Friday, December 16, 2011

Truisms: They're Back.

To climb requires that you let go of part of the ladder.
Offense and Understanding can't share the same address.
The people we least understand are the one we learn the most from.
It's impossible to climb when you're looking down.
The most obvious details are the most easily missed.
The road to success uses failures as the cobblestones.
Better to underrate yourself and move up than overrate and fall down.
Embracing your comfort zone is the easiest way to fail.
The person you're fighting with is still a person.
Gaining the upper hand is far less important than taking the higher road.
Skinned knees and bruised egos both hurt, but neither one should cause permanent injury.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Technicians Only, Setting Manifold on a Two Stage Amana Furnace

This is for technicians who have the proper tools. Homeowners should not be setting manifold on their furnace, ever. The problem comes when you turn the thermostat up five degrees over the set temperature to get the high fire to come on. Since this is two stage with a W1 and W2 controlled from the thermostat, it means you need to go upstairs, turn the heat down and hope that low fire comes on. Then you have to traipse all the way back upstairs to turn it up again so you can get the heat differential checked properly. Problem is I hate going up and down stairs all the time and getting up can hurt. Here's an easier way to do it.

First, set the high fire in the usual way. To set the low fire, remove the wire from the W2 terminal on the board. There is no way the thermostat can call for second stage and low fire will be the result. Check and set the manifold, which is on the placard inside the furnace. Remember to hook up the wire to the W2 terminal, replace the bottom door, check your amp draws, button up the furnace and check your heat differential and you're done. Maranatha!

Stop Beating Me Up On Price!

Just now I quoted a customer for a water heater because his old one went kaput. He tried to blame the consulting company's contractor for screwing it up, as they did a blower door test on the house and blew out the pilot. When I got there, the pilot light was on and the thermostat set to "warm", but the burner wasn't on and all the customer could manage was tepid water through the taps. The thermostat was bad and the water heater is more than old enough to take to the bar. The solution would be to replace it this point and I informed the customer, an elderly man.

I gave him a price of $1150 to replace it with something comparable, which in this case is a 40 gallon Bradford White water heater that runs on natural gas. The customer immediately complained on the price and blasted me for it being too high. I could go on about this guy being the same joker who whines to the pump jockey when gas prices spike, but out of common decency, I won't. Ahem. To be honest, I can't blame the guy. Prices have gone up. Gas used to be 25 cents a gallon when I was a little shaver and now it's $3.30 or so. Cars used to sell for $3000 now sell for ten times that. Raw materials have gone up, and copper has gotten crazy expensive in particular. Liability insurance used to cost me $167 every six months in 1987 when I got my first car and now it's over $800, with no tickets.

See what I'm getting at? A short 40 gallon natural gas, natural vent water heater at Menard's with a six year tank warranty cash and carry is $584.56 and it is not a Bradford White. This is retail and not wholesale. Now there's the price of $130 to $150 to get the truck to the door, possibly even getting another man to help move the water heaters. Then you have the technician's time of 4 hours, plus his or her workman's comp insurance. You also have to consider there's a shop that needs lights, wear and tear on the vehicle, gas for the torch, solder, fittings and pulling the permits with the municipal government. Pulling a permit alone is going to run into some money. I remember when a water heater could be had for about $150 and this was as recently as 1997. Back then gas was comfortably under $1.00 a gallon and raw materials were cheap. It was also about $180 to have a Builder's Square's installer to put it in and that included permits too. What a value, what a deal. Sorry, but those days are long gone and everyone has to pay more. No business can afford to sell and install items at wholesale and stay in business for very long. Businesses that can't stay in business will lay off employees. You know the drill. Please stop using price as a way to beat up your technician as he or she isn't responsible for the state of affairs in the world. I assure they have no control over the price of materials and probably haven't had a raise in a decade. They also have to buy all their own tools to work and these are a lot more than the price of a water heater. Even business owners are struggling to make ends meet too. Maranatha!

Monday, December 12, 2011

What Are You Thinking?

This morning, my first call was to a two story house in Lansing. My coworker was told me the customer said the circuit board needed replacement. Too often, the customer gets involved in the diagnosis and makes the job even harder. However, in this case it at least gave them an idea of what we were going to have to charge them.

This wasn't the only surprise in store. A young woman greeted me at the door and explained that she had hired another contractor to fix the furnace last night. Instead of fixing the problem, he condemned the thermostat wire. According to this gentleman, the customer would have to hire an electrician to run 5 or 8 wire from the furnace to the thermostat. This was on top of the repairs that she needed just to get it working. Electricians don't work pro bono very often; who can blame them .

