Top Three Summertime HVAC Component Failures for Systems Over Five Years Old

Another long, humid summer is upon us here in the DELMARVA area, and we want to pass along the three most common no-cooling issues we'll see this season. Most HVAC equipment malfunctions around the fifth year of usage are due to electrical component failures. Although there are several things that can wear out in a hard-working HVAC system, the three most common failures include components typically found in the outside condensing unit: #1) run capacitors, #2) contactors, and #3) condensing unit fan motors.

Run capacitor failures usually result in the system running but not cooling. This is because the compressor lacks the starting “boost” the capacitor provides to get it running; therefore, the heat exchange that would provide cooling isn’t happening and the unit is recirculating air over warm evaporator coils. Run capacitors are like light bulbs, they eventually go out in much the same way (with no warning and just when they’re needed the most!)… The replacement capacitor can’t be bought just anywhere—only HVAC supply houses stock them locally (and they’re not open when the thing is going to go out), so your best bet is to get ahead of this and have a replacement on hand as a spare. You can also order them online @ Grainger, etc. The replacement is relatively easy and safe, as long as you are somewhat mechanically inclined, know how to electrically isolate the unit prior to removing anything, and remember to discharge the capacitor before handling it (it has a nasty habit of “jolting” you if you don’t). Of course, having someone else swap it out is also an option, but several YouTube videos can give you step-by-step instructions if you want to give it a try.

The contactor relays are much like the old “points” we used to swap out of distributor caps when we did tune ups on our cars back in the day. Just like those, the surfaces of the contacts can become pitted and worn such that they no longer complete the connection needed to run the unit, or, they can “weld” themselves together and the unit won’t stop running. Again, this type of part failure can occur with no warning and usually results in having a unit that won’t come on or that won’t stop running. Same advice as before regarding having a spare on hand and/or swapping it out. I’d only add that not all systems still use these, some have upgraded to control boards and that’s going to take an HVAC professional to address in most cases. If you have the older system design, you might as well swap this part out when you’re changing the capacitor (or vice versa), since they typically go out around the same time.

Condensing unit fans are on top of most units and they frequently fail due to loss of lubricant and overheating (they are sealed units and there’s no way to add lubricant once the seal around the shaft starts going). The symptom is simply that the compressor is making noise/running, but the fan on top the unit isn’t spinning. This type of failure can give you warning first, as the fan may be dying a slow death and making lots of weird noises along its final journey. If you hear it making any screeching type noises, get it addressed as soon as possible. If it stops working altogether, turn the unit completely off at the breaker panel and call for service (the compressor may burn out if you don’t and the already costly repair will turn into an even costlier system replacement). The fan swap out is more complicated and challenging than the replacement of the other two parts, and since the removal/salvage of the blades is required in most cases, it should probably be done by an HVAC technician.

Got Water? How to Keep Your Well Safe in Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia


Routine maintenance and inspection of water wells can help protect water quality, ensure your well is operating properly, prolong the life of the well system, and protect your investment. Greatest of all these is the protection of groundwater and your health, as water quality issues can have adverse health impacts without any detectable indicators. Small problems can often be identified by performing maintenance before they become costly, inconvenient situations. It’s similar to routine maintenance on your vehicle—if you have the oil changed at specified intervals, the engine will operate reliably much longer than if you don’t. At a minimum, wells should be evaluated annually by a licensed or certified water well systems professional and include a flow test; visual inspection; a water quality test for coliform and anaerobic bacteria, nitrates, and anything else of local concern; checking valves; and electrical testing. You should receive a written report following the annual checkup that describes recommendations and all laboratory and other test results. Keep this with all other well information.

System Knowledge

Well owners should have a basic understanding of their well system. Start by maintaining records of any well logs. A detailed log of your well’s construction and the pump installation record are two important tools in troubleshooting and potentially fixing issues with your well and well pump in the future. Ask your well contractor for these records. A well log can provide information regarding the depth of the well, the type of casing used, grouting practices and intervals, static water levels, what type of pump test was performed and results, if the well is screened or not, and more. You should also be aware of any filtration or treatment systems. Know if one is installed, what type of treatment method is used, and what the water is being treated for. Read the owner’s manual and keep a copy with your well records for when an issue arises.

