HVAC Unit Recall: GE Zoneline® Units Recalled Due to Risk of Fire

General Electric has issued a recall for certain Zoneline® packaged AC and heating units. Listed below are more details. We found this news information on the GE’s official website and the Consumer Product Safety Commission‘s website.

Which Products are Involved

GE Zoneline® Air Conditioning and heating units, sold nationwide from January 2010 through December 2013. The CPSC site article stated that more than 33,000 of these package units were involved. This type of unit is typically used in commercial spaces or settings such as: apartments, condos or hotels. Because they are used more in commercial settings, they would likely have been installed by a heating and air conditioning contractor.

Reason for Recall

The reason for the recall is risk of fire when the unit is operated with the external vent open. Moisture from the outdoor air can accumulate near the heating unit when operated with the vent door continuously open. This, along with a short in electrical components, can create an electrical ground path and arcing, which poses a risk of fire.

What to Do / How To Contact GE if Your Have These

On its site, GE advises the following: Do not operate the PTAC with the external vent open until after the unit has been repaired. For repair: on the GE web page in the link above in the first paragraph, enter your model and serial numbers. This will determine if your unit is included in the recall. If your unit is affected, to schedule service, you can call the GE Recall Hotline Toll-Free at 1-866-723-2697. Hours: Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. – 5 p.m. ET. Before you call, look on your unit and write down the the model and serial number.

If you have an experience to share about owning on of these units, or if you are involved in repair service for these, please add comments.

 

HVAC Repairs: Do Universal Fit or Aftermarket Parts Work as Well as OEM Parts?

While reading HVAC industry publications, I frequently see ads for companies that provide “universal” replacement parts.  In this context, universal means that these replacement parts will fit many brands and models of AC and heating systems, but they were not made by the same company that made the original part. In other industries these would sometimes be called aftermarket parts. These universal fit, aftermarket parts often feature settings and mounting hardware that cover a wide variety of applications.  Since repairs tend to be more common during extreme (hot or cold) weather, often both homeowners and contractors often get in a rush to get systems going again.  Although this topic can be ignored, for the long haul you would do well to be aware of this choice — ask a few questions about parts being used in your system.

In other blogs and pages on our website, you’ll see many references to this fact: there are more brands of new HVAC equipment than there are factories making them.  This means that some brands of new equipment have the same or very similar main components as other brands.  A few examples of these parts include: compressors, condensers, coils, fans, blowers, controls, and more.  For these reasons, the concept of OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) is less differentiated in the HVAC component and parts industry than in some other industries.

HVAC contractor point of view

For the company doing the repairs, having universal fitting parts offers several advantages. For starters, although many AC and heating contractors will focus on a limited number of brands of new equipment, most will repair ALL makes and models of central AC and heating systems.  Universal fit repair parts mean that the contractor can:  a- keep less inventory on their trucks or in their warehouse; b- spend less time going for / waiting on OEM replacement parts; c- be more efficient and make more profit on flat rate repair jobs, save money for the homeowner, or some combination.

Homeowner point of view and questions to ask

For the homeowner, the following considerations come into play when comparing OEM parts with universal fit ones:

Availability – is the OEM part available? If not, your decision just got easier — you’ll have to go with an aftermarket or universal fit one.

Cost – now, and over the life of the repair part or your system.

Performance — does the universal fit product fit and work as well — or better than — a replacement original or OEM one?

Warranty – would a non-OEM part void all or part of the original warranty on your system? If yes, is it worth it? If not, what is the warranty on the parts and labor on the OEM part vs. the universal part you are considering.

If you have related experience with this topic, please share them so others can benefit.

 

 

 

How buying a new AC system is different than a product purchase

I had a call this week from a reader who asked why — since our website is positioned as a buyer’s guide — we do not have charts or grids that compare specific AC brands and their components.  In spite of the video and other free information on our site that explains why, (and what to do instead) this is a still a common question. So, I’ll use notes from that conversation for today’s blog post.

Air conditioning and heating is a complex topic. Although there are many sub-topics and themes that are interrelated, we can distill the most important answers down to four points.

1-Quality of installation matters more than brand
Correct, professional installation includes, among other things, a precise load calculation for your specific situation — your location and building.  You need to compare the features and benefits of the company and technicians who install your air conditioning system before you think about equipment and brand comparison.  Look for contractors who use the “whole house approach”.

