The Ace Troubleshooter, November 2011
Back in the day, before he became a business consultant and columnists for this fine magazine, Al Levi, along with his dad and brothers, ran a contracting business on Long Island. We all became great friends. Al serviced an area of Long Island that was host to everything from old tenements to mansions. There were dozens of different types of heating systems, old and new, and it was a wonderful sandbox in which to play.
Al and I spent a lot of time roaming around basements, trying to figure out why this radiator wouldn’t heat, or why that boiler was making noise. We were as tenacious as the seasons, and we never gave up until we had it figured out. I used to refer to Al as the Ace Troubleshooter, and he was that for sure. I still call him that today, but nowadays he troubleshoots other people’s business problems instead of their mechanical problems.
One day, Al took me to look a job where the baseboard radiator in the second-floor bathroom wouldn’t heat. It was a straight run of baseboard, and near its end, there was a boiler drain, which plays a cool part in this story.
Now, I’ve always thought that one of the nice things about being a contractor is that you have tools that can tear down ceilings, rip up floors and bust through walls, and most of the time, you’re not working in your own house, so you’re probably more inclined to use those tools while searching for a solution to a problem. Al figured the problem with this radiator started somewhere down in the basement because an Ace Troubleshooter always thinks like water, and always asks the key question, If I were water, which way would I go?
So Al tore down the ceiling and found an interesting, and not uncommon thing. The main bumped from corner to corner, all around the basement. And since this was a one-pipe system, that main was carrying both the supply- and the return water. It’s like a highway. The hot water leaves the boiler, like traffic on the road. When it gets to a tee, it has to decide whether it should stay on the highway or head off though the bull of the tee and enter that other road, the one that leads to a radiator. Helping the water make that decision is our old friend, Delta P. A difference in pressure between two points always causes a fluid to flow.
Coming off the main was a series of tees, of course, and these led to the radiators on the first- and second floor of the house. The two tees going to the bathroom radiator were within a half-inch of each other. The first was a standard tee, and the second was a diverter tee.
Okay, think like water. If you have a choice of going the half-inch or so from the first tee to the second tee, or up to the second floor, through the radiator, and then all the way back, what would you do?
You’d probably stay on the main road, wouldn’t you?
So would I. I’m water and I’m lazy. I’m always looking for the path of least resistance. I see a situation like this one and I’m thinking that it’s easier for me to go straight, even though there’s a resistance inside that second tee. I mean think about how far it is all the way up to the second floor and back. The heck with it; I’m staying in the basement.
So this becomes a no-heat service call, and it was making the guy who had the account before Al’s company took over the job nuts. The woman who owned the house would call that guy because it was cold in her bathroom. The reason why it was cold was because there was no hot water flowing through her radiator. The guy didn’t know this, though, and he did what most guys do when faced with a cold radiator. He bled it.
Oh, and you should know that the urge to bleed a radiator is greater than the sex drive in most heating contractors.
So he bled it and got no air while he was bleeding, and as I mentioned before, when you don’t get any air you should stop bleeding because that ain’t an air problem. It’s a balance problem, and the more you bleed, the crazier it’s going to get because you’re not actually bleeding; you’re draining. Sooner or later, you’ll drag hot water up from the boiler and the radiator will get hot. And you’ll think you did something brilliant. This is because of the First Law of Hydronic Heating, which states: When you do something stupid you will always receive a reward, which leads you to do things of even grander stupidity.
The guy would finish bleeding the “air” that wasn’t there. He’d stand up, look at his hands and think, These hands! He’d bask in the praise of the homeowner and get in his truck. An hour or so later, she’d call to tell him the radiator was ice cold. He’d return and apply the same procedure because it had worked so well the first time.
After a while, the guy installed that purge valve on the radiator and left the woman with about four feet of Sears Best garden hose. He showed her how to bleed the air (which wasn’t there) from the radiator. All she had to do was stick the end of the hose into the tub and open the valve. Leave the valve open until the radiator got hot. Simple.
Here’s where it gets good.
The woman explained to the guy that she liked to take baths, and she wondered whether she could fill the bathtub from the hose on the radiator. That would kill two birds with one stone, right? It would also kill the boiler through oxygen corrosion, but our guy was thinking only of how he could remove this woman from his life forever. So he said, “Sure you can! I mean it all comes from the same place, right?”
Well, not exactly. The boiler water comes from the wrong side of the domestic-hot-water coil, but we sometimes miss the finer points of hydronics as we search for ways out of town.
The boiler was failing when Al got involved and that was a nice sale for his company, and a mighty fine story for me, which I am delighted to share with you.
If you don’t get any air, it ain’t an air problem. Stop the bleeding.And if you don’t believe me, check with The Ace Troubleshooter.