Do You Have Heat, or are You Frozen?

To assist those who are, or were unfortunate enough to have no heat, frozen pipes or a gas or oil burner breakdown, here are a few helpful steps which can be taken and time saving info can be given to your heating technician. Your technician may be able to give you some advice over the phone in the attempt to give you heat until he or she arrives.

Keep in mind that water has a unique quality. Water expands when it is heated or when it freezes but cannot be compressed. This rare quality of expanding when it freezes, the author was told only water has this characteristic, in a confined space, such as a pipe, will apply enough pressure to burst a steel or copper pipe.

Determine What the Problem is

No heat service calls can happen at any time, but they also occur during the night while you are in your warm, toasty, comfortable bed. During the day, you tend to notice the cold, and make the call to your heating repairman. At night, however, many hours can go by before you notice, and by morning it may be to late, because your heating and/or plumbing pipes may already be partially or solidly frozen.

  1. If you have no heat, try to determine if the no heat problem is throughout your house or just part of it.
  2. If your hot water comes from a tankless coil or hot water storage tank piped thru the boiler, check to see if you have hot water.
    1. If you have a tankless coil and run out of hot water really fast and it gets cold, follow the steps below under If You Have No Heat.
    2. If you have a storage tank style system, the storage tank still may still have hot water in it, so you may want to take a real quick shower, because if the burner is down, it is going to get real cold, real fast. If you run out of hot water, follow the steps below under If You Have No Heat.
  3. If you do have hot water, but do not have heat in part of the house; you probably have a circulator, zone, related control problem or a frozen pipe. Some heating controls that actuate the circulator might have failed. Call your heating company as soon as you can. The longer you wait, the more the potential of damage that could result to pipes and property.
  4. If you do not have hot water and you do have heat throughout the house, you have a hot water problem. Monitor this over several hours.
    1. A quicker way to test this is to turn up all the thermostats throughout the home wait a while (about 5 to 30 minutes, depending on the size of the zones and the home, this allows the burner to cycle and bring the boiler up to temperature and to allow the circulator(s) to run), put your hand near the baseboard and check to see if you feel heat coming from the baseboard. No heat generally means that you need to make the call to the heating technician.

Remember it is less expensive to have a repairman to arrive during the day, so the sooner you call, the sooner you will get service and the less costly it will be. Damages from burst pipes can run into thousands of dollars in addition to the service call, however, hot water problems, providing there is heat, can generally wait until normal working hours.

Preventing the No Heat Call

Many no heat calls are caused by minor preventable problems, however, no heat can result in major, expensive repairs, as well as contributing to colds, flu and other illnesses. As a general rule of thumb, by following these simple steps, you can prevent or at minimum, forestall to a more convenient time, a costly service call from your heating technician. During a “cold snap,” or in extreme cases, like this winter of 2015 with the Siberian Express upon most of the country, “no heat” calls occur almost as frequently as the snowflakes are falling.

  • Most heating problems stem from the lack of maintenance – have your heating system checked by a qualified technician – annually.
  • Do not set your thermostat(s) lower than 60 degrees when the temperature outside falls below 20 degrees, especially when it is windy.The reason is because heating pipes are generally on exterior walls, while the thermostats are generally on an interior walls. Lack of insulation, older homes, types of construction and cracks in the walls allow cold air to have contact with these heating (aka baseboard) pipes.
    • The thermostat will not call for heat if it is set to low or the heat from a wood, pellet , coal stove or fireplace is keeping it satisfied. It is recommended to rely on your heating system in extreme cold temperatures, if you have baseboard (hydronic aka water) heat. It may cost more, but this suggestion could save you thousands of dollars.
    • The extreme cold, combined with wind chill and the water in the pipes that is not moving could cause pipes could freeze. The wind will cause drafts in cracks in the walls, floors and ceilings, and these drafts can be extremely cold.
  • Make sure you have oil in the oil tank before a storm or extreme cold is in the forecast.
  • Check/replace the thermostat batteries
  • Zone Valves, Expansion Tank and Zone Control, Yellow handle valves are manual shut offs

    Know your heating system, label every zone, and if you have them, label each valve (supply/feed and return) so each zone can be isolated. This way, if one zone is frozen, you can shut off (isolate) that zone by closing the supply and return valves and still have heat in the rest of the home.