Inspection

Well owners should also conduct a regular visual inspection of the well to monitor its performance. On the wellhead, inspect the casing’s general condition and if it extends at least 12 inches above ground. The well cap on top of the casing should be securely attached. Verify that any electrical connections are secure. Survey the area above ground surrounding the well. Check the location relative to potential sources of contamination, flooding, and physical dangers. Maintain at least 50 feet between the well and any kennels, pastures, feeding areas, or livestock operations, and ensure a proper distance is maintained from buildings, waste systems, or chemical storage areas (including fuel tanks). Be sure the ground surrounding the wellhead is sloping away from the well to divert surface runoff. Any growth of weeds, trees, shrubs, or grasses with root systems within 10 feet of the well should be physically removed. Avoid the use of chemicals or herbicides near the wellhead. The well should not be in a roadway or driveway. If it is within close proximity to a roadway or driveway, it should be properly marked to avoid being hit by vehicles. Be conscious of any other potential threats to the wellhead—garages, ATVs, sledding hills, debris, dirt, surface water, fuels and chemicals (including fertilizers), and runoff water from kennels, pastures, or feedlots. Well owners should visually inspect any above-ground pumping equipment. Ensure motors are properly cooled and vented, check for shaft seal leaks, and rust or other signs of weakened fittings. Examine other above-ground well system wiring and parts such as pipes, connections, joint seals, gauges, pressure relief valves, and the water meter (if present). A water sample tap should be located near the pressure tank, high enough to easily collect a water sample. Note the condition and accessibility of above- and below-ground storage tanks. Evaluate the condition of the control box and connections. Maintain water softeners, conditioners, and filtration equipment.

When to Call a Water Well Professional

A qualified water well professional should be consulted for any issues discovered during a visual inspection. When in doubt, call a water well systems professional, but especially:
Anytime the well has to be opened (cap or well seal removed).
If you experience taste or odor problems.
If there is turbidity or cloudiness (the water appears “dirty” looking).
If there is a loss of capacity or pressure—the well is not producing as much water as previously produced, the pressure drops and surges, or the pump cycles on and off frequently.
If a test is positive for total coliforms, anaerobic bacteria, or any positive test results indicating a potential health concern.
If you find defects with your wellhead, the wellhead area, or the overall water system during your routine inspection.

Cleaning and disinfection should only be performed by a qualified water well systems professional—for your safety and the protection of your well system. Find out more about proper well maintenance and much more online at www.wellowner.org.  *Sourced primarily from content in www.groundwater.org | Volume 33 Number 4

Concrete Corrosion Risks for Foundation Walls & Basements in Delaware, Maryland, & Virginia



This is a NCRS WSS display showing a low PH soil profile for a local home that has a “high” risk rating for concrete and masonry corrosion.

"Risk of corrosion" pertains to potential soil-induced electrochemical or chemical action that corrodes or weakens concrete. The rate of corrosion of concrete is based mainly on the sulfate and sodium content, texture, moisture content, and acidity of the soil. Special site examination and design may be needed if the combination of factors results in a severe hazard of corrosion. The concrete in installations that intersect soil boundaries or soil layers is more susceptible to corrosion than the concrete in installations that are entirely within one kind of soil or within one soil layer. The risk of corrosion is expressed as "low," "moderate," or "high." (USDA, NCRS Soils, n.d.)

Corrosive soils contain chemical constituents that can react with construction materials, such as concrete and ferrous metals, which may damage foundations and buried pipelines. The electrochemical corrosion processes that take place on metal surfaces in soils occur in the groundwater that is in contact with the corroding structure. Both the soil and the climate influence the groundwater composition. Concrete is rarely, if ever, attacked by solid, dry chemicals. To produce significant attack on concrete, aggressive chemicals must be in solution and above some minimum concentration.
Factors that influence soil corrosion are: • Porosity (aeration) • Electrical conductivity or resistivity • Dissolved salts • Moisture levels • Low pH The corrosivity of soils can be estimated by measuring soil resistivity. Sandy soils are high on the resistivity scale and therefore considered the least corrosive. Clay soils, especially those contaminated with saline water are on the opposite end of the spectrum.

Want to know more about your dirt?

