Gauging the situation

Feature Story

The proper procedures need to be followed when checking oil burner pumps

By George Lanthier

Well, it’s time to go back to B&B Mechanical and check in with our old pals, Bruce and Bubba. The boys have been very busy, so Bruce decided to hire another guy. B&B’s coming along pretty good and with a January thaw Bruce hopped a plane and went to Florida for a week, leaving Bubba in charge. This didn’t make Bubba too happy since it was now up to him to check out the new guy, and boy oh boy, is he a beaut!

The new guy’s name is Bob Pufferama, but everybody calls him Puffy. Puffy gets that name because he has been in the business 10 years and he thinks he knows everything. He’s got a swelled head and he’s really all puffed up, get it? In addition to his swelled head, he also came with some extra equipment. He has an attitude problem and he’s a slob. When he showed up for the interview he acted and looked OK, but after a few days on the job he has gone into the toilet, leaving Bubba with a major migraine.

Figure 1

You see, it’s not unusual to see Puffy in his too-tight shirt open to the waist, his pants fly down, his trademark holed boat shoes with no socks and his tool kit. His tool kit consists of a 4-in-1 screwdriver and a pair of channel-lock pliers. The best part of Puffy’s act is that when he reaches for his tool kit in his torn and faded jeans, you get to see his butt crack; what a pro. Puffy also does not believe in using gauges and that brings us to our story.

A service call comes in from a new account in a new house for ‘no heat.” Puffy is sent to the job and he finds that the pump will not ‘pull a prime.” After removing and examining the filter cartridge that he finds to be clean, he checks the pump strainer and tries it again. Still no prime. He goes to his pickup truck for a pump.

Since they’re short a truck, Bruce agreed with Puffy to use his personal truck until he gets back and buys a new one. You can always spot Puffy’s truck, it’s the freshly washed one with all the dents and the four different colored body panels. You can also spot it from the back, by the fishing rods and a 24-inch pipe wrench in the gun rack. Well, he doesn’t have a pump, and so he calls the office.

‘Yo, Bubba, it’s me the Puffmeister. I need a pump for this job I’m on and I don’t have one in the truck,” explains Puffy.

‘OK,” says Bubba, ‘I’ll be right over with one. What kind of pump do you need?”

‘A black one,” replies Puffy. ‘Ya know, the one that fits on a regular burner.”

When Bubba arrives, Puffy is sitting on a lawn chair in the basement. ‘Hey Bubba, ya got that pump?” questions Puffy.

‘Well, normally Bruce likes to check everything with a gauge before we replace anything,” replies Bubba.

Figure 2

‘Gauges, smauges, real burnermen (sic) don’t use gauges. If ya know what ya doing, ya don’t need no stinking gauges. If the pump isn’t gettin any oil, and everything’s clean, it’s the pump, pure and simple,” replies Puffy.

Bubba puts a vacuum gauge on the pump to measure operating vacuum and discovers 14 inches of mercury of vacuum on the pump. This is a one-pipe system with gravity feed to the burner from an inside tank that has just been filled. It turns out that when they put the oil line down, one of the workmen pouring the floor pinched the tubing. Since the line is only about 10 feet long, they run a temporary line. With the temporary line in place, the job only pulls about an inch of vacuum. This reading could be typical for a new job with a couple of thermal valves and a good quality filter.

The following procedure for testing oil burner pumps is taken from my new book, Advanced Residential Oilburners.

Vacuum Tests
Two vacuum tests should be performed to verify pump and system performance:

Pump test
Isolate the pump from the system by removing all supply and return lines. Make sure that the pump is full of oil and install a vacuum gauge in the inlet port of the pump (See Figure 1).

Turn the pump on and wait for a vacuum reading of 15 inches hg.

Turn the burner off and wait at least five minutes. If the pump will not reach 15-inch hg. or will not hold the vacuum, it should be replaced.

By the way this is the test to prove a pump seal is good or bad, whether your plugs are tight and that the gasket is seated properly. Don’t throw away a perfectly good pump for a simple error on your part or the guy before you.
Operating vacuum test
Install a vacuum gauge in an unused inlet port or a tee installed in the suction line (See Figure 2). Operate the pump and make sure it is full of oil. Read the gauge and ensure that the pump is operating within its design limits. A chart supplied by the pump manufacturer should be checked for acceptable performance levels.If the vacuum reading exceeds the pump’s capabilities, a check of the system layout and piping should be done.

If the reading is high and the system and piping are not excessive for the pump’s design, the following should be checked:

The quantity of turns and bends in the piping
The quantity and type of fittings and valves used
The quantity, condition and type of filters used
The cleanliness and condition of the oil line and piping.If the vacuum level is in an unacceptable range, there is a leak in the system that must be corrected. A good way to detect air is to add a piece of clear tubing to the inlet of the pump. This tubing can be attached by fittings and the flow of oil can be easily seen.

Well, you can bet that Bruce had more than a talk with Puffy when he made it back to the office. In fact, he fired him. Oh well, another day in the oil business.

See ya.

George Lanthier is the owner of Firedragon Enterprises, He can be reached by e-mail at or phone at 781-646-2584.

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