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Jim Katen

New England Boiler Question - Non Home Inspection

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Forgive the oddball nature of this question. I've been tasked with providing editorial review of a fiction novel. My job is to ensure that the descriptions of the buildings and mechanical systems are accurate and believable. It's been fun, but I find that I've run into the limit of my knowledge in one area.

The setting is summertime in a present-day quaint and affluent village in Massachusetts. The building in question is a mid-18th century house that has, for the last 20-30 years been adequately, but not extravagantly, maintained. The house is supposed to be in decent condition but always on the verge of some major failure.

In one scene, the protagonist hears a clanking sound, goes into the basement to investigate, and finds that the boiler has flooded the basement. It's also mentioned that this isn't the first time that it's happened. Further, the protagonist is unable to take a shower because of the failed boiler.

I see few boilers and the ones that I do see don't have a New England accent. So . . .

What could go wrong with a boiler that would create a clanking sound and cause it to flood a basement? In the middle of the summer?

Is there any way that this would not be a fatal symptom? That is, could this happen more than once and, if the homeowner were exceptionally frugal and the fix-it guy willing, be patched up to work again for a while?

What is the likelihood that this house would have a domestic water coil in the boiler with no separate water heater for the summer months? (I supposed if that were the case, it would explain why the boiler was running - and failing - in the summer.)

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What could go wrong with a boiler that would create a clanking sound and cause it to flood a basement? In the middle of the summer?

A drunken plumber... wait, wait, boilers are cast iron and built in sections held together by tie rods. The tie rods go through an ear on each end section and the nut secures against the ear, Over time, rust builds between the sections- slowly expanding until an ear yields to the force allowing the 20psi in the boiler to pry the sections apart and liberate the water, stale from it's imprisonment and forced labor.

That's viable.

Is there any way that this would not be a fatal symptom? That is, could this happen more than once and, if the homeowner were exceptionally frugal and the fix-it guy willing, be patched up to work again for a while?

No

What is the likelihood that this house would have a domestic water coil in the boiler with no separate water heater for the summer months? (I supposed if that were the case, it would explain why the boiler was running - and failing - in the summer.)

Almost no likelihood

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Is it a steam or hot water system?

Aren't tankless coils fairly commonplace in New England? In the summer, wouldn't one simply shut down the hot water loop to the radiators or turn off the radiators at their base and let the boiler fire only for hot water?

ONE TEAM - ONE FIGHT!!!

Mike

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Sure it could be fatal, but boiler fatalities very rarely make an audible clanking sound. They simply let go inaudibly. A protagonist (or antagonist, or otherwise-agonist) would most likely be made aware of a boiler failure by a soundless lack of hot water, either in the shower or in the radiators. If they heard anything, it would likely be the rushing water from some kind of grand leak.

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None of it's plausible if it's a heating boiler. Change it to the domestic water heater, it all (sort of) makes sense.

Water heaters can clank, when they fail they leak and flood the basement, and the guy ain't taking a shower with a failed water heater.

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Of course making it a plain water heater would make more sense, but the author wants a more ominous-sounding thing. It comes down to the fact that "boiler" is a better sounding word than "water heater." Who the hell knows why? It's art.

Anyway, what if the boiler had a chronic problem with overfiring? The burners get stuck on, the sucker overheats, the pressure relief valve pops open with all kinds of unpleasant noises, and floods the basement.

????

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Nah, they just drip.

Change it to a steam boiler. That's ominous. The pipes clank. They can leak and flood a basement (unlikely, but who cares). The guy could still take a shower; don't know what to do there.

Better yet, change the boiler to mackerel, and change the house to a fishing trawler in the Bermuda Triangle. The mackerel can flop about noisily and ominously, and in the process, damage the boats water heater, thereby making showers impossible.

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Oh oh oh........make the trawler the guys houseboat, and make the guy a.......no wait a minute.....

That's Travis McGee.......

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I like that. Well, at least the part where it's a steam boiler. They can clang, knock, and hiss. If it's oil-fired, they can make just about any spooky noise you'd want a heating system to make.

