Tag: gas


This article was written by boiler technician Justin Skinner. Big thanks to Justin for being one of the rare techs who cares enough to take the time to write something like this. Thank you Justin

Pressure switches are used in a variety of applications. Generally, they are a normally open switch that closes with either a rise or fall in the pressure it is monitoring, They are used mostly as a safety device, but are also used for operation control, such as fan cycle controls for low ambient cooling, starting and stopping for steam boilers, and the list goes on. Today I am focusing on the pressure switch used in gas furnaces that prove inducer fan operation.
As noted above, the pressure switches used for gas furnaces are almost always normally open.

The board first checks the switch to ensure it is open prior to inducer call. If it is closed prior to call it will go into fault because the switch is clearly jumpered, the circuit shorted or the switch failed closed.

During preignition, when the inducer motor is running before the flame is established, it draws the heat exchanger into a negative pressure (draft). The pressure switch is used to prove this draft by a connection, typically rubber or vinyl tubing, directly to the heat exchanger or to the inducer draft motor housing. In the normal sequence of operations, if the pressure switch does not close during this preignition period, the control board will not allow the furnace to light. This is to ensure a few things. First, that the inducer motor is operational and not failed, inducer wheel broken, etc. Second, it proves that the exhaust pathways are clear. If the chimney is caving in, or Mr squirrel makes a nest in the top of the flue stack, the inducer motor will not be able to establish the draft (negative Pressure) required to close the switch. The switch should stay closed during the entire run cycle also.

If the control board determines that the inducer motor has been running for an allotted amount of time and the pressure switch has not closed, it will lock out the furnace and go into a fault situation. It also locks out into fault if the switch opens enough times while the flame is lit. We will use Carrier as the example. When the switch does not close, or opens during operation, and the furnace locks out, the led light on the control board flash a fault code 31 which indicates the switch did not close. If the switch does not open after the furnace satisfies the heating demand tries to start again, the board will flash a code 23. Code 23 would be seen as 2 short flashes, followed by 3 long flashes.

So what’s the proper procedure for troubleshooting if you come across a furnace displaying these fault codes? Most of the time the issue is pretty apparent after you reset the board and run the furnace. The inducer motor is failed, or a family of possums used the chimney base as their summer home, or most uncommon of all, the pressure switch is bad. But what about the when it’s not so apparent? When you reset the board and the furnace lights and runs fine and customer runs down and tells you how great you are? More than likely if you leave it at that, that same customer who praised you will be calling in again, but probably won’t be as happy with your service skills as before. So let’s dig in and check a few more things.

In the thousands of no heat calls I have run, I can count the number of pressure switches that failed on their own with no other factors on one hand. They just don’t fail very often. I would need a lot more hands to count the callbacks I’ve run where another tech condemned and replaced a pressure switch, only to have the same issue not long after.

Callbacks cost money and they always hurt my pride when they were mine, so the goal is to save both. So the first thing to do in this situation is slow down. This time of year (December) crazy busy for everyone, but the most important call you will run today is the run you are on right now. When I am in a hurry, I’m much more likely to miss things, and when that happens I normally end up coming back to the call anyway.

Next, Grab your trusty volt/amp meter and manometer. I prefer the digital version for both. Check incoming voltage to the furnace and make sure it is within spec of the voltage rating on the data tag. Check the amperage rating on the inducer motor, and make sure the actual amperage is in range. Let the inducer motor run for a while. If the amperage starts to go up substantially, or the motor gets noisy or too hot to touch, there is potentially a motor issue. Check the tubing that connects the pressure switch to the draft point. Look for cracks, brittleness, and crud or water inside the tubes.

If you see anything, clean it out. Hook a manometer to the tubing and check the draft from the heat exchanger in inches W.C. with a manometer or Magnahelic. The pressure switch has a pressure at which it closes, which is typically negative. Ensure the draft is above the required pressure. By this point on an 80% efficiency furnace, if you haven’t found the culprit, you will have to put on your best thinking cap, because the issue could be any number of things, including a bad board, loose or bad wire connections, or a bad pressure switch.

If you are working on a 90+% (condensing) furnace, move to the condensate drain. These furnaces produce water as a result of lower exhaust temperatures, and that water is removed from the furnace in a few ways. Carrier has a condensate trap that is a white box that mounts in the blower compartment on an upflow application. If this trap is partially clogged, water can back up in the secondary heat exchanger. This can prevent the necessary air movement required to produce enough draft to close the pressure switch. And if it’s only partially clogged, it may have drained when the furnace was locked out and not running. So when you get there and reset it, everything runs fine until the condensate starts to back up again. Also, where the condensate water goes after it leaves the furnace is important to note. Does it go to a condensate pump? Does that pump the water outside? Is it freezing outside? It could have been last night, which caused water to back up and the furnace to lockout, but today its 40 degrees, everything has melted, and running smooth.

These are just a few things I’ve seen with consistency over the years, but the potential number of causes for the fault codes listed above are almost limitless. And every heating season I run into an issue I haven’t seen before. This is in no way a comprehensive checklist. The goal of this is to prevent a technician from replacing too many parts that don’t need to be replaced, which I did early on more times than Id like to admit. Have a safe and merry heating season, and like we all hear from time to time, don’t be a hack!

