The tale of an oil hot-water boiler project and a hot head customer.
Looking over the new home plans in order to provide the builder with pricing, I noticed there was no chimney included. Way out in the country, where no natural gas was available and the owner had specified an oil hot-water Burnham boiler with Slant Fin Fine Line 30 baseboard and five zones for the 3,500-square-foot home. You best figure on placing the inside basement-level oil tank early on, rather than deal with cellar steps after framing would be complete. Have you ever regretted taking on a job because the owner turned out to be a major horse’s ass? This was that job.
Mr. Short Fuse was an extremely nasty character, and the mason was first to receive the full measure of Fuse’s wrath. Deer hunting season was upon us and, here in Pennsylvania, that’s an assumed right. More than a few future employees brought that up during their interviews and assured me they would quit if not given time off to go deer hunting. The mason told Fuse he was taking the next week off, and Fuse blew his top. The home was in the middle of farm fields with the only other house being Fuse’s father and mother. As we would soon learn, senior Fuse was every bit as nasty, so the poison fruit had not fallen far from the tree.
The mason said he would remain on the job if granted permission to hunt on the farm and Fuse agreed. That first morning of deer season, the mason bagged a huge 8-point buck and was field-dressing the deer when senior Fuse came running screaming across the street “You shot Bob!” Turned our senior Fuse fed the deer and had become quite fond of the now-deceased Bob. A short while later, Fuse came down the lane at about 80 MPH, skidded to a screeching stop, bailed out and proceeded to tell the mason he was fired and wasn’t going to be paid. Fuse peeled out and went back to his factory. The mason was mighty mad and got into his big old beater of a truck, threw it into reverse and knocked down the block walls! So there.
What goes around…
We knew our turn would come at some point, and the first backside chewing came when some cinderblock debris got on top of the oil tank. The bungs were still in all the top ports, so none of the debris was able to get into the tank, but Fuse demanded we provide a new tank. Fortunately, our technician on site told him that wasn’t happening, so Fuse went crazy and lit into me once I arrived on site. There are any number of ways to deal with crazy bullies, and had he not been the homeowner, well, let’s just say he would have been hurting. The best way to deal with idiots like Fuse is to let them exhaust themselves, and when he ran out of nasty things to say, I just said no, that’s not happening. Fuse said we were fired, but I explained that I wasn’t working for him and only the builder could fire us. I thought his head would explode! The builder refused to fire us.
Today, of course, we have electronic combustion analyzers that display these numbers in real time so you can fine-tune combustion for peak efficiency.
When the roof shingles were being installed, it was a scorching hot day, and Fuse’s wife, who was as nice as he was nasty, offered the roofing crew some iced tea, which they gladly accepted. When Fuse came home for lunch, a daily event that caused everyone to cringe, he discovered his beloved ice tea was all gone. When she told him about giving it to the roofers, Fuse called her names that cannot be printed here, but we were all convinced he was going to physically smack her around. Maybe he did later on after we all left, but not while the various work crews were present.
No chimney and an oil hot-water boiler? No problem because Tjernlund makes rock-solid outstanding draft fans for applications like this, and we carefully selected an appropriate exit point where the prevailing winds would safely carry away the byproducts of combustion. Naturally, Fuse nixed out the exit location and insisted we install the exhaust termination in an exterior alcove where I knew the combustion exhaust would swirl around impacting the three brick walls. If you work with oil burners, you know that you shoot for #1 smoke or trace of smoke. CO2 and O2 numbers ensure you are on the correct side of the stoichiometric scale, which means you will be measuring for excess air to minimize CO (carbon monoxide) production. As soon as you cross over into the air-starved fuel-rich side of the scale, CO production runs rampant and presents a real danger.
Today, of course, we have electronic combustion analyzers that display these numbers in real-time so you can fine-tune combustion for peak efficiency and, again, in compliance with the manufacturer’s installation and operation manual. I’ll get back to you on how that worked out for Fuse’s location on the exhaust.
Fuse grew up across the street in a century-old stone home with two-foot-thick walls with no insulation, and old wood sash hand-made glass single-pane windows. He chose hot water baseboard heating because that’s what he grew up with. Can you guess where this was headed? After performing a Manual-J calculation on a room-by-room basis, I knew the Btu heat loss (and gain for the central air system) for each room, and with an average water temperature that would be delivered, it was a simple matter to use the Slant Fin chart to determine how many feet of Fine Line 30 baseboard would be needed in each room.
Just to be on the safe side, because wind can suck Btu out of a home, I added 10% to the length of baseboard in every room. Perfect ending, right? Wrong! You see, while Fuse was at the dentist getting his teeth cleaned, he expressed a concern to the good doctor that his new home’s baseboard did not cover every inch of his exterior walls — as it did in his daddy’s home. The dentist, being an expert in hydronic heating, told Fuse he was being ripped off and the heating would never keep them warm. Guess where Fuse went right after leaving his dentist’s office? Screaming and yelling at me and demanding I completely redo the entire system. I showed him my detailed heat loss calculations — he didn’t care. I showed him my math on determining the linear feet of baseboard, and that I’d provided 10% excess — he didn’t care. I arranged for outside independent experts to meet on-site and they agreed that my calculations were correct. Of course, Fuse made it crystal clear I’d be sued out of existence if the home failed to heat comfortably.
While I never fielded a complaint about the heating (or cooling and plumbing), I did get summoned back a few months later. Fuse had me join him at the alcove to see, first hand, that his new light-colored bricks had soot on them. Irate doesn’t even come close, and when I reminded him he had been forewarned this would happen, he pretty much had another of his infamous meltdowns. I had him join me in the basement where I performed another combustion analysis and pointed out, in the Burnham I&O manual, that we were spot-on. That still did not satisfy the man, so I asked engineer Gary Hayden at Burnham (now U.S. Boiler) if he would be willing to meet with us on-site to talk with Fuse, which Hayden did and that was the end of that kerfuffle.
A few months later, while at a supply house function, a young upstart who had recently gone off to start his own PHVAC firm, approached me and gleefully told me he had stolen one of my customers. When he told me it was Fuse, I broke out laughing, and he wanted to know what was so funny. I explained that he would soon know why and told him he had done me a huge favor. I saw him a few months later and asked him how he was getting along with Fuse, and if he wanted me to refer any more customers like Fuse his way. Let’s just say he was much more humble going forward, and, no, please do not send anyone even remotely like Fuse his way.
This article is also available at: https://www.pmmag.com/articles/103872-dave-yates-column-no-chimney-no-problem