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Mysterious Mystery of the Unexplained

SteamoPhilips Member Posts: 15
edited April 2020 in THE MAIN WALL
I’m fairly new to all this. We bought an old house with a steam-heating system last December, and I’ve been working my way through LAOSH ever since. My heating guy is a grizzled veteran though, and even he can’t make sense of what happened to us this week, although we were limited by the pandemic to a phone consultation.

The story is this:

On Monday, high winds ripped through the Hudson Valley, knocking down trees and power-lines, and we had no electricity for about four hours. Then it came back on.

Tuesday morning, my wife noticed that the Nest unit controlling our heating system was dark and unresponsive, and the house was cold. I’m guessing we had no heat from Monday morning onwards but just didn’t notice.

I powered the Nest back up with a USB cable and it informed me that it wasn’t getting any power from the furnace. (The Nest is wired to a Weil-McLean furnace that has had the oil-to-gas conversion.)

I consulted the Internet, which assured me that furnace shutdowns are fairly common following power outages, and gave me a list of things to try.

I descended to the basement, and verified that the furnace was completely dead—no heat, no sound, no lights.

I went to the electrical panel and checked for tripped breakers. There were none.

I looked around the furnace for GFI outlets that might need to be reset. There were none. All the furnace electrics (the burner, the water-feeder etc.) seem to be wired into the mains via a single distribution box with a single switch and a bright red cover that reads: “GAS BURNER EMERGENCY SWITCH.” The switch was in the On position, because it always is.

I pressed the Reset button on the furnace exactly once. Nothing happened.

Before I could stop her, my 18-month-old daughter, who happened to be in my arms, reached out and pressed the Reset button a further five times. I gently chastised her, explaining that the Internet says pressing the Reset button more than once risks putting a furnace into “Lockdown mode.” She looked at the button with a new respect, and pressed it twice more.

Out of ideas, and suspecting we might now be in Lockdown, I decided to turn off the power to the furnace, wait ten minutes, then turn it back on and re-try the Reset button.

I reached out and flipped the “GAS BURNER EMERGENCY SWITCH” to the Off position…

With a roar, the furnace came to life.

I stared at it, then back at the switch (still Off), then back at the furnace, whose pipes, I verified with my hand, were now heating up.

Shrugging, I figured that between us my daughter and I must have lucked into some kind of furnace cheat code. All that remained was to put the Emergency Switch back into its proper On position and all would once again be right with the world. I reached for the switch and flipped it On.

The furnace went off. I quickly flipped the switch back to Off.

The furnace went on again, and it has remained on ever since, heating the house and coordinating perfectly with the Nest. Everything is fine, except that somehow the Emergency Switch controlling the boiler now has reversed polarity. On is Off, and Off is On. For the furnace to run, as of this week, the switch must now be Off.

I called my heating guy, assuming he’d chuckle relaxedly and say, “Yeah see what you’ve done there is…[something something something].” But he’s as baffled as I am. All he could recommend after a fifteen-minute discussion was that I open up the switch box and reverse the wires, so that On once again means on. Being somewhat wary of electrical work, I asked him if I couldn’t just put tape over the words “On” and “Off” and write in the opposite using a Sharpie, Donald Trump-style, and he confirmed that this would be just as effective.

So that’s what I’ll do but WTF? I don’t particularly mind that the Emergency Switch has flipped its polarity, if that’s all that has happened, but it’s disconcerting. Is it possible this is just the only visible symptom of some larger, more dangerous change to the system?

Anyone have any ideas?


    JUGHNE Member Posts: 8,189
    You may have another switch for boiler control. Perhaps at the top of the stairs.
    If so these could be "3-way" switches wired so you have control from either location.
    If this is the case someone may have reversed the position of the other switch.
    I could not see "on" or "off" on the switch toggle itself.
  • pecmsg
    pecmsg Member Posts: 1,911
    Loose the NEST

    More trouble then there worth!
  • Jamie Hall
    Jamie Hall Member Posts: 15,403
    @JUGHNE 's comment may be correct. If so, however, the wiring is not correct -- emergency switches should (must, I think, by code) be wired so that turning it, or there is more than one, any one of them off kills power to the unit. Three way switches are, even if not prohibited, insanely dangerous in such a setting.