2-Central AC and heating components are parts of a system that include your home or building.
Unlike refrigerators, air conditioning and heating systems are not “plug in and forget” appliances.  Any component, features or benefits that you could compare on paper must be installed and operate within a system that is affected by other factors. As just one example, duct work (which would not be included in a comparison of brands and models) is a huge variable – it will literally “make or break” your AC system, costs and comfort.  As you can see, the two points above are related.

3- Your satisfaction and cost of operation over the life of the system
Most buyers focus on initial cost, discounts, rebates, payments or financing.  However, there are additional points to consider in an installed system:  a- how much does it cost to operate monthly, b-how much are repairs and maintenance over the life of the system, c- how many years before this system needs replacing again.  Here again, the initial installation has a major impact.

4-It is fine to compare equipment brands — after you have considered the more important points.
OK, now to brands. Once you have picked one or more local AC companies who are qualified and diligent with load calculations and the other main points, you can choose from equipment brands and features.  You can go to this page to read about the relationships between your local contractors and brands they carry.

Free Download: You can print out our chart to compare quotes or bids for a new installed AC and heating system. There is a companion video on the same page that explains how to use the chart.

I hope this post and free resources help you in your decisions. If you have related experience of feedback, please share it so others can benefit.

Air Balancing in Home AC and Heating Systems

In this blog post, I’m going to write about an topic that is well known in commercial HVAC, but not as commonly known by owners of residential AC and heating: air balancing.  The ability to balance air delivery is part of a professional installation and the “whole house” approach.  It is one of the criteria that separates professionals from the corner cutters or “connect and go” furnace or AC installation.  As with all our posts, we chose this topic independently and do not receive compensation for writing it.

What it means: delivering the proper cubic feet per minute (cfm) of air that each room needs to receive, based on its size and conditions.

Why it matters:  Delivering more air to a room is not necessarily better. Rather, getting the optimum amount of air delivered to each room prevents hot and cold areas within your house, affects how much you pay in utility bills each month, and can even affect how long some components last.

Factors that affect air balancing: size of the room; size, type and condition of the ducts; fireplaces and chimneys; kitchen exhaust fans; bathroom vent fans, etc.

Who does it: the contractor who installs or repairs your ac and heating system should include measured, optimum air balancing in their work. There are national organizations that provide training and certification for HVAC contractors in air balancing.  We’ll provide links at the end of the article.

When to do it: include it as a final stage action in new HVAC system and ductwork installation.  For existing systems, it would be done with an energy audit, duct sealing or replacement, or when replacing major components.

Do you have rooms that are too hot or too cold?  If there are deficiencies in your ductwork, those will likely need to be corrected before your system can be balanced.
Once the ductwork is ready, to properly balance the delivery of conditioned air, your contractor first has to calculate the airflow requirements for each room and adjust the airflow accordingly.  Your contractor may need to install adjustable balancing dampers.

NBI Certification: Certified contractors have an NBI stamp. They put their certification number on drawings and reports.  More info on the National Comfort Institute can be found here.

Book Review: “From Contractor to Consumer” By Joe Gorman

Before going further, we will give a disclaimer that is important to us and should be to you:  we found and purchased a copy of this book unsolicited, and receive no compensation of any kind for this review or from book orders.  We wrote this review because we find its content relevant and useful to home and building owners or occupants.

Who: Author is Joe Gorman, a HVAC contractor in California and industry expert.
What: Paperback, about 60 pages of content
When: Buy before choosing a heating and AC contractor or system, or having repairs done.
Where:  www.jpgorman.com
Why:    In about an hour, you can read the whole book, and get a candid insider’s view of heating and AC systems and practices.
How Much: $10.95 plus postage
Rating: 4.8 out of 5 stars.

What we like most about the book

– Author’s impressive list of credentials and experience.
– Skillful use of tables, lists, and info boxes for easier reading– there are more than a dozen of these.
– The book provides practical and high-impact advice.
– The points he emphasized are very similar to the ones we have emphasized over the years.
– Effective use of technical terms — in the amount necessary — and in a way consumers can understand.

The book has a subtitle: the Truth about Heating, Air Conditioning, and Home Comfort SystemsOur consensus: the book accurately delivers on it. We won’t attempt to go into more detail or somehow condense 60 pages of well written, appropriately technical content into a list for this review.  From our perspective, though, the author makes a great case for why you need to take time to learn about the topic. And, he provides specific action point and next steps.

We are often quoted as saying “the main benefit of any heating and AC system is to provide more comfort and lower bills”.  “From Contractor to Consumer” takes this approach also, and adds some hard-hitting discussion of safety and what can happen if it is ignored.

What we would like to see different
We don’t see much room for improvement.  If there were a way to summarize a bit more of the text into additional tables and lists, that would make the book even better.  As stated above, we counted 12 examples of tables, lists, etc.

