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Why is it so hard to get a Combustion Adjustment on a Burnham Alpine?

JeffGuy Member Posts: 81
Sorry, but this is a long story. So long I have to break it into two parts. Hopefully someone will read it all the way through.

First the good. I had a gas Burnham Alpine ModCon installed in 2011 to replace a 1940's coal to oil conversion gravity system that finally cracked its block one winter. It actually limped through that last season after I epoxied the crack in the old boilers block (believe it or not that actually worked) but knew I couldn't get through another season and it was time to replace it. I let the old oil tanks run dry and started the disassembly and removal of the old system myself to save costs. I love radiant heat so never really considered anything other than upgrading the boiler.

I don't think this site had its "Find a Contractor" link in 2011 when ModCon's were still fairly new, because I had a lot of trouble finding someone who (a) was interested in a boiler instead of replacing with an air furnace; (b) knew about and was willing to install a ModCon; (c) was willing to install the Alpine (which I wanted due to substantial gas company rebate) instead of their personal choice; and (d) was willing to answer questions and include me in the planning for the conversion. I had one plumber who walked out when I wanted to discuss where the intake and exhaust vents would be placed - he seemed to be pissed that I wanted to understanding why he wanted to run a twenty foot exhaust vent in the basement instead of moving the boiler. I had another plumber who seemed gung-ho and started the work - first step was moving the water line to the new boiler location and since I had lead supply pipes in the basement that went to the boiler and outdoor faucets (yes really - the house was built in 1900 and this was original wiped lead) I wanted all the lead taken out and replaced. He was competent, but I couldn't get him to show up enough - he would come for a half a day and then leave for another week. I found out that he was doing this job as a moonlight from his full time job working as an in-house plumber at a large private high school and it was clear he didn't have time to get this job done working at that rate. He finished removing the lead and relocating the line but after that I paid him for what he had done and we parted company.

It took longer than it should have to get the gas company to run a line from the street to my house (oil prices were high in 2011) but they got it done. By this time it was getting late in the season, winter approaching, and I was running out of plumbers who were interested in the job so panic was setting in. I got more involved in the planning of the new installation and took over the purchase of the boiler and supplies. I consider myself a fairly competent apprentice plumber - I will fix drips or leaks or replace faucets, valves and toilets, solder copper pipe and valves to install a new water heater, etc. But I was never going to get involved with gas-line work or attempt a system this big by myself. But I could plan and order stuff, so I did, spec-ing out, sourcing and ordering the pipe, elbows, valves, pumps, spirovent, expansion tank, etc. I planned the new installation using resources on this site, putting in a wood wall in front of the stone basement wall to hold the relocated wall-mount boiler pumps and valves, and had all the parts ready to install.

I found a pair of good licensed plumbers who did the installation, and did a nice job. They weren't heating system specialists (I had given up on finding one of those), but they were very competent and the system was up and running right before the cold set in so it all worked out. The only thing they didn't do that they should have done, was to do a combustion check and adjustment. They left the boiler at factory setting and didn't do any adjustment (there is a single screw adjustment for the Alpine). At the time I didn't know that should have been done, and when I did find out a couple years later I contacted them, but they told me they didn't have the combustion tool which is fairly expensive and requires periodic recalibration, so I had to find someone else and let it drop intending to do it later.


  • JeffGuy
    JeffGuy Member Posts: 81
    Now for the bad, starting with my own procrastination. Another couple years later I got a replacement part from Burnham that they sent to be retrofitted into their 2011 boilers, so I found a heating contractor through the new "Find a Contractor" link. He said he knew the Burnham Alpine ModCons and had experience working on them, so I planned to get him to install the part and do a cleaning and the overdue combustion tuning. But when he showed up he forgot his combustion tool, so I let it drop again until I could reschedule him. Then my wife's family had some medical crises requiring several trips to North Carolina and New Orleans and this was put on the back burner again and I never followed through.

    This fall I turned on my boiler, but it failed to start for the first time. Seven years into a five year warranty, so it was not covered. Error code indicated it was the combustion fan and it wasn't going to start until that was replaced. I obviously couldn't put it off any longer, and called the contractor who had failed to bring his analyzer before, this time to replace the fan and do the cleaning, install the Burnham part, and do the combustion tuning. He quoted a price of about X for this type of job (I know, no prices so I'll call it X). I confirmed that was for the whole job and said that would be fine and to order the parts. He updated me when they were in and said he'd be there the following Monday. No mention that the fan was more expensive in his email, but when he showed up he apologized that the price of the part was more than he had ever seen before, so X was going to go up some. OK, it would have been nice to know that in advance, but I needed this fixed so lets get started.