Soil scientists can be consulted to perform an in-field soil profiling and site evaluation. A surveyor may have to perform elevation/slope evaluations if the building is on an atypical (i.e. not fairly flat/level) site, such as a hillside. You can also find out about the archived soil profile information managed by the USDA’s NCRS through their Web Soil Survey (WSS) application found at (hyperlink to USDA NCRS WSS portal

Why it matters…

Basement or foundation walls in direct contact with high chlorate, low PH, or sulfate soils and water are particularly at risk of externally generated corrosion, which can be due to the penetration of chloride solutions or the acid created by the sulfate-water solution that attacks the cement binding materials and mortar joints. If left unaddressed, the concrete and masonry in the wall will begin to deteriorate to the point where it is no longer able to withstand hydrostatic pressure and other forces—eventually leading to water intrusion and/or structural weakness.

Landscape architects are good resources for determining the best storm water management designs for your building site, and this removes or diverts much of the water needed to create the acidic or saline solutions causing the corrosion of the foundation and basement walls. You can find out information on foundation and basement waterproofing on the Internet. One good source is (hyperlink to Whole Building Design Guide Organization Site

Anti-Tip Brackets for Freestanding Ranges


Based on content from Nick Gromicko and Kenton Shepard

Anti-tip brackets are metal devices designed to prevent freestanding ranges from tipping. They are normally attached to a rear leg of the range or screwed into the wall behind the range, and are included in all installation kits. A unit that is not equipped with these devices may tip over if enough weight is applied to its open door, such as that from a large Thanksgiving turkey, or even a small child. A falling range can crush, scald, or burn anyone caught beneath.

Bracket Inspection

You can confirm the presence of anti-tip brackets through the following methods:

• It may be possible to see a wall-mounted bracket by looking over the rear of the range. Floor-mounted brackets are often hidden, although in some models with removable drawers, such as 30-inch electric ranges made by General Electric, the drawers can be removed and a flashlight can be used to search for the bracket. However, just because you can see the bracket does not guarantee that it has been properly installed.

• You can firmly grip the upper-rear section of the range and tip the unit. If equipped with an anti-tip bracket, the unit will not tip more than several inches before coming to a halt. The range should be turned off, and all items should be removed from the stovetop before this action can be performed. It is usually easier to detect a bracket by tipping the range than through a visual search. This test can be performed on all models and it can confirm the functionality of a bracket. If no anti-tip bracket is detected, one should be installed to increase safety. Homeowners can contact the dealer or builder who installed their range and request that they install a bracket. For those who wish to install a bracket themselves, the part can be purchased at most hardware stores or ordered from a manufacturer (some will provide these free or for just shipping cost).

According to the US Consumer Product Safety Commission, there were 143 incidents caused by range tip-overs from 1980 to 2006. Of the 33 incidents that resulted in death, most of those victims were children. A small child may stand on an open range door in order to see what is cooking on the stove top and accidentally cause the entire unit to fall on top of him, along with whatever hot items may have been cooking on the stove top. The elderly may also be injured while using the range for support while cleaning.

In response to this danger, the American National Standards Institute and Underwriters Laboratories created standards in 1991 that require all ranges manufactured after that year to be capable of remaining stable while supporting 250 pounds of weight on their open doors. Manufacturers' instructions, too, require that anti-tip brackets provided be installed.

Sump Pump 101: Operation and Inspection Guide


based on original content by Nick Gromicko and Kenton Shepard

Sump pumps are self-activating electrical pumps that protect homes from moisture intrusion. They are usually installed below basement or crawlspace floors to remove rising groundwater and surface runoff before it has a chance to seep into the home. Accumulated water can cause interior damage and encourage the growth of mold, mildew, and fungus. Pumps should be maintained and equipped with all necessary components in order to ensure their reliability.

How a Sump Pump Works

A pit, known as a sump pit or sump trench, can be dug at the lowest part of the basement floor to capture and contain any flowing water. A sump pump sits at the bottom of this trench (or beside it) and expels excess water through a series of interconnected pipes to a suitable discharge location. The pump can sense water levels through a float that rises and falls with fluctuating water levels in the trench. The sump pump becomes activated and deactivated based on the height of the float, providing a simple, automated way to monitor and deal with variable water levels.

Types of Sump Pumps

• Pedestal sump pumps sit above the water line beside the sump trench and are not designed to get wet. Since they are not contained within the sump pit, they can be accessed easily but are also very noisy. They cost roughly $60 to $200, which is significantly less than other varieties.
• Submersible sump pumps rest underwater at the bottom of the sump pit, and are much quieter than pedestal pumps. Their oil-cooled motors and tight seals protect against water and dust and afford them a long lifespan. They can cost up to $600.
• Water-powered sump pumps are normally used as backups and kick in when the main pump experiences an electrical or mechanical failure.