— Justin

(Approved and edited by Bryan)

This article is the second in a series on boiler basics by senior boiler tech Justin Skinner. Thanks Justin.


There are many types of boilers that do a lot of different things, but most all of them have some of the same basic components. Some because they are required by regulatory agencies, some because they are necessary for proper operation and safety of the boilers. But no matter how large or small the boiler is, you can probably find most, if not all of these components.Unless noted otherwise, these are typical for hot water boilers.  

 

Burner 

Every boiler needs some source of heat, obviously to heat the water. The type and sizes of burners vary so much that a few complete articles would be required to really get into detail as to how they operate and the specific operations of each burner. All burners serve the same function, which to safely and efficiently burn fuel and create heat. Typically, the flame safeguards are integrated in the burner control sequence, in that certain conditions need to be met in order for the flame to light, similar to gas furnace pre-ignition sequence of operations. A blower with air dampers for adjustment is often part of the burner, and air/fuel ratios are adjusted at the burner during combustion analysis. Ignition transformers/control boards, ignitors, draft pressure switches, flame sensing devices (flame scanner/ flame rod), and a primary controller to sequence all of it together are all apart of most burners. Honeywell, Fireye, Siemens, and a few others are common  burner controls that are all different, but essentially do the same thing. Some of the most common burner manufacturers ( at least in my world) are Powerflame, Webster, and Beckett, but there are a lot of burners out there. It is  common to see a dual fuel set up on larger burners, meaning they are capable of burning 2 types of fuel, typically gas and oil. Steam and hot water boilers both use burners.

Oil Fired Boiler

Gas Fired Boiler

 

Water feeder

Most water boiler systems are sealed, meaning that they are filled with water, the air is bled, and the same water is circulated throughout the system. In a perfect world, no additional water would be required, but most systems lose water and pressure through a variety of ways. A automatic water feeding valve is used to keep the system at a set pressure. There are many types with many different pressure ranges. The proper term would be pressure reducing valve, but i’ve always heard them called water feeders, so that is what I call them here. Back flow preventers are often used with water feeders. Once the water enters the boiler system, it should not be allowed to go back and re-enter the domestic cold water system. Boiler water can be pretty gross, and often contains chemicals for water treatment so be mindful and safe when opening the water side of any boiler system.

Typical Water Feeders (PRV’S)

 

Pressure/Temperature Relief Valves 

Relief valves are used to protect the boiler pressure from rising above the safe maximum that the boiler is rated for. The pressure rating on the relief should never be above the pressure that the boiler is rated for. Also, relief valves come with a BTU rating and are sized to match the fire ratings of the burner. This is crucial to keep in mind when replacing a relief valve. A valve that is too small may open prematurely, and a valve that is too large may not open at the pressure it is supposed to. There are calculations and recommendations that are used to size relief valves that I’m not gonna give here, but if you are replacing one or having issues with one and you are unsure, ask a senior tech or contact the manufacturer for recommendations. But keep in mind that the relief valve may be the last line of defense in preventing a boiler explosion, so treat it as such. NEVER plug a leaking relief valve, it is kind of illegal. Found on both steam and water boilers.

If you do this, you are fired!

 

Operating/Modulation/High Limit Controls 

These are controls to maintain a set range for water temperature, the burner modulating from high to low fire (for modulating burners), and as a safety to prevent temperature rise above set point. These are used in both water and steam boilers, and i will go over them in more detail in the next article.

 

Circulator Pumps 

Are used to move water through the boiler and the system. Some pumps are controlled on and off by the boiler, some are controlled by building automation, some are just on   and run constantly. Flow sensors are often used to insure proper water flow is present in the boiler, and will disable burner operations if the flow is decreased below what is recommended.

Pumps come in all shapes, sizes, and voltages.

 

Low Water Protection 

When a boiler gets low on water, it can be a very dangerous situation. Low water safeties are used to disable the burner when low water conditions are present. Steam and water boilers both require protection, but low water controls for steam are generally much more crucial than a typical water boiler, as the risk with steam and boiler low on water can be severe.

 

This is by no means a comprehensive list, just a general overview, and I’m sure i missed something that you all will let me know about. With the huge variety of boilers out there, it would be tough to list every single thing that you might run into. These are all very common and the things that i seem to replace or have issues with the most.   I will expand on steam specific controls and components in the next article.

— Justin

 

This series of articles is written by senior boiler tech (and all around swell guy) Justin Skinner. Thanks Justin.


 

There are quite a few different types of boilers out in the world. They come in all shapes, sizes, pressures, and types of fuel burned. I’m going to go over some of the more common ones, their common components, and why it all matters.

 

First, lets establish what a boiler is. A Boiler is defined as a fuel-burning apparatus or container for heating water, in particular. The in particular part is thrown in there because a lot of boiler systems heat a fluid other than water. Glycol, oil, and process chemicals to name a few. But to keep things fairly simple, we will stick with water. So your basic boiler burns a fuel source to heat water. A water heater, basically. But water heaters are used to produce domestic hot water for showers,sinks, and other household hot water uses. Boilers are used to produce hot water for space heating purposes, dehumidification, and other processes (or even potable water indirectly through and exchanger).

