When a Radiant-Heating System Goes Wrong

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Marianne and I were at the 5 PM mass last Saturday. We like going to that mass because it allows us to be lazy in bed with newspapers and coffee on Sunday mornings. We've been going to this church since we moved to our town on the Isle of Long in 1977. Back then the church building had steam heat. It was an old Warren-Webster system, with big, bold radiators around the perimeter of the building. It would call to me each week through ticking and hammering, and all through the mass my mind would wander toward the work that screamed to be done, but churches are notorious for having no money for repairs. And besides, I was never going to be the one to suggest what to do. One of the Golden Rules of Hydronic Heating is that you should never volunteer to work on heating systems owned by your friends, family, or your church. No matter how good you are, these systems will never work once you touch them. This is because you are probably working for free, and with the best of intentions.

So I kept my mouth shut for years and listened to the ticking and knocking and banging, and I'd look over at the old radiator traps that hadn't seen a wrench since the installer went home in 1924, and the supply valves without handles and then I'd sigh. And Marianne, she knew what I was doing, and she would nudge me with her elbow and shake her head.

Now the Redemptorists have this rule. Every six years the pastor has to move, and that's how we came to get this little ball of energy named Father Ray. He arrived with a mandate and a passion to rebuild the old church building, turning it into something that generations to come would be proud of. This, of course, would cost a fortune, but that shouldn't be a problem because residents of the Isle of Long are known for their zeal, spirit, and generosity. And the parishioners of his parish shouldn't mind going deeply into debt through the pledges they would make. And that's just what happened.

But his plan was so wonderful. The church building would transform itself into a glorious cruciform, branching out on both sides and gobbling up half of the parking lot in the process (ever watch a bunch of Catholics leaving a crowded parking lot after mass?). We're Spreading Our Wings! became the slogan and we all anteed up for it. Father Ray hired an architect and a general contractor and work began. It took more than a year to complete the project, and we went to mass in the school auditorium during that time. I watched the building and wondered about the heating system that would replace the Warren-Webster, but I knew enough to keep my mouth shut and not to ask questions. It would be what it would be.

When the church finally reopened its doors we were delighted by what we saw. It was magnificent and worth the investment. Parishioners ogled the windows and the beautiful ceiling; I looked for radiators.

There were none. There were, however, registers. We now had central air conditioning, which was a blessing, and I assumed that there were hot-water coils in the ducts. That would be the least expensive system to install. I sighed and went back to praying, and I waited for winter.

It arrived in a hurry that year, and one Saturday evening, Marianne and I bundled up and headed off to the 5 o'clock mass. The moment we walked through the front door of the church I knew that we had radiant floor heating. I could sense it and I was astonished. Father Ray had really gone modern. There was a quiet comfort about the place. We knelt and then sat and I took off my right shoe and felt around the floor. It was radiant for sure! My foot found the buried tube right away. Marianne gave me the elbow and I put my shoe back on.

I later learned from the heating contractor that, although the church building now had twice as much space, the heating bill was half of what it used to be. I didn't see the records, and I don't know if the contractor was blowing smoke, but I wanted to believe the numbers. They were too nice not to believe.

I did notice one thing, though; they still opened the windows during winter mass. They did this because the place got hot whenever the congregation arrived. I didn't notice this right away, mostly because I didn't want to believe that it was too hot. A devote Wet Head's mind is funny that way. We sometimes deny sensation in favor of the party line. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

Now Marianne is of an age where ambient temperature plays a significant role in her life. In church, she likes to sit by an open window. So do many of the other women in the parish. We were cutting the fuel bills through the glories of hydronic radiant heating, but we were still opening the windows. The place was too hot. Hotter, in fact, than it had been when we had the Warren-Webster steam system.

One day my phone rang and it was Father Ray. He introduced himself and my stomach churned. We are a large parish, and up until that day I had managed to avoid a one-on-one with Father Ray because of the Golden Rule of Hydronic Heating. "Mr. Holohan," Father Ray said, "the heating contractor who installed our new radiant heating system told me that you are an expert in radiant heating, and that you have even written a book about this, and that you have a popular website that helps people solve their heating problems. I need your help."

I abandoned all hope.

Could I stop by and figure out why the place was so bloody hot? And how could I say no without going to hell?

Catholic guilt runs deep.

I went, of course, and I found a two-pipe, primary-secondary system with crossover bridges in the crawlspaces. The mains ran up the sides of the church building, and self-contained, three-way mixing valves tempered the water to the radiant circuits. Each mixing valve was locked on a set temperature. It didn't matter what the temperature was outside. These were all set for the worst case.

There were several boilers, each piped on secondary circuits to the primary main. The boiler connections to the primary circuit were reversed (supply first, return second), which caused much of the hot boiler water to enter the primary and then flow right back into the boiler return, short-cycling the burners.

And someone had cut the wires to the outdoor-air sensor, so the system thought it was serving Our Lady of Antarctica parish.

The best part was that I had invited my buddy, Al Levi, to accompany me. Al ran an oil company at the time, and I figured that if I was working for free on a job that couldn't possibly work out right (because of the Golden Rule), maybe I could get my friend Al some new oil business from Father Ray. It would also help if Father Ray had a service company that wouldn't sever control wiring and pipe boilers backwards. No dice, though. Father Ray thought Al's price was too high. Go figure.

One Saturday night during a recent January the weather was particularly warm. We'd been having a mild winter on the Isle of Long, and the windows in the church were once again cracked open. In spite of this, the place was still as hot as a furnace, and this was years after Al and I paid our visit to the crawl spaces and backwards boiler room. As far as I know, nothing has changed expect the pastor. Father Ray is gone and so is the pastor who followed Father Ray. We now have Father John, who, blessedly, sees me as just another potato in the pot.

Marianne mentioned how warm it was in the church that Saturday night in January, and it was. Once you get a massive concrete slab warm it stays warm for a very long time, especially when it's piped and controlled like this one is.

There was a commotion on the other side of the church as we stood for the final blessing. An elderly woman slumped into the pew and someone dialed 911. We waited for the ambulance and she seemed okay. Probably just overcome by the heat because it was that hot. A doctor would know for sure.

It made me long for Mr. Warren and Mr. Webster.


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