The most expensive repair is an unnecessary one and I questioned this gem straightaway. The wire was regular 2 wire. Since there was no air conditioner, one could argue that 5 or 8 wire wasn't needed. I went downstairs and confirmed the thermostat was calling for heat and the control board was getting high and low voltage in. Since the inducer fan kept cutting in and out without the ignitor coming on, I checked the pressure switch and it was closing (so no worries with the heat exchanger, venting or tubing as well as the switch). The thermostat never lost its call for heat when the inducer cut out, but the relay to the inducer did. The problem was with the board. After making a trip to the supply house and replacing the board, they had heat. The furnace was fine. The thermostat wire can wait until she gets air-conditioning.

The moral of the story is to fix the problem. The customer is always right and we need to help them. The customer didn't pay this guy, she should have run him out on a rail.

13 Things Your Home Comfort Specialist Won't Tell You

First, some background. I've read all over Reader's and found everything from Burglars to Baristas and what they won't tell you. The themes of all of these is to make life easier for everyone, but alas, not so much as a jot or tittle about what the guy or gal sent over to fix that hunk of junk in your basement, etc that heats or cools your home. Without further adieu...

1. I'm here to perform a service; this isn't to make friends with Fido or Princess. Please keep your dogs in another room or in the yard.

2. I need to make sure the thermostat is on before you take me to the furnace or air-conditioner. I could spend a lot of time and your money tracing a problem I could have found upstairs first.

3. Children are nice, but not while I'm working around high voltage or moving parts. Keep your kids upstairs for their safety and my sanity.

4. Yes, the repairs are going to be expensive. It costs $130 just to get the truck to the door. Fuel and labor costs, as well as insurance, taxes and overhead have a lot to answer for. It's rude and inconsiderate to expect me to perform a service call for less than the asking price. My family needs to eat too.

5. If your furnace is old enough to be president and you have me fix a broken wire, don't expect me to warranty the whole thing. Other parts can fail without warning and tune ups are extra. If you want a warranty, replace the furnace. No mechanic would ever warranty a 20 or 30 year old car this way. Do you own a 20 year old car? Didn't think so.

6. While we're at it, all furnaces need maintenance or they'll leave you out in the cold. In the case of an air conditioner, you'll be sweating it out. Don't use the excuse that no one told you. The car salesman didn't tell you to change the oil either. I know better and so do you.

7. Do you do my work for a living? Just because you're an engineer doesn't qualify you for my job. I have a different skill set than you do. Besides, if you didn't need me, you wouldn't have called my office. Enough said.

8. Pay me by the job, not the hour. Hourly pay results in poorer service.

9. Work trucks in my business don't have four wheel drive, and most are rear wheel drive and handle poorly on snow. If you live in the country, please be considerate and plough the driveway. Your experience will be much better if you do. Shoveling the sidewalk is also a welcome gesture in the winter months.

10. Furnaces and air-conditioners work better when the area around them is clear. I work on them a lot better when the area around them is clear too. Boxes in front of the furnace are a fire hazard.

11. If you don't do what I recommend, don't call my boss telling him or her I didn't do my job if your equipment calls it quits. I did mine; you failed to do yours.

12. There isn't a furnace made that will run right after being in a flood. You need a sump pump, not a part warranty.

13. A five year old furnace or air conditioner is not "new" and unless you bought a service contract, it is likely out of warranty.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Exhaust Vent Fix

Last winter, I got a call that water was leaking from the ceiling of a house that was less than 10 years old. Previously, the owner has my predecessor over to insulate the bath fan vents because the cold attic had caused condensation in same. Now the problem was worse than ever before and the customer was livid. I went through everything, and was at the end of my rope. This was until I asked the customer a question or two. There were two bathrooms, but only one vent was having this issue.
"How long of showers do you and your son take?" "He's in there quite a while, but we're only in for a few minutes," he replied a bit indignantly. I checked both fans and both were in working order. "How long do you guys run these after you're done?" I pried. "We've never run 'em," said the customer. I thought about this for a minute as I put the last cover back on. Even if the fans aren't running and the dampers to them are closed, there is still going to be warm, moist air travelling the ducts to the outside. Problem was that without the benefit of the fan, the damper outside was just going to hold that air and moisture inside, where it would condense on the inside and outside of the metal duct. The result was soggy drywall in the homeowner's bedroom.
Exhaust fans are in there for a reason, and I told the customer on those grounds we could no longer warranty the repairs I did. I told him he had to run the fans or risk damage to the ceiling, end of list. I assume he heeded my advice, because he never called back. Maranatha!

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Master Cylinder Fix.

