"There can be no Economy where there is no Efficiency", Benjamin Disraeli

  For those who do not know, not that I would expect any of us should, Benjamin was a British Statesman and two-time Prime Minister for the United Kingdom.   This quote, taken from his biography can take so many meanings, in any of the trades, particularly in the current day.  
  When the economy of this great nation came to a crashing halt just a few years ago, unemployment and rising natural resource prices forced many homeowners to take a long look at how we are consuming energy.  Gone were the purchases of gas guzzling vehicles, and everyone wanted to change the world one Toyota Prius at a time!  Enter high tax incentives for energy improvements to homes, with some even making it to today.  Utility Rebate Programs continued to "chug along" with business as usual, just a significant growth regarding consumer awareness and genuine participation.  Now, I am not blaming any sort of economic collapse on our stubborn waste of natural resources in America, or even the recovery being tied to efficiency measures.  What will happen if we see gas prices fall again, or Tax Credits reduced to $0?  Can there be an economy recovery without efficiency in the forefront?  Now that we have reached a level of awareness, doesn't this now become the status quo?
  In the HVAC trade, we see changes in efficiency come in cycles.  They almost always align to the mandates coming down from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Energy (DOE).  Over the last few decades, an increase in minimum efficiencies have brought forth great strides in technology.  Long gone are the days of high efficiency being 10 or 13 SEER, yes I am old enough to remember this!  The 13 SEER model marks the economy choice on the industry's job proposals now.  I am glad to see the push on the heating side as well, with minimum efficiencies hitting the 90%+ point for most heating dominated states.  The increase in the minimum efficiency makes the current "high-efficient" choice just the economy model.  What will be next in innovations?  Variable Capacity equipment cannot alone be it...can it?

Let's take a look at Mr. Disraeli's entire quote:
"Economy does not exist in the reckless reduction of estimates.  On the contrary such a course almost necessarily tends to increase expenditure.  There can be no Economy where there is no Efficiency." - October 3, 1868

Does the year surprise you?  I can actually think of a couple of more present day representations, mostly surrounding Government/Commercial work and their bid process!

Over-sized Equipment No More!

4 or 5 ton systems should be multi-stage...

Despite the passing of Regional Efficiency Standards, International Code requirements for Load Calculations and Equipment Selection, tighter homes and duct systems, I cannot see the likelihood of grossly over-sized equipment going down!  The significant problem at hand is that HVAC Contractors are either going to use the system design process, or not.  
In the meantime, Regional Standards are pushing Manufacturers into finding ways to make their systems more efficient.  Other than variable refrigerant flow (VRF), I am not sure what a manufacturer can do to increase the Energy Efficiency Ratio (EER).  In fact, some manufacturers and distributors have reported their variable capacity systems have actually tested, in a laboratory, lower EER than their two-stage and even single-stage counterparts.  We have seen the increased use of Electronic Expansion Valves (EEV) to maintain the lowest possible superheats in the industry.  Even increasing the physical size of Evaporator and Condenser coils in attempts to pick up/reject more heat.  This is all putting the burden on the contractor to find the room for installation, as well as finding systems that can deliver the latent capacity needed in the replacement market.
     So, I propose this: Why don't we require any 4 or 5 ton system be multiple stage or variable capacity?  This can address the significant over-sizing issue so often seen in the HVAC Industry.  After all, a study completed in 2006 by the Florida Solar Energy Center: "Measured Impacts of Proper Air Conditioning Sizing..." found little electrical savings for homeowners when replacing systems 47 - 65% oversized.  There is still significant peak energy savings to Electric Providers, hence the enforcement of proper sizing with most Utility Rebate Programs.  I wonder what those savings to the homeowner would have been if they just installed a multi or variable capacity system?  This code enhancement could change the industry significantly in future years, keeping the focus away from bigger coils and higher efficiency, but still pushing the contractor to proper sizing and equipment commissioning.  Yes, two-stage equipment costs more!  So you should size the equipment correctly to avoid these extra costs, increasing your bids.  Trust me, I have inspected as much as hundreds of A/C installations a year, for almost five years now, in a local utility rebate program.  Almost never do I see an installation or replacement system larger than a 3-ton.  Less than 10% of my inspected systems are larger, and almost always multi or variable capacity.  Customers still report increased comfort and reduced energy use.  Let's push efficiency using correctly sized, multiple capacity for the 4 or 5 ton systems, not physically larger units!