 

For residential and commercial/industrial purposes, there are 2 types of boilers. The most common is the fire tube design. This would include the common sectional type boiler seen in most residential applications. The fuel is burned, and the hot gases pass through a series of flue passages or tubes that are generally steel. The steel composing the flue passages or tubes is heated by the gases passing through. This area does not contain any water, only heat and combustion gases. Water surrounds the flue gas area, but does not actually enter the area. Heat transfer to the water occurs by conduction, primarily. The steel comprising the flue passages becomes heated, and transfers the heat to water.  Hopefully these illustrations help.​

 

 Commercial Style Fire tube

 

 ​Residential style sectional, note flue passes

As you can see, the tubes or sections that contain the hot flue gases are surrounded by water, which is how this boilers transfer the heat to water. The passages that contain the hot gases also act as the heat exchanger in the boiler. The FIRE (flue gases) is contained in the TUBE (tubes or passages).

 

A water tube boiler is typically used in commercial and industrial applications, and not seen often in residential. As the name implies, the tubes contain the water being heated, and are surrounded by the hot combustion gases. This type often looks like a rectangular box with a burner mounted to it. Its virtually a large fire box with water tubes. ​

 

 Water Tube Boiler Design

 

Whats the difference in application and why use one type over the other?

 

Water tubes are generally considered safer. They contain much less water than fire tubes, so if a disturbance occurs (tube breaks, boiler melt down) there isn’t as much water/steam to have the potential to escape the boiler.

 

The main determining factor of water or fire tube is application. Water tubes are able to handle much higher pressure ( 1000s of psi), and fire tubes generally aren’t designed to be used over 350 psi. Water tubes are available in much larger capacities than fire tubes, and are able to recover a lot faster from a large increase in load demand from a pressure stand point. Meaning if the pressure drops on a fire tube boiler, it takes longer to come back up than on a similarly rated water tube boiler. Fire tube boilers typically have lower operating and maintenance costs, have easier access to the fire and water sides for inspections, and its much easier to replace tubes on a fire tube than a water tube. Generally speaking, if you have fluctuating demand and large swings in steam requirements, a water tube is probably a better fit. If you have a pretty constant load requirement without a lot of swing in steam demands, a fire tube would work fine. My next article will cover boiler components and safeties.

— Justin

 

Water Tube Boilers

 

Fire Tube Boiler

All fuel-burning appliances require oxygen to burn and sufficient oxygen to burn clean and safe, without soot and CO (Carbon Monoxide).

I live and work in Florida where most of our fuel-burning appliances are 80% efficient with open combustion that utilizes air and oxygen from the space for combustion.

With these low-efficiency appliances whether the appliance is forced vented or natural draft that combustion air is leaving the space, and exiting the flue.

This causes negative pressure that must be allowed to equalize as well as consumes oxygen from the space. It is because of this that these open combustion appliances must either be in a sufficiently large space or communicate with (be open to) a larger space or outdoors.

When you consider that other gas appliances also need to use oxygen and need to vent to outside you can see that without sufficient communication to outdoors that negative drafts can occur on natural draft appliances like water heaters.

This is why all open combustion appliances that utilize combustion air from inside the space must be in an “unconfined space” or connected to an unconfined space or the outdoors using an approved method.

I see many furnaces jammed into tight closets and mechanical rooms with little thought or planning regarding combustion air.

According to NFPA 31, 54 & 58 an unconfined space is a space that has at least 50 cubic feet of open area for every 1,000 Btu of input. This means that a 100,000 Btu furnace must be in a 5,000 cubic ft space to be considered unconfined.

If the appliance is not unconfined then additional combustion air must be made available to the space with one opening at the ceiling level and one near the floor.

If the air is coming from another unconfined space then the openings should be at least 1 square inch per 1,000 BTU and 1 square inch per 5,000 BTU if it is connnected to the outdoors.

While these openings and are needed in many cases to allow for proper combustion and venting it helps illustrate why modern sealed combustion “direct vent” appliances that take all of their combustion air from outdoors make so much sense.

Not only are direct vent appliances more efficient on the fuel utilization side, they also prevent the negative home pressures and/or thermal losses associated with having vents in walls and ceilings.

So either make sure you have an unconfined space, you are bringing air in from an unconfined space or outdoors or you have a direct vented appliance.

— Bryan

flame_sensing_rod

Proving flame is an important part of the gas firing sequence. Without proof of flame you risk dumping unspent gas into the heat exchanger resulting in an explosion.

There are many ways to “prove flame” we are focusing on the flame sensing rod method here.

Here are the facts-

Flame sensing rods, also know as flame rectifier rods or flame rectification rods are common place in modern hot surface and ISI (intermittent spark ignition) gas fired appliances.

Flame sensing rods stick out into the flame and connect back to the furnace board. Once the board sends a call to the gas valve to open, it monitors current flow on the flame sensing rod. It does this by generating a potential (voltage) at the flame sensing terminal, this terminal is connected to the sensor with a conductor. When no flame is present there will be potential at the rod and no current, when a flame is present a small microamp DC current will be present as a path is made between the rod and the ions in the flame. This small DC current signals the board that flame exists and all is well with the world. If it does not sense this microamp DC current within a few seconds it will shut off the gas valve and try again.

