Whether it’s spending the night in a snow cave or resurrecting a steel system, radiant contractors know what to do.

Heating Antarctica

by Dennis Bellanti

It was cold December night in Denver. I sat with the woman I love as she read a book. I stared into the large snowflakes as they gently fell past the street light. I was deep in thought. She lowered her book, looked at me and then peered out the window to see what kept me so quiet.

“What are you thinking about?”

“The cold.”

“It’s supposed to get below zero tonight.”

I thought about how much I love Colorado summers and looked forward to the smell of a freshly mowed lawn and yearned for the powerful tug from a trout on a crispy mountain morning. I thought about a customer of mine, Chris Martin, a young, enthusiastic engineer for a company called Antarctic Support Associates (ASA). ASA is a engineering/contracting firm based in Colorado, but as the name implies does its work in the South Pole.

I wondered what would make people want to work in Antarctica. Why in God’s name would you want to go to a place where it’s 50 degrees F below zero and the sun seldom shines? Forget freshly mowed grass.

Chris had recently graduated from college and accepted a job as project scheduler for an environmental firm. After nine months, he took a leave of absence to coordinate a project for ASA and never went back to his original job.

After completing his original assignment, he learned ASA needed an engineer to design hydronic heating systems. Chris had never designed a hydronic heating system before. But minor details didn’t dampen his enthusiasm. It was early August when I first met Chris. He and a senior engineer came into my office looking for a fail-safe heating system. The complete system had to be designed, purchased and shipped to an unmanned satellite communications building on Black Island in Antarctica by the end of September. UPS doesn’t go there and the nearest Home Depot was several continents away. These details mattered, particularly when none other than the U.S. Navy makes the delivery.

We all agreed that Buderus steel panel radiators with non-electric zones valves and thermostats would be the best choice for delivering the heat. This decision was made based on the need for products that simply never fail. I knew a lot about this company’s version of quality control. Every 12th radiator is pulled off the manufacturing line and tested at 200 psi. Can you imagine how fun it would be to have that job? I can picture a guy wearing a crash helmet, safety goggles and a crazed look in his eye, bringing up the pressure until the radiator looks like a steel balloon.

We chose electric boilers (one primary and two backup) with special coated elements for glycol. Three 265-gallon storage tanks were used as a buffer. Three diesel-powered, water-cooled generators provided power for the computers and the boilers. The waste heat from the generators is pumped into the system.

There are people on Black Island. It’s just that the satellite facility is quite a distance away from the main base. Most of the work performed by its 1,100 summertime inhabitants is scientific research. Considering the circumstances of the weather, however, even 10 feet away can sometimes be treacherous.

Weather is reported to the residents in three classifications. Condition three allows you to move about as you please. Condition two restricts your movement from your dorm to work and back again. Condition one prevents you from leaving the building you are in at all. Ground blizzards can make it virtually impossible to see your gloved hand stretched out in front of your face.

Last year, Black Island experienced a six-week period where the average wind speed was 65 mph. The wind chill reached minus 100 degrees F. Exposed skin would freeze in less than one minute. The sun sets in late April and doesn’t rise again until mid-August. It’s the longest night on earth. Better hope you’re with someone you like.

Master plumber Mark Neely was chosen to do the installation. He works for ASA, but had never been to Antarctica before. The materials were being unloaded as he stepped off the plane. He was greeted by a vastness too plain to describe. Ice two miles thick. White. Lots of white. Since it was his first visit, he was required to participate in a two-day survival course. He learned about crevasses 150 feet deep that appear suddenly under natural bridges formed from ice. His first night was spent in a snow cave he dug himself.

Several weeks went by as Mark attempted to follow the young engineer’s map, assembling the system piece by piece. When Chris arrived, he felt as if he had walked off the plane with a target on his back. Chris did a good job with his design, but managed to forget a few things — like drain valves for filling and purging. My guess is he had not yet read Dan Holohan’s Pumping Away. But at least Mark had.