The title is misleading. You're not fixing anything except the vehicle you're working on. The master cylinder is what we're changing. The job is pretty easy unless this is in a van or other vehicle with a cowl hanging over or if there are parts in the way. You need to deal with them first. Snce I have no way of knowing of what you're working on, you have to figure this out. I have no control over your work, the quality of parts you use or any other circumstance of your situation. You need to be satisfied and comfortable with your skill level before you proceed or drive your newly repaired vehicle in traffic. If there's any doubt, call a mechanic. Death, injury, or property damage can result from anything fixed improperly and brakes are no exception. Do any repairs at your own risk.

The master cylinder on any car, truck or motorcycle with hydraulic brakes (or clutch) is just a cylinder with a couple of pistons inside that press fluid into into steel lines. This in turn displaces pistons that squeeze pads or shoes onto a spinning drum or disk inside the road wheel. The wheels slow and stop transferring the moving energy of your ride into heat. That's all there is to it. Even if you have anti lock brakes, traction or stability control, the brakes work the same way. The reason it works is because the fluid isn't compressible and transfers its volume somewhere else. As long as the parts holding the fluid inside are intact and nothing can leak out or in, you have brakes. As with any system like this there are weak links. In the case of the braking system, it's the seals that fail first. If you live where there's salt on the roads, the lines themselves can rust too. In the case of the master cylinder, it's because the seals holding the fluid in or those pushing the fluid into the lines have failed.

When the brake pedal is spongy, you'll need to look around the car for leaks. Check inside the wheels and around the left side of the body, all along the lines and hoses. If there's any leakage, fix these first before condemning the master cylinder. It could still be bad, but look for the obvious first. So there are no other leaks, the pedal is still spongy, or the hydraulic system "lets go" at a stop and/or you see signs of fluid leaks at the master cylinder or brake booster. The master cylinder and brake booster both live toward the rear of the engine compartment on the left side of the vehicle for the most part. Most vehicles have power brakes and hence a brake booster. If you have an older car or truck with manual brakes, the master cylinder will be right on the firewall. This is very rare nowadays. I've owned or co-owned about 20 cars and trucks and only one, a 1975 Chevy Nova, had manual brakes.

There are several schools of thought to do this job. I'm giving you mine and you can take it leave it. I prefer to bench bleed because there's never an assistant around when you need one. With this method there's a lot less walking back and forth and bending down. I'm getting older and having to bend into tight spaces a lot; my knees protest every time I do it. If you have a suction gun or turkey baster, use it to suck the fluid out of the reservoir. If not, just undo the lines with the appropriate sized line wrench and leave the cap or cover on, placing a rag underneath it. Use a 15mm or 5/8 inch (these are the most common sizes) to remove the nuts holding the master cylinder from the brake booster. There are two studs, but sometimes there are two nuts on one of them. Makes sure all the nuts are off before you try freeing the cylinder from its home, otherwise you could break the stud or one of the ears off your core. That would be bad. Use a rag to hold the master cylinder as you take it out from under the hood. Be careful; brake fluid eats paint and plastic. Take the part and dump out as much fluid as you can, making sure it's clean. Trust me, it'll make life easier taking it to the auto parts store.

Speaking of the auto parts store, make sure the unit you buy has a reservoir. If it doesn't, you'll have to reuse the one off the old part. Remove the roll pins, screws or other device used to hold it on. If they're roll pins, use a punch and a hammer being careful not to damage the plastic reservoir or aluminum cylinder. Clean the newly removed part with brake cleaner or denatured alcohol. You can also use soap and water, but it must be dry before you install it and you need compressed air to get the moisture out. Don't be too picky getting it clean, but get as much of the old fluid out as you can.

Parts are parts and from my experience, it really doesn't matter if the part you buy is new or re manufactured. New is obviously better, but if the part is made in China walk away. If you're a Monty Python fan, run away! Don't buy the dad blamed part and put in you car, because you will be taking it out within a week. Autozone sold me one of these beauties and it failed the moment I pressed on the brake pedal. The few dollars you save are not worth it. It literally cost me four more dollars to get a better part at Advance that I didn't have to pull out again. Again, do not buy a brake part made or rebuilt in Chinaland. You've been warned.

Use the correct brake fluid. Most cars and trucks use D.O.T. 3 or 4 and in fact the fluid will probably be compatible with both (these are glycol based). This fluid is also hygroscopic meaning it absorbs and disperses water, which helps keep wear on seals and lines in check. D.O.T. 5 is a silicone based fluid that doesn't absorb water, but still allows it to settle in low areas of the system. This could allow the lines to rust from the inside out and as a result, needs to be changed much more frequently. It's usually used in racing and some custom builds. Mixing glycol and silicone fluids will kill the seals and ruin your brakes. My advice is not to use it unless your braking system calls for it.