The board outputs this potential (voltage) on the  flame sensing terminal right at the beginning of the sequence to confirm that the path is “open” with no flame. This ensures against false positives (sensing flame / current when there should be none) andonce it goes from 0 current to the rated micoamp current the board “knows” that flame is present. 

These flame sensing rods are “dumb” devices. They do not generate potential (volts) or current (amps), their predecessor the thermocouple (seen in standing pilot systems) does generate a potential itself which is often the source of the confusion.

A flame sensing rod is a piece of metal with a ceramic insulator that keeps it from grounding out. That is all. However because it is conducting in the Millionths of an amp (microamp) a lot can go wrong with it that a normal electrical component wouldn’t have any issue with. Tolerances are tight so small factors make a big difference.

Flame sensors fail when:

  1. They short out due to a cracked insulator
  2. They Fail open because they are broken
  3. They don’t conduct because they are not properly placed in the flame
  4. They become coated in silica (glass) or carbon

Before I go any further I want to address a common question. Do flame sensors have a special coating that can be rubbed off with improper cleaning?

Well… If we are talking about a thermocouple or a thermopile then yes.. absolutely, but we aren’t discussing standing pilot systems here.

I have seen a lot of flame sensing rods, and I have done a good deal of research and I have found no evidence that most flame sensing rods have a special coating on them that can be rubbed off. Now, if you have real, quantifiable proof  from an manufacturer that says otherwise.. PLEASE provide it to me so I can retract this statement.

Here are the steps to test a flame sensor –

  • Ensure the furnace is properly grounded. You can do this by powering down the heater and taking an ohm reading between neutral and the burner assembly. You should read a few ohms of resistance max, the lower the ohm reading the better grounded it is.
  • Make sure your polarity is correct, incoming hot connected to hot, neutral to neutral.
  • Ensure the rod is positioned so it will be covered in flame
  • Get a meter that reads in the microamp scale with a .10 resolution minimum. Use a good QUALITY meter for this and make sure your leads are in the correct locations.
  • Connect your leads in SERIES. This means you have to disconnect lead from the rod, connect one lead to the rod and the other to the terminal to the board WITH THE CONNECTOR UNHOOKED FROM THE ROD
  • When the flame lights you should read between .5 and 10 microamps depending of the furnace. Readings between 2 and 6 are common.

flamerectification

If you do not have a proper microamp reading you can confirm the following

  • That the flame rod is not open. Ohm from tip to terminal on the rod. If the rod is open it is failed.
  • Check the insulator and make sure it isn’t cracked or grounded
  • Check for proper burner grounding and incoming power polarity (as mentioned)
  • Clean the rod… Now this is a controversial one. I suggest using a very fine steel wool or abrasive pad (magic erasers often work). remove and clean the rod and ensure you wipe it clean of any particles left over from cleaning. Handle very gently. Once complete perform an ohm test from tip to terminal again to ensure you haven’t damaged during cleaning. If you want to be real crazy, use some electrical contact cleaner on it after cleaning to help remove any residue… just nowhere near flame, unless you don’t want eyebrows.

Once you have established all of the above and you are still not getting the required microamps then you are left replacing the board.

Word of warning –

Test your tools regularly. If you are trusting your meter and you aren’t 100% sure your meter is working and set up properly you may end up with a misdiagnosis. Test and calibrate your tools regularly.

Do every possible test before replacing a board. Many techs advocate just replacing a flame senor if they suspect it isn’t conducting well. I am cool with that so long as

  1. You don’t charge the customer for it is there was nothing wrong with it
  2. You company is OK eating the cost of rods that were not needed

Or.. you just install a new one long enough to test. That is all fine and good if you have extra flame rods in your truck. Many techs do not have that luxury.

Finally…

If flame rods are getting dirty / coated often, you will want to find out why. There is something in the environment or the combustion that is causing it.

In Summary flame rods should be

  1. In the flame
  2. Clean
  3. Not open
  4. Not shorted

Now is the part where the furnace techs from all over the world tear me apart.

— Bryan

 

 

Jesse Grandbois is one of the techs who reads the tech tips and he wrote a few tips that he wanted to share on some gas furnace control basics. This tip is about the basic terminal designations on typical 24v gas valve. Thanks Jesse!


Have you ever noticed the TH / TR terminal on a gas valve?. When I was in school, I’ll admit I didn’t know what it was. I’ve worked with people that are experienced and still think you need to use it. 
 
Nobody ever explained to me what it was. Being a newbie at the time it never clicked when I looked at the wiring diagrams. All my teachers would give the same response, “it’s a common.” 
 
That’s where the confusion set in. It’s a common. We throw this word around like it’s going out of style it seems in the HVAC industry. Everything is a “common” and technically a common is just a “common” point of connection but it really doesn’t clear up it’s intended purpose, or what part of the circuit it is intended for.
 
