This month’s topic covers wholesaler suppliers and manufacturers’ support in the heating business.

When I started in the heating industry back in the 1980s, we would occasionally receive a defective control, circulator pump or some other part. Most of the time, we did not know the product was defective until it was put into service. In those days when we had a problem, we would deal with the supply house and get things resolved quickly. No questions asked, no paperwork to fill out and no online forms to fill out when you got back to the office. To be honest, there were not too many warranty issues back then.

Over the years, we have installed at least a few hundred cast iron boilers. About a third of these boilers were small residential packaged boilers that included the cabinet, controls, wiring and a pre-built gas train from the factory. Roughly one-third of these new boilers were the knockdown type that required partial assembly in the field. The rest of the cast iron boilers were large commercial sectional units that had to be assembled at the job site.

I only recall four occasions when the boilers were defective from the factory. We learned the boilers were defective when we finished piping them in and initially filled them with water. Only to learn that the brand-new block was leaking. Talk about taking the wind out of your sails after a long day! All of these leaking units were packaged boilers that allegedly received hydrostatic testing at the factory.

In those days, the supply house gave us credit to recover the labor needed to replace the brand-new leaking boiler. To this day, I am not sure if the supplier was reimbursed by the manufacturer’s representative or the manufacturer. Being familiar with this line of boilers and such a low failure rate, we stuck with them and still install them today when using cast iron. In addition, if there is a failure during the warranty period, the company is exceptionally good at taking care of the customer.

Around the turn of the century, we started installing condensing boilers on hot water heating systems. These earlier installations took place at homes and small commercial jobs. In those days, there were very few manufacturers producing commercial condensing boilers. We would install small single boilers in homes and multiple small condensing boilers on small commercial sites. We still installed cast iron boilers, too, just not as often.

We went to training seminars that covered these new-to-market offerings, typically at the supply house that would be stocking these new boilers. Over the years, the suppliers would stop selling one brand and start selling another brand. If this occurred, we would go for more training with a new manufacturer’s representative and start a new relationship. There were five brands of condensing boilers we installed in the last 24 years.

Despite what I have read almost daily, we experienced almost no failures with those early condensing boilers. The original aluminum heat exchangers were problematic, so we stopped installing them. The stainless steel “water-tube” style of condensing boilers we installed were quite robust. Early on, we were taught that these condensing boilers had to be piped in a certain manner. The installation manuals hammered this home with us. To this day, I’m still amazed at how many were piped improperly by others.

I would guess we installed over two hundred condensing boilers to date. Due to control issues and a lack of parts availability, we switched over to the vertical fire-tube type about five years ago. For the last five years, we have had to deal with shipping costs, pandemics, overseas crises, parts coming from Europe or Asia and lack of boilers and parts in stock. To say things have changed is an understatement.

We have been installing one brand of condensing boilers and condensing hot water makers for the last five years or so. We have been to the factory, have been to in-person training and we have done a little online training as well. These units have very good hardware and software when compared to the other brands of condensing boilers. The boilers are simple to pipe and vent. Overall, we were pleased with these units until recently.

About a month ago, we got a call for no domestic hot water at a large garden apartment complex we have been taking care of for the last six years. The condensing boiler we installed about 17 months ago was offline due to a flame failure. When we arrived, we removed the ignitor, only to learn that the stainless-steel heat exchanger failed and was spraying water towards the base of the burner.

We called the supplier that sold us the boiler and discussed our options. We then called the manufacturer’s representative. Both the supplier and the representative told us they could not get us a new boiler or a new heat exchanger in a timely fashion. On top of that, they suggested that we might be charged for a replacement boiler or heat exchanger. They also mentioned that the labor probably will not be covered. How is this possible? We then called the owner who happens to also own three hotels in Manhattan and a few other apartment buildings. He mentioned the word “lawsuit” about 10 times during our conversation. I gather he has a lawyer on his staff or on retainer.

Both the supplier and the representative told us they could not get us a new boiler or a new heat exchanger in a timely fashion. On top of that, they suggested that we might be charged for a replacement boiler or heat exchanger. They also mentioned that the labor probably will not be covered. How is this possible?

To add to the misery, the town was threatening to fine the owner as it is a health violation to not provide domestic hot water to tenants. This (leaking) boiler supplies boiler water to five large indirect hot water tanks. The system has worked perfectly since we installed it, the tenants were happy, and the owner was happy with his investment as it greatly reduced his utility costs. After discussing all the options with the rep and the supplier, we learned the heat exchanger will not be available for weeks. We are getting a “free” heat exchanger/block that is supposed to be shipped in the next few weeks. They would not give us a new boiler despite our pleas. We are still discussing whether they will pay any of the labor costs. The supplier assumed the water might be the cause of the early failure. They visited the site and performed a water test, hardness, solids and chlorides were all well within specifications.

Due to the size of the problem we decided to isolate the failed boiler from the system and connect the indirect hot water tanks up to the two much larger heating boilers that we recently installed. The owner agreed to this and is willing to pay us for this work.

A week later, we received an emergency call for no domestic hot water call from large senior citizens building. This boiler was identical to the unit above, except the unit is only seven months old. When we arrived at the site, we noticed the same failure notice on the display panel. We pulled the ignitor and found another failed heat exchanger. We called the same rep and the same supplier in a panic. The boiler was in stock, but the block was not available. The supplier was concerned that if we replaced the entire boiler, the manufacturer might not reimburse them or the rep, and we would be stuck with the cost of the boiler and our labor of course. Talk about another headache!

On this job we were able to utilize the other three heating boilers to temporarily heat the two indirect hot water tanks. We are supposed to get a response from the manufacturers after the weekend.

It troubles me how much things have changed on warranty things over the years.