The design called for a diverter valve to be installed on each radiator so a simple one-pipe system could be used. When the valve box was opened, they found only German instructions inside. But one of the guys at the main base had a Mom who spoke fluent German. The Navy faxed the instructions to a base near her home. She drove to the base, translated and faxed back handwritten notes. Later, the Navy awarded her a letter of commendation. When the day of reckoning finally came, the initial start-up was an anxious one. The switch was flipped and the system purred like a kitten. High fives were plentiful … until someone noticed smoke rising from the breaker box. The specialty 24-volt breakers were purchased from a country the size of a postage stamp. Wiring instructions were vague and difficult to read. But some head scratching and a few experiments solved the problem.

Quickly back in operation, cautious high fives were again exchanged. The system ran perfectly.

Afterward, Chris and Mark were also asked to look at a problem boiler at the main base. It overheated the building. And for good reason. It was six times larger than needed, the result of someone’s fear. Short cycling was creating condensation in the flue. The condensation would freeze and huge chunks of ice would fall into the massive boiler. How’s that for thermal shock! The ice buildup reduced the flue passage. As a temporary fix they replaced the nozzle with a smaller one and lowered the aquastat. This meant they would be returning soon to Antarctica, toting a properly sized boiler.

Before their final departure, our engineer and plumber had an interesting run-in with maintenance. The maintenance guys for this unmanned station call themselves the “un-men.” Since their ability to maintain the site could be easily hampered by the weather, they had some concerns. “Those positive displacement pumps make too much noise!” they reported. “We’re worried. Those noises can’t be good.”

Logical explanations were to no avail. Mark reluctantly replaced them with centrifugal pumps. After a few days the un-men returned. “Those centrifugal pumps are too quiet! We can’t tell if they’re working!”

The landscape changes but some things stay the same.

Dennis Bellanti runs Low Energy Systems, Englewood, Colo. PM readers may remember the article we published in the September 1996 issue on the company’s mobile radiant showroom. His phone number is 303/781-9437.

Saving The Past

by Bob “Hot Rod” Rohr

I love a call that starts out like this, “My radiant floor heat system is 35 years old …” It’s enough to make me drop all currently held tools, mid-hobby, on a Sunday afternoon and head straight to the address.

In the three years I’ve lived in Springfield, Mo., I’ve found some of the most unique and imaginative systems I’ve ever seen.

My friend was calling to ask for my advice. His home is rather unique to the neighborhood. It’s slab on grade, has unusually shaped windows and lots of massive brick interior wall partitions. A Don Russell design, I learn, a disciple of Frank Lloyd Wright. A real forward-thinking, Comfort-with-a-capital-C kind of architect.

This particular radiant system showed a hint of professionalism. Properly vented, straight, plumb and level piping. Safety valves of fairly recent vintage. I’m starting to like this unknown craftsperson already. So I start my investigation. Hmmm that’s unusual. I hear water running, and the fill line is ice cold. Yep. Turning off the gate valve on the fill causes the running water sound to stop. I notice a manifold of steel pipe disappearing into the slab. That sinking feeling suddenly hits.

My friend had fallen in love with his warm floors. “Surely, they can be repaired,” he insists. We go over a long list of retrofit options. Warm floors keeps coming back to the top of the list.

OK, here’s the plan: First, we pour a new, thin slab over the existing slab. We glue the tubing down with an approved construction adhesive. We insert concrete nails through tube talons to hold the ends of the loops straight. Afterward, a 1-1/2 inch pour covers our handiwork.

We ended up with nice, level floors. Better than the original, plus we get a great seal along the bottom of the outside walls.

Not surprisingly our heat loss calculation shows the old 125,000 Btu boiler was grossly oversized. A water heater, rated for hydronic heating, replaces the old, cast-iron boiler.

We split the home into several zones. To accomplish this, we cut a foot-wide trench across the old slab. I was surprised to see the old, black iron pipe in near perfect condition. The loops had been made with welded type 90 degree bends with loops approximately 12 inch o.c. What a job to weld all these loops together.

I find the cause of the failure. Ironically enough, the steel pipe had rusted from the outside in an area where the pipe had not been completely encased in concrete. It was lying in an area of wet sand near a leaking tub drain!

The moral of this radiant fairy tale: You might have to get creative, but that’s why we have these cool, technical skills! You have to find a way to give the customer exactly what he wants — radiant floor heat.

Hot Rod Rohr and his wife, PM columnist Ellen Rohr, owned a radiant contracting firm in Utah. Hot Rod now runs Maxrohr, a hydronic and radiant specialty parts company. He can be reached at 417/753-3998.