Following the diagram below while reading the rest of the article should clear things up.
Lets look at what each of these terminals mean:
TH – The 24v hot leg from the thermostat on a call for heat (R+W closing) to the gas valve (TH terminal) to open the solenoid to allow gas to flow. This is assuming the transformer is good and the high limit is closed.
TR – The 24v common/return side of the transformer.
TH/TR – This is not internally wired to the gas valve. Not using this makes no difference to the circuit. You could run your 24v hot from the transformer directly to your NC high limit in the above example and be just fine. This is nothing more than a convenience terminal. Joining these wires with a marette (Wire nut or terminal multiplier) does the same thing as this terminal.
Hope this helps clear up any confusion.
— Jesse

First, a thermocouple is not a flame rectifier like a modern flame sensor. A thermocouple actually generates a milivolt potential difference when it is heated by a flame.. Just to get that out of the way for any of you newer techs who are used to modern flame sensors.

With higher efficiency gas fired equipment being the norm for replacement systems, thermocouples and standing pilots are becoming a thing of the past. Newer appliances do not typically utilize a standing pilot, opting instead for hot surface or spark to pilot ignition. These types of ignition systems have benefits over standing pilot, from increased reliability and longevity to higher efficiency numbers. But there are many appliances in the field that still use a standing pilot, and a good service technician should be able to diagnose a thermocouple issue.

 

Many of you will say-

“Why even check the thermocouple? It’s a 5 dollar part, just throw a new one in!”

“Why are you so lazy? Do you even HVAC in real life or just on the internet?”

Yes, I know thermocouples are cheap and I am all for replacing them when they need to be replaced, or while replacing a gas valve or pilot assembly. But over the years I have seen a lot of guys ( me included) go on calls for pilot issues, find a pilot blown out, relight the pilot, and then because it’s the easiest, quickest fix, replace the thermocouple, only to have the same customer call in a day or two later with the pilot being out AGAIN. And when the tech goes back and relights the pilot, then what? Is that brand new thermocouple bad after a few days? Probably not. There is probably some other issue, but checking the thermocouple millivolt production is the first step for a proper diagnosis.

 

So how does a thermocouple work? Well, I’m no scientist ( I’m barely a writer), but I’ll tell you what I know. When different metals are joined, and there is a temperature difference between them, a magnetic field occurs between the joints where the different metals meet. The heat of the pilot flame is the source of the temperature difference in a normal pilot system. Through this process, a small amount of current is produced, generally around 30 millivolts. This voltage is sensed by the gas valve and is used to keep the pilot valve internal to the main gas open. If the pilot goes out, the heat that is generating the potential (voltage) is lost, thus current stops flowing to the gas valve, and the pilot valve is closed, closing off fuel to the pilot assembly. The thermocouple is a safety device. If the pilot flame goes and the pilot valve doesn’t close, the burner compartment and potentially the room the equipment is in can fill up with gas. That the consequences of that would require a different article.

 

When should you check a thermocouple? I am in the habit of checking thermocouples when I encounter them, whether it’s on a maintenance inspection or a service call. If you are in the habit of checking them, it usually doesn’t take more than a few minutes. If the millivolt measurement is less than 26-27, I typically recommend replacement.

 

 

To check a thermocouple, you need a multimeter that is able to measure millivolts. It is typically shown as mV or is just the third decimal over on the DC voltage reading. Remember, the meter should be set to DC voltage.

It’s also helpful to have a extra set of hands, but it is very possible to perform this check by yourself if you hold your tongue correctly (or just use alligator clips). First, disconnect the thermocouple from the gas valve. Then light the pilot. Most gas valves have a turn knob that has to be set from On/Off to Pilot. There usually is a push button that is pressed to manually open the pilot valve, sending gas to the pilot assembly in order to light the pilot. The trick is to light the pilot, and position the meter leads in the proper place to read the voltage. The push button must be depressed through the whole check. With the thermocouple being disconnected from the gas valve for checks, the pilot valve should not stay open and the flame should go out when the push button is let up.

 

 

 

Put on meter lead directly on the gas valve side of the thermocouple. Put the other lead on the copper line as shown by my right hand in the picture above. While holding the meter leads in this position, light the pilot. The thermocouple needs to heat up for 30 seconds to 1 minute in order to obtain a proper reading.

 

30 millivolts is the desired reading, with a swing of plus or minus 5 millivolts. If the readings are in that range, and you have been having pilot failure issues, more than likely there is some other cause. Dirty pilot assembly/ orifice is the most common other issue I encounter, but it could be down draft/flue or combustion air issues, fuel pressure problems, or a failing gas valve. But as stated above, the thermocouple should be eliminated as a potential issue before moving on with a proper diagnosis. Don’t throw parts at a problem and see what sticks. With thorough troubleshooting, you can save a lot of time, headaches, and maybe the customer a little bit of money and frustration.

— Justin Skinner

Please Note: There have been some legitimate questions about a few of the points in this article and in the diagrams. While Justin Skinner is an experienced tech and totally qualified to write this article we are going to be specifically looking into the question of the best location of the circulator pump as well as addressing “point of no pressure difference”. This article is still full of very useful points so it will remain up until we can research and potentially make a few changes. It is also worth noting that Dan Holohan’s book “pumping away” is considered the authority on the subject in addition to his website HeatingHelp.com. Thanks!