If it's a coal conversion system, you can even open the cast iron doors and dispose of evidence therein.

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What is the likelihood that this house would have a domestic water coil in the boiler with no separate water heater for the summer months? (I supposed if that were the case, it would explain why the boiler was running - and failing - in the summer.)

Almost no likelihood

I disagree. I've inspected thousands of oil-fired and some still coal-burning boilers that have only a coil immersed in the boiler for the domestic hot water. The boiler stays within a constant temperature range throughout the off-heating season. That part is plausible.

It's also imaginable that such a boiler could fail in the summer, resulting in no hot water and a flooded basement. It's somewhat possible that this symptom could be patched up temporarily and the boiler resumes generating hot water.

I can't make a connection between the failed domestic water system in the boiler and a "clanking sound". Make it a hissing sound it it could be conceivable.

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A clunky 'automatic water feed' that won't shut-off when the low-water cut-off tells it to.. (Steam boiler).. that could possibly cause this if there was a defective vent on the condensate return,,,, ? )

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Agreed.

I really think the boiler has to be steam. Way more things to clank and go wrong. And, you could introduce hissing sounds into the mix. Hissing is ominous.

Straight hot water circulated is about as tame and simple a thing as there is; the story needs the complications of a steam boiler.

And a mackerel.

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What is the likelihood that this house would have a domestic water coil in the boiler with no separate water heater for the summer months? (I supposed if that were the case, it would explain why the boiler was running - and failing - in the summer.)

Almost no likelihood

I disagree. I've inspected thousands of oil-fired and some still coal-burning boilers that have only a coil immersed in the boiler for the domestic hot water. The boiler stays within a constant temperature range throughout the off-heating season. That part is plausible.

It's also imaginable that such a boiler could fail in the summer, resulting in no hot water and a flooded basement. It's somewhat possible that this symptom could be patched up temporarily and the boiler resumes generating hot water.

I can't make a connection between the failed domestic water system in the boiler and a "clanking sound". Make it a hissing sound it it could be conceivable.

The boiler, in summer mode, hisses and quietly floods the basement. This takes a while. The rising water picks up an old grandfather clock which is being stored for a friend. The clock falls, clank, crash, bing bong, into a shelf full of canning jars and gallon jugs of cider, which have been baking in the heat of the boiler all summer. The cider jugs explode, showering shrads of porcelain and glass onto a priceless Persian cuspidor, which is being stored for a friend, which falls off the shelf, pulling down a cuckoo clock, which is being stored for a friend ......

The cuspidor fills with water and sinks, pulling the cuckoo down with it. The cuckoo bird, a fine example of Bavarian craftmanship, is swimming little circles with one wing and gurgling its last cuckoo as the poor sap opens the basement door. Maybe a jug of cider could be bumping the step by his foot?

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Thanks everyone. It's a steam boiler with a domestic hot water coil and no summer water heater. It has a chronic problem with the automatic feed and occasionally floods the basement. The owner can't afford to fix the problem properly, but a local handyman patches it up each time at little-to-no cost.

I like John's suggestion of the rising water floating stuff up & knocking it over -- and it's not far fetched.

In 1996, we had severe flooding across our region. In particular, the entire town of Vernonia was flooded. Some of my clients, who lived right in the middle of town, were woken up in the middle of the night by a knocking sound. The came downstairs to find their living room floor several inches under water. When they opened the front door to let the water out, they discovered that the water was at the same level outdoors. They followed the knocking sound to the basement door. When they opened it, they saw that the basement freezer had floated up the stairs and was bobbing there, right at the top step, and had been knocking against the door.

Thanks again.

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While factual it isn't romantic.

I've seen the scenario play out many times in the past (I think we've kicked this around before). As rust and sediment builds up in the bottom of the heat exchanger, over the years, (due to a chronic problem with the automatic feed which is actually caused by a weeping safety valve - but we'll save that for the sequel, When good boilers go bad) it starts to act as a layer of insulation in the bottom of the water side of the heat exchanger. Now when the boiler fires it starts to superheat the bottom of the heat exchanger (lack of water to carry away the heat) which will cause it to clank, pop and moan as it is being stressed (much like me with Microsoft tech support). Then, after saying enough is enough, it splits and out comes the water.