Perception: The Service Technician

  Not too long ago, the HVAC Service Technician took great pride in representing the company he or she worked for.  They would arrive to work early, enthusiastic for the day ahead; helping the elderly without heat first after the big snow storm.  They would answer their emergency calls within minutes following the noise of the dreadful beeper, and later cell phone.  It only took about five minutes, but shining their boots before heading out the door felt like an eternity.  Removing them when entering the front door of a home was a nuisance, but leaving a house almost cleaner than when they showed up was rewarding in itself.
  To a large percentage of today's HVAC service personnel, this all sounds old fashioned and likely comical.  Believe it or not, this is how I was taught by most of the old timers when I first started in the industry - fresh out of trade school.  I know of very few companies that worry about their perception when it comes to their service department.  The service technician is the face of your business!  They provide the first taste of your company, and perception by the homeowner is everything.  They are the expert, the trusted professional that was invited into a home to fix the comfort problem.  Because of this trust, the service technician can provide the highest quantity of leads, sales, and even growth of the company.  If you want to succeed as a service technician, there is more to it than just knowing the equipment...

1.  Clean your Van, inside and out!
  There is nothing more embarrassing than opening the door and having your most recent coffee cup or dirty air filter fall out into the customer's driveway.  You may not care too much, but your company does!  Make it a habit to clean out your trash daily, and restock your van at the same time.  You likely do not have to wash your vehicle as often, but create a schedule and just be mindful - would you want an expert showing up to your house in that vehicle?

2.  Dress like it's a uniform.
  Not to be taken to the extreme, but have some pride in the way you dress.  Of course, nothing matches the pride I had when wearing the uniform for the greatest fighting force in the world.  Clean, unwrinkled shirts, pants, and even shorts (if applicable) go a long way for the perception of a quality product.  I do not care how much a technician knows, if they look like they just woke up, wearing the same old, stained "boiler pants" their credibility goes out the window!  
  Keep a spare shirt, pants, and if possible shoes in your van.  You may only use these once a month, but it will ensure you can keep the perception of quality at all times.  For those really bad attic crawls, through a foot of cellulose, consider investing in a good pair of coveralls...

3.  Organize your tools
  Very few technicians use tool belts anymore.  In fact, when I did, I just carried it on my shoulder.  I did not do this for any other reason than a homeowners perception.  By carrying the few common tools always required, it kept my hands free to shake, hold/open the door, and even wave to neighbors.  I never left tools at a job site because in just a glance I could see if I was missing anything.  Many times I have met technicians at a job, asked for a tool, and they dump their five gallon bucket of goodies on the basement floor.  Why do they carry every tool from their van in such a rusty pile?  To avoid a walk back to the van for a tool not used every day?  This walk could present another opportunity to talk with your customer, a good thing!

4.  Use the right tools for the job
  Just because I am talking about the "good old days" does not mean you should be using tools circa then.  Long gone are the sets of manifold gauges, Fyrite combustion kits, and incline manometers.  Yes, I have some of the mentioned as back-ups in case my Digital Refrigeration Analyzer, Combustion Analyzer, and digital manometer are out for repairs.  I would not want a doctor or dentist not using the most up to date tools, think about it!

5.  Ask questions and listen to the homeowner
  By the time I made it to the basement, I would likely know what was wrong with the furnace, boiler, heat pump, etc.  This is because I asked the homeowner some key questions.  For instance, what does the equipment seem to be doing now?  Have you heard any noises out of the ordinary?  Talk with the homeowner, they are paying your bill and expect it.  After all, they invited you into their home, to not do so would just be rude.  Speaking of rude, recognize cultural differences in the area you are working (i.e. wearing of shoes indoors, looking the woman of the house in the eyes, shaking hands, etc.).  Just merely asking if it is ok to wear your boots for safety will break down this tension.

6.  Complete your paperwork, legibly!
  One of the largest downfalls of technicians, the dreaded paperwork.  Complete it on site, always capturing a signature after completion.  This will force you to write them legibly as a customer will probably not sign something they cannot read.  Also, asking for a signature is another opportunity to talk, recap work completed, and any recommendations.

7.  Treat everyone with the same respect
  Yes, the Service Technician is a valued commodity for any HVAC company.  This does not mean you can be a rude, narcissistic person that argues and puts down others in your company.  Many technicians think they are "holier than now" and everything revolves around them.  You are wrong, and probably should not be representing your company!  When things are busy, have some patience and treat your coworkers with at least the same respect you would like to receive.  They are doing a job that they are good at, just like you.  If they do not, you will not have any work scheduled, pay checks completed, or even a vehicle to drive.  You all bring money into the company, not just the technician collecting the check.

 Take a look at your company and think about how you would feel if any of them showed up at your door, demanding the highest rate for the highest quality.  Will your customer's perception match said rate?  If so, congratulations!  Just remember, this is something we need to constantly work on.  Perception can change on the blink of an eye!

