Pool Heater Startup

Written on: April 1, 2013 by Wayne Lawrence

I have been out as late as 10pm on May 30th in pitch black darkness, in the rain, to get a pool heater running because of a customer threatening to quit. I guess if had that kind of money to heat a swimming pool, let it cool down, only to reheat it again, @ $$$$.9 a gallon, or therm, maybe I would think things differently.  It is with this in mind, for my April submission (with the hope that some office staff views this) that I share a few thoughts that may save some unnecessary call backs for us in the field, and reduce stress for the customer service staff in the office.
Before dispatching a technician to service a pool account :

#1a) The pool must be opened first! “Opened” means the Pool Company—or customer—has had the pool filled to the proper level; the pool already cleaned/serviced; strainers clear, pool pump running—with its strainer cleaned; pool filter cleaned, replaced, or backwashed depending on type of filtration used, and all electric to the heater/ pump filtration system be in full working order.
#1b) The customer MUST be home during the service call. He or she should be aware that someone will be there that day. I hate going into a gated yard with no one home—there may be a dog on the other side! I have also walked in through a closed gate where the woman of the home was working on a “no tan line tan” and did not expect me. Very awkward!
It is very important to have the customer on-site during this service, as the entire system can be put on line and perhaps avoiding the inevitable callback to answer any questions about the system at a later time. 
I hate to see chlorine tabs in the strainer baskets. This is quite common, and will ruin the heater. Customers are amazed when I inform them of this. “The chlorine belongs in the chlorinator and goes into the pool first—not into the heater inlet at full strength. 
During the winterization process, the fuel source may be turned off. If it’s an oil fired unit, there may be oil valves shut off inside the home. I’m most concerned about a valve closed on the return line. UGH! 
I need to note the tank fuel level. If it’s a natural gas unit, I need to get to the meter. If propane, I need to get to the tank to perform a gas line pressure test.  I may have to get to the electric panel. 
If they have an Aqua-link control, we have to check that the indoor panel communicates with the outdoor control. 
There could be water leaks that need attention. The heater may need some work that is not covered by a service agreement. There may be a noise complaint, or an insufficient heat complaint caused by trying to save fuel by not running the heater long enough.  And then there’s the very common spider in the gas orifice, or woodland creature problem, where one of nature’s rodents moved into the heater over the winter and just had to sharpen its teeth on the wiring. That, by the way, helps with both job security and billable revenue.

#2) IMPORTANT!  The heater is not to be started or run unless checked/serviced first! This is a very expensive appliance. Some are no longer manufactured, and getting parts for them is difficult.  Over the winter, it is also very common for the heat exchanger to become restricted by rust from the smoke pipe, smoke hood, or by the aforementioned Mr. or Mrs. Woodland Creature that has moved in and built a nest. I have come across so many units that have been heat damaged, and the costly repairs could have been avoided by a service before start up.  
The ignition delays on gas and propane units are quite frightening, could cause damage, and they, too, can be avoided. A tip to those who work on natural gas or propane units—have a combustion gas sniffer turned on, and placed next to you while working and before lighting the unit. A few burners may light, and some gas spillage could occur if there’s a blockage in the remaining burners. You can’t see a gas flame in daylight. The gas sniffer will warn you in advance of gas spillage. I learned this hard way while working on a propane unit without a gas sniffer.
 Dry leaves are very flammable, as are whatever the woodland creatures bring in to make their nest. A check or cleaning of the heat exchanger and the removal of flammables will save a very costly repair or unit replacement. 
Ok, with all that off my mind, a few more random thoughts:
Homework in this industry never stops. It’s important that those who work on these units become very familiar with how a multiport valve works, and all of its functions. Never move the handle with the pump running; you will blow out the spider gasket. 
Be careful of how long you backwash the filter. At 70 gallons a minute, you could drop the water level below the skimmer ports in the pool. It happened to people I know while they were distracted and talking on a Nextel.  
You should know how to backwash the pool filter, rinse, and place the unit back into filtration mode, if you suspect a pressure switch defect. It’s hard to collect money for a pressure switch replacement, when they have the exact same problem after the repair, and the problem was a restricted filter that only needed a backwash.  
On many units, there is also a mixing valve that needs to be set by flow, or temperature differential.  
On units with a pressure switch, it must be checked, making sure there is no water restriction, or air leaks in the pool pump plumbing. View the sight window in the pump assembly. You shouldn’t see any cavitation. 
Low flow: inspect the pump impeller for leaves. Very common.  I always check the pressure switch by turning off the pool pump first, turning on the heater, then turning on the pool pump—in that order. Once the water pressure builds, the heater should start.  The pool pump should run at least 20 minutes after the heater is turned off. If both are shut down simultaneously, the heater becomes a $ 4,000.00 percolator as the water in the heat exchanger flashes to steam, and you will think the heater is ready for lift-off! (“Failure may then be its only option.”)  The aqua-link control has this off delay built in. 
A mechanical time clock should be checked that the end switch is properly wired and operational.
Any severe rust, or staining on the powder coated heater jacket is a sign of excessive heat, and the heater and pump may be shutting off at the same time. 
Another tip to make life a little more comfortable: personally, I can’t understand why it feels like I’m in a Vietnam war movie every time I have to work on one of these heaters. I’ve never seen in any installation instruction manual that the heater has to be camouflaged by all types of plantings that usually poke me in the eyes as I try to get to it. I always have a can of “Deep Woods Off™” handy—to ward off ticks, and those nasty “tiger mosquitoes.” I also bring out to the heater a can of wasp spray, and give the heater a good bang before starting any work. I’ve removed the smoke hood only to then get stung several times. Learn to check for “yellow jackets” on every call before starting any work. Be aware of what poison ivy and poison oak look like as well. 
I did not get manufacturer-specific for a reason. I keep the manuals on my van with the wiring and part numbers for the common units I work on. If any reps out there have some technical tips pertaining to their product, I’m sure this publication would put it in print. To those reps: “If we can’t service it—we can’t sell it!” I look forward to seeing you in Hershey May 19th-23rd, and best of all, I won’t have to service any of these heaters during the convention. 
  Stay safe!  Wayne