If you have related experience you would like to share, please join in the discussion.

Breakthrough in Duct Sealing Prompts Questions and Planning

While reading my favorite AC heating forum this morning, I found a link to a Nov. 7 article on the U.S. Dept. of Energy (DOE) website. The article describes new duct sealing technology that could be a breakthrough in energy conservation – one that could save home and building owners in the U.S. up to $5 billion per year.  There is a link to the article at the end of this blog post.

Leaky ducts waste a lot of energy – estimates show that 25-40% of the cooled or warmed air (and the energy that produced it) gets wasted in transit. For the average homeowner, this translates to $50-70 per month in utility costs.

After the initial excitement of saving this much energy leveled off, I began to think of questions to ask, or situations where sealing an existing duct system might not automatically be a wise move, or could be done out of sequence.

Get the correct sequence for energy saving improvements
To be clear, making sure that ducts are sealed correctly is a top priority, and will save lots of energy. However, HVAC system improvements need to be performed in the correct sequence. So, before going to the effort and cost of having existing ducts sealed, here are some related issues an owner needs to find out or plan for:

Age of other main HVAC components
How old are the other outside and inside main components: compressor, condenser, heat exchanger and air handler? If those components are nearing the end of their economic life (generally around 10 years or older), they might need to be replaced first. Then, if main components get replaced, the existing ducts may need replacement with them — so that they are the correct size and other specifications. Here’s a critical point: one size does not fit all with HVAC systems and ductwork!

Were your existing components and ductwork correctly sized originally?
Even if the other main components will not be changed soon, is the existing ductwork the correct size for your current situation: existing components, your home or building envelope, your climate and other particulars? If equipment or ducts were not correctly sized or configured originally, sealing the ducts will not be a total solution. Ironically, the sealing of leaky, undersized ducts could trigger other previously obscured issues or complaints with your AC or heating system.  One example: if your AC or furnace was oversized, sealing ducts could cause your AC or heating system to cycle on and off too quickly.  Excessive on-off cycling involves unnecessary energy use, equipment wear, and comfort complaints.  So in this scenario, you pay twice: once to get your current ducts sealed, and then you pay again to fix the pre-existing problems in your system — problems that the duct sealing brought to light.

In summary, absolutely do get your ducts sealed, but get your ducks in a row before you sign on the dotted line. Choose the right contractor, and they will explain the optimum sequence of energy improvements for your situation.

Link to article
Read the full article on the duct sealing breakthrough on the U.S. Energy Department website.

 

How to avoid paying twice for heating and AC equipment installations

I recently attended a meeting here in Austin, and had some spare time to visit with two other attendees. It turns out that one was an attorney, and another was a heating and AC contractor.  The attorney told a really disturbing account of how she had to pay twice for her home renovation and new heating & AC system. During this discussion, the HVAC company owner shared his experience on how to avoid getting a lien placed on your property, having to pay twice for materials, labor, or both.  Although our discussion was about HVAC, the same process holds true for most any type of home or building improvement projects such as roofing, wiring, plumbing, windows, kitchen or bathroom renovations.

The particulars on this subject vary by state or local jurisdiction. Before going further, I’ll state the following disclaimer: this general article is in no way intended to be advice for a specific location or situation. Rather, the intent is to make you aware of potential problems. Then, you can choose a good contractor, and if needed check with your local authorities or attorney to take preventative action that is appropriate for your location.

Framing the potential problem: unpaid people “downstream”
Here’s the scenario you basically need to avoid: paying a contractor for materials and labor without assurance that they have paid suppliers of materials and sub-contractors. The reason is straightforward: even if you pay your contractor in full and in good faith, if that contractor does not pay others “downstream” who provided materials or labor, those downstream parties could come back and seek payment or other remedies directly from you.

Outline of some ways to avoid paying twice

Below are some tactics you can use or combine to avoid issues:

  1. Most importantly: deal with reputable contractors that you have thoroughly vetted. In addition to paying everyone who is owed, stand up contractors also are usually bonded, carry insurance, keep current with technical updates, and have other attributes that benefit you.  Keep in mind that the cheapest bid for a new heating and AC system may not be the best value. Over its life, monthly utility bills and other operating and repair costs will often be higher than the initial purchase price of your system.  Get a checklist here.
  2. Get release of lien documents signed by all parties who might be able to make a claim for payment against you or file a lien against your property.  There are several types of releases – get the correct release for your situation and locality.
  3. Consider paying with “two party” checks:  make the check payable to both the general HVAC contractor and second parties, as appropriate. The second parties can be the supplier of materials or labor such as a sub-contractor.  For this to work, though, you have to know who the second parties are and how much they are owned.  If the contractor has “issues” you might not have access to all the info you need.
  4. Pay suppliers directly and separately for materials. Of course, you will need to work with the contractor to make sure the equipment is correctly sized, etc. Make separate payments for labor costs and use the tactics above.

