Saturday, February 21, 2015

Furnace Breakdown and Fix

As I've mentioned in several previous posts including this one from last summer we have dampers in our attic that have to be adjusted in the spring and fall to maintain the temperature upstairs and down. Getting to the levers to do so requires climbing over the furnace condensation and gas lines while ducking underneath the roof truss.

How it looks in the attic where our HVAC system is located.

Every time I've gone up there to adjust them I've mentioned to Jenny how I don't like how this is set up. Getting through there is a bit of balancing act and I've been afraid every time I do it that I'm going to slip and fall into them. Going around the other side of the system isn't any easier and would require wiggling underneath insulated ductwork and I'm not sure I'd actually fit through there. The poor design of this was borne out this week when, on the brink of the coldest night we've had in years, our furnace stopped working.

Along with the snow we had earlier in the week a bitter cold front swept through the region bringing with it record low temperatures. On Thursday evening I had gone to bump the temperature up on the thermostat a bit when I noticed the display was blank. I checked the breaker which was fine and then realized I could stick batteries in it as a back up. Even once it came on the heat didn't so I immediately called the emergency number for the HVAC company to get a tech out here. In the meantime one of my awesome neighbors (who has also had heating issues) lent us a space heater.

Around 9:15pm the tech arrived and after taking a look at our furnace in the attic discovered that the condensation line had broken off from inside the furnace. From there water had dripped into the pan underneath tripping the moisture sensor and shutting the unit down. Earlier in the day we had had our 10 Month Review (more on this in another post) and the service manager and I had gone up in the attic to look at the system. While up there he had climbed over the lines and must have bumped it enough to break it. (I'll emphasize here that I don't in any way blame him for this. It could have just as easily been me that did it any of the other times I'd been up there.) Unfortunately the technician didn't have the parts nor could he obtain them so late at night to fix it. Facing not having heat I asked (pretty much pleaded) if there was any way he could at least patch it for the night. Enter our friend and miracle worker, duct tape. Using a copious amount of it he was able to reattach the drain trap the pipe connects to back to the furnace and get it running but with no guarantee that it would hold. He also installed a less sensitive moisture sensor that should the patch fail would allow more water into the drip pan and buy us additional time before it shut the furnace off again.

It's hard to tell from this photo but this is the duct taped drain trap.

Needless to say I didn't sleep very well Thursday night worrying that the patch would fail and we would lose our heat. I got up multiple times to go in the laundry room and to make sure I could still hear the condensation dripping down the pipe that runs through the wall. Luckily the patch did hold and we made it through to Friday morning with the heat still running. (Good thing because it was 0 degrees with a negative wind chill outside.)

Friday morning I followed up with Superior Plumbing, Heating, and Air of Ashland, Virginia to make sure the parts to fix it would be available. About an hour later I got a call that they were and they'd be out by midday to fix. True to their word they were there a few hours later and within 20 minutes had the unit fixed. The only thing I'll need to do in a few days once it warms up outside is haul my shop vacuum up into the attic to remove the water from the pan once it thaws. 

I also followed up with our service manager in several calls during Friday as well. I feel like this set up is a poor design that is way too easy to break. Given that adjusting the dampers is a routine maintenance item and that I will have to continue climbing over this line to get to them I'm worried that eventually this situation could happen again. He's going to meet with me next week to look at it but I've told him that I would like for them to install an additional access panel at the other end of the attic. In houses without the pull down steps like we opted for the access panel is located in the laundry room and allows for access to the dampers without climbing over the condensation and gas lines. It seems to me that this could be done very easily and even though I'd have to haul a ladder upstairs when I need to get up there to adjust them it'd be worth the extra effort to avoid breaking the line again.

All of that being said we really appreciate Superior's quick response to our problem along with the service manager's efforts at getting it fixed quickly as well. He mentioned to me on the phone that he had called the HVAC folks Friday morning and told them that if the parts were not available they were to go pull them from another house under construction so we could get it fixed by the end of the day and not have to wait any longer than necessary. I wish it hadn't happened on the coldest possible night but it worked out as best as could have been expected.

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  1. Oh boy what a nightmare, Interesting, looking at buying a Ryan home for my mother the biggest turn-off is the furnace in the Attic scares the hell out of me.

    I'm hoping I can negotiate something with Ryan Homes before signing on the dotted line.
    thank you for sharing your story,Jeff

    1. I was a little weary of it at first. It seems counterintuitive to me to put the unit in an un-conditioned space but it's apparently very common. I do wonder down the road when it comes time to replace the unit how much hassle it will be to do so. It looks too big to fit through the stairs hatch. At least safeguards are in place to prevent water damage.