Help me make sure I'm not getting scammed...
October 13, 2006 7:16 PM   Subscribe

BrrrrrFilter: It's gotten cold here in Chicago and my heater appears to be broken. Google didn't help me much probably because my knowledge of HVAC is weak. Help me find out quickly if I'm being ripped off?

I feel like I can trust this company, I've had them out here before, but I just want to be sure.

I'd start my heater up and the fan would spin up briefly (a few seconds at most) and then just stop. The flame didn't seem to light up.

He says it's a problem with a gas valve in the system, but because it's an electric system, this whole set of things (3 things: valve, ignitor and something else) need to be replaced. Total cost for these materials: $489.

I asked how this could have broken, and his explanation was that since it's an electrical system, if condensation got in there it could kill the thing. This story actually jives with something that happeend early this summer when I moved into this place (which I recently bought): The A/C was not working and the previous repairman found lots of condensation in the unit. I just didn't know it wrecked my heating ignition unit, I guess, because why would I be using the heat in June?

The previous repairman, by the way, did a bang up job adding some wrapping around all of my piping etc to prevent future condensation.

So.. is $489 a ripoff? Does this "if you replace the valve you gotta replace it all" thing seem like a sham?
posted by twiggy to Home & Garden (15 answers total)
Is it possible all these things went at the same time? Well, anything's possible, I guess...

I had the exact same problem and the cause was a loose wire. Cost to fix? Zero. A bad valve or bad ignitor could each cause the same problem. But both (plus another mystery part) going at once? I don't know...

Giving the repairman the benefit of the doubt here, maybe the parts are cheap enough and are both close enough to the end of their useful life that he figures he should replace them all while he's in there to save you the trouble/expense of another service call. But the "if you change one you have to change them all" story smells fishy. Tread carefully.
posted by Opposite George at 7:35 PM on October 13, 2006

I just looked at my year-old Carrier unit. I can't see how condensation could be responsible for damaging the valves or ignitors. Really bad condensation might get my control board wet, but since there's usually a gap of several weeks between the time the A/C gets turned off and the heat gets turned on I don't know if even that would be a problem.

Of course, all this depends on the way your unit is built -- don't be afraid to pull the cover off and look at it (you own it, after all.) Just be sure to shut the power to the furnace first, and not just at the thermostat. There's usually a switch w/red cover plate somewhere near the unit and that's the one you want to turn off.
posted by Opposite George at 7:55 PM on October 13, 2006

I don't understand how condensation would screw up a gas valve either... he ran some test on the unit though and the blinking code it gave him indicated a valve problem.

The story was that the valve is bad, but the valve can't be bought on its own for an electrical unit like this one, because it comes together with a new igniter/other piece... basically the whole ignition unit.
posted by twiggy at 8:03 PM on October 13, 2006

Twiggy, the idea that it is only sold as a unit is completely plausible, because it makes the inventory problem a lot easier.

Condensation can kill an ignitor if it gets inside the spark coil and wrecks the insulation.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 8:21 PM on October 13, 2006

When the fan starts is there also a zap zap noise? The ignitor generally starts firing before the valve opens. If you don't have ignitor zaps at all, then that's pretty much diagnostic.

The valve is along with the ignitor because the valve has to sense ignitor activity to know when to allow a little gas near the spark, then (shortly after the small or pilot flame starts from that little bit of gas) an unwavering pilot. Usually the main burner starts from the pilot, not from the ignitor.

Saying "pilot" like that can cause confusion so these days the old-fashioned kind of flame that's on all the time is called a 'standing pilot'.
posted by jet_silver at 8:39 PM on October 13, 2006

Is it possible all these things went at the same time? Well, anything's possible, I guess...

just an anecdote to note; last year the headlights on my car went out at exactly the same time.

i thought "huh, both at once? must be the fuse." checked the fuse, it was fine.

"could it be the bulbs? nah, what are the odds of both bulbs blowing at once? must be something else."

after 6-7 hours of dicking around with the wiring diagram and multimeter checking all the connections, relays etc, in frustration i pull the bulbs, just to be sure. they're both blown.

so yeah, anything's possible. electrical things are funny that way sometimes.
posted by sergeant sandwich at 8:49 PM on October 13, 2006

Well, if you can only buy the three pieces together then you're stuck. Or maybe in your furnace they're all part of one assembly called the "valve/ignitor/flabjabit" or whatever and the way the repairman said it made it sound like three distinct parts. It's still probably worth calling another repair co. for an over-the-phone reality check.

That zap-zap noise is a good clue (my furnace did exactly that.) Still, if the parts are all in one package it might not affect the recommended repair.

Condensation can kill an ignitor if it gets inside the spark coil and wrecks the insulation.

Absolutely -- look under the hood and see if that's possible with the way the parts are laid out in your furnace (are the parts tucked behind a panel shielding them from the likely water path, or are they out in the open?)