Maintenance

• The pump must be kept clean and free of debris. The inlet screen prevents the passage of dirt and other solid material from entering the pump, but it can become overwhelmed. Cleanings should occur often for pumps that run constantly.
• Make sure that the float is not tangled or jammed in one position. A sump pump with a jammed float is useless because it will not sense when it should turn on and shut off.
• The pump can be tested by pouring water into the pit to make sure it becomes activated and expels the water. The homeowner should seek professional assistance if the pump does not activate.
• Maintenance should take place annually, and when the home is sold.
• When testing the pump, no one should ever reach into the pit. The float can be reached and manipulated with a household item such as a golf club (with a rubber handle) or anything else non-conductive that happens to be lying around.

Typical installations could include the following:

• A GFCI duplex outlet. There is considerable debate among inspectors concerning whether or not a sump pump should be connected to a GFCI. It is possible that a GFCI can prevent electrocution, but it is extremely unlikely that a sump pump will energize water in the first place. It is much more likely that a GFCI will trip during safe conditions and deactivate the sump pump when it is needed. A sump pump is among the most critical of all household appliances, and its deactivation, especially if the tenants are not home, could allow catastrophic building damage. Codes recommend that appliances in basements and crawlspaces be connected to GFCIs to reduce the chance of electrical shock, but this advice is often ignored due to these concerns over nuisance tripping.
• An alarm. Sump pumps can burn out, lose power, become clogged or misaligned, or malfunction in a variety of other ways. It is valuable to have a warning device installed that will signal water build-up. These alarms can alert homeowners or neighbors of flooding so that it can be resolved before water damage occurs. Alarms are especially important in residences that are not occupied for long periods of time.
• A check valve. This device is the same diameter as the discharge pipe into which it fits and is usually a different color. A check valve should be installed in order to prevent pumped water in the discharge line from re-entering the sump pit when the device is turned off. Without this valve, the pump will have to work twice as hard to remove the same column of water, which causes unnecessary strain to the pump components. A check valve can also prevent the rare yet disturbing possibility that a discharge line connected to a stream or pond will back-siphon into the sump pit.
• A backup power source. Power outages are most likely to happen during heavy rains and floods, which are situations when the sump pump is most needed. For this reason, combined with the nuisance-tripping from GFCIs, sump pumps should have a backup power source to rely on. A pump powered by a battery or the home’s water pressure can also be installed as a backup. Installation of a backup power source or backup pump is not a requirement, but can be a recommendation for homes at higher risk.
• Properly sized pit or crock. The sump pit does not need to be constructed from any particular material, as long as it is solid and provides permanent support for the pump. It must, however, be large enough to allow the pump room to work properly. Some homeowners use a 5-gallon bucket as a sump pit, but this is insufficient. For most homes, the sump pit should not be less than 24 inches deep and 18 inches wide. One of the most common reasons why sump pumps fail is that the float gets jammed between the pump and the pit because the pit is too small.
• An attached cover. The sump pit should be covered to prevent water from evaporating into the home, and to prevent items from falling into it.
• Properly routed discharge line. The discharge line (typically PVC pipe) should route the shortest distance from the pit to the outside wall, properly supported by pipe hangers, and should be properly sealed at the wall connection to prevent insect infiltration, moisture intrusion, or energy losses.

Discharge Location:

• Water must be discharged at least 20 feet from the building.
• Water should not drain back into the house! Cycling water will place unnecessary strain on the pump and can weaken the structure’s foundation.
• Water should not drain onto a neighbor’s property without their approval.
• Many jurisdictions do not permit pumped water into public sewer systems.
• Pumped water should never drain into a residence’s septic system. Especially during heavy rain, a septic drain field will become saturated and will struggle to handle the normal flow of water from the house. Additional water from the sump pump can damage the septic system.

In summary, sump pumps are used to remove excess water from homes that would otherwise cause property damage. There are multiple types, but they all monitor water levels and ensure that they do not rise higher than predetermined levels. Proper maintenance and inspection will ensure pump efficiency and prolong their lifespan.

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