Carbon Monoxide (CO): Weapon of Mass Destruction

   There is nothing more frustrating to me than seeing needless deaths, particularly in America.  I thought I saw my share chasing down WMD's that were never found in the Middle East.  Does it sound that outrageous to put Carbon Monoxide in the same class as these?  Think about it: a Colorless, Odorless Gas that poisons it's targets by being inhaled.  The only thing a ruthless Dictator is missing is a way to weaponize this.  Based on Consumer Reports, between 1999 and 2004, an average of 439 Americans perished each year.  In 2011, Massachusetts saw Fire Departments responded to 18,000 CO incidents, with over 5,500 confirmed homes contaminated with CO.  With the rising numbers of reports each year, it is apparent that people are becoming more aware of the deadly gas.  Yet we continue to see reports of CO Poisoning, so what can we do as a society to combat this?
  Enter the HVAC and Home Performance Companies!  You are likely most prepared and equipped to combat this silent evil.  You need to communicate with and educate your customers to keep them safe.  Also, companies need to equip their personnel with the necessary safety devices.  I happen to work for a company that puts safety at the forefront and supplies field personnel with personal CO monitors.  I understand the cost to equip everyone, but think about the alternative!  Already this year I have been into a home that did not have heat, the homeowner was operating the gas stove all night and my monitor immediately hit 15 ppm CO.  On the way home that day the local pizza place did not have their make-up air unit on, noticeable by the resistance in the door, and the meter read 10 ppm.     Although these numbers are far from immediate poisoning, over a long period of time the homeowner and cooks will eventually be poisoned.
  When it comes to testing the appliances, please do not put on blinders and only peer at the furnace when you walk into a home.  What about that water heater sitting next to it, or the gas dryer, and even stoves.  I would not be able to go to sleep at night if I did not at least recommend to a homeowner to have these appliances tested annually for safety.  Take a look at the BPI recommendations for allowed CO in the flue.  If the numbers are too high, you have incomplete combustion and need to have the appliance repaired.
  This weekend, when you set your clocks back for daylight savings time, everyone has been taught from an early age to replace the batteries in their smoke detectors. Why not add a CO monitor to that very short list?  Test your monitor and replace the batteries if applicable (some are hard-wired only).  If your monitors are over 5 years old, consider replacement.  Please do not scoff at the prices and cheap-out on a very important safety device.  Make sure you look for a UL label and go with quality!
  If you have any combustion appliances, you are required in most states to have a CO detector.  This means if you do not have one, make it a point to purchase one this weekend.  Just because you do not have a gas furnace or water heater does not mean you should not have a CO Monitor installed!  Just recently a family of four died of CO due to a generator operating in their garage, since the electricity in their new home was not turned on by the electric company yet.  New Hampshire has figured this out, making November "Carbon Monoxide Awareness Month".  Take a look at their recommendations, and pass it on.  Please do not let this happen to anyone you know, educate and test!

Check the Flue?

     Seems pretty elementary doesn't it?  What should be a simple safety check on fossil fuel burning appliances, particularly for boilers with regards to ease of inspection, often is assumed with complacency or even goes unchecked.  I know everyone's maintenance schedule is packing up in the Northeast with the cold snap this week, so Technicians Take Heed!
    There are many indicators that should trigger the phrase: "Check the flue!"  I always measure the draft in the flue of a natural draft, 80% appliance.   Too high or too low of a draft both can be an issue.  HVAC Contractors tend to focus on the 'too little draft' by installing chimney liners, completing Combustion Appliance Zone and CO testing.  Of course this condition could be the most dangerous, so I can't blame them.  Who ever expects to pull the flue off the boiler, look into the chimney and see what is pictured?  There must have been 40 years of garbage piled up!  Really is a spectacular thing that after all the years of maintenance I have yet  to become complacent with the Flue. 
    Did you know the draft of the chimney is very dependent on the temperature difference between the flue gas and outside.  The greater the temperature difference, the better the draft (generally speaking).  This means the draft may be just fine on a cold WInter night, yet spill gases on a warm Fall afternoon.  Conversion warning: 25 Pascals = .10" w.c.  I know: metric, really?...Trust me, the rest of the world has the real gripe when they see standard measurements.  I bet your electronic manometers or even magnahelics (whatever you are using for draft measurements) have this scale.  Take a look at this chart supplied by Building Performance Institute (T_Out is your Outdoor Ambient Temp), start testing, and be sure that boiler will be safe all year long.  Oh, and don't forget about the water heater too!
    The draft was just fine on this older, larger than most boilers (-.03"w.c.).  Except how long before that chimney became a real problem?  I have to tell everyone: I have found birds, nests, even a squirrel in a 90%+ flue.  Yes, that was a rotting mess to cut through with a hacksaw in a half-finished basement.  Always test the draft, measure the CO, and look into the flue/chimney.  You may just be surprised one day; possibly save someone, or maybe a home!

