By Tom Secondino, Technical Sales Support Specialist for U.S. Boiler Company
Homeowner – “I wish I never bought this boiler!”
Contractor – “I wish I never took this job!”
How could a perfectly engineered job conclude with this conversation? Sadly, this conversation takes place much more often than it should. The worst part is that a job can be installed perfectly and the homeowner is still dissatisfied. Contractors often fall into the trap of locating the job, selling the job, doing the job, charging for the job… and then wash, rinse, repeat. A key factor that many qualified contractors overlook is educating the homeowner prior to installing a new heating system. It’s important to discuss the proposed system, available options and expected performance. Let’s discuss some key areas where you may experience unhappy customers if expectations are not managed prior to installation.
Mrs. Johnson unhappy with new, high efficiency condensing gas boiler
Mrs. Johnson is replacing a 30-year-old cast iron oil boiler with a domestic coil and cast iron radiators. She has been very happy with the performance but is concerned about efficiency. After watching a home improvement episode on HGTV about efficiency, she had a setback thermostat installed and noticed a small savings. Recently, a natural gas service line was installed through her neighborhood. Her contractor, ABC Plumbing, suggests a high efficiency condensing gas boiler. They explain the increased efficiency benefits, the extra available space in the mechanical room once the oil tank is removed, and the quiet operation. Mrs. Johnson is thrilled and signs the contract immediately. They perform a heat loss calculation and install the properly sized boiler with the supplied outdoor reset control.
Flash forward to winter. ABC Plumbing gets a call that the boiler is not working. Mrs. Johnson states she is extremely unhappy. The radiators are always cold! The contractor checks the thermostat which is set for 70°F. The indoor temperature is 70°F. The technicain, bewildered, asks Mrs. Johnson why she is unhappy.
Mrs. Johnson replies, “the radiators used to get so hot I couldn’t even touch them! They barely get warm now! And another thing! The setback thermostat used to work great. Now the house takes much longer to warm up.”
The ABC Plumbing technician, who has 8 more house calls to get to and is short on diplomacy after a string of 70-hour workweeks, says, “I dunno. That’s the way they work.”
How will this conversation end?
See opening sentence of this article for a guess…
How to avoid these conversations
Education! Mrs. Johnson may have been made aware of all the benefits of the new system but not what other dynamics the system would include. We are concerned with maintaining room set-point, not radiator temperature. In her mind, if the thermostat is calling for heat, beginning at 60°F outdoor temperature, the radiators should be approximately the same temperature as the core of the sun. If she was made aware of all the money that stayed in her pocket rather than flying out of the vent she likely would have processed this experience much differently. Removing outdoor reset is not a responsible solution as doing so significantly reduces a condensing boilers ability to absorb latent heat from the flue gases and reduce system water temperatures, thereby increasing efficiency.
Conversations to have
Many older boilers operate in on/off (cold start) mode, while some may maintain a temperature of 140-160 degrees with a high limit of 180-200 degrees. They also may have 10-15 times the water volume of a condensing boiler. All this equates to heat lost up the chimney or to the basement. Newer water tube condensing boilers can have less than 1 gallon of water and they do not maintain a minimum boiler temperature. They also modulate to match changing load requirements. Setback schedules and expectations should be managed accordingly as recovery when using a night setback may take longer due to decreased water volume. Night setback spread is often reduced, or eliminated entirely. Alternatively, the occupied temperature on time can be set earlier to compensate for the additional time required to bring the house back up to the desired temperature. Taking a few moments to discuss these differences can eliminate the majority of angry phone calls from uninformed owners.
Mr. Roberts unsatisfied with underperforming combi
Mr. Roberts saw an episode of a home renovation series which showcased a combi boiler. He remembered hearing the boiler had zero standby losses. Mr. Roberts, being concerned about his monthly home expenses and the environment, thought replacing his current boiler with a combi boiler sounded like a great idea. His current system includes a cast iron boiler and a 40-gallon hot water heater, both running on gas. His house was a moderately sized ranch with a single bathroom at one end.
He contacted a local company which had stellar reviews on Google. The sales associate helped Mr. Roberts appreciate the truckloads of money he could save with a condensing combi boiler, and that for a single bathroom home the combi was the PERFECT fit! Combined with an energy conservation incentive loan, Mr. Roberts thought he couldn’t afford NOT to install a new boiler. An appropriate load calculation was done, and the boiler was installed exactly to manufacturer’s specifications.
The morning after the installation, the installing contractor received a phone call from a contentious homeowner. “I thought you said this boiler could provide hot water all day long as long as the capacity wasn’t exceeded?! I got in the shower and had plenty of hot water. My wife got in next and… well here, you talk to her!” Mrs. Roberts explains through clenched teeth that she got in the shower and had 30 seconds of hot water then was doused with 45 degree water in the face.
The installer politely tries to explain the phenomenon of the “sandwich effect,” with the only “effect” being to fan the flames of Mrs. Robert’s venomous rage. In an effort to appease the homeowner, an uninsulated recirculating loop was installed. Six months later the homeowner calls back. “This boiler is a lemon. The loop you installed didn’t solve the problem and now we have no hot water! And the dishwasher doesn’t work anymore!” A technician rushes over and finds the boiler has a failed blower. Surprised, he checks the boiler cycles and average run time and sees the boiler runs for an average of 45 seconds and the cycle count is appropriate for a boiler that is six YEARS old, not six months.
Again, see opening statements for a g-rated recap of the resulting conversation…