    That said... since you have a way to run the thing now, and a known way to shut it off (even if the switch goes the wrong way!), I'd be inclined to leave it be until I could get an electrician in there to figure out how power gets to the unit -- and make it correct.
    Br. Jamie, osb
    Building superintendent/caretaker, 7200 sq. ft. historic house museum with dependencies in New England
  • ratio
    ratio Member Posts: 2,732
    @JUGHNE's got it, I think. Look for another 3-way switch somewhere else that was inadvertently flipped during the power outage. When you do find it, REMOVE IT!
  • Big Ed_4
    Big Ed_4 Member Posts: 1,648
    edited April 2020
    I have the same gut feeling as Jug , I zoomed in on your photo on the service switch itself . I did not see on/ off marking on the switch lever ... If oddly wired this way the second double pole switch would be the emergency switch in the stairwell . Double pole switches are used for two switches controlling an light ... The switches should be in series for safety, when working on unit .
    I have enough experience to know , that I dont know it all
  • Steamhead
    Steamhead Member Posts: 14,342
    @SteamoPhilips , where are you located?

    This isn't the first time I've found a miswired switch, or one that's been installed upside down..............
    All Steamed Up, Inc.
    Steam, Vapor & Hot-Water Heating Specialists
    Oil & Gas Burner Service
  • SteamoPhilips
    SteamoPhilips Member Posts: 15
    Thanks all. We're in Beacon, NY, up in the Hudson Valley.

    The three-way switch idea is an elegant explanation, and probably right, though it does sound like a crazy thing to have rigged up, and I've no idea where the second switch might be...

    Wait a second. Is it possible that either the Reset button or the Nest itself is wired in as a second switch?
    HVACNUT Member Posts: 3,807
    The switch is simply installed upside down.

    Cannot see On or Off labeled in the switch so it is a 3 way.

    Replace it with a single pole, 15 amp switch.

    We even see single pole switches upside down. I call them No/Foe switches.
  • mattmia2
    mattmia2 Member Posts: 2,680
    That is definitely a 3 way switch with the lack of on and off markings. The other switch would be the same style of switch, not part of some control. Follow where all those pieces of armored cable going in to the box go to find the other one. Probably only 2 leave the area of the boiler, one to the breaker panel, the other to the other switch.

    If the nest doesn't have a dedicated power wire from the boiler (wired with 3 wires) I would suggest you do that, although as other have said, setback with steam doesn't work so well.
  • SteamingatMohawk
    SteamingatMohawk Member Posts: 407
    edited April 2020
    Holy cow, It looks like 5 BX cables and one Romex in one box. That seems weird. I don't have enough experience with this stuff (probably should keep my mouth shut), but that seems odd.

    With a Romex cable, my guess is that is an add-on and if you can trace it, you may find the magic answer.

    Also, what cable labeling, does it show; something like 12-2/WG or 12-3/WG or 14 gauge. If it is -3 there should be red, white, black and bare conductors, if -2 white, black and bare conductors. Usually the three way switches use the -3, but who knows what is really there?

    After looking at the Romex again, it is flat, which probably means it is -2 because the -3 has an additional conductor and is more round. See the pics.

    After due consideration, I vote for @HVACNUT's suggestion.

    Good luck.

  • mattmia2
    mattmia2 Member Posts: 2,680
    A properly wired 3 way switch would need a 3 conductor with ground cable, 2 travelers and one to feed the power or the controlled device.
    JUGHNE Member Posts: 8,189
    That other switch, if it exists, could be hiding anywere.
    Possibly at the top of the stairs in the stairwell, usually.
    (perhaps hiding behind that coat on the hook)
    Or at the entrance to the boiler room area.
    It may have gotten switched during your power outage.

    Replacing it with the correct switch will still give problems if there is another switch somewhere. Both switches can be corrected at their respective boxes without adding wires.

    A 3-way (S3) has 3 screws for connections, (not counting a green ground screw on the strap). It is single pole-double throw switch

    IIRC, the "way" word comes from earlier English. That country had electricity before us and used the word "way" to describe a wire...."pathway" for electricity.

