Always amuses me whenever Lois and I go to a large social event and folks discover that I'm a mechanical contractor. People seek advice for their problems and, if nothing else, it's a pleasant way to get to know new people and sometimes gain new customers.
“I’m thinking of installing a tankless water heater because we have a tank electric one now. It will have to be propane because where we have our vacation home, that’s the only other energy source. What do you think?”
First we discussed the various Btuh capacity models and the customer’s hot water usage habits so I could get a feel for their needs. Details about exhaust venting, gas pipe sizing, and acidic condensate were discussed.
“I had no idea so much was involved in planning an installation. Our location is a private community of permanent campers and mobile homes. Do these things need knowledgeable installers and service people?”
They do indeed, and I suggested they start by looking up several tankless manufacturer web sites to do a contractor search for their area, and then contact at least three local plumbers to request quotes.
“Payback is important to us too.” Now there’s a subject near and dear to my heart and a question you’d best be ready to handle because it almost always arises whenever you’re dealing with any product promoted as saving consumers money and has higher up-front first-time-installed costs.
Think about this for a moment and consider the difference in installed costs for that first-time-changeover to the second time straight-forward swap-out of a tankless water heater. Like night and day difference and a fraction of the time/materials needed when replacing a tankless with tankless, or for that matter, a modcon boiler or combi unit the second time around. That’s an important consideration when educating your customers about real-world costs that will arise in the future.
As for payback on the first installation? It depends on a whole host of factors, but the reality is that when comparing a 40- or 50-gallon tank-style electric water heater to a 98 percent efficient propane tankless water heater, payback hinges on how much hot water is used, cost for electricity and, in this case, propane. In their area, you must sign up for the propane dealers “club” or they won’t deliver, so there’s an annual fee for that and propane is an unregulated fuel, so the cost can vary widely. Payback calculations are a shot-in-the-dark at best in this case. They’re thinking it over.
Here’s another hot water situation I was pigeonholed about.
“We have an oil-fired boiler with a Beckett burner that won’t stay on for more than two minutes. The Beckett burner that was originally on the boiler was removed and we still have it sitting beside the boiler.”
What happened to the first Beckett burner? “The guy said its brain needed to be replaced and would be really expensive. He said he had several spare Beckett burners at his shop and would give us one for a small fee. It ran fine for several months, then went to running for several days, to a few hours, and now shuts off within two minutes after hitting the restart button. The installer has been back multiple times, but can’t figure out what’s wrong.”
They’ve been taking military-style baths for months! Heat water on the stove in a pot and use a washcloth.
Where’d you find this oil burner technician? “On Craigslist.”
Before you judge, you need some background. Their daughter was murdered by a stalker, had a Protection From Abuse order, and the nightmare had gone on for years with the police having their hands tied. During this ordeal, they lost pretty much everything: their business; their health, and they’re on the long road to recovery. Walk a mile in their shoes, right? Money is tight and they could only afford the services of the cheap guy.
We walked though a lengthy checklist: Oil filter changed (sounded like the burner was maybe starved for oil, which can take a minute or two before the cad cell locks down on safety)? “Yes.”
Then the list moved on to the cad cell; oil line blown out; tank valve fully open; chimney cleaned and checked; oil pump changed out; the gun’s blower motor changed. All used parts.
Had the guy checked the oil pump’s outlet pressure or done a combustion analysis, smoke check, and over-fire draft along with draft in the breech? “No.”
The good news is they kept the original burner. I explained how that burner and its blast tube were engineered to work with that specific boiler’s combustion chamber shape/size and told him how the burner’s retention head assembly and tip of the blast tube both have specific finite positions required to ensure proper performance. They would need a clean break from the inept guy who cannot make this right and to obtain the services of a professional oil burner technician.
They heat with a wood pellet stove and the oil heat is only used for back up. With winter just a few months away, they’re getting anxious.
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