Assembling prior columns, updating older information, along with some new content for the four eBooks has been an interesting review of my 48-years as a mechanical contractor. It also reveals my progression from black hair to mostly gray — marking the passage of time!
Looking back, it seems heating was in my future from very early on, and starting at the advanced age of 6, I was allowed to tag along with my Pop-Pop who owned a Westinghouse appliance store. Not only did Roy H. Gorman service the appliances, TVs and radios sold in his store, he also installed new electrical services and boilers. Saint Claire, Pennsylvania, was in the heart of the anthracite coal region, and their home, as well as his customers’ homes, were heated with coal-fired boilers.
When I turned 8, Pop-Pop would let me help with hands-on experience. Customers would bring in tubes from their appliances, and he had a huge tube tester with ports for every size, shape and matching voltage, which I became adept at using. But the thing I enjoyed most was helping him on heating service and repair calls. Cleaning out the ash pits became a way for me to earn some pocket money. Looking back, the boilers were simplistic, low efficiency and easy to repair and maintain.
Fast forward to 1972 when I began my trades career. Boilers and furnaces were low efficiency, and 56% to 70% AFUE was considered to be moderate to high efficiency. In reality, we did not yet know the term AFUE because it wasn’t until 1975 when ASHRAE (American Society of Heating, Refrigeration, and Air-conditioning Engineers) developed the standards for SEER, EER, HSPF and AFUE, which were detailed in President Gerald Ford’s Energy Policy and Conservation act in 1975. As Captain Barbosa said in “The Pirates of the Caribbean,” “The Code is more what you’d call guidelines than actual rules.” So these new guidelines for energy efficiency were just that: Voluntary guidelines! No teeth meant no changes in AFUE.
A little history on efficiency standards
In 1979, I struck out on my own to pursue the American Dream. Ironically, that included a return to my roots because a friend who sold Eshland coal boilers hired me to do the installations. Some of the larger models held more than 120 pounds of coal and held full output at stated ratings for three days — or longer in milder weather. Dang things weighed as much as an army tank and were often installed on farms, so the farmers often assisted with tractors to handle the weight as we lowered them down exterior stairwells. To this day I can recall that pure coal, which doesn’t exist in nature, holds 1,440 Btu per pound. I had to learn all about coal because I ended up testifying as an expert witness a few years later in a case where a coal boiler manufacturer’s literature was, to put it mildly, completely false regarding operating efficiency and Btu output over a stated range of hours. Our client was awarded full judgment.
At one of our plumbing association meetings in 1977, the guest speaker brought along his invention for upgrading the operating efficiency of any furnace, be it oil or gas. Essentially a scrubber, it consisted of a hot water coil to be installed in the return plenum, a tee to install on the flue gas outlet (before the draft diverter), a box that contained a water chamber with pump to circulate water to/from the hot water coil, and an opening where the flue was to be connected. Inside the flue riser, there was an injector for water to be pumped through an oil burner nozzle. The expanding cone of water spray created a Venturi affect that would draw all or a portion of the flue exhaust, which scrubbed the heat energy. The resulting hot water was circulated to the coil and the now cooled exhaust was to be piped to the exterior using plastic piping. My calculation revealed we were now operating at 94% AFUE!
Its main drawbacks were cost, and it was very noisy. I would see this incorporated into an experimental boiler I beta tested for a boiler manufacturer in the early 2000s. When I saw it in their R&D lab, I remarked how similar it was to my 1970s scrubber. Turned out it was the same inventor who persuaded the boiler manufacturer to incorporate it into an experimental model.
On Oct. 1, 1977, President Jimmy Carter enacted the Department of Energy Organization Act, which birthed the U.S. Department of Energy. However, the DOE failed to come up with minimum standards and, as a result, mass confusion reigned with individual states mandating efficiency standards (no longer mere guidelines).
Imagine being a manufacturer of HVAC equipment and dealing with operating efficiencies being different from one state to another! Manufacturers had to resort to suing the DOE for its failure to enact efficiency standards as was mandated in the 1975 Energy Policy and Conservation Act. Their suit was successful, which led to the first mandated efficiencies in 1978. It wasn’t until 1987 that Congress passed the NAECA (National Appliance Energy Conservation Act). The minimum AFUE for furnaces was 78%, which seems laughable looking back in time compared to today’s furnace and hot water boiler EFUE ratings that both can achieve 99%.