    A 4-way has 4 wire connections S4
    A standard on/off switch has 2 wire connections.....not referred to as a "2-way".....rather just a single pole. S1

    I know everybody has been looking for this bit of trivia. :)
  • SteamingatMohawk
    SteamingatMohawk Member Posts: 407
    By the way, having a HVAC guy come to your house is an "essential" function and does not violate NY state guidance.

    If the guy refuses because he is concerned about getting infected, that's a different story.

    I was going to suggest you take the red cover off the box, but it looks like an extension was added at some point in time. There are two screws that hold the switch in place on the cover and two of four screws holding the cover to the extension. Not knowing if the switch is fastened to the extension, do not mess around with the switch unless you know for sure all power is off.

    It's not worth the risk for a novice to investigate.

    With all that jabbering, what position was the switch in when you changed position after the power outage?

    HVACNUT Member Posts: 3,807
    And throwing your kid under the bus like that. 😒
  • ratio
    ratio Member Posts: 2,732
    HVACNUT said:

    And throwing your kid under the bus like that. 😒

    Are you kidding, I can totally see her doing that, having raised (actually, raising) five daughters of my own, although I suppose the waif in my mind looks like my daughter.
    JUGHNE Member Posts: 8,189
    You could look under the red plate switch cover.
    Shut the breaker off for the furnace....if running when switched off then you know the circuit is dead.

    The 2 screws in the corners of the red plate could then be removed and you could see how many wires are connected to the switch. There may be a green or bare connected to the switch mounting strap. If there are 3 wires connected (not including the ground wire) then it is connected as a 3 way and you still may have that mystery switch hiding.

    The "Romex" cable coming out the top could very well be a 14-3-G cable. It would have the black, white, red and bare.
    They now produce flat 14-3 cable. It is usually used to connect 3-way switches together. If you can see where that flat cable goes to it may be the switch location. If it goes to the CB panel that is not it.

    We await your findings with baited breath. :p
  • Fred
    Fred Member Posts: 8,516
    edited April 2020
    Since you have only been in the house since December and since you are not aware of a 3 way switch, are you 100% certain that switch hasn't always been in the "of" position and that you just never noticed until you tried to turn it "on"? Ask your daughter, I bet she knows. B) The switch may just be installed upside down.
    JUGHNE Member Posts: 8,189
    If there are only 2 wires connected to the switch then it is acting as a single pole on/off switch.
    You can remove the two screws on the plate to inspect and if you wish you can flip the switch over. The other smaller screws come out and you rotate the switch 180 degrees. Reversing the wires will not accomplish anything.
    EBEBRATT-Ed Member Posts: 8,567
    I have found old emergency switches in the back of closets. People in the old days din't like the looks of the red switch plate so they would hide them.

    Now they have to be installed in a readily accesable and obvious location.

    @SteamoPhilips check to see if the switch has ON_OFF written on the toggle. If not it is a three way. Then follow the cables coming out of the box to give you a clue where to find the other switch. Look in the backs of closets and other non obvious locations.

    if there are 3 way switches that would have reverse the toggle action at the switch by the boiler
  • Fred
    Fred Member Posts: 8,516
    IDK, even if it is a 3 way switch, someone would have had to flip the other switch for this one to be reversed.
    EBEBRATT-Ed Member Posts: 8,567
    That's why I mentioned back of closets. I went on a no heat call once and had no power to the boiler. Had to trace the wiring and found the emergency switch in the back of a closet. The customer had taken clothes in and out of the closet and moved hangers and had tripped the switch. They didn't realize it was in their. Took me a while to find it.....hard to believe it was in there,

    That would account for his switch working in reverse if there is another three way somewhere and it got switched by accident.

    I have found some in some weird places

    At my own house (1955) the boiler is in the basement and the ES is inside the stairwell leading to the attic!!!
  • SteamoPhilips
    SteamoPhilips Member Posts: 15
    Thanks for everyone's help. The solution was, as many immediately suspected, a second ES at the top of the basement stairs, in this case hidden behind a hanging jacket. Occam's Razor can break your heart, but here the simplest explanation was indeed the best. Thanks again.
  • ratio
    ratio Member Posts: 2,732
    Thanks for the follow-up!
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