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Oct. 12, 2018
Over the years more than a few things have contributed to my gray hairs.

Things that go bump in the night that frighten customers and contractors. Over the years more than a few things have contributed to my gray hairs aside from having raised and lived through two sons’ teenage years!

Spiders, roaches, and feral cats – oh my. Send Dave, they said, he’ll never be able to get through that no heat call. A row home just a few blocks from the shop, and, it was just before Halloween where two very old ladies lived who were long-time customers. Not knowing what to expect, I climbed the steps warily and the rancid smell was already overwhelming my olfactory senses. No worries, I’d cleaned tons of grease traps and never once lost my lunch over even the most putrid contents that proved to be building-clearing once their lids were removed to release the fermented odors.

A hunched over lady who looked to be well into her 90’s answered the door. Behind her, you could make out a tunnel that matched her posture – through a mass of tangled spider webs! As she led me, now also hunched over to avoid the dense webs, down the dark hallway, we passed the “library” where she liked to sit by the window tinted with several decades of greasy dirt. Another tunnel of dense spider webs led from doorway to chair. The kitchen window was open and dirty dishes were piled high in the sink. She liked to feed feral cats and food was scattered everywhere.

Roaches scattered when we passed by, cat food crunching underfoot. When I opened the door to the basement, a thick layer of spider webs made it obvious I would have to lay down flat on the steps to avoid the webs. Once in the basement, there was just 2’ of clearance before encountering spider webs and a piece of wood lay nearby that I used to carve out a bit of standing room. Peering through the fog of those spider webs, I spied the ancient gas boiler. At the same moment, I also realized there were thousands of live spiders actively moving about within the webs. Using the stick of wood, I carved out a tunnel to the boiler and carved out space to access the few controls present. A cardboard box was in the way, which I pushed aside with my foot. Cockroaches exploded from the box and scattered to the four corners of the boiler room and not all of them reached safety. A dead rat lay along the far wall. The cause of no heat? A cockroach had been pinned between the contacts in the aquastat. Once flicked away, heat was restored. Back at the shop, everyone had a good laugh at my expense.

The case of the exploding compressor. Back when mini-splits were new for this side of the pond, we installed two floor console units in the remodeled bathrooms of a downtown historic hotel. Deep in the bowels of the upper basement where the condensers were located, we fired off mini-split #1 and checked its operation. Standing next to unit #2, we reached over the condenser to flip on the disconnect only to be met by the compressor as its top literally blew up through the top lid of the outer casing! Stunned silence and counting all fingers and body parts to ensure no injuries. The manufacturer never did tell us why that happened.

That cleanout plug literally hit the basement ceiling as a sewage gusher erupted.

Sewage fountain. As an apprentice, each day brought forth new lessons. A clogged sewer found two of us in a deep downtown cellar roughly 16’ below street level. Paul pointed to a floor cleanout and instructed me to remove it while he brought in the cables for the sewer machine we had carried over the white carpet on the upper floor. As was the case with other cleanouts, removing the brass plug required the use of hammer and chisel to begin persuading the cleanout to budge. Once started, a pipe wrench on its raised head was employed to continue removal. Small jets of sewage began spraying out along the cleanout plug’s edges.

Paul had returned with two racks of cables and told me to pull the plug and expect some sewage to spew forth due to it being backed up within the building. What he and I did not anticipate was the clog being out in the street in the sewer main. Thar she blows! That cleanout plug literally hit the basement ceiling as a sewage gusher erupted. It rapidly became apparent there was no abatement and no way to stop the gusher unless we reinstalled the cleanout plug. Since I was already soaked from toe to head, that became my job. Not relishing the prospect of kneeling on the floor and attempting that by hand, I put my work boot over the gusher, slid the cleanout over the opening and stood on the cleanout while twisting around in circles until the threads finally caught.

Middle of the night shotgun-like noises! A recent boiler replacement with new high efficiency modcon for an addition with multiple zones of radiant plus standing cast iron radiators in the older portion of the home. “On cold nights, typically around 2:00 AM, we are awoken by what sounds like a shotgun blast!” The installer had given up and they turned to us for help. Combustion analysis was spot-on; primary/secondary piping was acceptable; venting had to be redone due to a belly in the exhaust causing the 3” PVC to retain condensate 1.5” deep; and the Taco circulators were all standing on their heads – a position flagged as only OK if system pressure was maintained above 20-PSI.

Let’s see: only happens on cold nights in the middle of the night. That’s when the call for heat will be almost 100% non-stop with the modulating boiler’s burner ON. Heated water can only accept a finite amount of heat before it becomes superheated. If it reaches its saturation point – where any additional heat will cause it to flash over to steam – violently – and my theory was those circulators standing on their heads were superheating the water trapped in the vertical rotor cans, reaching saturation temps and BOOM, flashing over to steam. The engineers at Taco agreed, the circulators were reinstalled on a horizontal plane and no more poltergeists firing off shotguns in their home. 

The dancing boiler. A late October oil-fired cast iron sectional commercial boiler emergency replacement in a very noisy factory and it was bitter cold outdoors. Critical to get the boiler up and running or they would have to cancel the second and third shifts. The pressure was on and the owner was getting anxious. We very carefully set up the primary and secondary air bands on the burner while setting the electrodes precisely gapped and spaced over the front of the nozzle as specified in the instructions. Bled the oil and attempted the first light-off. Nothing. Opened the access door and burned off the oil-soaked combustion chamber. Re-checked the nozzle, electrodes, positioning of the assembly to ensure it was exactly where the manufacturer’s instructions specified. Double checked the gun’s specified protrusion into the combustion chamber. Second try and again, no fire. Tested the transformer and we could clearly hear the electrode spark. Pulled the nozzle assembly and checked the electrode ceramics to ensure neither was cracked, which can lead to arcing inside the blast tube instead of igniting the oil mist. A-OK there, so now we’re grasping at straws and it’s time for shift-change at the factory.

We were both sweating in spite of the boiler room, with its outdoor air screen, being in the 40’s. Thinking it had to be the position of the nozzle assembly, we decided to try moving it forward and back until finding the spot where ignition would occur. I would hold the flue damper open. Almost immediately we achieved ignition and a nanosecond later the flame went out, but not the process, so now raw oil/air was entering the heated combustion chamber and then reignition occurred. A flame erupted from the damper, shot up my coat sleeve, burned off half of my moustache, my right eyebrow, and hairs on the side of my head. On the business end, with the transformer hold-down screws having been moved aside for the prior transformer test, the blast tossed the other tech against the adjacent wall!

The blast shook the factory, which brought folks running to find out what had happened. The boiler itself had danced across the floor several inches. Clearly something was seriously wrong and a call to our supplier revealed the manufacturer’s representative was at the branch. Our salesman and the rep hot-footed it to our location. Once on site, the rep took one glance at our supplied instructions and said the factory had sent the wrong burner set-up instructions. He retrieved the correct instructions, we followed them to the letter, and the oil boiler fired off and purred like a kitten. All’s well that ends well, but that incident scared the heck out of us.   

Dave Yates material both in print and online is protected by Copyright 2017. Any reuse of this material (print or electronic) must have the express written permission of Dave Yates and CONTRACTOR magazine. Please contact via email at dave.[email protected].

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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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