The Enthalpy Method

  Imagine knowing the refrigerant charge was correct on a Central Heat Pump or A/C without attaching gauges!  No, I am not referring to the Lennox "Approach" calculation, which I have found to be very unreliable to predict refrigerant charge, but instead using the simple total capacity calculation with the correct tool.

- Total Capacity Equation -
  Here in New England, particularly close to the coast, HVAC Contractors have a very short maintenance season that is usually riddled with less than ideal testing conditions.  Unfortunately, you cannot use this method to fix bad weather.  But, why waste your time on ideal days connecting your gauges, releasing ounces of refrigerant every year?  Listen, I doubt the price of R-22 will go down anytime soon.  Why not consider saving time, the environment, system efficiency, and your customer's bill?  I bet every technician reading this measures the Delta T across the Evaporator, using yet another rule of thumb to "confirm" system performance.  Why not be more accurate and be sure?
  A recent addition to the Fieldpiece lineup, the  SDP-2 Dual Psychrometer, makes quick work of measuring the properties of air.  The key measurement which makes this new method possible is Delta H, or change in Enthalpy.  Enthalpy is the heat content of the air, expressed in Btu/lb.  When using the standard weight of a cubic foot of air, one can use a simple equation to arrive at Btu/hr, or capacity.  Even without measuring airflow, this method is useful using an estimated value based on the setting of the ECM motor, as the measured CFM is within 10% of the set point regardless of static pressure.
  Prior to the SDP-2, I would measure the wet-bulb temperature in the Supply and Return Plenums (yes, in the ductwork close to the unit) and convert the readings to Enthalpy using the ASHRAE Chart.  Due to rounding, I frequently arrived at numbers that were far from accurate.  The fact that this gauge displays to the hundredth of a Btu/lb, and can display the Delta H without any user error, makes this the new way to test refrigerant charge without connecting gauges!
  To make this even easier for you, let me share some insight.  Over the years of testing, I have found some general rules for Enthalpy change based on the airflow measurement/settings.  Take a look at the chart, or print it out if you must.  This will save you some additional time with the math.  If your Delta H falls in these ranges, don't bother connecting your gauges as the refrigerant charge will likely be close enough!  Similar to Delta T: too low may indicate high airflow or undercharged; too high and you have low airflow, etc.

PED's for an HVAC Technician?

  An acronym for what is synonymous with all that is bad with the American Pastime, Performance Enhancing Drugs (PED's) have been proven to inflate a ballplayer's performance.  Most important in contract years, a player's performance is measured in specific statistics.  So, what if there was a pill, or cream, that an HVAC Technician or Salesperson could take to inflate their numbers.  Make them perform at the top of their field and get them the highest pay in the industry?  Would you take it?  Even if a doctor prescribed it?
  We all know there is no such thing out there, but that we are all human and would at least entertain such an idea.  Imagine what this would mean for a small business: no more call backs, closing sales at the highest rate, and no chance of burn out.  Sounds like the perfect solution for an industry that is understaffed and generally technically deficient.  As an owner or manager, would you question such high performance?  Likely not,  in the same way the blind eye was turned in Major League Baseball.
  In the fast paced world of contracting, performance enhancers could take many forms.  Most importantly to note, none of these solutions are a drug and work immediately!  So, let's change that last word to "Performance Enhancing Development".  I want to share a few things that could improve your performance, all that are legal and will not get you arrested!

1.  Digital Tools; Large advancements have been made in tools over the last (5) years in the HVAC industry.  Investing in digital tools will make your job easier, faster, and more concise.  Take digital refrigerant analyzers for example, you now can see Superheat and Subcooling in real time, without the need of math or charts.  These gauges will do to A/C what Combustion Analyzers did to the heating industry: easier, faster, and more concise!

2. Customer Relations; Listen to what the customer has to say, no matter how busy you are.  They are always going to tell you what is wrong with the system, maybe with some incorrect vernacular.  Remember they live with this system every day of the year, they know what is out of the ordinary.  By listening, and responding to their needs, you will build trust.  Also, you are the expert in the house, they called you and agreed to pay for the expert.  Many technician's demise root cause was poor Customer Relations.  Maybe next time you sign up for a class, it doesn't need to be about a piece of equipment.  Try Customer Relations, no customers equals no business!

3.  Read The Manual; If everything were installed per manufacturer's recommendations, there would be more time to take on new customers instead of chasing call-backs.  Every technical class you have attended, or plan to attend, is probably based on a manual or two. Trust me on this: before you install the next piece of equipment, or even sell one, read the installation manual.  I believe most can even be found via the Internet, compatible with most smartphones these days.  Specifying equipment for a job?  Are you aware of the local code and proper system design?  Yes, there are manuals for this too.

