There are certain “must-haves” when you look for a new house. In our case, we were primarily looking for a house with three bedrooms, and a somewhat specific location. After the must-haves, there is a somewhat longer list of “nice-to-haves” that every buyer has in mind, but this list has a tendency to change based on circumstances. For example, a large grassy yard might be on your nice-to-have list, but if you find a house that satisfies your must-haves, is the right price, and perhaps has some other nice-to-haves, you may begin telling yourself you didn’t really need that large grassy yard after all.
Having now bought two houses in my life, I know the nice-to-have list can change the minute you walk into a house. As in, hey, I never wanted a hot tub, but look at that hot tub over in the corner! Wow! Wouldn’t a hot tub be…nice to have? (The answer, it turns out, depends on how you feel about high-maintenance love/hate relationships that depend on chlorine.) Or: Wow! Is that a fish pond in the yard? You know, I’ve never wanted a pond, but now that you mention it that might be nice to have. (Answer: It’s ideal for quiet moments of contemplation and back yard fish kills.)
As we had our initial walk-through of the house we ended up buying in June 2009, it occurred to me that having a high-efficiency boiler with precisely-controlled heat zones would be nice to have. This happened shortly after I noticed the house had a high-efficiency boiler with precisely-controlled heat zones. It looked like something out of a nuclear submarine; the boiler itself was surprisingly small, about the size of an ottoman or Yao Ming’s head, and there were pumps to send water to the various heating zones around the house, one of which included a luxurious heated tile floor in the bathroom. (In Minnesota, that’s a damned-nice-to-have.)
When you buy a house, there are only so many things you can really do a deep dive on. You’d like to think the largest investment of your life would demand the ultimate in due diligence, but the reality is we spend about as much time sizing up the cars, dogs, guitars, or bikes we buy as we do the houses. Sure, you do a walk-through. You have an inspection. You make sure there are no obvious problems and you hire trained people to make that determination. But really, you’ve spent, what, a total of an hour or two in the house before you signed? When they hand over those keys after you sign the papers, there’s a whole world waiting for you that you have no ability to anticipate. Maybe that hot tub has a leak. Maybe the fish pond holds a dead cat in its depths. And maybe your fucking dream boiler is an expensive, complicated piece of shit that wasn’t installed correctly and nobody knows how to service.
The first sign of trouble was when I had my brother-in-law come take a look at the setup. He’s a licensed commercial boiler operator, my ace in the hole for boiler-related issues. When he opened the door and caught a glimpse of the Munchkin (that’s the name of the boiler…Munchkin, because it’s so small and stupid) he said, “Ohhhhhhhhhhh….kay.” He kind of pointed at the pumps and the piping and was like, “So…let’s see…that goes there…and…I’ve never really seen anything like this before.” Well, fine. To his credit, commercial boilers are a whole different deal. For example, they aren’t called Munchkins, are closer in size to the Ottoman Empire, and are usually installed by competent people. I should have known then I was screwed, but it was June, and after all, how could such an expensive, relatively new boiler have problems. Inconceivable!
November came and it was time to get my high-efficiency on; we fired up the Munchkin, and immediately there were problems. Some of the heat zones worked, some didn’t. Sometimes we had hot water for showers, sometimes we didn’t. (To be “efficient”, the hot water is driven by the boiler as well.) Sometimes we had heat from our radiators, sometimes we didn’t. Then, mostly we didn’t.
It was time to call the professionals.
Now, let me say straight off that I have high regard for the HVAC profession. Friend of Pipeline KevinD is just such a professional, and I have the utmost respect for his skill, integrity and beautiful eyes. (My mom once said “He should be in the magazines!” I didn’t ask which magazines she meant.) But KevinD is in Kansas, and the Munchkin is in Minnesota; thus began my tour of local jackassery in the HVAC business. Every time one of these guys would show up, they’d open the door, see the setup, and say something like “Oh, sweet Jesus!” Or, “Where’s the boiler? Oh, that’s it down there? That’s, um…I’m going to go out to my van and make a call. Just be a minute.” An hour later they were engaged in what I came to understand was exploratory surgery. Rather than be frank and say, “I have no clue what to do with that thing and you should call someone else”, they’d poke around, claim to have found this problem or that, order parts we didn’t need, and attempt to charge an outrageous sum. A sum I would have happily paid, had they actually ever corrected the problem.
Here’s a typical outcome, which happened more than once: “Well, sir, the problem is the igniter. That’s your problem, right there. We’ll just order you a new igniter and it’ll be good to go.” To which we’d say, “If it can’t ignite, why do we have hot water in some zones sometimes, but not in other zones at other times? How can we have hot water if the boiler can’t ignite?” They’d hem and haw and start to look around real nervous like the WCCO Fraudbusters team was going to jump out of a closet with their cameras rolling. “Uhh…I’m going to go out to my van and make a call. Just be a minute.” When you stump an HVAC guy, they go to the van. KevinD would actually go and make some calls; I think these guys just wept.
We temporarily solved our problems last winter by finding a regional sales rep for the boiler manufacturer. Thing is, he was also a regional sales rep for about 20 other companies as well. A real jack of all trades. He walks in and plugs a laptop into our boiler. No tools. Laptop. We had been calling Chevy mechanics to come deal with our Ferrari. He diagnosed all kinds of issues, got us up and running again, but had very bad news: Whoever installed this setup mucked it all up. The problem wasn’t necessarily the Munchkin, it was that the zones were piped all wrong, the thermostats were getting confused…basically our high-efficiency setup was very low-efficiency and would be prone to problems in perpetuity until we had things re-piped. (It will work with these issues, it’s just not efficient.) Then, as he left, he turned to me and said, in an apologetic but firm manner: “Listen—I’m not your boiler repair guy. I’ll recommend some people who might be able to help you, but I’m not your boiler repair guy. I’m just a salesman. Yes, I am a salesman who efficiently fixed your problem for a nominal, under-the-table fee. But I’m not your boiler repair guy. If you need some duct tape, industrial fasteners, or home security systems, though, give me a call.” And then he was gone. I called him later last winter when another boiler issue came up, but got his voicemail, which began “Hello. This is John. I’m not your boiler repair guy…”
Whatever John did got us through the mean season. The following spring, summer and fall were glorious as we enjoyed the hot tub, the fish pond, and hot water for showers. I may have even taken some naps on my heated bathroom tile floor. But November came, and it was go-time for the Munchkin. The things Jane said when the Munchkin did not respond…uglier words have never been uttered or contemplated in reference to Munchkins.
But this year, a twist-Rather than being the Munchkin, it turns out the problem was with the unit that controls the heating zones. This unit is called the Taco. Seriously, that’s the name of the company that makes it; I guess all the other logical heat zone control unit company names were taken, leaving them with the choice of Taco or Chile Relleno. I think they made the right call.
More service calls were required. Naturally, I was the one who had to deal with all of that, because I’m not having a guy come look at my wife’s Taco when I’m not around. To his credit, the guy who came was real up front. “I’ve never seen a boiler like that in my life, but I have seen a Taco unit like this before. Once.” He gazed into the distance as he recalled his previous run-in with the Taco, but his face and manner betrayed nothing about the outcome. Then he nodded resolutely and began taking the panel off the Taco. He managed my expectations beautifully by lowering them, but to his and my surprise, the fix was easy. He doesn’t know how it malfunctioned, which never inspires confidence, but he at least got it running. I have heat in all my zones, and the Munchkin and Taco are simpatico, for now.
And just in time—we got about six inches of snow yesterday. That is not a nice-to-have.