I’m buying a home with hot water heat. What are some things I should check on the boiler?

First of all boilers use water to distribute heat. Anyone who has been a homeowner for any length of time can tell you how destructive water can be. This is also true in a builder system. The water in the lines can ruin the boiler in short order. If you live in a rural area and the boiler water is supplied by a well you will want to pay close attention. The heat in a boiler tends to bring the worst impurities out of the water. These impurities in turn tend to destroy the boiler over time. The best approach is to add rust inhibitors into the water if you have a closed loop system. If you’re heating the slab in the garage I strongly recommend that you add glycol as well to prevent freezing. If you are in a city or town your system may not be a closed loop and my suggestions will not apply. 

How often should I clean or replace my furnace filter?

That depends on your conditions. I always say don’t fix it if it isn’t broken. Normally I would say the filter should be changed every two to three months. The exception is if you are renovating or have pets and carpets etc. Sometimes the filter needs cleaning in less than a month if conditions are poor. In other situations the home is very clean and dust free and the filter lasts 6 months. The key is to check it monthly and replace or clean it as necessary. A dirty filter will shorten the life of your furnace and cost you money and possibly your health. 

All of a sudden my furnace shut down. I see it light and then shut off right away like it is not getting fuel. What can it be?

This problem sounds like a flame sensor. Most modern furnaces have several safety sensors and switches. What you describe sounds like a flame sensor. Here is how it works. When the burner starts up the gas valve has a timer that was a few seconds for a circuit to close from a small bimetal rod that is in the flame. If the furnace does not light the flame sensor doesn’t heat up and the loop is not closed. In this state the gas valve shuts down so the house doesn’t fill with gas. The problem is that you can see flame so the flame sensor is sending the wrong message to the as valve. Often the flame sensor can be cleaned and it will work fine again. If you recently created a lot of dust such as dry walling your basement that will usually create this problem. Impurities in the fuel also cause the flame sensor to get dirty and fail.

My furnace is acting strange lately, especially since it has turned cold. What can be happening?

One of the most common issues in cold weather is frosted over fresh air intakes. You furnace requires air to combust the fuel in much the same way your car pulls air into the engine through the air filter. When the air intake is blocked or partially blocked the furnace will operate poorly. Not only will the furnace run poorly and produce less heat but it will also be far less efficient as a lot more fuel will end up going out the exhaust vent. If the blockage is severe the furnace may even shut down. It only takes a minute to check and clean the air intakes so have a look at yours today. 


20130821_112739 20130821_113529Consider the benefits of spray foaming.

Are you building or renovating your home. Have you heard about spray foam? This article will try to highlight the benefits and differences of spray foam verses conventional insulation.

I recently visited a home that was being insulated with spray foam. While this type of insulation seems new it has been around for decades and is only now catching on. While there are several manufacturers of spray foam there are two main types of foam you may come across. The first type is ½ pound, open cell foam. This foam expands up to 30 times once it is applied. This type of foam preforms better as a sound proofing material then 2 pound foam but does not have the same insulating value or vapor barrier characteristics as two pound foam.  You guessed it, the second and most common type of foam is 2 pound foam. 2lb foam is applied both as an insulator and vapor barrier. This is a couple of the main advantages to spray foam insulation. This remainder of this article will focus primarily on 2lb foam.

The foam is applied between 50 -60 degrees Celsius and about 1200PSI. Once applied the foam expands to 50 to 100 times its volume.  After a few minutes the foam is set up and has amazing insulating and vapor barrier qualities. The key to spray foam insulation is its ability to trap inert air bubbles inside the foam.  The trapped air acts as a restrictive layer to radiant energy. This means it becomes a great insulation with a high R-value. Let’s look at this measuring tool we call R-value and what it means.

I always explain R-value in this way.  If you are sitting inside reading this the air temperature around you is roughly 20 deg. C. If you are close to a steel or glass object such as a mirror or fridge and you touch it you will notice how much colder it appears. In reality it must be roughly 20 Deg. C if it is sitting in a room full of 20 degree air. So why does it seem so cold? The secret lies in the R-Value of the material. That means when your hand is in the air it loses heat at a certain rate because its heat energy travels through the air. When you touch a metal or glass surface the material readily transfers heat from your hand, making it feel cool. In other words it is a poor insulator. If you place your hand on a piece of foam it feels warm, this is because it reflects heat rather than absorbing it. This is the key to the spray foam advantage.

Let’s take a minute to compare 2 lb foam to batted insulation. First of all the R-value of spray foam is about R-5-7 per inch, thus a wall with 3 ½” of foam has an R-value of approximately R-17.5 – R-24.5. Batted insulation in the same 2×6 wall will be between R-20 and R-22. The cost of the foam is roughly 2-3 times more money to install. Here is where most people stop researching the benefits and make a decision based only on the R-value and price. As Paul Harvey used to say, “and now the rest of the story”. While R-value is important it is not the only consideration. If you research how heat energy moves you will find there are three primary means of heat transfer, Convection (through air movement), Conduction (through contact), and Radiation (energy waves). When you consider all the ways heat is gained or lost in a wall you will quickly see the spray foam advantage.

