Heating Equipment Troubleshooting Synopsis

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So you have received a “no heat call.“ When you arrive at the clients home what steps does one take to find the problem? Believe it or not the vast majority of no heat calls are usually minor in nature, such as a switch turned off or the circuit breaker has blown, perhaps a blocked chimney or combustion air intake.  On a boiler system a lack of adequate system water pressure or even a frosted up combustion air intake is often overlooked. In the case of a furnace it could be an igniter, flame sensor or a tripped limit, spill switch or a plugged filter.
Troubleshooting techniques are much too complex to explain in a short blog and more often than not best learned by hands on experience. Preferably while accompanied by an experienced service technician.

Trouble shooting problems with older boilers or furnaces were easier to learn,  pick up on and retain. This older heating equipment had less controls other than basic gas proving, rollout or spill switches, high and operating temperature limit controls.  Newer high efficiency boilers and furnaces have both safety and operating controls included in their design and or programmable logic. Most of these modern boilers and furnaces could indicate fault codes which makes troubleshooting easier.
Codes are shown for most common component failures ie. Igniters, flame probes, limit failures etc.

Service technicians whether they are plumbing or heating specialists, need to use peripheral vision while servicing plumbing or heating equipment in a clients home.  What I mean by that statement, is to take the time to have a look around the mechanical room they are working in for other signs of potential problems. You are not doing your clients any justice by keeping the blinders on and merely focusing on the original problem at hand. Many times I have picked up other potentially serious issues the homeowners were unaware of.  In many cases, while pointing these things out to the client, not only does it catch them by surprise it makes you look professional in their eyes. And it gives them the impression that you as a heating service technician, truly care about the condition of heating equipment in your customer’s homes. By noticing these small and seemingly insignificant problems that can become a much larger and potentially costly concern down the road, it also gives the homeowners more value for the service call which adds up to repeat business in the future. In many cases I offer the client a free inspection of other hvac or plumbing fixtures that may be in the home.

Many of us technicians have often misdiagnosed a problem we had been sent to fix. Often for me, the piece of equipment was not acting up at the time of the initial visit. This has often frustrated me to no end. In the eyes of the customer it appears you do not know your job or that the company sent an inexperienced person.
I have been confused on the odd occasion when the symptom merely did not show itself during my initial visit. This usually means you will need to return when the problem recurs. Equipment troubleshooting can be complex as there are many parts making it all work. For me anyway, I begin a slow methodical process of elimination. Sometimes talking to the client helps in that they may offer some insight into the symptoms or when exactly the problem shows itself.
It can be frustrating if you allow this piece of equipment to confound you. In most cases if your diagnostic methods are sound and proven, then you will eventually have no problem figuring out the issue at hand. I have personally worked with technicians who merely guessed at what the problem was and began replacing component after component only to discover this did not fix the problem.
I am not able to explain to the inexperienced technician how to properly diagnose or repair a problem, unless I am there on the job with him, helping him through the whole process of elimination. Believe me it can be tedious and frustrating if you allow it to get to you.

Proper diagnosis usually means fewer callbacks. Callbacks are costly for numerous reasons, a return trip at no charge, a question or two of doubt from your client, as well as lost production time as you could well have been dispatched to another paying job. No matter how good of a technician we are, nor how many years of experience we have or our determination to properly diagnose the problem correctly the first time, this is not always possible. As there will be the odd time as I said before where the symptom or symptoms failed to rear it’s ugly head. So rather than look foolish I talk to the customer and explain that for some strange reason the piece of equipment is acting quirky. But should the problem recur, assure the customer that the problem will be solved in short order and at the minimal cost possible. Both the technician and the customer have to work together, rather than butt heads, if the situation is to be rectified in a timely and cost effective manner.

Mistakes happen, and as techs we have all made one a time or two, and to make it right usually means giving the customer a monetary break on the charges. If a tech ever claims to know it all, or claims he as NEVER made a mistake then he is full of proverbial crap, and that is no understatement. We never know it all, there is always something to learn as the equipment technology is constantly changing, sometimes quicker than we can keep up with. Hence the need for recurring training. Boiler service, boiler repair, boiler maintenance skills are improved and refined with experience. The same goes for any piece of heating or plumbing equipment. But persistence pays off in the long run.

I personally strive to better my knowledge on the equipment I work with, read the numerous trade publications and of course take any courses offered by the equipment manufacturers. As they are the best source of knowledge on new trends and technology. But there is nothing better than years of on the job training to obtain a wealth of knowledge.

I do not believe a day ever goes by where I have not learned something new. Even with now 20 or so years experience, the day I decide to stop learning is the day I had best hang up the trade tools and retire. And never be afraid to ask for technical help from a peer, your service manager or the equipment representative or manufacturer as their insights may serve you well on that job and down the road.

James Rolfe, Calgary Hydronics Solutions

James Rolfe has been in the plumbing and heating industry for 20+ years, working in the Calgary, Alberta, Canada area. After having worked for numerous plumbing and heating contractors over the years James went out on his own in 2009 to form his own company primarily to specialize in Hydronics. From the design stage to final system commissioning he enjoys the challenge of properly designed and installed hydronic heating systems. His bread and butter so to speak is in the service and repair field. Calgary Hydronics Solutions install about 8 to 10 new systems annually, most in the retro fit market. The bulk of our business is repair, maintenance, hydronic system consultation, evaluations and system upgrades. James emphasizes energy efficiency in all hydronic installations which includes proven and reliable equipment choices for installation and repair. James enjoys the opportunity to compile blogs based on his observations and experiences in the Hydronic and HVAC industry. He welcomes any comments or feedback from others in the industry and any opportunity to answer questions. James can be reached at 403-796-4768 or at jamesrolfe@calgaryhydronicssolutions.com




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