One more thing I'm sure you've checked but I'll throw it out there -- is the furnace still under warranty? You're usually on the hook for labor after the first year but if it's less than 5 years old, parts are almost certainly covered. Some warranties go out 10 or more years. Some transfer with change of ownership, some don't. Obviously, trying to establish this over the weekend complicates things.
posted by Opposite George at 9:15 PM on October 13, 2006

Some more skilled googling shows me just the gas valve for $83...

gas valve...

My furnace is the Janitrol GMP-050-3, parts list here (see box #26 to match part above)...

Looks like I've detected some BS. Is it possible that this repair company can only get this part bundled with others, so while they're "wrong" they're not lying to me outright?

I plan on showing this to them as diplomatically as I can.
posted by twiggy at 9:24 PM on October 13, 2006

Should have thought of this earlier. Some fan-boosted heaters have a dumalfac called a "flame roll-out" switch. It is about the size of two nickels stuck together (maybe 19 mm diameter), and it will have two wires on it 180 degrees apart. It will be near or on the inspection cover you remove to peer at the insides of the heater. If you have a roll-out switch, it will have a reset button on the outside or cool side. Try pushing that if you don't have any ignitor zaps.
posted by jet_silver at 9:26 PM on October 13, 2006

Some more skilled googling shows me just the gas valve for $83...

Read this article:

Not only do propane furnace repair companies earn profits from labor charges, they greatly inflate the price of those parts.

The author goes on to suggest that furnace parts are much cheaper at supply houses. So maybe that's part of it, too. In any event, you might ask the repair guy to give you a quote for labor only, with you supplying the parts. Maybe he'll come down in price.

While you're at it with the Googling, maybe you should look up the going price for an ignitor assembly and the other mystery flabjabit (is it the HSI module, maybe?)

I was unfortunately elected to my condo board in June, and since then I've been dealing with the mess left by a corner-cutting contractor tasked with replacing all our furnaces last year. Some units had major (as in 1/4"+ of water in the furnace room) issues with condensation thanks to inadequately-insulated coolant lines and/or improperly-installed drip pans.

I've inspected all of the affected units. None of them had water anywhere near the ignitor, board, or gas valve. Though it's hard to tell exactly from the PDF, the layout of your furnace doesn't look too different to ours. It's now heating season in CT and nobody's suffered any issues like you reported.

So, without being able to look at your unit myself (and having limited experience with this stuff to boot) it's hard to say anything for certain. Still, in your case it just sounds more likely that stuff's wearing out, and possibly the repair guy might be, to phrase it diplomatically, taking an aggressive approach in solving the problem. So my ripoff radar's going on too and your approach of doing more research is probably the best way to build comfort with whatever your final decision is.

posted by Opposite George at 12:01 AM on October 14, 2006

No one in their right mind fixes their own gas appliances (insert jpeg of flattened house here). Either trust your repairperson, or get a 2nd opinion: Most HVAC companies will give you an esitmate for free. If not, just call your Gas Company -- don't know how it is in Chicago, but in LA they do free system checks if you ask at the beginning of the heating season. If there's something wrong, they tell you exactly what it is -- even though they won't fix it. (And if you tell 'em your pilot won't light and you think you smell gas, they should be out to your place within the hour.)
posted by turducken at 12:53 AM on October 14, 2006

No one in their right mind fixes their own gas appliances (insert jpeg of flattened house here).


Amen. I don't even know if it's legal in my jurisdiction.

I was hoping what twiggy would take from the article (which isn't even about natural gas furnaces, but propane furnaces) is that repair people put huge markups on parts, that alternative sources exist for them, and that maybe he could get a better deal by offering to get the parts himself but have the repair person do the work. In retrospect, I should have made that clearer.
posted by Opposite George at 1:10 AM on October 14, 2006

Update: I called semi-BS on them by talking to them on the phone today when they told me they won't have my part 'til Monday. I said I was able to find just the part they said I needed without the other two, and they basically came back with:

Well, because there was condensation in there, we think you should replace the other two parts anyhow. We don't want you to feel like you're not getting your money's worth, so we will take $100 off of the bill for a total of $389 labor included. It will be warranteed for 5 years.

At this point, I think I'm going to pay the $389 as an insurance policy. It looks like the 3 parts would come to about $250-300 in total if I got them wholesale, and the rest of my bill is attributed to labor and warranty. I'm cold and getting impatient already, so waiting 'til Monday is bad enough rather than ordering from someone else and waiting 'til later in the week.

Thanks much for all the replies.
posted by twiggy at 12:17 PM on October 14, 2006

Sounds like a good plan. Glad to hear they went down on the price. The small amount they'll charge for labor/warranty/convenience is definitely worth it.
posted by Opposite George at 12:34 PM on October 14, 2006

Indeed, with labour and a 5 year warranty, you're getting a pretty good deal. I would ask for that deal in writing BEFORE your repairperson starts though. I wouldn't be surprised if you received a bill for $489 2 weeks after he finishes.
posted by antifuse at 3:05 AM on October 16, 2006

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