  Some very simple investments (both time and money) can increase your performance in this industry for the long haul.  Anything that promises a quick fix or immediate results will likely fade and break down over the years.  A wise Drill Instructor (oxy-moron?) once told me that "Knowledge is Power".  I have come to realize that he may have been on to something.  You see, no matter where you choose to work, your personal tools, knowledge, and skill go with you.  With these tools, knowledge, and skill  over time comes experience and confidence.  This is what will improve your performance, but it takes time.  So have some patience, and invest in yourself.  There is no magic pill or cream...

A/C a Necessity in New England?

  I remember not all too long ago, yes I am still on what I hope to be the first half of my life, that Central Air-Conditioning was a luxury.  Like the radio, then the television; next the telephone, and now the cell phone, Air-conditioning has become a necessity.  What was before Air-Conditioning?  What did the weather people (yes, politically correct here on Excess Air) say to the elderly before they would recommend "staying inside, out of the heat"?
  I remember what I used to do when I was a kid.  We didn't have the house in the Hamptons, that is for sure!  I remember visiting my Grandmother very often to swim in her pool.  Or maybe the family would head to the beach for the day.  This seems counter-intuitive in my household these days, but it has to be cooler with that breeze off the water, right?  The ride was close to horrible, as we did not have a car with A/C either. 
  I remember spending countless summer days outside playing baseball, golf, or whatever neighborhood game du jour.  I never passed out, got a skin burn, or even remember it being too hot!  But this weekend, when taking a picture of my daughter in her tiny swimming pool, I told her to, "Smile!"  To my surprise she replied, "Daddy, it is too sunny to smile..."  This from a three year old, a very aware, smart, and means the world to me three year old.  The next day, my built-in A/C, essentially a window unit, failed.  So, being the "ACE Technician" I say I am, I pulled that thing out of the chassis and remembered I couldn't even get a set of gauges on it!  How can you fix an appliance when you can't even use the right tools?  Needless to say, the new unit was "installed" a few hours later, to my household's delight.
  This made me think, long into the last few evenings, about what has become of the HVAC industry in New England.  No longer can a family wait until morning to have their A/C diagnosed, but yet it is no problem if they have no heat in the dead of Winter.  No longer can an elderly person take a stroll on a nice Summer day.  No longer do cars cost more with A/C as an option, as it has become "standard".  So, in a time of expendable appliances, how long before I cannot diagnose and fix a central A/C and it becomes viewed like a Refrigerator - just another necessary appliance that is cheaper to replace than fix!  I think we all may forget, some of us only a little, where we came from.  I admit, I once told an old woman who called me years ago on Independence Day to open a window!  She complained and mentioned she didn't see how she would be able to make it through the night.  I still feel a little guilty today, but I genuinely believed it and might have been a little bitter after being in Iraq the previous year.  Did the world really get that much hotter to which we as humans can no longer bear (some experts may argue yes here), or have we taken a luxury and turned it into a necessity?

Selling with Rebates: The Simple Payback

  The easiest way to show a homeowner how their investment in high-efficient equipment will help their wallet is to use the "Simple Payback" Calculation.  This 'tried and true' sales tactic will quickly explain how many years before the additional investment to upgrade is paid off.  Of course, there are many features that a high-efficient system provides, like superior levels of comfort, wether it be climate control or just condenser noise just outside their children's bedroom.  These factors can be hard to quantify for most homeowners, and for replacement systems you will likely find they are not weighted as high as the almighty dollar.  So, although costs can vary drastically from Manufacturer to Manufacturer, or even Contractor to Contractor, try inserting your prices, rebates, etc. into the equation next time you recommend an upgrade.
  As you can see, there are a few pieces of information needed to calculate the Simple Payback (in Years) for an upgrade in efficiency.  First, you will need to know the total cost (equipment/materials + Labor) of the installation of the base model equipment.

In this example, we will say the replacement 13 SEER system will cost $5k.  Then, you will need to calculate the total cost of the 16 SEER/13 EER installation.  For example purposes, we will say the investment will cost the homeowner an additional $1,300, total $6,300.  The operating costs of the high-efficient system will save the homeowner a conservative estimate of $50 per year, based on the few run hours in MA & RI.  If you were to not include rebates and tax incentives, or the hard to quantify comfort, the system's simple payback would be an astonishing 26 years, well beyond the life expectancy of the system - maybe two systems!
  If you were to introduce available local utility rebates, including the MA & RI Cool Smart Quality Installation Verification (QIV) incentive, this system would qualify for $650 paid to the homeowner!  This would be in addition to the $300 25C tax credit, extended through 2013.  By reducing the initial investment from $1,300 to $350, then taking into account the annual energy savings, this system would now have a simple payback of only 7 years!  Did I mention the system that qualifies for the rebate will likely qualify for a 0% Loan, for a period of up to 7 years!  Yes, you read that correctly!  Plus Mr. Or Mrs. Homeowner, you will be more comfortable with a much quieter system that will be installed with the highest of quality!  Where do I sign?