This article is the third in a series by senior boiler tech Justin Skinner. Thanks Justin!


Boiler piping is a much-debated topic in the HVAC trade. In fact, many books have been written on the subject. Should the circulator pump be on the supply or return? Where should the expansion tank be located? The best way to bleed radiators? If you talk to 10 different technicians, it is very possible to get ten different answers. And the short answer is, they are all correct. Because there is no “one size fits all” approach to boiler piping and layout. What works on one boiler system may not on another, and when a new boiler is installed on an existing system, there are plenty of potential issues which could be unique to that specific set up. Water is weird, sometimes. Like air, water doesn’t always do what you engineer it to do. I couldn’t count the times that I’ve been involved with projects with issues that left engineers scratching their heads because how they designed the water to flow through a system vs. what the water is doing is completely different. A technician need to be able to identify and correct what causes flow and heat exchange issues when we find them, and to do that, we need to know how it’s supposed to work.

 

Hot water piping

 

 

Here is a basic drawing of a hot water boiler system. This is an optimal setup, in my opinion. I like to feed water into the supply side before the expansion tank. Typically this area is the lower pressure which allows feeding easier. A lot of the air should go to the expansion tank, and the rest will go out into the system, which is ok because if it is in the system, it can be bled as long as there are bleed valves. Also, it allows the cold feed water to heat up before it enters the boiler, avoiding shock. I prefer to put the circulator pump on the return side, as well. I’ve had better luck with flow and pump life when the pump is pulling from the system, rather than pushing into the system. Gravity and convection play a part as well. Hot water naturally wants to rise, and this natural circulation helps the return side pump move water much easier than if the pump were on the supply side of the same system. If a pump must be installed on the supply side, I prefer to install it after the expansion tank. Also, as indicated by all of the X’s, install shut off valves wherever you can. It will save you a ton of time and hassle later on when a repair is required.

 

This is all my opinion, and is based on my personal experiences. However, if someone calls and asks me a boiler piping question, my first suggestion is to do whatever the manufacturer recommends. Most boiler installation literature shows diagrams on piping set up, and that is the baseline for installing a new boiler, and possibly diagnosing a flow issue. Some manufacturers show the circulator on the supply, some on the return, and some don’t care either way. If you follow the manufactures specs, to the tee, 99% of the time you won’t have a ton of issues with flow and boiler operation.

 

Bleeding air from systems is necessary from time to time. Some boiler systems are much easier to bleed if they are piped to allow air to be removed by automatic vents or go to radiators to be bled. On system drain down and refill, I will typically bleed air after filling the system, while it is still cold and no pumps are on. After that initial bleed, I turn the boiler and the pumps on and allow the boiler to heat up to operating temperature. Once it is hot, I shut everything off, boiler and pumps. This allows the air that may be traveling with the water to go up, either to higher radiators or bleed points. I bleed air, turn everything on again, turn it off, and repeat until all the air is out.

 

A lot of older boilers guys I have worked with only bleed air with the pumps running. I could never get a satisfactory answer as to why, and I have had much better luck bleeding air from a system with the pumps off. If you do things differently, and it works for you, that’s great. Again, most of this is my opinion based on my experiences, and there is more than one way to skin a cat. Also, increasing boiler system pressure while bleeding helps speed things up. Most automatic water feed valves are factory set to keep the pressure at 12 psi, which is a pretty standard pressure. If your system is 12- 15 psi, bumping it up to 20-25 psi will help speed up the bleeding process. Always make sure you aren’t exceeding the pressure rating of the relief valve if you increase system pressure to bleed. And don’t forget to bleed excess pressure off after you have completed.

 

Steam Piping :

A basic steam system is much simpler than a hot water system. The natural rising of the steam allows it to move through the system, so there is no need for a circulator pump to move steam. Steam is a vapor, so there is also no need to bleed air, and no need for an expansion tank on a basic steam system. However, piping pitch is much more crucial to this system. The piping must have pitch or fall to help the steam rise, and more importantly, to allow the condensate to flow back to the boiler. Level piping holds water, so it must have fallen. Also, a Hartford Loop is required to connect the supply and return. This is basically an equalizer to balance the pressure between the two sides of the system. Also, as part of the loop, the condensate return line connects 2’’ below the water level of the boiler. The loop is used to prevent water from leaving the boiler through the return if the pressure is lower than the supply, or if there were to be a leak on the return. This piping configuration was mandated by code for a long time as a prevention for low water conditions causing the boiler to dry fire. With the invention of more advanced low water protection devices, it isn’t required by code everywhere but still is a good idea. It allows added protection if the low water safeties were to fail.

 

Steam traps are integral to steam systems as well. A steam trap is a check/float valve that allows condensate to pass through and return to boiler while preventing steam from passing. Steam traps are locating on the return (outlet) side of steam heat exchangers, radiators, etc. The goal is to keep the steam in the radiator as long as needed for it condenses to liquid water, thereby releasing as much heat to the radiator as possible. Without steam traps, the steam would blow right through the radiator, and would not stay there long enough to properly heat it up.

