Worst summer ever

I want to talk to you about ducts...

“If I owned Texas and Hell, I would rent out Texas and live in Hell.”
— General Philip Henry Sheridan

Back in May you might have heard that IBM decided to lay off thousands of workers in response to the coronavirus pandemic. There were apparently cuts in June too, and then North America Sales had its turn, and on July 1st I was told that my position was being eliminated at the end of the month.

That’s about all I have to say about that right now. I mention it merely to explain why it was that I suddenly found myself unemployed on 1st August.

Which was the day our air conditioning suddenly failed.

With the temperature outside hitting 36°C, I hurriedly called an HVAC repair company. They came out and checked the system, and told me that it had no refrigerant pressure. Some part of the system had failed, and all the Puron had leaked out.

To do any kind of repair, they’d need to pump up the system with coolant mixed with dye, let it run a couple of days until it failed, then come back and trace the entire system. Hopefully they’d find visible dye somewhere indicating where the leak was, but that might require disassembling the compressor or condenser, or removing the evaporator coil for inspection. We’ve been through that before when the evaporator coil failed some years back. Each time around the tech spent several hours on the problem, and we had to go without cooling for a day or two.

Assuming they found the leak this time, we could get the appropriate piece replaced. There are three main chunks of expensive hardware in a central home air conditioning system: the furnace, the evaporator coil, and the external condenser. Replacing any one of them, plus the cost of finding the leak in the first place, would likely cost about half as much as buying a whole new system.

In addition, there would be no guarantee that replacing the part that had failed would solve the problem. The expected lifespan of an AC system, as per Consumer Reports, is 10-15 years. Ours was 16 years old. So it would be a bit like repairing a classic British car — sure, you can do it, but there’s a really good chance something else will break and you’ll have to do it all again.

Just to be absolutely sure, I had a second company check the system. They delivered the same verdict.

So, we needed a new air conditioning system. With installation, that costs somewhere between $8,000 and $16,000, depending on how nice a system you want to buy. This was obviously not the news I wanted to hear right as I entered unemployment.

We asked around, and managed to borrow an old window air conditioner. My world, already reduced in scope by the pandemic, contracted down to one room of the house.

I investigated financing options. No can do, said the bank. So I reluctantly concluded that we’d have to spend the money from our savings, and hope that I could find a job before the remaining savings ran out. Worst case we could ask for mortgage deferment and dip into the 401(k).

I got three companies in to bid on a new system. They quickly identified a number of fundamental problems with the old system.

In a house with two levels, it’s a good idea to have a multi-zone AC system. That way, if upstairs needs more cooling than downstairs, the system can do that. Our system was zoned — but the actual air conditioning unit was single speed, so it could only run at 100% capacity. So it couldn’t really cool (or heat) one zone, because you can’t force 100% of the air flow through 50% of the ducts. So heat (or cold) would always have ended up bleeding through where it wasn’t needed. This explained why sometimes downstairs had ended up overly air conditioned. The technician also suggested that in heating mode, it was likely that the furnace would overheat and shut down at times because of this problem. Sure enough, one problem we’d had was having to go up into the attic in winter to reset the system and get it heating again.

A second problem was that the plenum was too small. That’s the box that all the ducts connect to. As a result, some of the ducts had been connected at odd angles, meaning that some rooms just didn’t get any reasonable air supply. I’d noticed that too — my home office was one of the rooms. There also wasn’t any easy way to enlarge the plenum, as there were attic braces in the way, the furnace having been crammed in horizontally.

A third problem was that the return vent was too small for the air flow. Not by a huge amount, but by enough to make sure that the old system had probably been struggling to suck back enough air. Which, along with the duct problem, explained why the upstairs hallway had never cooled properly.

We looked at Lennox and Carrier systems. They’re the two big companies in the home air conditioning market; Lennox are based in Texas, Carrier are based in Florida. The house had been wired with four-core wiring to each zone; Lennox needs five connections to each thermostat, while Carrier only uses four. So with Carrier, we could still have a zoned system without having to rewire everything, whereas a Lennox system would be cheaper — but single zone.

Once we had two Carrier bids and two Lennox bids, we picked our final choice of contractor — a local family-owned company in business since the 1950s. They had the lowest bid, and had also identified the largest number of problems they had a plan to fix. After a week of being trapped in the bedroom, sweating and trying to ignore the rattling buzz of the window AC, Monday was finally AC installation day.

In the end, it took two days. The first zone controller board was apparently faulty, so Monday night the system was left in unzoned mode until they could come back Tuesday to finish the job. Sure enough, the two levels of the house ended up different temperatures, confirming that spending the extra for a zoned system was absolutely worth it.

The new system is so amazingly better than the old system ever was, that I’m glad we didn’t cut corners. My office is now cool and air conditioned! As an added benefit, the fact that the new system can run at variable speed means that if it only needs to cool at (say) 30% capacity, it can do that — meaning there’s more of a chance that we’ll generate enough electricity from the solar panels to cover the cooling.

Thermostat technology has come a long way too. The new unit has a color LCD and is far easier to program, and the zones now have individual controls so you can adjust temperature without having to go upstairs to the main panel. It’ll even fetch weather forecasts from the Internet and adjust its heating and cooling plans accordingly.

So we’re once again able to at least roam the house freely in comfort. Of course, having people install a new HVAC system is probably one of the worst case scenarios for spread of coronavirus, so now we have to spend 5-10 days watching for symptoms… But it was that or heatstroke.

One crisis down, how many does that leave?