My boiler red tagged?! That happens to slum lords, not responsible landlords such as me.
I’ve been teaching troubleshooting classes for years, wrote a book about it, and was a heating tech in Antarctica not that long ago. How did I nearly get my boiler condemned? It was because of my own troubleshooting. Well, truth be told, I didn’t troubleshoot at all. Saving time, I skipped it—and nearly had my boiler condemned.
Troubleshooting is a simple procedure never changes. It starts with three easy steps: Is there power to the unit? Is the unit turned on? If it’s a gas appliance, is there gas?
Do one test at a time. Observe. Think. Don’t leap to conclusions.
It couldn’t be simpler! And yet . . .
When it’s a hurry-up situation, and you “know” what the problem is, why waste time?
I was out of town for the weekend and of course that’s when my renters texted to say that when the boiler comes on, it shuts off right away. It’s getting colder outside, so can I have it fixed by Monday.
I know what this is—it’s a bad flame sensor. I could troubleshoot it, but I don’t have replacement parts, so I gotta get a contractor to replace it.
I sent out texts to trusted contractors and got back, “I’m hunting in Wyoming for two weeks,” and “Booked until next Thurs.” But Ben’s Plumbing and Heating said, “Bought the customer list from the guy you tried to contact. Can be there Monday.”
Josh the service tech arrived as promised. He was new new, but I was ready to help. I offered, “In case your boss didn’t tell you, I think it’s the flame sensor.” He didn’t seem to hear.
We went to the basement. I suggested, “Want me to give you a call for heat from the thermostat? “Sure,” he said, maybe to get me gone. I stomped upstairs and reset the stat. It clicked, and then maybe, just maybe, yes! the whoosh of the burner. Back downstairs, I excitedly asked, “What did you find?” Josh was just getting off his phone.
“Well, I turned on the valve on the gas pipe outside the boiler, and then the burner lit.”
“Wait—how did THAT get turned off?”
This is where the trouble started. “Well, my boss said you said the gas company turned it off. So maybe I gotta shut down the whole thing because of safety.” Pause. “Why did the gas company turn it off?”
“Whoa,” I groaned, “The gas company was never here,” knowing that a gas company shut down is a super-big deal and that he’s thinking of condemning my boiler—because I didn’t find that turned-off valve myself. I have a big misunderstanding to straightened out with this guy’s boss. Suddenly I’m in boiler-survival mode.
“The gas company was never here. A renter must have turned it off for the summer. And you fixed it. Yay! That’s great. Let me just pay you for this service call, and get you on your way.”
“Well, my boss says I gotta do tests to be sure it’s safe. And, I see a red tag inside the boiler.”
“RED TAG!” screamed the voice inside my head! A red tag is death for a boiler. There can’t be a red tag.
Sure enough, Josh pulled a small ragged red tag from inside the boiler.
“Please let me see that,” I nearly begged. I read the tag aloud to him. “It says, ‘do not operate unit on LP gas (propane) unless properly converted with a factory-supplied kit by a qualified contractor.’ So everything’s OK. He gave me a blank look.
I continued, “Whoever installed it a long time ago was supposed to remove the tag.” Still a blank look.
I tried again. “The tag’s about propane. We don’t have propane. We have natural gas.” Clearly, I was speaking a foreign language.
“Well,” Josh said, “all I know is that if the gas company shut off the gas and there’s a red tag…”
“Hold on,” I tried to be calm. “How ‘bout you go ahead and finish your safety tests while I call your boss and see if I can clear this up.” Upstairs, I called Ben the boss. Thank goodness he answered his phone.
Straightening Things Out
“Ben,” I said, “you don’t know me yet, but I’m the customer where Josh is. He thinks the gas company shut off the gas, but they didn’t. They were never here.”
“Well, someone called in the gas company shut to off the gas there.”
I tried another tack. “Ben, I’m so embarrassed. I teach troubleshooting at tech schools. You know how it is when you leap to a conclusion instead of doing the troubleshooting process? That’s what I did. I called you because I thought I had a bad sensor. But really the problem was that a renter turned off the gas the boiler for the summer.” Pause. “Nope, no idea why someone would do that.” Pause. “What do I want from you? If Josh would just let me pay him and get on to his next service call… Yep. I understand he has to do the tests. Yep. I’m happy he’s making sure everything’s safe. The red tag? Yeh, it said to use a conversion kit with LP. You know what I’m talking about, right? Yep, I’ll make sure that tag gets thrown away.”
Not a Bad Price
Back in the basement, Josh was packing up his tools. I grabbed the red tag from the floor and shoved it into my pocket.
Josh was saying into his phone, “Okay boss, everything tested okay. No carbon monoxide. No gas leaks…”
Whew!! What a joy to hear.
“Josh, you’ve been great. I talked to your boss and he’s okay. Looks like the boiler is running fine. Let’s go outside and get you paid.”
$145—not a bad price for a reminder not to skip the troubleshooting procedure.
Carol Fey is a technical trainer and writer, specializing in easy electricity, hydronics and troubleshooting books. She also writes about HVAC work in Antarctica.