                   Steam Trap

 

There are an infinite amount of piping configurations that you will run into of the course of a career, some much better than others. And certain situations dictate changes and configurations that may allow one system to work well, and the same configurations could cause a different system to function poorly. In short, every system is different, and a lot of times I am required to think outside of the box to make a poorly designed system work. But as mentioned at the beginning, if you have a basic understanding of how things are supposed to work, it makes diagnosing why it isn’t working a lot easier.

 

–Justin Skinner

 

This article is written by Senior Boiler Tech Justin Skinner. Thanks, Justin.


 

Oil burner nozzles are present in most forced combustion air burners. They are used, with an oil pump, to atomize fuel oil and allow it to burn. Atomizing is raising the pressure of the fuel and forcing it through the nozzle. The fuel comes out of the nozzle essentially vaporized. It is then mixed with air and burned. Nozzles are also used to meter the amount of fuel being used, and to vaporize the fuel in an efficient pattern suited to the burner chamber of whatever equipment it is installed on. If you work on burners, you have probably seen and changed out your fair share, as periodic nozzle replacement is necessary for clean and reliable burner operation. But there is more to nozzles than what meets the eye. Let’s take a closer look.

     The numbers on the nozzle tell us the specific rating of the nozzle, the spray pattern angle, and the spray pattern type. The nozzle listing here has a .75 GPM rating. That means the nozzle will spray .75 gallons per hour of fuel oil at 100 psi. Nozzles are generally rated at 100 psi, and that is the pressure that most residential style oil burners run at, but not all.  It also has an 80-degree spray angle. That is the angle at which the spray comes out of the nozzle. The smaller the angle, the more narrow the spray pattern. Think of a garden hose with a spray nozzle. If you squeeze the handle only a little, the spray comes out at a wider angle. This would be similar to a higher degree spray angle. As you squeeze the handle more, the outer edges of the water get closer together. A closer spray pattern would be a smaller angle. Larger spray angles are generally used for wider, shorter burner chambers, and smaller spray angles are used for narrower, shorter chambers.

 

The letter on the nozzle indicates the spray pattern. Different manufacturers use different letters for the same patterns, so we will use Delavan as the example, as it is the most common nozzle manufacturer I use. Patterns are designated as solid (B), hollow (A), and semi-solid (W). A solid nozzle indicates the vaporized oil is distributed evenly throughout the entire spray pattern. A hollow nozzle distributes more of the oil to the outer ring of the pattern, and a semi-solid is neither. W nozzles are typically considered a replacement for both A and B nozzles, although that is not also the best option. I prefer to replace nozzles with the type and pattern specified by the manufacturer, but late nights and on-call situations do not always allow it. Typically the nozzle is designed to fit the equipment and not the other way around, so using the correct nozzle can save you a lot of headaches and a sooty mess.

 

The pictures above show an exploded nozzle. The back portion is a very small particle filter. It is composed of thousands of bronze pellets fused together. This filter is easily clogged by gunk, so an in-line filter should be used to catch most of the fuel sludge and trash before it gets to the burner. After the filter, a slotted distributor is present. The pressure of the fuel from the pump causes the distributor to spin, and the oil increases velocity inside of the nozzle. The oil is forced through the head of the nozzle, which contains a small hole/tube. The sudden decrease from high velocity/pressure to atmospheric pressure through the tube causes the fuel to vaporize. Once the vaporized fuel leaves the nozzle, it is mixed with air at the burner head and is ignited if the fuel/air ratio is correct and the ignition source is strong enough. Nozzles are rebuildable if you need to in a pinch. But they are finely machined to exacting specs, and fairly inexpensive. So I would only try to rebuild a nozzle in an emergency situation.

 

Nozzle flow is rated in GPH @ 100 psi pressure. One gallon of #2 fuel oil contains approximately 140,000 (give or take a 1000 or 2). So a 1 GPM nozzle @ 100 psi is a 140,000 BTU burner input. If the burner efficiency is 80%, that means 20% of the fuel energy goes up the flue as unused energy. So a  1 GPM nozzle on an 80 % efficient burner is equal to around 112,000 BTU’s available from the fuel. But what if you need a 1 GPM nozzle, but you only have a .75 GPM nozzle available? Well, increasing the pump pressure above 100 psi can allow for the same amount of fuel input with a smaller nozzle.

 

As the chart above shows, the same nozzle flow rate can be achieved with a variety of nozzle GPM sizes and pump pressures. It’s not advised to change nozzle size or pump pressure during an inspection unless there are issues. It’s more to get you by until you can get back with the correct nozzle. Also, if you change the nozzle size or pump pressure outside of what the manufacturer recommends, make sure you note it on the equipment for the next tech who may go behind you. It’s also an option to downsize the nozzle GPM and increase the pump pressure for hard/smoky light-offs and shut downs. The higher velocity from the increased pump pressure allows for the complete vaporization of the fuel. This allows for a cleaner light off, cycle, and shut down.

–Justin Skinner

This article was written by senior furnace tech Benoît (Ben) Mongeau. Ben hails from the frozen tundra of Ontario, Canada where high efficiency gas furnaces are commonplace.