Why do we have Sizing Limits?

  There are not as many contractors out there as you would expect that are current with the most recent, and always updating, residential building code.  Particularly when it comes to the sizing limitations for HVAC equipment, most contractors consider this minimum requirement by law nothing more than a nuisance.  There is nothing more frustrating to see in a quality control role than a system that was sold, sized, and installed prior to the start of the system design process.  Completing a load calculation after the unit is installed defeats the entire purpose and renders the process useless.  Just because you have been installing systems for decades does not mean they are sized correctly, or operating efficiently when attempting to provide comfort for your customer.  But what happens when the process is ignored?  What happened before we had a code requirement?
  There once was a pretty successful homeowner that wanted to update his furnace and install an air-conditioner, but couldn't quite afford the most efficient systems.  So, to save a few hundred dollars, he talked a friend of his from a local HVAC distributor to install a system under the moon light.  The equipment was of a high quality, not the old "builder grade" everyone refers to.  The old system was always running during the winter months, burning through gas and was never comfortable in the home.  So, Joe we will call him, installed the largest residential furnace in stock.   No way this thing will run constantly, the homeowner will definitely be able to hear it cycle on and off!  Oh, and since there is already ductwork we'll add a/c to the system, all he needed to know was how many square feet the home was!

Genius!  An adjustable limit switch, bi-metal disc type!
  Well, lucky for Joe the system was installed in early Spring.  Unfortunately, Joe needed to return that first year because the damn condenser came with a bad compressor - the thing died after only a couple of months!  The replacement compressor didn't do much better, and Joe started wondering what kind of equipment were we selling to these contractors if he was seeing so many problems on just this one!.  Later that year, early in the heating season, Joe kept getting nuisance no heat calls because the burners kept shutting down and the blower remained on circulating cold air throughout the home.  Joe replaced the high limit switch twice and became convinced that the darn engineers must have got the temperature wrong when specifying that thing.  How can it shut off the burners at 160F, the heat exchanger was at least 240F+!  Joe thought he was brilliant when he came up with the idea to install a limit switch that was adjustable, the bi-metal disc type.  "This will keep those burners on," Joe thought to himself, "and I can finally get some sleep this weekend!"  Famous last words for Joe's blossoming side business.

What is left of the R-22 Evaporator
That night, when the heat exchanger reached unheard of temperatures, the evaporator's condensate pan melted onto the hot furnace and caught fire.  Temperatures reached a point that melted soldered copper joints in the evaporator coil, and released R-22 into the duct system.  Burning the refrigerant, which already displaces oxygen, phosphine gas quickly started to spread throughout the home.  Luckily, the homeowner was able to get his two children, ages two and four, out of the home with zero visibility.  A couple of weeks later, the homeowner's lungs finally cleared up, but it was months before the damages were fixed to a point that they could move back in.

  Unfortunately, the above story is true in most regards - maybe a couple of blemishes on how the "technician" reached his "genius" moment.  There is a moral to be learned here, properly size your equipment for the home!  Don't think you are doing anyone "a solid" by installing the next size up.  If you are not familiar with local building codes, lets just say it is your license and your livelihood on the line, never mind the homeowner's too!  Find out Manual S sizing limitations here.
  Special thanks to Aaron Lawrence, Lawrence Air Systems, Barrington, RI for sharing this unfortunate story and pictures.  I hope I did some justice by getting most of the facts correct.  Aaron was able to work wonders for this homeowner that now has a properly sized, efficient system providing the most comfort to the family - what they thought they were getting the first time!
  If you have a story you would like to share, but can't find the words, please send me some details and pictures (if you have them).  If we can avoid just one more situation like this than we have done our industry some justice!

Heat Pumps and Record Snowfall

  I remember a rash of nuisance service calls rolling in on weekends like this, the snowfall being the key part.  It is amazing how well prepared a Heat Pump is for cold weather, with safeties, defrost controls, and supplemental heat (in most).  Unfortunately, they do not come with windshield wipers to keep the condensers clear of snow, and snow will decrease the airflow across the condenser to a breaking point.

