Noise and moisture, Part I


Feature Story

Using ‘scare tactics” may be necessary when installing a new heating system


by george lanthier


Without a doubt, one of the things that has plagued us as an industry for some time now are the complaints about operating noise. Regretfully, we also have a paradox. It has been proven time and time again that new oil burners in new boilers, furnaces and water heaters save customers from other fuels, but the noise that comes from upgrading to new burners can alienate them, so what do we do? Well, I don’t think it’s what we do, but rather what we don’t do. I’m going to give you some of my tricks and experiences on the subject and if you remember my article about ‘Lanthier’s Laws,” there was a big clue in there.

To begin with, I think you first have to break the noise levels down by area. First of all, is the burner noise coming from around the burner itself and just outside of the appliance? In all honesty, with today’s burners I consider this virtually a non-issue. Listen to a burner sometime without a flame; pretty quiet by my ears.

Next comes flame noise. The first of our noise problems depends on draft conditions, type of burner design and the type of appliance the burner is installed in. Finally, there is chimney noise, which in my experience is the worse of the bunch. In addition, all of the burner covers, nozzles and variations of head settings are not going to cure this; it’s not in the basement, it’s in the house.
So, let’s break this down and take the problems one at a time.

Initially, I think before new equipment is sold everyone involved should do his or her best to scare the dickens out of the customer. I know this sounds nuts, but stay with me. One of the mistakes about selling new equipment is that we are going to do some things that just go against human nature and that’s why it gets us in the proverbial end. Psychologists will tell you that people hate change and don’t like surprises; you must know that to deal with this problem. The noise levels and frequencies in their home are going to change, and by not telling them you surprise them. Not a good thing and a double whammy.

A few years ago, I instructed my sales and tech crews to take the ‘scare approach” and it worked. The more scare we put into them, the fewer problems with noise complaints we had. Keep in mind that much of the problem with noise is perceived and much is fact; you have to work with both.

Chimney liners reduce chimney roar and can even eliminate it. Oh boy, that’s going to set off some people. Look, some of us need to grow up and face reality. Most of the noise coming from today’s oil burners is from outdated, oversized and obsolete venting systems and the only thing noisier, in my opinion, than an oversized chimney is a power venter that has been improperly installed. That should just about get everyone in the venting business upset with me.

In addition to the noise problem we also have the condensing problem. The chimney in a 10-year old house has already started to decay and if you are seeing ‘pigeon droppings” under the flue-pipe joints you have an additional problem (more on that in Part 2). But, what I do want to do right now is tell you my own ‘chimney story.”

In 1987, I repointed the top of my chimney in my home that at that time was 105 years old. It was an original, unlined, red brick chimney, but it had been running ‘high tech” for 14 years. I had the whole chimney done from the attic floor to the roof. Originally for coal burning, the chimney extended three feet above the roofline with no obstructions in sight; now it only towers about two feet over the roof. Well, I said to myself, I won’t ever do that again, that’s it for my lifetime, or so I thought.

About three years ago I went to my office in the basement and found a funny smell and said ‘Oh boy, something is wrong.” In addition, I noticed the burner was whisper quiet’remember that point. This was really peculiar since this brand of burner has been in my home since 1975 and all three models created chimney roar. Not this morning, it was quiet like a mouse.

I went over to the boiler and the burner was running, but like I said, stealthy. I shut it down and began to investigate. Well, guess what? It turns out the chimney base was plugged with dust and the flue pipe was just about blocked and, oh boy, what a mess. The boiler was dirty, but not plugged. The burner air tube was burned off, but it was still running. But the question was, what was this dust in the base? Well, as it turns out it was mortar dust and the chimney was on the way out again, but it got me thinking about something a fellow Bostonian had been trying.

Roger Litman of North Shore Fuel has been playing around with putting an elbow at the end of a flue-pipe run in the base of a chimney and claimed it quieted the noise down. So, what the heck. I replaced the flue pipe and added the ‘Litman Elbow.” Not only was the unit in fact quieter, but also I found the draft had gone up a bit. That made sense since draft is always looking for direction and so we gave it some. Roger also insists that you must find the low point in the elbow and punch a hole for drainage. In addition, he also told me to make sure you get the outlet of the elbow to angle about 15 degrees to the base. Thanks, Roger.

I now realize that the chimney roar had been abated that morning since the flue openings were smaller and more sized to the firing rate and I needed a liner to fix this once and for all. Although I had done lots of reading on this and truly believed it before, now I was a missionary.

The need for liners and properly sized chimneys has been discussed to death and if you want to do some reading on it pick up a copy of NFPA31-2001 from the National Fire Protection Association and read all of Appendix E, ‘Relining Masonry Chimneys.” As the old saying goes, ‘it’s all in there.” The material is based on reports done at Brookhaven National Laboratories and was started way back in 1990 and that’s it on chimney roar. As they say, you can lead a horse, etc. One thing to keep in mind, though, gas-fired condensing direct vent equipment just won’t make chimney roar.

As to the burner and its flame noises. One thing I am sure of is that not only is interrupted ignition better for the environment by lowering NOX and reducing service calls by prolonging ignitor system life, but it also creates a different tone and frequency. Try this sometime if you’re still hung up on your three-wire primary controls.

Make up a switch on alligator clips and wire it in between the ignitor/transformer power lead and the control, Figure 1. As you turn the switch on and off listen to the noise at the burner openings, the doors of the appliance and at the flue pipe and chimney. If that doesn’t convince you any more words from me won’t.

For flame noises many of us have used the hollow-type nozzle as a crutch. Many of the current burner designs are being adapted to work with these types, but most flame-retention head burners were designed around solid and semi-solid types.

Want proof that you’re doing the right thing? Take a combustion test with an instrument that will also read carbon monoxide. Leave the hollow nozzle in and do a complete test, including CO, and note or print the readings. Take out the hollow and put in a solid and don’t touch anything else, no draft changes, playing with air-gates, nada. Now, do another test and if the CO drops, there’s your proof.

How can this really tell you anything? Well, remember that CO, according to The American Heritage Dictionary is defined as ‘a colorless, odorless, highly poisonous gas formed by the incomplete combustion of carbon or a carbonaceous material” like fuel oil. If the CO goes down, the combustion is more complete and watch your CO2 numbers go up, too. It’s true that the flame noise may increase, but I’ve found most of what customers complain about is the chimney noise.

Well, we’ve come full circle and we’re back to the liners. The fact of the matter is I don’t recommend that oil dealers sell them, but I do think that we should urge them to customers purchasing new equipment. I think the people best qualified to sell and install them are CSIA-certified chimney sweeps and by doing that we don’t look like the bad guys, just the smart guys. Remember the heady days of asbestos abatement? Same thing, let a pro do it and you look like a good guy for suggesting it. On top of that, if they talk fuel conversion to the sweep he will tell them they’re going to need a liner anyway and the good sweeps are suggesting that homeowners buy the stainless regardless of fuel choice.

Well, that’s it for me for this month. I’ll be back next month to wrap up this bomb run in my B-52. I really love noise. Not!


See ya.


George Lanthier is the owner of Firedragon Enterprises and the author of nine books on oilheating and heating systems. He is a teaching consultant and expert witness on oilheating systems. He can be contacted at 132 Lowell Street, Arlington, MA 02474-2756. His phone number is (781) 646-2584 and he can be faxed at (781) 641-7099. He can also be contacted through his Web site at www.FiredragonEnt.com.


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