In the mid-1980s we saw AFUE reach into the low 80% range, and suddenly we were confronted with a new phenomenon — flue gas condensation. Although not common, it wasn’t unusual during cold weather to see a wet or frosted chimney outline on exterior walls of row homes as condensation from flue gasses seeped into the unlined brick chimneys. One that still stands out in my memory was a three-apartment row home where the landlord, as was becoming increasingly popular, had installed a separate boiler for each apartment. The end result was occasional low stack temperatures as boilers cycled on/off rather than one larger boiler maintaining an elevated stack temperature. All of the 28-gauge flue pipes were rotted through, and the occupants were in danger from CO poisoning.
In many cases, retrofit power flue gas exhaust systems had to be installed to sidewall vent the boilers or furnaces. That rendered the chimney vastly oversized for the water heater(s), and they too had to be outfitted with powered exhaust or replaced with direct-vent models.
We older folks can recall Jimmy Carter’s push for installing programmable thermostats, and his 10/10/10 suggestion that setting back the heating 10° for 10 hours would save 10% in operating costs. He suggested thermostats should be set no higher than 65° F, to wear a sweater while setting the heat back to 55° when sleeping or away from home and cooling set no lower than 78° with a corresponding 88° set up. Bear in mind, this was during the oil crisis time period, and Carter was striving to reduce oil consumption. Many followed his suggestion and we were installing lots of programmable thermostats. Commercial buildings had mandated limits on heating and cooling temperatures while residential was voluntary. The end result was oil consumption dropped by 300,000 barrels a day. President Ronald Reagan nixed Carter’s mandate for energy conservation.
In the 1980s, 92% high efficiency condensing furnaces became available, and our foray into selling energy conservation began in earnest. The first models often had “complications” that bit us pretty hard in our wallets as business owners. Some had premature end of lifespan, which cost us some customers, but we stayed the course and condensing furnaces became very reliable.
Then came ISH, the major trade show held in Frankfurt, Germany, every two years. Modulating condensing boilers and ECM circulators that I saw opened my eyes to energy conservation issues on both the fuel and electrical energy consumption. Viessmann arrived in the USA and Heat Transfer Products developed the Munchkin with a much lower price-point. Many of our customers opted for the Munchkin, as you’ll see in my eBook stories and pictures. Unfortunately, few of the Munchkins survived beyond 10 years. Today, virtually every boiler, furnace and tankless water heater manufacturer has modulating condensing models. Although still available, the price-point between 92% and 95% efficiency condensing furnaces has narrowed to a point where I can’t remember the last time we installed a 92% furnace, or, for that matter, an 84% efficiency model. For us, 95% became the norm long ago. The same thing can be said with regard to modulating condensing hot water boilers with 95% efficiency being the majority of our installations.
Which brings me to consider what’s going to become the norm in future years. Here are my predictions:
- Wi-Fi connectivity with PHVAC equipment will be standard. That’s already underway;
- On-board diagnostics will alert you and the property owner before an issue causes a breakdown. No more blinking light-codes because the appliance will talk to you in whatever language you prefer or send you a text or an email;
- You will no longer need a combustion analyzer, as equipment will automatically adjust for optimum combustion. This too is on its way sooner rather than later;
- Safety will be enhanced because a CO leak will result in a hard lockout;
- Chimneys will no longer be needed;
- Flame rods and igniters will be obsolete and replaced by light beams that can be hot enough to cause ignition and read flame conductivity;
- Technology will advance to a point where no heat-energy remains in combustion gasses and will cool flue gas below surrounding ambient air temperature rendering 99% AFUE as yesterday’s technology;
- PVC will be outlawed for venting combustion byproducts (short-term) and newer plastics will join polypropylene for venting combustion byproducts;
- Infrared sensors will make the thermostat obsolete;
- Circulators will become obsolete with hydronic flow electrically induced to any flow required;
- Fossil fuels will be replaced by alternate fuel sources that cost less to operate and no venting to atmosphere will be required. We’ve already seen this with high-efficiency VRF (variable refrigerant flow) mini-split heat pumps, although their lifespan leaves much to be desired at this time. I’m referring to furnaces, boilers and water heaters;
- The DOE, if they still exist, will grow a pair and raise the bar regarding minimum operating efficiencies;
- Water-based heating products will include onboard water conditioning and filtration. Steam boilers will no longer rot out at the water line due to changes in manufacturing; and
- Plumbers and HVAC workers will be held in reverence and handsomely paid for the societal benefits their essential work provides.