Put the reservoir on the new master cylinder using clean brake fluid (do not use ANY oil to do this or you'll wreck them) to lubricate the o rings, and if the new part has a reservoir skip this step. Carefully put the new part in a vise and follow the instructions on the included bleeding kit. Usually, these are two plugs that thread into the bungs where the lines go and are attached to lines that are directed back into the reservoir. Fill the reservoir with fluid, but not over the "full" or "max" line and using a Phillips screwdriver, gently push into the plunger until the air is purged out of the part.

Take your hoses, fluid and all as one unit and bolt it to the brake booster. Remove the plugs from the master cylinder, one at a time and thread the lines in. Step on the brake pedal and make sure it's firm. and if it isn't you'll have to bleed each wheel individually, starting with the one farthest away from the part you replaced. I just cap off the lines I took off and let the fluid leak out a bit before I tighten them up and I've never had an issue with air getting into the lines. Air always rises, so bleeding the brake system after replacing the master cylinder isn't necessary. If the fluid is more than two years old, then you should bleed it as soon as possible anyway. Maranatha!

Saturday, December 3, 2011

The Cost of Neglect.

Today at the crack of dawn, I got a call from a customer in Laingsburg with a no heat. The house was chilly and the diagnosis from the customer was that the blower motor was tripping the circuit breaker. I got showered, dressed and headed out the door and in the meantime, got yet another call. This was for another customer diagnosis; a broken gas control. This is the setting for my morning and to remind that some of us do more in a morning than some do all day.

The first call was the "blower" and the customer indicated that the screws holding the blower door were stuck and he was going to have to break them out. He told me all of this over the phone and was very personable about it. "I'll have to screw it back in with a couple of sheet metal screws," I told him. The furnace was an Amana and if the screws holding the door are exposed to any moisture, they will seize up. The captive nuts inside the frame are also prone to breaking off and leaving the screws spinning. The only cure for this is to break, drill or cut them off and use a sheet metal screw to hold the door on. Ideally, this furnace would be maintained every year and some oil added to the works to prevent this hassle, but I digress.

I went in to a mechanical nightmare. The vent pipe and inducer motor leaked condensate (water) into the cabinet and all over the wiring, control board and who knows what else. This furnace was twelve years old and according to the customer, had never been maintained since it was installed 12 years ago. Instead of a $400 repair, we were looking at a $1500 repair to a cabinet that was nearly rotted out. This is extremely dangerous to the people living in the home, because the metal barrier between the burner compartment and the blower is compromised. This will allow combustion products to be sucked into the living space and even cause a fire. The wiring was shot and I would have had to charge him over $222 just to find all the components that were destroyed, not to mention the wire itself. When wire gets exposed to water over a length of time, changes occur to the structure that you can't see. The outside may look fine, but the conductor inside becomes a brittle, green mess that might work a few times before it fails and could cause a fire. This furnace was history on so many levels and it was only 12 years old. Maybe next time this customer will take maintenance schedules a little more seriously. Maranatha!

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Fireplace Basics.

Since we moved into our trailer this spring, I've wanted to be able to use the fireplace that came with it. It's set up for burning wood, though my grandfather and I contemplated converting it over to run on natural gas in 2000. He passed away in early 2001 and the idea died as well. My grandmother was adamant about not using it because it always stunk up of the house and it never worked right.
Today, I finally figured it out and not only does it not smell up the house, it actually burns the wood and heats the front of the house to some extent.
First thing is the wood. You need wood that has been seasoned at least one year to remove the moisture. It will burn, but it won't heat up nearly as much if it's fresh cut. Don't burn soft or evergreen wood either, as it will smell up the place and deposit more creosote on the chimney. Use hardwood from a local seller and skip the stuff from the gas station or grocery store. These will burn quickly and not heat at all. Next you need a barbecue lighter and some heavy paperboard or cardboard to get the fire started. Don't use charcoal or lighter fluid to start the wood up, use some kind of tinder instead. Those drink carriers from Wendy's or McDonald's work very well.
Stack up the wood and put the paper between the logs, but don't light it yet. Open the main damper to the fireplace vent or if you can, open it partway. If there's another damper for combustion air, open this all the way. If there isn't an outside air damper, you might want to rethink using the fireplace. Go ahead and light the tinder, close the screens and make sure the doors are closed tightly. Once the fire gets going, (as long as the lever for the damper is outside the fireplace or you need to leave it open all the way to start with) open the damper all the way. You'll want to use the fireplace poker to move the logs as the burn down to keep the flames going while they're on the rack. Once they burn down to coals, let them burn themselves out before you remove them from the fireplace. If you want to add more wood, this is the time. but don't let the coals build up too much. Once they cool down, take them out of the fireplace with a shovel and dump them in a metal container. Not as easy as using a gas fireplace, but more authentic. Maranatha!