Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey

I had these circus folks out to replace my five ton heat pump outdoor unit. Thank goodness they didn’t bring the elephants with them. The rest of the show was there, especially the clowns. In all, it was an interesting side show.

The ring master started the show. I had already diagnosed the problem (shorted to ground compressor windings) so he was sent to quote the repair. I didn’t need a service call charge to tell me what I already knew was the problem. I have been in the HVAC business all my life and I am one of the best service troubleshooters in the business. This is not a brag, it is a fact. Read on.

I received a couple of prices; good, better but not the best. Here in Texas 95% of the homes have undersized refrigerant vapor suction lines on 5 ton residential equipment. It is because soft copper line “sets” are not made in 1 1/8″ line size, the installers and contractors cut corners and use 7/8″ vapor lines. Doesn’t sound like much but it reduces capacity and efficiency. In plumber speak it is 1″ copper verses ¾” copper pipe. I am in the 95% group.

For the best efficiency the entire system has to be closely matched including proper line set design. No use in wasting my money on a top line outdoor unit when the rest of the system isn’t the same brand or even piped correctly.

The day of the install, the first crew of two (the Ringling brothers) show up in a company van late in the day, around 5:30 P.M. The sun is getting low so I knew they would have to work in the dark until 9:00 or 9:30 P.M.

The first thing they did was lay the concrete/foam pad in place. They placed the pad half in my back yard and half in my side yard. This was of course unacceptable. It looked awful and probably violated building code on side yard clearance. They were trying to make it “easy” to hook up to the old refrigerant lines and electrical connection.

I made them turn the pad 90 degrees so the new unit would be entirely behind the corner of the house. Now it looked “proper” but the old lines and electrical did not reach the new unit connections. “Not my problem, man. I am paying a ton of money to have this done correctly” were my comments. I was nice but it was obvious it was going to be installed my way.

They said they didn’t have the material to make the longer connections so they would have to come back tomorrow. I can’t imagine an install team without basic material.  I could hear the calliope start playing “send in the clowns”.  Working in the dark with no lights didn’t sound good to me (or them) anyway, day one wasted.

Day two, no one shows all morning. I call. Yes, the installers are scheduled but are finishing another installation. About noon the “new” installers (Barnum and Bailey) show up. They are driving a black, unmarked pickup truck. Looks like they dragged off a commercial or new house job, certainly not old house residential replacement work. This team is a little clueless and also tool-less. One installer used his screw gun with a sheet metal screw to drill a hole in the vapor line in the inside coil. He needed a hole to install what is called an “equalizer line” (true) but there was a factory stub already on the coil for that use.

The rest of the install seemed to go normal. However, they did level my now correctly placed outdoor pad using packaged “dirt-in-a-bag” that was mostly organic material.  I am positive that material will decompose and wash out from under the pad about midsummer. I told them and the next person who came out, that I was going to call them back as soon as the pad starts to tip.

This circus act hit another snag of their own. They tried to purge the lines with nitrogen (an eco-friendly process) and discovered the piping system “must have a restriction”.  They screwed around for many hours trying to find this “restriction” taking everything apart (note the screwed is a literal term here). They said maybe they would have to replace the line set. It again was well after dark when they gave up and said they would send the first service man back the next morning to get it figured out and started up. Day two shot, no heat pump operation.

Day three the first serviceman (The Ringmaster again) does not show up in the morning as promised by yesterday’s 2nd act. It seems to me that everyone starts their day with an afternoon matinee performance. Maybe they all feed the animals in the mornings. This guy is the star of the show because he gets his own company identified truck (the first installers had an identified van) but he gets to drive it alone. He was pretty good as service guys go but has to have a very good act to follow up behind the last two.

I confer with the Ringmaster on what the problem might be. The line set has been functional for eleven years so I doubt any problem there. Any restriction would probably be a poor solder job or with the TXV valve (a refrigerant metering device). He too screws around for several hours. The TXV (for a heat pump) has to have a check valve built in. It should blow very free in at least one direction. The serviceman had no idea what I was talking about when I mentioned the indoor check valve. (Un-oh!) He even tried to tell me he has never seen one so it wasn’t needed. I am thinking, “Let’s see you are putting in a heat pump right?”

He decides to make a trip to the supply house to get another valve. When he gets back I ask him if the new valve has plugs in the end. There is and he says, “but we have to remove them to install the valve.” ( I know this, just checking!) He fools around for another hour and comes to tell me he has to order a new coil because the other new one just installed yesterday is plugged.

Finally I ask the right question. “Is the line restricted or totally blocked?” Everyone prior has been using the term “restricted”, not “totally restricted”. To me restricted implies there is a little flow but not enough. The check valve (the serviceman doesn’t know about) should have created full flow in the reverse direction.

The serviceman admits there in NO FLOW in either direction… BINGO! I told him the installer left a rubber plug in the small line in coil when they made the connection. I explain how the pressure from the nitrogen gas they use would cause the plug to move down the pipe out of sight. I told him to take a piece of wire and probe the (now) open end of the tube until he hit the plug. Then figure out how to get it out. (Cut the tube.) I even tell him how I know this. 🙂

Five minutes later the serviceman comes to the door at my home office and shows me the rubber plug.

I could have diagnosed the problem the first night if I was given the correct information or if I was doing the testing myself. I was trying to be a “nice” customer and not dig too deep into their workmanship. The rubber plug cost the business about two full man days in labor and lost opportunity.

Proper communication is so critical in remote trouble shooting. Everyone has to be using the same and hopefully proper terms to describe what they can sense. By not using the word “total” as in “total restriction”, a four hour change out took three days and five men to get right. If I hadn’t been there, who knows how many parts would have been replaced. I should have probed deeper, sooner.

The heat pump system is now performing just fine.