We have a house with two-pipe forced hot water heat. I think it’s the best. It has consistent warmth, it’s virtually silent, and it doesn’t reduce the humidity in the air like forced air does even when a humidifier is attached to the blower. Plus the big cast-iron radiator in the bathroom is a great way to dry bath towels and keep them warm for the next use.
Recently, I had to do some maintenance work on the boiler. This house and I have a karmic attachment, so whenever I perform work on it, the house responds positively and the result is beyond satisfying. Of course, each job still usually requires more than one trip to the hardware store, and is never complete until I’ve managed to draw at least a little blood… but that’s par for the course.
Anyway, I discovered the boiler had some plumbing issues when I stumbled across a quirk of its operation while firing it up in the fall. If the control system at the boiler has no power, and the thermostat upstairs is sending an “ON” signal, when the control system is powered up the boiler will immediately start firing—but the control will then ignore any subsequent signals from the thermostat, most notably the “OFF” command. This of course can lead to the boiler firing continuously.
I discovered this the hard way, by leaving the boiler unattended for a few days. When I returned, I found the radiators hot to the touch, the room temperature about 20 degrees above the thermostat setting, and the boiler running dangerously over pressure.
Obviously, the pressure relief valve, which should have opened wide at 30 psi to dump hot water all over the floor, was shot. To replace it, I had to drain the entire system, which took a while but not nearly as long as I’d feared. Then I pulled the valve off and drove over to my local Home Depot.
The Home Depot takes a lot of flak, much of it justified, for killing off mom-and-pop hardware stores. But that’s not my issue with them. My issue is that if you’re looking to build something new, Home Depot is an adequate place to start; but if you’re looking to repair or restore anything in a house more than about ten years old, you’re probably going to be SOL there. I’ve even been unable to find something as simple and basic as a round cover grate for a basement floor drain.
I showed the dead valve to two Home Depot associates, one supposedly the “plumbing department guy,” and neither had a clue as to what they were looking at beyond guessing that they didn’t have one to sell. They pointed me toward an Ace hardware several blocks up the road. The folks at this Ace had to shrug too.
So then I did what I should have done in the first place: I went to my favourite hardware store in town, Clark–Devon Hardware. This place is a sprawling collection of interconnected smaller buildings, seemingly cluttered but really just stocked to the rafters with everything a homeowner or contractor might need. The staff there is usually very helpful—there’s even one guy who hangs out in the nuts and bolts section, ready to spring into action to help you find exactly the nut or bolt or screw or washer that you need to complete your job.
That day was no exception. I showed the valve to the guy in the plumbing department, he took one look at it, said “OK,” and went to a cabinet where he pulled out an exact replacement. No problem at all.
I took the valve home and installed it on the boiler, only to discover the problem was bigger than I had imagined. When I opened the shutoff valve on the supply pipe, the sound was not one of rushing water but rather the quiet hiss of a mere trickle through a constricted opening. Turns out a pressure reducing valve just downstream of the shutoff valve, meant to fill the boiler at 12 psi and then act as a check valve in case of a drop in supply pressure, was barely functioning. A lever on the valve to force it open (i.e. “fast fill” mode) would not budge. It would have taken hours, probably days, to fill the entire heating system with this valve in place, and the fact that it was incapable of correcting for low system pressure was dangerous as well. I had yet another valve to replace. (A later autopsy showed the valve’s innards to be caked solid with rust.)
Knowing better than to waste time again, I returned to Clark–Devon directly. Actually, my wife went for me, since it was rapidly getting cold outside and I was unwilling to wait until the weekend rolled around again before continuing work. Unfortunately, she did not have the valve with her, since I had left it attached to the boiler—I’d found that the shutoff valve was also worn out and passing water, so I felt it best to allow it to drain through the system rather than directly onto the floor. She found a guy who seemed helpful, and she put me on the phone with him, and between us we were able to determine that they didn’t have an equivalent valve in stock, but could get one in within a day. So I gave him the go-ahead, and he said he’d call when it came in.