    When he finished the fan installation and cleaning he started the combustion analysis. He called the combustion analyzer company since it wasn't giving valid numbers, and called Burnham tech support for the numbers to set it to. He got unexpected results, requiring him to turn the screw all the way out and still not making the C02/O2 number Burnham said he should make. There was also now a leak in a water valve inside the boiler. He took it out to reseat it but it still leaked and he didn't have a replacement in his truck nor did I. He said it should seal itself in a couple days. He said he had to get to another job, but because the combustion adjustment didn't seem right that he would come back to finish the combustion tuning (and I added to fix the leak if it didn't stop) so he said OK and handed me a bill for 3X, because that's what his "computer program" said he should charge. What? How did a part that should have taken the cost to 1.2X somehow make the bill become 3X? I asked what the real cost was and he said he would take 2X. I accepted that since it was getting cold outside and he had gotten the system from dead to working, so I said OK and paid him the 2X. Over the next couple weeks the leak in the valve did not stop (I set up a bucket under that drip), and I noticed the pressure relief valve was also leaking (I set up a bucket under that one too). I sent him pictures to show the valves that were leaking, and he scheduled a time to come back.

    When he arrived to finish the combustion adjustment he balked at the idea of replacing the valves for free, and said he was going to charge me another whole X for that. I told him that wasn't right, that these weren't leaking before he started and that I would pay for the parts but that the labor should have been included in the first payment I had already made of 2X. I also said that if he wouldn't do that, then that was fine, that I would replace the valves myself (that is the kind of thing I am fully capable of doing) but I wouldn't call him again for future service. He said OK, fine, he didn't want to argue so he replaced the valves and started on the combustion analysis. This analysis didn't go any better than the first, in fact it went worse. He couldn't get the numbers specified by Burnham, and he was getting out of spec CO numbers too. Calls to Burnham tech support didn't help, and he finally got frustrated and said he was setting the adjustment back to the factory setting. Then he gathered up his tools and left. I thought he had gone to his truck to get something, but he just drove off. Never contacted me about coming back or anything else. So he did fix the leaks and didn't ask me to pay for the two valves. But he also tried to charge me 4X (3X + X) for a job that was supposed to be X (though he marked it down to 2X), and he failed to do any sort of combustion analysis, setting the boiler back to the factory setting it had been at when he first came in.

    Clearly I don't want to call him back in, and its pretty clear he wouldn't want to come back even if I did. Based on what I saw, I don't think he had ever worked on an Alpine before.

    So finally my question: what should I do? How can I find someone who is really experienced with and capable of doing a combustion adjustment for a Burnham Alpine? Is it OK to just keep running at the factory setting? Should it be so hard to get a proper combustion adjustment and if so, why doesn't Burnham adjust it correctly before it leaves the factory?
  • Jamie Hall
    Jamie Hall Member Posts: 23,428
    The first, and obvious question is: where are you? We might possibly know someone who'd take this on.

    I am not a burner technician, nor do I claim to be. That said, it's simply not possible to set and adjust a burner to the optimum numbers at the factory. The installation variables -- particularly draught -- are much too wide ranging. What is possible, and what usually one finds, is to set the system at a setting which will allow it to actually start. At which point it becomes possible to make adjustments for best performance. For those older than a certain age, it's the same thing we used to do with cars: get the ignition and carburetor set to some generic setting at which the thing would start and run, after a fashion, and then make small adjustments to "tune up" the engine...
    Br. Jamie, osb
    Building superintendent/caretaker, 7200 sq. ft. historic house museum with dependencies in New England
  • lchmb
    lchmb Member Posts: 2,997
    each system is set to a rough start point. From there, it is necessary to fine tune the unit on site. As far as locating someone, I'm assuming you've checked the list. Where are you located and have you contacted Burnham to see if they have someone local?
    EBEBRATT-Ed Member Posts: 15,614

    Sorry to say this but respectfully I think you are your own worst enemy.

    We always say on this site that the most important thing is to find a good contractor and let them pick the boiler they are comfortable with........you didn't do either of those things......you never really had a contractor...you listened to the gas company

    You bought the boiler and parts yourself.......no "real contractor is going to be interested....you have had several contractors walk out. You ran the boiler for years and ignored it, no service and never a combustion test.

    Seems to me this whole thing is on you.
    A real contractor who is competent would have installed a boiler he was comfortable with, and done a combustion test and been available to service it when needed.

    You started the job with a moonlighter who didn't finish the job.