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Outdoor Reset & ECM Pumps

    There are some opportunities that come along for homeowners that seem to good to be true, and most of your parents and grandparents can tell you if it looks this way it probably is.  But, how about quick return on your investment that will continue to save money for the life of your boiler?  This is what an outdoor reset control will do for them.  Add the feature of a more comfortable home and most people start asking: What is the catch?  The catch is the technician needs to not only sell this product, but install it correctly and educate the customer on the new use of the boiler.
    When installing an after-market outdoor reset control on a non-condensing boiler, be sure to keep the minimum Return Water temperature above 115F.  Most recommendations state 120F to avoid condensing on the sections and in the flue.  The installation of said control will save an estimated 15% of the annual fuel costs!  The same percentage in AFUE as the difference between an EnergyStar boiler versus conventional.

Example Boiler Heating Curve
    Next, make sure you educate the homeowner on how to operate the new boiler control.  This more energy efficient option provides the minimum amount of heat to match the load based on outdoor temperature.  Common sense can tell us we don't need 100% of the capacity unless we are at, or below the outdoor design temperature.  In MA this design temperature is likely around 0F.  The boiler temperature is generally set for 180F, this is the maximum the boiler operates at to meet the heat loss on a design day.  But, when it is warmer outdoors you don't need 180F water anymore, and you can be more comfortable by turning that temperature down.  Unfortunately, this makes your programmable thermostat almost obsolete.  You see, a large set back with a thermostat (more than a couple degrees) will take hours, even a full day, to recover if using an outdoor reset controller.  I see this a lot when homeowners replace a boiler with a tax credit eligible option and never get the education needed on the operation.
     I have heard arguments regarding increased electrical consumption since your circulator will now run for almost infinite periods of time.  Luckily, our Manufacturer friends have thought of this and developed some amazing pumps over the last couple of years.  Most of these ECM pumps will operate at minimum 50% less than their counterpart PSC pump.  To put it into friendly terms, instead of approximately 84 watts, these new pumps can range from 9-42 watts depending on load.  As more zones turn on, the pump will need to speed up to maintain the gallons per minute (GPM) or temperature differential settings.
     That all being said, I would recommend installing both of these: an outdoor reset control and ECM pump on any boiler without one!  It is not a code requirement, but it probably should be.  Have a Domestic Hot Water Indirect?  They have a priority setting for that.  Can't run the sensor wire outdoors in the mechanical room?  There are wireless versions that are now cheaper than the traditional controls!  Don't live in fear of your customers saying no - and put the inventory on your trucks!  It will amaze you how fast they move, particularly when you start offering Utility Rebates for most Natural Gas customers in RI and MA (sorry, no pumps in MA)!  When installing the parts, including markup and labor costs, the total job can run around $900 or so.  When the RI natural gas customer can receive $325 in rebates, this drops the payback period to about 2 years!  Depending on fuel usage, payback could be sooner.  Without rebates for Propane and Oil applications, this makes the payback approximately 3 years on a boiler that may be in for another 15 years?  That is an incredible amount of fuel & electrical savings, plus comfort.  So, what's the catch?

Oil Tanks in Your Home

  For a technician or auditor that works outside of the Oil Heating Industry, seeing a tank leaking in a basement can send you into a moment of shock.  Then of course, the dreaded conversation with the Homeowner will cast a cloud.  The key is to have a plan, and know what to do.  The smallest amount of knowledge in this subject could make you the hero.  Simply stating, "Call your Oil Company!" can leave them feeling helpless.  Of course, that oil delivery company must know about a leaking anything, before chance of another delivery.  They likely have a magnetic patch kit that can be used to slow a leak while a permanent fix can be planned.

  The majority of oil tank leaks are caused by corrosion from water and sludge that has sat in the bottom of the tank for years.  Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) recommends homeowners have their oil tanks cleaned out at least every 10 years.  I firmly believe this is because regular maintenance is not always performed, so a qualified technician may not be able to identify a compromised tank.  Based on the picture I took, you can see that soil cleanup will be needed, but possibly groundwater as well.  This type of cleanup, based on MA DEP, averages $90K!  If this leak was identified quickly, and the sump pump does not turn on, soil cleanups can be less than $20K.  This is a significant difference, particularly for a homeowner and company's insurance premium come next year!

  Even with the high price of oil, averaging about $3.70 per gallon in Central MA, it appears oil heating in residential applications will be around for quite some time.  Thousands of homes are converted to alternative fuels every year, including but not limited to Natural and Propane Gas, Heat-Pumps and even electric baseboard.  All are viewed as more efficient and "cleaner" options.  With the many financing and fuel switching programs available, maybe a leaking oil tank is the time to call it quits with your long time oil provider?  Believe me, most oil companies thinking about the future of their business are expanding into alternative fuel options themselves! 