That was the Tuesday of Thanksgiving week. The following Sunday morning, not having heard from them (but having been out of town during the holiday) I headed to Clark–Devon. There I found a service desk with no trace of the part nor any paperwork on it, and a guy in the plumbing department—oddly, the same guy who had found my relief valve in about two shakes—who was utterly unresponsive and unwilling to help us, suggesting we come back the next day when the guy who had placed the order would be in.
This is the first time Clark–Devon has ever dropped the ball on me, and I’m not going to let it colour my overall positive opinion of that store. I’ll go back there in the future, but probably not for plumbing parts. Likewise, a small neighbourhood hardware store that I stumbled across on my way home was also unable to help. (It seems like part of the problem is that in order to compete with the big boxes, mom-and-pop hardware stores have had to shrink their basic hardware supplies and now try to bring in customers by focusing more on housewares and small appliances.)
So on Monday, instead of dealing further with Clark–Devon, I called a local plumbing supply house. The place opens at an ungodly early hour, and is one of those places that caters almost exclusively to working tradesmen, a dingy brick building with a decrepit sign out front and a heavy steel door that rings a shockingly loud klaxon bell every time it’s opened (in case everyone is in the back and not manning the front counter). I won’t mention the company’s name, not because they weren’t helpful—ultimately they were, and had the part I needed—but because I’m going to have to mock them a bit to tell this story, which in my opinion gets a little goofy now.
I called them and explained that I had a feeder valve for a boiler that needed replacing, one that reduces the inflow pressure to 12 psi, with 1/2-inch threaded fittings on both sides. I called it a “boiler feed valve” because that’s the term the original manufacturer used for it. I had the tag from the original valve and told the guy on the phone the manufacturer’s name and all the specs I had. The guy said they didn’t carry that brand and started talking about a powered feed valve, i.e. one that would need an electrical connection to operate. This didn’t sound right to me, so I explained further what the valve did and where it was located in the system. He said, “you’re talking about a pressure reducing valve.” I said, “yeah, I guess I am,” and he replied that they had plenty of those in stock, so there would be no need for him to set one aside for me. I said I’d be right over and hung up.
When I got there it was still early, the dawn clouds making a gorgeous pink-and-purple display down Milwaukee Avenue toward the city. In front of the place an overweight guy was standing in the alcove, having perhaps his first smoke of the day. That he was nearly blocking the entrance and had a distinctly unwelcoming mien is neither here nor there.
Inside, I explained—again—what I needed. The young man at the counter deferred to an older guy, in his forties, who better knew the ropes. I said, “it’s a pressure reducing valve.” He pulled out a valve that didn’t look right at all, with 3/4-inch fittings that were oriented all wrong and with specs that didn’t add up for my application. I said, “this looks more like the relief valve I already have, except the direction of flow is reversed.” He said, “this is on a steam system?” and I said, or rather repeated since I’d already told him this, “no, two-pipe hot water.” He said, “and this valve is where, exactly?” I said, “on the supply side, just downstream of the city water cutoff.” He said, “oh, you need a feeder valve,” and handed over the exactly right part.
One which, according to the box it came in, is a Bell & Gossett FB-38 Pressure Reducing Valve.
I felt like I’d been dope-slapped, or had fallen through the looking-glass. It was one of those situations where specialists (and this is true in any field) have their own argot, a specialized language that they think only they understand, and when a civilian (i.e. non-specialist) appears, speaking the specialists’ own language, the tendency is to think that they don’t know what they’re talking about, even if they do. Which would mean I was caught in the trap of knowing exactly the specs of what I needed, and calling it by its proper name, and having everyone I spoke to hear something completely different. It didn’t help that the specialists were inconsistent in the terminology of their own specialization.
Either that, or I was dealing with a bunch of idiots.
Anyway, following the replacement of a few other pipes in the feed line that were quadruple-bypass-sclerotic from rust, I succeeded in putting the boiler plumbing back in working order. With the new feeder—ahem, pressure reducing—valve, the system was quickly filled and bled of air, and I fired the burner up once again for another bitter Chicago winter.
It’s now Friday. The boiler has been happily cooking away—and shutting off on cue—for two days now, and all is well. Meanwhile, my supposed parts order from Clark–Devon still has not resulted in a phone call from them.