The Art of Troubleshooting
It was about 100 degrees colder than outer space the other morning so, naturally, the phone rang.
"Hi! Dan Holohan Associates," I answered, as cheerfully as possible, knowing that the guy at the other end was probably not having a nice day.
"Dan," he said. (I recognized the voice, and the tone, right away. Definitely not having a nice day.) ''I'd like you to look at a job with me."
"Is there a problem with it, Bill?"
"No, Dan, it's working fine, just fine. I figured we'd just stand around the basement and look at pipes. You know, drink some coffee, shoot the breeze. After all, I have nothing better to do ... OF COURSE, THERE'S A PROBLEM WITH IT!"
That's sort of an inside joke between Bill and me. He never calls with good news. Never. Bill's calls are the psychic equivalent of a middle-of-the-night message from your college-agedson. Or a note from the IRS.
I always try to cheer him up.
"Bill, relax," I said, "You know we always work it out. It's mechanical, for Pete's sake. There's always an answer when it's mechanical. You know that."
"Not this one, man. This one needs an exorcism. I mean, it practically moans when I drive down the block. The woman who owns the house looks just like Linda Blair. The relief valve popped this morning and you know what came out?"
"Campbell's pea soup?"
"Well, no. But it looked sort of like it!"
So we got together. And yes, we figured it out. We always do. Oh, it was touch and go for a while, there's no question about that. But we got it.
A lot of problem jobs are just like that. There's a moment or two of mystery and panic and then, if you're approaching it in a logical way, the answer pops up like a Jack in the Box.
The trouble with Bill, though, is that he often tries to solve a problem before he defines it. He's in a hurry. And that makes him approach the problem in an illogical way.
A lot of heating guys are in a hurry nowadays. I see them every day. They run around like Groucho Marx stalking a waitress.
I feel lucky most of the time. I get to work slowly. I have to because all I look at are problems. I never see anything that works. I'm a troubleshooter, a heating policeman. I spend most days looking at mechanical mayhem. And because I do, I see patterns that guys who work too fast often miss.
I have to work slowly because I have to follow the Troubleshooter's Rules. Do you know those rules? I'll let you in on a few:
RULE #1: Step Back, Take It All In And Think In Basic Terms. Too many people look at components instead of systems. Manufacturers are often guilty of this. Many of them concern themselves only with the things they make. If the system doesn't work, they look at their piece of the puzzle and say, "Hey, my gizmo is turning (or churning, or burning), you'd better get yourself an engineer. Have a nice day and let's have lunch sometime!"
If you're going to solve a problem, you have to look at everything - all at the same time. That's what Troubleshooters do. Get out of the basement. Walk through the whole building. Take it all in and think basic physics, Mr. Wizard stuff. That's really all heating is.
Just about everything you need to solve hydronic heating problems, you learned in junior high school.
RULE #2: The Flow That's Inside The Pipe Will Not Necessarily Follow The Direction Of The Arrow That's Painted On The Outside Of The Pipe. Oh, this is a big one! I have this theory when it comes to commercial heating systems: The cleaner the boiler room is, the worse things work. You see, when the superintendent can't get the heating system to work, he paints the pipes. It's true! And he hangs up fluorescent lights. They all do that when things get tough. And he sweeps the floor. Sweeps like crazy! Hey, it's something to do!
When it looks like I could eat off that floor, I know it's time to start worrying.
But the thing that really gives me the willies is when they stick those direction-of-flow arrows on the pipes. Because once you stick those cursed arrows on the pipes, everyone that walks into that boiler room from that day forward is going to believe them.
Sometimes, after careful analysis and thoughtful consideration, I'll say to a guy, "Excuse me, but it seems that water is actually flowing this way, not that way." And that guy will say to me, "No it ain't, stupid. Look at the arrow! It's going that way.
"Do you see the basic philosophical problem here? The water can't see the arrows. That's because the arrows are on the outside of the pipe and the water's on the inside of the pipe. Get it?
If you want those arrows to work, you have to install them on the inside of the pipe. Everybody knows that. It's in the directions.
RULE #3: Where There Is No Flow, There Is No Heat. Another big one. Particularly as we move further and further into the Age of the Little Circulator. Flow is the train that heat travels on. Flow is what delivers the goods to the radiators. Without enough flow, we have cold rooms.
These little circulators will deliver a moderate amount of water at a fairly high head pressure. They're designed to pump through little pipes. (Just look at some of that radiant-panel hose we're using nowadays.)
Too many guys don't understand the difference between flow rate and pump head. Head has nothing to do with the height of the building. It has to do with the pump's ability to overcome friction loss as the water flows through the system.
But many of our older hydronic systems have very large pipes. The Old-Timers designed them during an era when gravity hot water heating was just dying out. They believed in big flows and low heads. Just look at the early system-sizing methods used in the old handbooks. Those guys actually sized the pumps before they sized the pipes! It was completely backwards from the way we do it today. They sized for large flows, installed the pipes and locked it in for future generations to figure out.
So the next time you install a 250,000 Btuh-packaged boiler with one small circulator and you wonder why all five (or six, or seven) zones won't heat, you'll know why.
Where there is no flow, there is no heat. One size doesn't fit all; there is still a need for the larger, three-piece circulator.
Don't learn this lesson the hard way.
RULE #4: System Air Problems And System Balance Problems Usually Look Exactly The Same. This has a lot to do with flow velocity. If water moves slower than 6" per second (as it often will at the far ends of a direct-return piping system) air will separate from the water and stop the flow. You'll purge and add automatic vents until you think you're losing your mind. But you'll still have an air problem.