In some cases, paying with a credit card might give you some leverage.  If anything about the project does not work out as needed, you might be able to get the credit card company to help you remedy the problem before you pay your bill to your card issuer.  However, if the contractor’s bank account were to be closed, there could a lot less leverage to exert.  If you are financing your system, your lender will often have a say in who gets paid and how the funds are disbursed.

If you have experience with this topic, please send your comments in so that others can benefit.

10 Insider Facts You Must Know About Home AC and Heating Systems

If you’ve read our previous blog posts, you have likely observed that they tend to go into a lot of detail.  Today’s blog post is different, and fills a response to a reader’s request for a broad view – an “executive summary” or “101 level course” — of the ten most important current HVAC topics for homeowners.  At the end of each item, in parenthesis, I’ll comment on whether it applies to repair, installation, maintenance or all.

1.    Your most important decision: which local company to call to repair, maintain, or install your system. If you get this part right, you can take a lot less time reading (or skip altogether…) items 2-10 below. (all)

2.    Do some research and choose a heating and AC company when you are not in hurry. Waiting until your system breaks down (needing to have it repaired or replaced) to pick a heating and AC company usually leads to less than optimum results.  You don’t wait until the engine in your car quits to have the oil changed, do you? (all)

3.    The “envelope” of your home affects your indoor comfort and utility bills too.  Work with your AC heating service to use the “whole house” approach to get the optimum mix of heating and cooling capacity and improvements to the envelope of your home. A few examples of improvements that affect system performance are duct sealing, insulation, solar screens, and radiant barriers. (all)

4.    There are more companies (brands) selling equipment than factories that manufacture it.  (installation)

5.    Surfaces in your system that the air passes over – the surfaces where heat and cool get exchanged– must be kept clean to work effectively and for certain parts to not break down prematurely. Some of these are user serviceable (some types of air filters) while others are not.  Find out which ones are from your heating and AC company. (maintenance)

6.    If the insides of your ductwork need cleaning, before taking action you should determine the reason why, instead of simply paying to have them cleaned. (maintenance and repair)

7.    Getting on a yearly maintenance plan for your system can help prevent equipment failures, save on utility bills, and can prevent dangerous conditions (carbon monoxide leaks) by any fuel-burning systems.  (maintenance and repair)

8.    Extended warranties can be a poor value, especially if they are offered by some companies other than the equipment manufacturer directly.  A few red flags: policies offered by “third parties”, obscure exclusions and deductibles in the fine print. (installation)

9.    If you are looking at a major component replacement, such as evaporator or condenser coils, air handlers, compressors, or heat exchangers, understand that “field matching” (ad hoc mixing of components) is less likely to perform well over the long run. Contrast these with a factory matched system.  Also, field matched repairs usually do not qualify for rebates or incentive programs. (repair and installation). A current example of this is the “dry charged” unit we wrote about last month.

10.    Two specific areas that tend to generate more complaints are duct cleaning and extended warranties.  If you are not convinced yet, go back to item number 1 again. (all)

The explanations for all these items are found in sections on our website or in our other blog posts. Even so, if you have a question on one of the items in the list above, or have a related experience to share, send us your comments so others can learn from it.

Dry Charged R-22 Condensing Units For Air Conditioners: What’s up?

Now and then I run across a topic with potential for significant impact, but the details are being debated.  The topic of today’s blog, R-22 dry charge condenser units, is one of those.  Rather than call this blog “news” or “facts”, I’m putting this out as a “heads up” (if your older R-22 system breaks down and are presented with a proposal for one of these), but more as a request for crowd sourcing from those of you who work in the HVAC industry or have experience on this topic.