Clocking a Gas Meter

  After writing last week's post: "High CO Reading, Now What?" it occurred to me that not as many people out there: technicians, raters, or auditors; are up to speed on the age old firing rate calculation.  I hope this simple procedure is easily understood as you may find it useful if you are working with negative pressure gas valves, with Energy Star Homes, or just simply forgot your manometer at the shop.  I know most inspectors and raters avoid attaching a manometer to measure gas pressure, particularly since some states even require a license to service gas appliances.  By clocking the gas meter, one can tell if the British Thermal Units (Btu's) being consumed matches the input of the furnace, boiler, or even a water heater.
  1. Turn off all Gas Appliances in the home.
  2. Turn on the appliance being tested, to the highest firing rate (be careful of two-stage furnaces and variable capacity boilers, etc.)
  3. Once at steady-state, use a stopwatch (last check there are about 219 Apps for that) to time how long it takes the smallest unit of measure (typically the 1/2 Cubic Foot) dial to make a full revolution on the gas meter.
  4. Cubic Feet per Hour (CFH) = (3600 x Dial Sze) / Time (seconds)
  5. CFH x 1000 Btu's = Input Btu/hr
  6. Remember to relight any standing pilots that are burning up to $20/year!
  Based on the ACCA Quality Installation Specification, the basis for Energy Star Homes V3 Checklist, the calculated input btu/hr must be within 5% of the data plate.  If a technician properly adjusted the manifold gas pressure and adjusted the airflow to ensure the temperature rise is within Manufacturer Specification, at worst the input will be within a couple of percent of the data plate.

A couple of tips if this is new for you:
  • When turning appliances off, I mean off!  A couple of standing pilots can throw off your calculations when you have a 40K btu/hr furnace.
  • Know how to override any outdoor reset control on a condensing boiler.  The starting and stopping of these burners are the least efficient operation and will consume high CFH if short cycling, never mind the inflated Carbon Monoxide (CO) and Carbon Dioxide (CO2).
  • For a more accurate calculation, replace the 1,000 Btu in the formula with the actual amount of Btu's per Cubic Foot.  This can be obtained by contacting your gas supplier.  Otherwise, it would be very tough to account for altitude.  For instance, I heard Denver operates about 860 Btu's per cubic foot or so.
  • Also, I would recommend you clock (3) revolutions of the meter, then divide the time by three for an average reading in seconds.
  • When working with propane, it helps to temporarily pipe in a meter to accurately clock as most tanks only have regulators.  Also, propane has approximately 2,500 Btu's per cubic foot.
  Has anyone ran across a digital gas meter yet?  I have not had the privilege of clocking one of these and would love to hear how you are doing so!

High CO Reading, Now What?

      Things used to be so easy when working in this business back in the day.  When carrying tools for some old timers, I remember some replacing an air filter and kicking the furnace while saying "Yup, still here!"  Maintenance these days, for great reason, has taken a more efficient operation mentality, mainly because energy prices have started to affect our wallets.  These days, 68% steady state efficiency oil boilers and gas furnaces with high carbon monoxide readings mean something.  But, does it necessarily mean we must replace the furnace, boiler, hot water heater, etc.?
     I heard a situation a couple weeks ago where a representative of a local gas company, whether or not he was a subcontractor I cannot be sure, completed some maintenance on a gas boiler that he ended up shutting down due to a high CO reading.  Most building analysts know that 26-100 ppm CO (in the flue, at steady state) means repair is necessary (see Combustion Safety Test Procedure, BPI.org), and to call a heating professional.  So why did this tech shut down and tag this boiler for replacement?  Was it actually a sales tactic?  
     High Carbon monoxide readings tend to point to what I like to call "unbalanced combustion".  You see, it could be due to lack of combustion air, too much gas, or too much excess air (not my blog, please keep clicking!). No matter how you slice it, the combustion process is out of balance.  I have seen high CO readings for draft inducers failing, secondary heat exchanger condensate drains clogging, improper manifold gas pressure, incorrectly adjusted draft dampers, you get the idea!  None of these reasons mean the equipment has to be replaced, but the recommendation could be made. 
  The boiler I started talking about earlier had a manifold gas pressure twice the recommended value.  There was too much combustion air due to a lack of understanding and/or measurement.  Since he took the readings, I doubt it was the latter.  Looking at the flame on a 90%+ AFUE appliance will never be a justified reason to crank up the manifold gas pressure.  If you cannot measure with a combustion analyzer, or even a manometer, at least clock the gas meter before you start creating high CO2 and CO outputs.  You are the professional and the homeowner is paying you for the expertise.  Please, don't recommend replacing a boiler your company may have installed just a a couple years ago!