    Looks like now you will have to spend some of the money you saved.
    Dan FoleyBoon
  • Tim McElwain
    Tim McElwain Member Posts: 4,628
    What is your location?
  • JeffGuy
    JeffGuy Member Posts: 81
    Thanks for the comments. I hear you Ebebratt; I would have much preferred to find a competent installer in the beginning, but remember this was in 2011 when the contractors I was talking to were still pushing the older systems (or even hot air) as replacement, using my existing chimney which would have needed to be relined. I considered all those alternate options but believed I would be better off with a vented ModCon, and I really tried to find someone to do that and failed so I started making compromises. I think I wasn't looking in the right places, and was restricting my search to be too close to my house.

    You have to remember that us homeowners have restricted options unlike those of you have the contacts they need and can just make things happen. I tried getting a recommendation from Burnham at the time, but they wouldn't recommend anyone by name, just said to go to their list. They have a lot more names on their Find Contractor link now, but I noticed that some of the links they have listed are no longer in business (really), so I'm not sure how much trust I can put into this list really being vetted. I was also disappointed that there is no name on both the Burnham and HeatingHelp contractor sites - that would make the choice easier.

    I live in the greater Boston, Acton/Bedford/Concord MA area. And I just spent some time looking around here in more depth, and came up with a name of a frequent contributor (Bob Gagnon) who surprisingly isn't on the Find Contractor page but I'll contact him and see if I am close enough for him to be interested in working on a Burnham. Any other recommendations in case that doesn't work would be appreciated too.
  • Boon
    Boon Member Posts: 260
    edited January 2019
    Since this thread has been sitting for a few days I feel comfortable jumping in with some homeowner advice/perspective for you:
    Jeffguy said >>> Is it OK to just keep running at the factory setting?
    From efficiency, safety, reliability, equipment longevity, and emissions perspectives, it is probably not 'ok' to continue running with the factory setting. But, it seems you've been 'ok' going the last 7-8 years without an analysis (or a mention of annual maintenance), and thousands of boilers have been installed without an analysis, so ... what does 'ok' mean to you? Getting a pro who owns combustion equipment can be expensive so perhaps your definition of 'ok' has a dollar amount attached to it. That's ok, like I said there are thousands of boilers that are running 'ok' with an analysis.
    Jeffguy said >>> How can I find someone who is really experienced with and capable of doing a combustion adjustment for a Burnham Alpine?

    I don’t think you will get anyone to ONLY do a combustion analysis on your boiler. In my experience it doesn't work that way. Before anyone analyzes combustion numbers they need to ensure the boiler is in good working order - and that means following prescribed maintenance to make sure, for examples, that the burner itself isn't damaged or clogged, or that the combustion chamber is clean, or ... any number of things.

    You need to call contractors and ask for "annual maintenance, including a combustion analysis.” Don't say anything else. Nothing. Shhhh. Every additional word about your boiler's sordid past is a giant red flag and will dissuade any professional from saying, ‘Yes’ to you. The only other things you can ask is if they can leave you a copy of the combustion analysis for your records and how much they charge. Ignore this advice at your own risk.

    And just because they give you a dollar amount doesn’t mean the dollar amount isn’t going to change. When they inspect the boiler, if a stud breaks, if a gasket fails, if a valve starts to leak, if anything goes “wrong,” you have to understand that’s part of preventative maintenance/annual maintenance. Your boiler’s [entire system's] current state/condition isn’t their fault and part of their visit is to find & fix parts that are failing/beyond their service life. You don’t get to claim that they broke it because it was working fine before they got there. The very nature of the maintenance is such that something is bound to go wrong or break; be thankful if it doesn't, but be prepared when it does.
    Should it be so hard to get a proper combustion adjustment
    Thank goodness it is! It is a blessing in disguise. When you do find a contractor who owns combustion analysis equipment, you're as-good-as-guaranteed that you got a top-shelf pro. Yes, they will probably charge more than some advertisement on the side of a bus, but remember that they care enough to invest in the equipment and the training so that they can do the job right - they deserve to be rewarded/compensated [and trusted!] accordingly.
    DIY'er ... ripped out a perfectly good forced-air furnace and replaced it with hot water & radiators.
  • Jamie Hall
    Jamie Hall Member Posts: 23,428
    Bob Gagnon is a good man.

    I might add that the folks on the "find a contractor" list are those who have chosen to contribute to the cost of running this site; just because someone is (or isn't) on the list is not a reflection on the quality of their work -- though I think you will find that those who are on the list are all very good indeed.
    Br. Jamie, osb
    Building superintendent/caretaker, 7200 sq. ft. historic house museum with dependencies in New England
    Erin Holohan Haskell
  • Dan C.
    Dan C. Member Posts: 248
    We can take care of this for you. I did two combustion tests on Alpines today. We used to install a lot of Alpines but have switched to the Aspen. 781-718-2273