Background

The following is a bullet point summary of the high points I’ve seen on this topic:

  • The refrigerant R-22 is being phased out by the U.S. EPA (2009) because of links to ozone depletion.
  • There seems to be (depending on who is describing it…) a “loophole” or “wiggle room” in the wording in the law that allows U.S. manufacturers to keep making new AC condenser units that use R-22.
  • A key point is the definition (some are saying misclassification) of the condensing unit as a component.
  • These condensing units cannot be shipped charged with refrigerant R-22. As a result, they are shipped with an inert (nitrogen) holding charge. The R-22 in the old system is supposed to be captured. Then, the nitrogen must be evacuated from the new unit. Then the new unit must be field-charged with R-22 when installed.  Thus, these R-22 units are called “dry shipped” condensing units.
  • One projection I read (I have not yet been able to verify these numbers…) stated that up to six AC manufacturers will produce about 600,000 of the dry charged units in 2011. Each of these units will require up to appx. 8 pounds of R22 refrigerant.

Possible Pros and Cons

  • Meeting the letter of the regulation vs. the spirit or intention of it.
  • For a home or building owner of an older R-22 system with a worn out /failed outdoor component, the initial cost of having it replaced with a dry-charged R-22 unit could be substantially less expensive than getting a new system with R-410A.
  • Consumers have been educated that R-22 needs to be phased out, and that we should buy higher-efficiency, environmentally friendly systems that use R-410A.
  • Rebates and tax credits need to be factored into any major AC and heating purchase. Most rebate and tax credits require a whole new system purchase – I have not seen a major component qualify.  (Since tax credits are taken post-purchase, always get tax credit details in writing from your contractor before you buy.)
  • Field matching of components can cause issues (sooner or later..) that having a new, factory matched system will avoid.
  • Since existing R-22 units come in a wide range of ages and types, there are some potential compatibility issues. A technical bulletin from one manufacturer of the dry-charged replacement units I found read as follows: “If the (indoor) coil was made in 1999 or earlier replace the coil or air hander.  Do not install a new condenser if the indoor unit has a  “cap tube” style coil.

Why the confusion or controversy?

  • Well, for starters, it seems that at least one of the companies manufacturing these (a major manufacturer, of these) dry charged units equipment is petitioning the EPA to modify the rules to end the production of these units.  See the link below, and to read comments that attest to the strong opinions on this topic, scroll to the bottom of the linked article.
  • When I visited several of the manufacturer websites, I see references to the compressor motor and corrosion-resistant cabinet, and that the outdoor units make an alternative solution to compressor replacement.  So, for us non-technicians, the whole outdoor unit is involved in the replacement, not just the condenser coil.
  • Within the industry, the debates fall under several themes: cost (initial and later), refrigerant availability, effectiveness of the procedure, proper installation and handling of refrigerant, environmental/regulations.

Link to article in Contracting Business:  Carrier Petitions EPA To Close R-22 Loophole

More info added 8/6: check out this 6-minute YouTube clip. It is a panel discussion by HVAC industry leaders on this same topic

If you have experience on this topic, please let us hear from you.

Do You Have A Leaking AC Evaporator (Indoor) Coil?


In many of my blog posts, I go into lots of detail.  For this post, however, I’m trying a shorter format for two reasons: a – our readers are busy, and want useful information in bite-sized pieces; and 2- the causes of leaks in AC evaporator coils seems more varied than the solution.

Symptoms of leak in indoor coils

  • Periodically being told that refrigerant needs to be added
  • AC system and fan runs, but warm air comes from vents

Causes of leaks in evaporator coils

In the HVAC forums I monitor, the posts on leaky indoor coils tend to come in waves, sometime focused in certain geographical areas.  Humid climates tend to increase some of the issues.  Lately the number of posts has been high.  Leaky coil issues are fairly widespread, and are not limited to any particular brand. Listed below are some of the possible causes of leaks:

  • Corrosion of tubes (“formicary corrosion”) increasing due to “tighter” house construction. Corrosion causes pinholes in the copper tubes
  • Corrosive gasses or fumes from defective drywall or other building materials, contents, or household chemicals.
  • AC coils being made of thinner-walled, lighter gauge copper
  • Higher operating pressures in newer equipment
  • Manufacturing defects in tubing

Possible solutions and questions to ask your contractor

  • If your AC and heating system is older (10 years is a benchmark used by some of the municipal rebate programs) or not very efficient, before doing a major repair, such as replacing a compressor, coil, or heat exchanger, you should also compare the cost of replacement.  Most rebates and tax credits require the installation of a new system to qualify.  Plus you’ll lower your monthly utility bills and future repair bills.  If you are in a position to possibly replace your system, you can use our free grid to compare bids.
  • If your AC and heating system is otherwise OK, ask your HVAC contractor if either a plated (tin) or aluminum corrosion-resistant replacement coil will work in your equipment and situation. If you don’t have a reliable service company, you can visit this page to learn how.

If you have experience with a leaky AC coils, either as an owner or technician, please enter your comments so others can learn.