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Commissioning hydronic systems, Part 1

April 16, 2018
When I first started in this business 40 some years ago, our equipment selections and system designs were much simpler.

When I first started in this business 40 some years ago, our equipment selections and system designs were much simpler. A typical residential system entailed a boiler, a pump and 3 to 4 zone valves connected to hot water base board convectors. No outdoor resets, no modulating capabilities and the pumps for the most part were single speed. Nice and simple.

Commissioning was a simple matter of passing the pressure test, filling and purging the system, firing the boiler, waiting for a little while, and then feeling the returns and supply lines to make certain it felt like good circulation was occurring. Then, as we were walking through the home, we verified heat flowing from the baseboard convectors as we went through and adjusted the anticipators on the thermostats. For those youngster reading this article, an anticipator is the equivalent of your “Cycle Rates Per Hour” on the newer solid state digital thermostats. It had to be set for the amperage draw of the device it was connected to, which could be a zone valve, a relay or a gas valve. Those were the good ol’ days. Commissioning took all of 30 minutes, and that would have been for an extensive system in a large house where travel time within the house was high. At the time, we didn’t even bother with a combustion analysis other than kneeling down, looking at the burner to make certain the flames weren’t too yellow, and adjusting the air slides on the burner if they were. If the flames were lifting off the face of the burner, again, a minor adjustment of the air shutter would alleviate that condition. To give you an idea of how much technology has changed, the first dozen or so boilers I installed included thermopile generators. You don’t see many of these working in the field these days, unless it’s a dinosaur that someone has been nursing along in hopes of hitting the lottery before having to replace their heating appliances.

The most simple of hot water heating systems available today typically have more random access memory onboard than did the first U.S. space crafts to go up to and around the moon. That fact in and of itself keeps me in awe, especially in light of the fact that between the two homes I own and maintain, I have a total of 12 computers, 1/3 of which are responsible for controlling my comfort systems. Not being a computer savvy person is not an option in the field today.

Many experts in the field believe it is just a matter of time where a commissioning report will be required before a Certificate Of Occupancy will be issued.

Due to changes in the codes and standards, all new boilers must have as a part of their control package, an outdoor reset controller to optimize the operation of the system. No where in the codes and standards does it say that these controls have to be properly adjusted and or programmed, but they absolutely must be a part of the control package. In my 42 years of hanging out in a lot of different boiler rooms, one thing I have discovered, is that the installing contractors have very little to no faith in these solid state controls. The last thing they want, is to get a call from their customer, telling them that the heating system that they’d installed is incapable of providing adequate heat to keep their home warm. So their idea of a plan to avoid these calls is to either not use the programmable reset controller, or set it up such that it really  does little to no resetting, and hence provides little to no energy conservation. Besides, these installers didn’t make any promises about reducing energy consumption and they are not personally paying for the bill. As long as the gas/oil bill doesn’t increase any more than it used to be, they are golden. That is not really fair to the consumer, and it doesn’t reflect well on an industry that struggles with perceptions about how most contractors are allegedly a shady bunch of characters in the first place. And remember, this is the simplest form of boiler. It gets a lot more sophisticated as you go up from the base models. You absolutely need to have formal factory based training on the individual boiler controls if you are to understand the full potential of these controls.

Although it is not currently required under the current code requirements, many experts in the field believe it is just a matter of time where a commissioning report will be required before a Certificate Of Occupancy will be issued.

From a business stand point, commissioning just makes sense, because on the road of life, if you don’t know where you’ve been, how are you going to figure out where you are going? In a court of law, if you happen to be so unlucky to be on the receiving end of a defective products complaint, not having a report showing the health of the system at the time that you started it up is going to come back to bite you many times over. You have no legal legs to stand on to prove otherwise, and that generally doesn’t bode well for a positive outcome. I was once told by a judge, that if it’s not in writing, it’s considered hear say evidence, which is not admissible in a court of law. I am going to spend the next few articles addressing the need for commissioning, as well as the tools required to properly perform it and some recommendations as it pertain to recording your findings.

Until then, Happy Spring Hydronicing!

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