How to become a better troubleshooter
Let's face it, sooner or later you're going to run into some tough challenges when it comes to heating. Instead of getting frustrated, try these 10 steps:
Avoid "Auto" Conclusions Don't try to solve the problem while you’re still driving to the job. This one catches a lot of troubleshooters. They figure that this problem job is a lot like some other problem job they looked at. They make up their minds as to what’s wrong before they get to the job, and then they set out to prove that their conclusion is correct - even if it's not! Give yourself a chance to poke around.
If you’re sent to help someone, don’t always listen Don't listen to some people, that is. I say this because there will often be some troubled soul on the job who is incredibly frustrated. He wants the problem to go away, but he doesn’t really want you to solve it. If you can solve what he can’t solve, that means that you’re smarter than he is. This bothers him to the extent that he will roll stones in your way. He may tell you half-truths so that at the end of the day he can smile and say, "Hey, even the big shot ‘expert’ can’t solve this one! There’s no solution to this problem." Rest assured that there is always an answer. You just may have to get away from that guy to find it.
Comprehend the components This is real important because if you don’t fully understand how the parts work you’re going to have a tough time understanding how they join together to form a system. If you feel weak in some areas (circulators, boilers controls, or whatever) spend some time at the manufacturers' websites. Ask them for catalogs and read as much as you can. Ask questions. Never stop asking questions.
Understand the system Once you get the components down pat, start thinking in terms of systems. How do all these parts fit together? What are you trying to achieve? Always try to see the whole works in your mind’s eye when you’re troubleshooting. Don’t focus too much on just one piece of the puzzle. Get out of that boiler room and wander around. Be nosy. Be curious. See the system, not just the symptoms.
Speak simply If you take the time to define the problem in simple terms, you’ll always have a definite place to come back to when you’re wandering through the system. That simple statement may be something like, "The left side of the building gets hotter than the right," or, "When all the zones call, there’s not enough heat in the upstairs bedroom." Now ask yourself, "What can cause that?" By verbalizing the problem in a definite way you’ll stay on track and be less likely to get lost on technical tangents. A simple statement made up front keeps you focused.
Focus on physics High pressure goes to low pressure. Water seeks its own level. Heat goes toward cold. Hot water is lighter than cold water. You learned these things in elementary school, but you might forget them on a problem job if you don’t stay focused on basic physics. For instance, look at the location of that circulator and know for sure that the highest pressure it will produce will be at its discharge flange. As the water flows through the system, the pressure will drop until it reaches its lowest point back at the circulator’s suction flange. An understanding of a basic physical law such as that will help you figure out why water’s traveling down this branch and not the other one. Before you make a decision as to the cause of a problem, ask yourself if it agrees with the Laws of Physics. If it doesn’t, keep thinking.
Be methodical Make a written or mental checklist of the possible causes of a problem and work your way through the list. Remember, the one potential cause that you decide to skip will probably be the one that’s screwing up the job. Life’s funny that way. If you'd like to see a good example of this sort of methodical list, click on the "Steam Problems?" button on the navigation bar. You'll find a big chuck of my book, "A Pocketful of Steam Problems - with solutions!" there. This is the way a methodical troubleshooter thinks. (And if you'd like to own a copy of that book, you'll find it in the "Books & More" section!)
Let your mind do the walking Think like air, water, and steam. Visualize your way through the job. Ask yourself what you would do if you were inside the pipes. And remember, as air, water, or steam, you have to follow those basic Laws of Physics. Use your imagination. What would you do when you reach that tee? Visualization is the troubleshooter’s most powerful tool.
Ask the superintendent This guy has never disappointed me. I always take the time to have a cup of coffee with him, and he always gives me valuable clues. I’ll ask him where and when the system bangs, clangs, or knocks. I’ll have him tell me who in the building complains the most. I’ll ask him what, if anything, he does to make the problem stop temporarily. He’ll always give me the clues I need to solve the problem. Yet hardly anyone ever speaks to this guy!