If you're having "air problems" in a larger building, always assume that the water is taking the path of least resistance back to the boiler. That's why you have no heat at the top or at the end. Water is lazy. It always takes the shortcut.
Many times you can solve the "air problem" by throttling the flow to the closer areas. That speeds up the velocity in the far circuits and gets the air out of the pipes.
RULE #5: Steam Is Inherently Unjust. This I've found to be universally true. In fact, I'd like to carve that anthem in a mountain somewhere.
When dealing with steam heating, figure out what makes sense. And then do the opposite. You'll almost always be right.
"It's like golf," my good friend, Alan Levi, once told me. Alan owns a Long Island oil company. He sees a lot of steam heat. And a lot of golf courses. From what I'm told, he's better at steam.
RULE #6: When Confronting Any System Problem, Always Suspect Air And Dirt First. This is especially true when you're dealing with steam heating. If you put the right kind of air vents in the right places, the steam will move incredibly fast. The trick is to vent the mains very quickly and to vent the radiators very slowly.
See, it's just the opposite of the way most folks do it, nowadays. Nowadays, most guys vent radiators fast and then ask, "Main vents? What are main vents?"
But I'll tell you this. In the old days, when Steam was King, they did it the opposite way. And those systems worked. Makes you wonder, doesn't it?
Dirt is the other enemy, again, particularly in a steam system. You'll never get that old beast to work properly if the water has dirt or oil sitting on the surface.
Get rid of the dirt, get rid of the air and the problem goes away. It's as simple as that.
RULE #7: A Radiator Will Always Be As Wide As The Window It Sits In Front Of. So much for science and engineering. This rule also has a lot to do with the Age-Old Method of Wholesaler Radiation Sizing. You know how that works: "Hey, Harry, dis guy on da phone needs a radiator. See what we got in stock, willya."
The lesson? Never assume there's enough radiation to overcome the building's heat loss. Get out of the basement and look around (see Rule #1). Just because it's been there for years doesn't mean it's right.
RULE #8: Air Is Stupid. It Won't Leave The System Just Because You Want It To. You Have To Forcibly Evict It. Way back when, gravity hot water systems had open expansion tanks up in the attic, directly above the boiler. When you heated water in the boiler, air would come out of solution and rise by its own buoyancy up into the tank where it vented to the atmosphere.
But then circulators came along and air couldn't rise by its own buoyancy anymore. Not when the circulator was on, anyway. That circulator would pick the air up and whip it around the system. That poor air had about as much hope of making it to the tank as a man caught in a raging river has of making it to shore.
Air is dumb. It can't swim. It can't grab hold of a tree limb (or an air vent) as it rockets down the pipe. It goes wherever the circulator pumps it. And that's usually into a radiator.
This is why manufacturers have given us air separators. These wonderful devices slow the air down long enough to snatch it out of the system.An air vent stuck indiscriminately in the pipe can't do this. Air won't jump into a vent when it's being whipped down the line at four feet per second. Not even if we want it to. It's too dumb.
Air separators are essential in any hydronic system.
RULE #9: Just When You think You know Everything There Is To Know Aboul Sleam Healing, You Don't. 'Nuff said.
RULE #10: Retired People Hear Noises Better Than People Who Ain't. I'm sure you've noticed this. And in dealing with the phenomenon I'm sure you've learned that some noises are more acceptable than others.
For instance, it's okay for the refrigerator to make noise. That's an okay noise. But the circulator or the burner can't make any noise. Not even a normal motor noise.
Sometimes I've solved this problem by telling the old fella that he's hearing THE SOUND OF HIGH EFFICIENCY "That sound means you're saving money, sir."
"That's right. It's European technology. It's supposed to sound like that. But wait, you know what, I think we can make it even better."
And then I'll pretend to make the sound a bit louder.
"How's that, sir?"
"Oh, that's great, just greatl Much better. Thank you so much!"
Sometimes, retired people just like a bit of company and a few consoling words. Accommodate them.
RULE #11: You Will Always Find The Heaviest Object In The House In Front Of The Convector With the Worst Air Problem. I don't know why, but this is always true.The 500-gal. fish tank, the grand piano, the Castro convertible, all those spine-bending monoliths will invariably work their way toward that airbound convector.
If you're real quiet and real patient, you can actually see them move.
RULE #12: It's Amazing What A Superintendent Will Tell you If You Take The Time To Listen. Here in New York we have a lot of Spanish-speaking superintendents. I love these guys because they solve most of my problems.
But sometimes if there's a heating problem the owner will call in an engineer. And that engineer will never ask the super what's wrong. In fact, he probably won't even talk to the super. This is because the super speaks broken English. You see, the engineer thinks the super is dumb.
But I know different. I know because I suffered through four years of Spanish at Hicksville High School under the tutelage of a couple of guys who could make General Noriega look user-friendly. And I still can't speak a word of Spanish.
When I look at that super I see a man who is bilingual! To me, he's brilliant. He's conquered two languages. So how tough can a heating system be?
Besides, this guy lives in the building. He's there 24 hours a day. The building speaks to him like a nagging wife. He knows what's causing every problem. He knows, he really does. Sure, maybe he doesn't understand the technical reasons, but he knows. All you have to do is show respect, have a cup of coffee with him and ask his opinion.
It usually takes a few minutes and some interpretation, but that wonderful guy in the basement will make you look like a hero every time.
And guess what? The same rule applies to housewives.