While some codes and practices may be different from the US I find that most of it is common sense and translates pretty well. One glaring difference between Canada and the USA is the requirement in Canada for specifically certified PVC or CPVC vent pipe. Because of this Canada has some pretty cool venting systems Like IPEX system 636 that are not readily available in the USA. I’m leaving all this in because there is already talk about making the change in the US so I bet it’s coming.


Venting for High efficiency Gas Furnaces –  Assembly

Here are some good venting practices.  (This is mostly stuff I learned during a training session from IPEX, one of the major manufacturers of plastic piping, with a little of my personal experience and tips)

First of all, venting must be planned in order to be sized properly.  Depending on the BTU rating, length, number of elbows in the run, the size will vary, typically in residential from 1½ to 3-inch pipe.  Every manufacturer has its own vent sizing charts.  Read the manual, don’t guesstimate.

Use the proper tools when installing plastic venting.  !!!Avoid using a sawzall or hacksaw to cut your lengths!!!: it creates a multitude of statically charged shavings that will stick to the inside wall of your pipe.  Once that condensate starts flowing, it will bring all those shavings to your drain and trap, blocking all those narrow passages and causing water backups, furnace failures, all kinds of things to piss off your service colleague who’s on call that night.  I highly recommend using a proper pipe cutter.  It is the best way to achieve a clean, straight cut.  The straighter and neater the cut, the more joining surface you have once you’re cementing it together.

vent pipe cutter and chamfer/deburring tool (REED venting solutions kit, which I highly recommend purchasing 

It is recommended to dry-fit the whole vent system before actually starting to cement joints together, just to be sure your lengths and angles are good.  Also, as mentioned in my condensate drainage tip, make sure the vent is sloped towards the furnace for the whole length.

Before applying cement, prepare the pipe ends by cleaning them up (wipe off any obvious dirt) and, most importantly, reaming them.  Use a proper reamer / chamfer tool (pictured with the cutter above).  This is a crucial step: if the pipe end is not reamed/deburred, the edge actually tends to slightly stick outwards, especially when cut with a proper cutter, ironically.  This will cause the pipe to push (I like to call it ‘’snow plowing’’) the cement at the bottom of the joint instead of letting it slip around the pipe, leaving large uncemented gaps in the structure of the joint and often causing leaks.  See comparative pictures of chamfer/un-chamfered pipe ends below.

 

Cut, not reamed /chamfered 636 PVC pipe

 

The same pipe end, reamed / chamfered and deburred  

Next, once all pipe ends are reamed and clean and ready for assembly, it’s time to start cementing.  Apply primer first if required, then apply the cement.  Don’t be shy, apply a generous coating around the whole joint surface of the pipe and fitting (yes, cement is applied on both the pipe and the fitting).  I recommend going around the pipe/fitting 3-4 times with the dabber/roller/brush to ensure a full coating.  Once both ends have cement applied, quickly (before it dries!) push them together, straight and all the way to the bottom of the joint, and as much as possible try to give the fitting a quarter-turn while assembling the joint to further evenly coat the entirety of the joining surface.  Very important: once you hit the bottom of the joint, hold the pressure for about 30 seconds (or longer) so the cement has time to set!  If you let go immediately, the still wet fitting and pipe will naturally pull back from each other and this can easily lead to leaks.  Wipe off any excess/runoff cement if necessary and proceed to the next joint.

Once assembled and when the cement has dried, as I mentioned before, the two pieces are basically welded together.  You cannot take them apart, so make sure your angles are correct, or you’ll have to cut it out and restart.

Support the pipe as necessary, per local codes/guidelines.  Support spacing usually varies depending on pipe size.  Avoid creating too much tension on the venting as it can lead to leaks/cracks.

 

Other tips:

  • Don’t leave your cement cans open longer than necessary.  The solvent part of the cement is quite volatile (evaporates easily) and as it evaporates, the viscosity of the cement will increase and it will get more difficult to use.  Once your cement has gelled (i.e. has a consistency very reminiscent of that of Jell-O) throw it out.  It is no good.  Keep an eye on your cement’s viscosity.  It should always be liquid, although with various degrees of thickness depending on the type, but NEVER jelly.
  • If a reducing fitting is used on your venting, always install it on a vertical portion, never horizontal, otherwise it will allow for condensate to pool in the vent.  Remember… slope for drainage!
  • Respect local guides and regulations and manufacturer’s specs regarding clearances when choosing where to terminate the venting outside.  Also, terminate the exhaust higher than the air intake (usually about 1ft minimum) if you are installing a sealed combustion system, to avoid recirculation of combustion products which can be quite disastrous.  Typically on a sidewall termination the air intake will be terminated with a downward-facing elbow and the exhaust will be snorkeled up, i.e. elbow up, 1ft pipe, then elbow out away from the wall.  There are also manufactured termination kits (concentric, for example) that are available and sometimes easier on the eye.  Make sure it’s certified, though!  Again, manuals will tell you if there are termination kits available and certified for use with the product.
  • Be careful to read install manuals for any specifics regarding the furnace you are installing.  There is often specific procedures for attaching the vent pipe to the cabinet’s internal exhaust fitting/flue collar etc. and it will vary from one manufacturer to the other.

— Ben

You can read the full IPEX 636 install instructions HERE

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