When R-value alone is considered, there is very little advantage to spray foam. When you begin to look at the resistance to convection, conduction and radiation of foam and batted insulation you will quickly see how well foam preforms overall verses the conventional insulation methods of batted insulation. The primary advantage of foam is how it expands into the crevices and seals the wall cavity. Even the most careful insulator and vapor barrier installer cannot come close to sealing the wall cavity as fully as spray foam does.  Another advantage of spray foam is that it adds some rigidity and structure to the wall. Finally if spray foam is installed properly it will act as a vapor barrier thus eliminating the time consuming process of applying 6mm poly and tuck tape.  All this adds up to one thing, when you are considering a type of insulation you should look at the cost benefits of spray foam.

The Furnace Emergency Switch

I wonder how many people reading this can remember a time when someone mistakenly shut off the furnace switch in their home. I have a pet peeve when it comes to this common mistake. Years ago as I recall, the furnace switch always had a red cover and was labelled FURNACE EMERGENCY ON/OFF. Furthermore the switch was always located in the stairwell high up on the wall where it was very unlikely someone would mistake it for a light switch.

Today these switches appear in various places but mostly on the ceiling directly in front of the furnace. There are a couple of problems with this location that come to mind. First of all I usually need to get a broom or jump up to flip the switch for testing purposes. Secondly the location of the switch in the furnace room is a poor choice if there is a furnace emergency such as a gas leak or fire. I for one will not be running into a fire to try to reach the shut off switch.

The most annoying problem of course is if the unlabeled switch on the wall that is frequently mistaken for a light switch. When this happens the furnace will not run and all kinds of problems can arise. As many of you will know this is a mistake that can cost thousands of dollars if it is not caught soon enough. The fallout of this mistake can be frozen water lines and flooding.

I recommend installing a temperature alarm that can notify the homeowner if the temperature drops below a set temperature. There are less technical means as well such as using a sharpie marker to label the switch or buy the proper plate cover.  I have also seen a piece of tape over the switch as well.

Is your home cold in winter? Do you know why? Maybe it’s your Imagination!

Understanding how your body works can help you understand why you feel cold in your home. There are a few areas that affect how comfortable you are inside your home. They are air temperature, air movement and humidity.  A comfortable room temperature in the summer is around 75 degrees F. In the winter heating season a comfortable temperature is closer to 68 degrees F.

If your home is drafty you are going to feel chilled. Older homes in particular are often drafty as they lacked the vapour barrier that is designed to control moisture and air movement.  If you know where the drafts are and can control them you will feel more comfortable and use less fuel to stay warm. Having a thermal scan of a drafty home is recommended as one way to find the air leaks. Visit http://www.borderhi.com/thermal-imaging/ for more info on this.

The last and most misunderstood part of our human comfort that we need to look at is humidity. We all know how sticky it is when it is warm out and the humidity is high. We don’t notice low humidity nearly so much. In general our bodies feel most comfortable in the following conditions. In winter it is best if the humidity can be kept to between 20 – 40%. In the summer humidity should be kept below 60%. If the humidity falls below 15% your health may begin to be affected.  Humidity over 75% will also have negative affects on your body.

Most of the homes I inspect have humidifiers attached to the furnace which do not work. I personally do not like these systems as they require a lot of maintenance and without constant attention can cause leaking onto the furnace heat exchanger and plenum. If you feel uncomfortable in your home take the time to learn the conditions of your home and how you can make those conditions better for your lifestyle.

Home Heating

Home heating is taken for granted much of the time. We turn up the thermostat and magically we get instant comfort. Of course there are many considerations to think about when we turn up the heat, not the least of which is the environment. This discussion often leads into a debate about the merits of changing out an older furnace in favour of a newer high efficient model. I often take a few minutes to ask a few questions of the home buyer who plans to change out a perfectly fine but less efficient furnace.  I often discover that the buyer plans to move again in a few years.  Changing out a furnace for this type of buyer is usually not a wise investment, here’s why.

Furnace manufacturers often date the life expectancy of their product to about twenty years. Many people will tell you that these furnaces often last as long as 40 years. The efficiency of these older non condensing furnaces was about 65%. Today’s furnaces are between 80 and 95% efficient with the average being about 85%. So this leads to the question, should you change out a 25 year old furnace to gain a 20% increase in efficiency. The answer is, it depends.

If the buyer plans to live in the home for several years it makes sense to upgrade to save money on fuel. If the buyer is young and restless and plans to move on in a few years it may cost more to change the furnace then what the savings will be.  This process needs to be considered carefully before making this decision. If the furnace needs to be financed it will take longer to realize the return on investment. I often tell my customers that an older furnace should last several more years if it is serviced on a regular basis and given a safe bill of health by a certified technician.

Ask your inspectors opinion about alternative means of energy savings that will cost less and save more in the long run. Some examples might be windows, doors and attic insulation.