Interview With A Pro: Dave the Heating Guy

Greetings, and welcome to what will hopefully be the first of many in the new Interview With A Pro series! Some of you may remember Guest Expert Dave the Boiler Guy from the time he saved me from the Great Boiler Snafu. Or the time I had to swallow my pride and (gasp!) Hire a Contractor.

Today we are going to pick the brain of an expert in the heating trade, and see if there are some good actionable tips the average homeowner (or prospective homeowner) can take with them to add a little bit of knowledge to their basement.

First of all, tell us a little about yourself. How many years have you been in the business, and how many years have you been in business for yourself?

My name is Dave Warner. I have been an oil burner technician since 1994. I have been self-employed for 12 years.

If someone is looking to buy a home, especially their first home, what are some tips concerning the heating system? Is there a particular type to avoid, or a particular type that’s better than others?

You want to know the age of a system and type of fuel used in the system. Try to find an annual heating system cost. I would be cautious about older warm air systems (20 plus years old). Newer radiant systems* have a lot of advantages, as do older cast iron baseboard systems with their ability to retain heat and maintain a more steady level of comfort.

For those who don’t know, could you explain the difference between a boiler and a furnace?

A boiler contains water and a furnace heats air and blows it through ducts in the house. A boiler can be steam or more commonly forced hot water which hot water circulated through baseboard, radiant panels, and occasionally air handlers.

Do you have any tips for a homeowner looking to keep their furnace well maintained?

For oil systems I recommend an annual cleaning which will include a new nozzle and oil filter. Natural gas and propane burners tend to require less routine maintenance, but do need attention from time to time. Furnaces do need air filters replaced at regular intervals to maintain best operation. That requires the homeowner to know how to check and replace their filter. Blower belts can also be an issue for belt driven blowers and should be checked for cracks and wear.

How about tips to keep a boiler maintained?

Oil boilers are the same as furnaces as far as annual maintenance and gas/propane as well. Steam boilers should have at least a monthly flushing and testing of the low water cut-off to ensure proper operation and rust/debris removal.

What type of fuel (gas, oil, electricity, etc) do you think is the best as far as efficiency, comfort, and equipment lifespan?

With my expertise being in the oil burner field I have the most knowledge about oil. Combustion efficiency is certainly higher for gas fired units, 95% to 87% roughly. Combustion efficiency doesn’t take into account the potential lifespan of a boiler for instance.Oil boilers are primarily made of cast iron and they tend to last 30 years or more. High efficiency wall-hung type gas and propane heaters are similarly pricey and made of steel with a shorter life expectancy. Electric mini split heating and cooling combination units are an interesting idea which I do recommend to customers that have solar electric paying for their electricity bills. Otherwise their high usage cost seems prohibitive.

Could you go over the different ways heat gets spread throughout a home and give a couple of pros and cons for each?

There are three primary ways that heat is spread through a home.

  1. Forced Hot Water: Water is heated in a boiler and at a call for heat it is circulated through baseboard, radiator, or radiant heating units, which give off heat to the living area. Forced hot water, especially in radiant floor heat, tends to be balanced without a lot of temperature swings.
  2. Steam: Steam heat is not used at all in new residential construction as far as I know, but there are still many steam systems in use here in the Northeast. In a steam boiler, on a call for heat the burner fires and the water in the boiler is actually boiled and made to steam up to radiators where they give off heat to the rooms. Steam heat is a pretty even heat generally and, if the radiators have adjustable vents throughout the area to be heated, the heat can be pretty evenly managed.
  3. Warm Air Furnace: At a call for heat the burner fires and, after [the] temperature rises in the furnace or a certain amount of time [passes], the blower within the unit forces air over the heat exchanger and distributes it to the heated (living) area. This tends to be a very dry type of heat and can feel uneven with moments of warmth and chill. Warm air also tends to be the loudest of the means of heating. The advantage of warm air is the ability to add an “A” coil to the unit for summertime air conditioning.

If a homeowner is looking to change their current heating system, what is the best way to go about doing that?

If a homeowner is looking to change out their current heating system the first place I would look right now is for electric company, state, and federal rebates. Have an idea of the type of unit you’re looking for and find a local installer. Talk to friends in the area. I recommend doing some online searches for what other people pay for systems in your region and what brands work for people in their homes and brands service people like to work on. You do not want to buy a unit that nobody wants to service.

Can you give us any tips for hiring a heating contractor? What should we be looking for?

My best advice in hiring a heating contractor is ask around. You want someone who is licensed and insured, but beyond that you want someone in your home that you can trust. The majority of my jobs Coe from word of mouth and referrals and I think that’s the best way to find a contractor for whatever type of project you are doing.

What kind of advice would you give someone who was thinking about beginning a career in heating/HVAC?

My advice for someone looking to get into heating/HVAC is to try it out first. Any number of companies will be willing to hire a person short term or on a speculative basis. Many times I’ve seen where someone shows acumen in the field and the company s willing to pay for or subsidize some of their schooling to have them continue working for the company during and after training.

What’s one thing you know now that you wish you had known when you were just starting your business?

If I could go back and restart my business from the beginning I would definitely be better at the paperwork side of it all. The servicing and installations are often the easy part of the job.

*Radiant meaning a system that allows the heat to simply radiate, or emanate, from the discharge units rather than forcing the heat off with a fan or other such device

Wow, thanks for all of that useful info, Dave! I certainly feel a lot more comfortable discussing heating systems now, and I feel like I have a new knowledge tool to tuck into my toolbox the next time I’m looking at an investment property!

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