  • If you have a HVAC system, hydro-air or a warm air heating system, change the air filters frequently, the dust buildup will clog the air filters, which can decrease airflow, making the heating system work harder and actually burn out the furnace’s heat exchanger. That means replacing the heating system.
  • If the oil tank is outside, build an insulated shed around it with access to the oil fill, vent pipe and filter. Wrap the oil line with a heat tape, but do not overlap the heat tape over itself because it could melt its own insulation and cause a short.

If You Have No Heat

  1. Turn up the thermostats at least 2 to 4 degrees above the room temperature.
  2. Check/replace the thermostat batteries.
  3. Make sure the burner switch is on – the high switch with a red cover plate on it and the one at the oil/gas burner.
  4. Check your fuses.
  5. Oil tank
    Check the oil tank for oil

    Check your oil tank (sometimes the oil guage will stick and give a false indication of the oil in the oil tank). Sometimes a good thump on the side of the tank will drop the gauge.

  6. If you have oil heat reset the red button on the primary control. Push the button once and once only. Wait for at least two full minutes to make sure the system “fires up” and remains running. If the burner sounds funny, or is running quieter than normal, call your heating guy and tell him what the symptoms are. Do not reset the burner a second time unless instructed to by your heating company. They may ask you several questions, be patient, because they are trying to give you the best service they can under extremely difficult situations. For example, multiple no heat calls can come in in a very short time, and there may be several calls that have yet to be dispatched and came in before yours.

Frozen Pipes

  • Determine if the pipe is a heating pipe or a plumbing pipe.
  • Know where the water shut off valve is to the house and for each fixture. You might be able to just shut off the fixture until the pipe is repaired.
  • New Boiler
    New Boiler Installation

    Know where and label the boiler’s manual water feed shut off valve. If a domestic water line is frozen and burst, you can still (provided there is about 12 pounds of pressure in the boiler, tap the boiler guage) shut off the house water and the boiler water valves and keep the boiler running for a limited time. This can be done to prevent the domestic (drinking) water from siphoning the boiler water and causing the boiler to run dry. Only do this as an emergency measure, and tell your plumber or heating technician what you did, so they can reverse the procedure. Better yet, leave a note at both the water main and the boiler as a reminder.

  • Your heating technician can install isolating valves on each zone so if you freeze up (again), you can shut off those valves and still have heat in the rest of the dwelling (next time). In some cases, burst pipes are so severe, that the entire zone is isolated from the rest of the heating system, and left to be repaired at a later time.
  • Otherwise, if a heating pipe is frozen or worse, burst and leaking, and there are no isolating valves, you may have to shut the water off to the boiler and possibly the house. The reality is, if the boiler is running with no water in it because the water either leaked out of the system, or turned into steam and evaporated out of the system, your boiler is at risk of cracking. A cracked boiler must be replaced.

Antifreeze in the Heating System

  • Some plumbers and heating technicians advocate non-toxic anti-freeze for heating systems. A word of caution, first off, this type of antifreeze is expensive, must be properly pumped and purged and also must be replaced about every 4 years, or as recommended by the manufacturer. The antifreeze will eventually break down and corrode fittings, valves and plumbing parts if not replaced on a regular basis. An additional drawback with the installation of anti-freeze is if it is not properly pumped and purged into the system, gurgling noises (caused by air in the system) develop after it is introduced into the system and could create a no heat call. A second service call may be required, and if a different service technician determines that the system needs to be purged of air he/she may inadvertently purge the antifreeze out of the system. Sometimes, this possibility will wait for a year or two. If you have antifreeze in the heating system, have it tested annually and hang a tag on the boiler stating the date and quantity of antifreeze.

Safety, is first and foremost in our minds. Past experience shows us discipline for the future. Preparedness for a disaster or an emergency is safety for the future.

For heating tips, or for emergency disaster preparedness products and supplies contact Just Us Enterprises.