Sunday, December 23, 2012

Wood Stove Is Off - That's A Good Thing

Our heating system has been a problem for a while now.  Our plumber had been out here way too often trying to figure it out.  He changed this, added that.  We got a new water heater.  But we were still having trouble.  When we got back from a trip early November, our house sitter only 12 hours out of the house, it was in the 40s F in the house and I couldn't get the boiler to fire up.  The pilot was on, but the rest wouldn't kick in.

Our old wood stove saved us that night and the plumber managed to get it working the next day.  But the waterheater kept showing ERR3 - which meant it wasn't getting hot water fast enough.

For a while, when we got ERR3, we could flip the switch that turned off the electricity and turn it on again, but it was happening more and more frequently.  During the film festival I was regularly coming home to a chilly house.

The plumber was out several more times to tweak this and that.  The last thing he did for us was lock the air vent open, "if it is closed, the heat won't fire up."
Jon Replacing Pilot Assembly

Yes, I was beginning to wonder if he actually knew what he was doing.  I didn't know anything about heating systems (I know a bit more now) but I do know about problem solving and his method didn't seem right to me.  Rather than thinking about the whole system and then identifying the possible problems and testing to eliminate the false leads, he seemed to be just trying this and that. Maybe he was just a poor communicator and he was really thinking a lot, but I don't think so.

Here's an example of not thinking beyond the immediate situation.  He was replacing the water heater.  He complained that there was a pipe placed so that you couldn't get the water heater out without taking the pipe off first.  When he got the new water tank in place, instead of redesigning the piping to leave an opening for the water heater, he just put it back the way it had already been.  When I asked about that, it was clear he hadn't even thought about it.  He said, 'Yeah, I could have done that, but I just wanted to finish the job.'  Later, when he had to play with that pipe again to put a pump on it, I suggested making the change while he was at it and he did.

So, a week ago today, flipping the switch after ERR3 wouldn't get the furnace to fire up.  I knew the plumber was closed on Sundays, but I left a message and started the wood stove again.  We caught it before the house had cooled down, so we were able to keep the house relatively comfy with the wood stove.

New pilot assembly going in

When I called the plumber Monday, they hadn't gotten the voice message.  When I expressed some concern about the tech who'd been playing with our boiler all this time and how he didn't seem to be getting to the heart of the problem, the message came back through the receptionist from the owner that if I wasn't happy with the tech, maybe I should find someone else to work on it.

Really.  That was the message.  I'd already been getting to that decision.  The company had come well recommended from a contractor friend, so I had given them the benefit of the doubt.

Jon taking off old gas valve

I called a friend who'd recently had a new heating system installed and got a name of another company that had 'Heating' in the name.

Jon would come out the next afternoon.  The wood stove was keeping us warm and we had plenty of dry wood.  Plus, the furnace had finally kicked in again when I flipped the switch (I'd been doing that with no result, but kept trying.)

Jon and I talked when he got here.  He asked me questions and finally said that it could be one of two things:

1.  The pilot assembly or
2.  The gas valve

Since the pilot assembly was cheaper, he tried that first.

We went twenty four hours before we got ERR3.  Flipping the switch got the heat back on. Called them back and Jon was out that afternoon with a gas valve.

It's been 48 hours now with no problems.  I'm waiting for two weeks before I declare a victory.  But I did let the wood stove burn out and cleaned out the ashes.  It was a wonderful heat that came from the stove and it could go all night on two logs.

Reconnecting gas pipe
Jon was a great technician.  He was thinking about this problem holistically and took the clues and narrowed it down to two possibilities.  But the parts were pretty expensive - the gas valve was $443.  And for this post when I tried to look it up to be sure my terminology was ok, I've found the part online for $161.  Even if the shipping cost me $40, that's a 100% markup.

So, I hope this might be of help to others.  While heating systems are reasonably complex with their mix of mechanical and electronic equipment, they aren't all that complicated and people who work with them should be able to solve the problems fairly quickly.

Screenshot form Pex Supply
And, if you (I'm thinking about people living in Alaska) can wait a week, you can probably get the part online a lot cheaper.  And if your tech company is reasonable, they won't insist on their supplying the part with 100% markup. 

I thought about using the names of the two companies.  I don't think the first company was conning me to keep getting business.  A lot of the trips I wasn't charged for.  I just think their tech wasn't much of a problem solver and the small company was in a bind and that the owner just doesn't know what to do either - in this case how to deal with a decent, but not real good tech.

And we've been dealing with problems with the heating system for so long now - at least a year - that I'm not ready to say things are all settled until it's been a lot longer.

But if anyone in Anchorage wants to know names, just email me.


  1. You have much more patience that I do! I would have tried someone else after the 3rd attempt without fixing the problem. I've had to do this auto mechanics, too, once the guy who had fixed my cars for 40 year retired.

    It took 2 tries before I started going to the mechanic I should have tried first.

    For heating, I've been fortunate in having a friend, a former co-worker who was the maintenance manager at an apartment rental company where we both worked, who has been maintaining my furnace and water heater since I bought the house. Best of all, he has a completely different business and doesn't do heating for a living, and is willing to come over on weekends without an overtime charge.

    In our modern world, having a good auto mechanic and a good heating tech have a high priority.

    -2 degF near the Mendenhall Glacier last night here in Your Fair Capital City. I hope to see you here during the legislative session...

  2. These are the times when you'll need to think if you still need to fix your old and trusted heating option when there might be other brand new heaters that might cost a bit less than your on-going repairs for your old heater.

  3. It's so nice that we're restricted in cutting the trees and energy prices are going through the roof, now the one ...wood furnaces Buy a Greenwood wood boiler that saves 70% on your home heating bills. We offer the world-class wood gasification heating appliances on an affordable budget.


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