).

The trunk ducts led to the far end of the basement, at the far opposite corner from where the HDPE would be entering. A four-ton, two-stage geothermal unit sat forlorn in a corner, and I asked about the installer. I found out he works for a mechanical contractor and agreed to do this as a side job. After the owner paid him for the geothermal unit, he never came back and did not return any calls.

The basement floor was heaved up with a pronounced separation running nearly half the length of the 70-ft. long basement! The owner told me this happened right after the well driller grouted the wells, and that he denied any responsibility. Like the mechanical contractor, the well driller didn’t return any of the owner’s phone calls.

This job had lawsuits written all over it in bold block letters! What was the icing on the cake?

The owner asked me to do the work providing that I could do it for what was left over from the original quotes.

I told him that he might as well keep that amount to himself  because I didn’t want to know and it would not make a difference — my price would be what’s required to complete the mechanical system — with the emphasis on this being a system.

Manual-J and Manual-D built into my RHVAC program revealed the builder’s ductwork was undersized by a wide margin with several rooms starved for sufficient airflow due to undersized and missing branch ducts. Given its half-fast construction, it had to be replaced. The open HDPE geothermal pipes surrounded by a dirt yard where small rocks lay exposed in a neighborhood filled with children no doubt presented a fun challenge.

Added time for high-pressure flushing would be required along with excavation and reverse-return fusion welding to connect the boreholes and bring the HDPE into the home. (The well driller never revealed the depth of the three boreholes.) Another shot in the dark! The four-ton, two-stage high-efficiency geothermal unit was marginally OK for the air-conditioning load, but fell short on the heating side. The builder told me what size was needed.

Don’t be blinded

Education of consumers regarding mechanical systems allows them to make smarter decisions regarding Energy Conservation Value (ECV), Water Conservation Value (WCV) and ROI. Geothermal customers are seldom given the option to target what percentage of the heating load they want the geothermal versus electric resistance to handle.

Absent that information and education, and how the borehole depth relates provides an open door for being blinded by upfront costs. Bidding against a contractor who shorts the job by targeting only the A/C load in areas where the heating load is greater? A few minutes of education leads to increased sales and higher dollar volume per job. You make more money, they enjoy enhanced ECV and spend thousands less in operating costs over time for an enhanced ROI. If only the owner had understood the consequences of compounded errors brought on by a complete lack of mechanical education and skewed thinking that he could save money by cutting corners.

The owner actually said to me, “I can’t afford your costs to fix my system, but would you be willing to testify in court against the builder and well driller?”

I answered with a big fat, “No!”

All Dave Yates material in print and on Contractor's Web site is protected by Copyright 2012. Any reuse of this material (print or electronic) must first have the expressed written permission of Dave Yates and Contractor magazine. Please contact via email at: [email protected].

About the Author

Dave Yates

Dave Yates material in print and on Contractor’s Website is protected by Copyright 2017. Any reuse of this material (print or electronic) must first have the expressed written permission of Dave Yates and Contractor magazine.

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