I told ya it wouldn't be sexy.

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While factual it isn't romantic.

I've seen the scenario play out many times in the past (I think we've kicked this around before). As rust and sediment builds up in the bottom of the heat exchanger, over the years, (due to a chronic problem with the automatic feed which is actually caused by a weeping safety valve - but we'll save that for the sequel, When good boilers go bad) it starts to act as a layer of insulation in the bottom of the water side of the heat exchanger. Now when the boiler fires it starts to superheat the bottom of the heat exchanger (lack of water to carry away the heat) which will cause it to clank, pop and moan as it is being stressed (much like me with Microsoft tech support). Then, after saying enough is enough, it splits and out comes the water.

I told ya it wouldn't be sexy.

That's a good failure, but isn't it a fatal one? It couldn't be patched up, could it?

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A good inspector should be really bad at writing fiction.

Just to be clear, in case there's any doubt. I am not the author. I'm just the technical consultant.

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My two cents. Having many many years of hot water and steam systems to inspect my idea also includes the low water cut off, and here's how it works. The auto feed on this 65 year old steam boiler has a tendency to chatter. When it isn't chattering is slams shut after feeding water and the sound is heard through out the house. Now because it is old, the clean out plug on the bottom keeps rusting out and the maintenance guy just keeps putting a new galvanized steel plug in because it's cheaper than brass, simply to rust out again. So, the guy is in the shower, Alfred Hitchcock is in the next room. The auto feed starts to put water into the boiler, chatters then slams shut. The shock of the slam is heard three houses away (well, maybe not that far) pops the clean out plug on the bottom, which causes the safety float to drop and shut down the burner. But alas, water is pouring out of the clean out opening, flooding the basement. Because the burner shut down there is no more heat to the coil and no hot water. Hitchcock comes in with a pistol and shoots the boiler killing it forever.

Now that works.

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While factual it isn't romantic.

I've seen the scenario play out many times in the past (I think we've kicked this around before). As rust and sediment builds up in the bottom of the heat exchanger, over the years, (due to a chronic problem with the automatic feed which is actually caused by a weeping safety valve - but we'll save that for the sequel, When good boilers go bad) it starts to act as a layer of insulation in the bottom of the water side of the heat exchanger. Now when the boiler fires it starts to superheat the bottom of the heat exchanger (lack of water to carry away the heat) which will cause it to clank, pop and moan as it is being stressed (much like me with Microsoft tech support). Then, after saying enough is enough, it splits and out comes the water.

I told ya it wouldn't be sexy.

That's a good failure, but isn't it a fatal one? It couldn't be patched up, could it?

If you could find a heat-x section it could be "fixed" however it would be tantamount to putting a new engine in a Pinto.

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A good inspector should be really bad at writing fiction.

Just to be clear, in case there's any doubt. I am not the author. I'm just the technical consultant.

I know. It was in response to many of the replies in this topic.

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My two cents. Having many many years of hot water and steam systems to inspect my idea also includes the low water cut off, and here's how it works. The auto feed on this 65 year old steam boiler has a tendency to chatter. When it isn't chattering is slams shut after feeding water and the sound is heard through out the house. Now because it is old, the clean out plug on the bottom keeps rusting out and the maintenance guy just keeps putting a new galvanized steel plug in because it's cheaper than brass, simply to rust out again. So, the guy is in the shower, Alfred Hitchcock is in the next room. The auto feed starts to put water into the boiler, chatters then slams shut. The shock of the slam is heard three houses away (well, maybe not that far) pops the clean out plug on the bottom, which causes the safety float to drop and shut down the burner. But alas, water is pouring out of the clean out opening, flooding the basement. Because the burner shut down there is no more heat to the coil and no hot water. Hitchcock comes in with a pistol and shoots the boiler killing it forever.

Now that works.

I like it. Thanks.

- Jim Katen, Oregon

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