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Sometimes It Pays to Take the Inexpensive Way Out

Tom Sahagian in Bricks & Bucks on March 13, 2019

New York City

Boiler Fix

A droplet of water (center) leaks from a section of the boiler. The co-op declined an inexpensive fix (photo courtesy of Tom Sahagian).

March 13, 2019

A co-op board president approached me recently about problems with a leaking boiler. As is often the case, what she was really having problems with were a do-nothing super and a know-it-all bully on the board. The board had authorized repairs at the behest of the bully, but neither he nor they had any idea what work had been done, or why. 

I went to survey the scene and interview the super. The boiler room floor was dry, and the super gave a contradictory account of his observations. This muddled information, combined with the board’s inability to explain the earlier repairs, made it hard to establish the facts. 

Surprisingly, there was a water meter on the boiler feed line. I wrote down the reading (there was no log book with past readings) and started looking for clues. We decided the best approach was for the super to inspect the area around and under the boiler for leaks every day, photograph the meter readings, and email me the results. 

The mystery deepened. The meter was showing alarming amounts of makeup water going into the system, but the super observed no puddles or leaks anywhere – except occasionally! Makeup water is harmful because the dissolved oxygen in it rusts the boiler from the inside out. If the water was somehow going somewhere else in the system, we might be able to get by with an inexpensive repair. 

I had taken extensive photos in, around, and underneath the boiler – and found nothing. What was going on? It made no sense. A cast-iron sectional boiler like this one resembles a large loaf of bread, with each section a “slice.” I knew there were only a few options to resolve whatever the problem turned out to be: replace the boiler; replace only the leaking section(s) (if there were any); simply remove the leaking section(s); or patch any leaks with a can of boiler leak-stop. We developed some cost estimates: 

Boiler replacement : $86,000  

Section replacement: $15,000  

Section removal: $8,000

Boiler leak-stop: $9 

While this was going on, the board agreed to survey the number and size of all radiators in the building; amazingly, the boiler was not oversized, which is rare. This eliminated the option of simply removing any leaking sections. But an unsettling possibility remained: if the huge amount of makeup water was actually going into the boiler, it would eat away the boiler metal and cause leaks even if there were none now. 

Eventually I figured it out. There was a tiny leak in one of the boiler sections. So tiny (see photo) that it had been impossible to see or photograph in the cramped area under the boiler until, after numerous attempts, I got lucky and captured a drip in action. 

Given such a small leak, why all the makeup water? I realized that the low-water cutoff and boiler-feed controls were improperly wired and mounted. As a result, the boiler called for makeup water when it did not need any. The feed would dutifully fill the condensate tank, but when the system’s steam condensed and flowed back to the tank, it would cause the tank to overflow, and the excess water emptied into the sump pit. This explained the mostly-dry floor along with lots of makeup water. The solution turned out to be surprisingly simple: patch the leak, then set the boiler feed and low-water cutoff correctly. Problem solved. 

Not quite. Several board members, swayed by the bully, foolishly refused to consider the inexpensive option of applying leak-stop, which would immediately make its effectiveness, or lack thereof, known. I made my recommendation in June, and the board reluctantly agreed to it the following  January. The fix worked, but the board still replaced the leaking section of the boiler at significant expense. 

It was their money.  But sometimes – when it’s appropriate – boards should have the good sense to take the inexpensive way out. 

Tom Sahagian is a consultant, teacher, and writer on energy efficiency.

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