The Redflash Reckoning
In this episode, Dan Holohan tells a story about a mansion with two Ideal Redflash boilers, each with a rating of 500,000 Btuh.
Back when our business was new, and before I had written any books, I was making my living doing seminars and consulting with building owners about their heating problems. I would go to their home or apartment building, look for the problem, and write a report. I didn’t do any of the actual work; I just told them what was wrong and what they should do from there.
One day, the new owner of a beautiful old house that was about six times the size of my house got in touch with me and told me of his frustration. Every 10 days or so, a fuel-oil truck that was the size of Saudi Arabia rumbled up his street. The driver would stop, pull a long hose that was as thick as my thigh up to their oil tank’s fill pipe, plug in, and whistle as the oil gushed from the truck to the tank. The new homeowner hated this man.
So he hired me to see what I had to say about him saving some fuel dollars. He was open to any suggestion. Should he stick with oil, or should he switch to gas? Should he keep the boilers he had, or get new ones? Should he have the whole system repiped? Should he burn down the house? What to do?
I met him at his house, which was slightly smaller than Versailles. The oil truck was there. He asked me what I wanted to do first and I suggested we take a tour of the place, mostly because I’m nosey and never pass on an opportunity to see a grand old house.
We went from room to room and I gawked. The place had gravity hot-water heat and any of the old, cast-iron radiators could have held a hot-air balloon in place. It was a classic.
“Can we go to the basement?” I asked.
“Sure,” he said.
“Wait ‘til you see these boilers.”
“You have more than one?”
“Yes, there are two,” he said. “And they’re big.”
“And they’re connected to that oil truck,” I stated.
“Yes,” he said. “There is that.”
When we got to the basement, my legs suddenly stopped working because this place had horizontal mains made from eight-inch, screwed pipe. You ever see eight-inch screwed pipe? Trust me; it’s bigger than eight inches. I stood there with my mouth open, thinking that there was once a day in America when someone lifted those bulky hunks of iron and caught a thread. Who was that guy? What sort of wrenches did he own? Where the heck did he stand? I figured it was either Popeye or Bluto who did this job. Maybe both of them. There were, afterall, two boilers.
I was getting all sentimental and sloppy over my jaunt through time and the Saturday cartoons when the homeowner gently reminded me about those boilers, so we walked a while through the basement and that’s when I came upon the two Ideal Redflash boilers. Once again, my legs stopped working. These two had once burned coal, but were now connected to the monster oil truck out there. Each had a rating of 500,000 Btuh, and both were firing.
These beasts, each of which was the size of a minivan, now had tons of sand where the coal grates used to be. The burners, each bigger than the Fourth of July, hung from the doors and belched fire deeply into the bowels of those boilers. We could have toasted rye bread on the jackets. I shut off the burners and carefully opened the door of one of the beasts. You could yodel in this boiler and get an echo. You could cremate your spouse in this boiler and no one would ever know. You’d probably get a No. 10 smoke for a few minutes, but other than that, you’d be fine. Seriously.
“Has anyone done a heat-loss calculation on the house?” I asked the homeowner.
“Yes,” he said. “The salesman from the oil company did one.”
“Yeah, it didn’t take him long,” the homeowner said.
“Did he go from room to room and measure the walls and windows and whatnot?” I asked. “Did he check the attic?”
“No,” the homeowner said. “He just wrote down what was on the two labels and then gave me this quote.” He took a sheet of paper from his folder. The quote was for a single boiler, rated at 1,300,000 Btuh.
“One boiler?” I said.
“Yes, the salesman claimed that it’s crazy to have two boilers. He told me that there would be twice as much stuff to break down. He also said he was positive that this was the right size for the house because these two boilers have been here for all these years, and they’ve served the house well. After all this time, they must be right. That’s what he said.”
“But he’s quoting 300,000 Btus over the total load of both boilers,” I said.
“I know,” the homeowner said. “The salesman mentioned that it’s an old house, so it never hurts to have a little bit extra.”
So I did what the salesman should have done, which was a heat-loss calculation. That’s the only way we were ever going to find out the current heat loss of this house. Anything less is just guessing.
And here’s what we learned: The total load for the house on the coldest day of the year was 375,000 Btuh. Guess what. That second boiler was a stand-by. Why was it firing all the time? My guess is that a service tech had turned them both on one day and they stayed turned on. From there, the abnormal just became the normal. It happens all the time.
The homeowner decided to fire the oil company, which didn’t surprise me. “They see my house as a vending machine,” he said. So that was that.
I made him a sketch of how I’d like to see all the main gravity lines tied together into a primary loop, with the two boilers as a secondary loop, each loop would have its own circulator.
“Stop by a local supply house and ask them if they have in stock four, eight-inch-screwed by two-inch-sweat reducers,” I said. “And don’t take no for an answer. They’ll try to jerk you around because you’re just a homeowner. They’ve got them somewhere back in the warehouse. They just won’t want to go look for them.”
I mean, who would say that to a homeowner?
So with the supply-and-return gravity mains connected (with flanges and copper tubing, not reducers), I sketched how to use two boilers, with a combined load of 375,000 Btuh, on secondary circuits. I included a couple of bypass lines so the flue gasses wouldn’t condense. (This tale goes back to the days before we had condensing boilers, otherwise, I would have suggested those. Condensing boilers just love those old, high-volume systems.)
He had a local contractor install all of this and I followed up with him during the following winter. Most of the time, he ran just one of his new, relatively tiny, boilers, which is better than short-cycling a single 1,300,000 Btu boiler all day long and on into the night. Right?
So here’s the big question: What do you think cost the oil company that account, and the contract for the new boilers?
I think it was laziness. The salesman didn’t want to take the time to do what a professional should always do when replacing a hot-water boiler. You have to do a proper heat-loss calculation. The salesman must have figured that if he went to the trouble of doing the calculation, and then didn’t get the job, he would have wasted his time. And besides, he probably was looking at that house as an oil vending machine. But you can see where that got him.
Thing is, I’d been telling this story at seminars for decades, and contractors still come to me during the break to argue. They say they can’t afford to do heat-loss calculations on every job. It takes too much time. They’ll go by the label on the old boiler. That’s how they do it. I was making them feel guilty. I have no idea what they’re up against. I should stop telling that story.
I’ll mention to those guys that a proper heat-loss calculation will nearly always give them a smaller boiler than one you size by the Label Method. And that smaller boilers mean a lower bottom line, and more signatures on the dotted line. They’ll argue with me about that too. It takes too long to do. They don’t have the time.
“So how’s business?” I’ll ask.
“It sucks,” they’ll say. “People are cheapskates.”
And this is why I majored in Sociology and not Engineering when I went to college in my thirties. This business is all about people. And people do the strangest things.
I hope you liked that tale, and if you did, please share it with your friends. And if you haven’t already, please subscribe to this podcast. I have many more Dead Men Tales to share with you, and I appreciate the time you spend with me. Thanks.