American in Spain

Epic Boiler Adventure

May 4, 2011
Boiler Knob

Over the last year, our boiler (the appliance that uses propane gas from our community tanks to heat water for the sinks, showers, and radiators) slowly stopped working. Well, it heated the radiators just fine, but the hot water in the showers was only lukewarm at best. My wife and I could be brave and take cool showers, but towards the end, we were having to boil water separately to fill the bathtub for our daughter. Finally we couldn't take it anymore and we called up our friend, Manolo, who says he's not a plumber, he's a Hydrosanitation Engineer.


Manolo rolled up his sleeves and wedged himself between our ailing boiler and and our kitchen counter – boilers that are not outside on a balcony in Spain are typically in the kitchen near the sink – and looked around at the inner workings of the machine, shouting orders to me to open and close the hot water faucet occasionally. He surprised us with a theory that blamed not the boiler, but one of our faucets. In modern civilized countries that are not part of the United Kingdom (get with the "programme", Brits!), bathtubs and sinks only have one faucet and the hot and cold water is mixed inside the faucet mechanism to provide a nice controllable gradient of temperatures to the user. If one of the valves or sphincters or whatever is controlling that mixture is malfunctioning, it can end up letting cold water into your hot water piping system, thus reducing maximum possible temperature of hot water in the entire house. My first thought was that this was the kind of rare, but interesting, diagnosis television's Dr. House would appreciate.

To test his hypothesis, Manolo had to turn off all the water valves to the sink faucets in the house, and then remove our shower faucet and cap it off, eliminating all but one faucet. If the water came out hot, then we knew that one of the other faucets was the culprit. If it came out lukewarm, then either that isolated faucet was the problem or the hypothesis was wrong. The water was lukewarm, so we had to test another faucet to confirm or negate our theory. But of course he didn't have the tools on him to do that one, so we had to wait two days with one of our showers disabled for him to come back... Again, the water was lukewarm. Hypothesis scrapped.

He stood there, leaning against the wall, arms crossed, brow furrowed, mental gears spinning, searching for an answer, when suddenly... "Hey, why is this radiator I'm leaning over hot? Your heating isn't on, is it?" He sprang into action without further explanation. I swear, it was just like an episode of House. We let the radiator cool down and then turned on the hot water in the bathtub. Sure enough, the radiator got warm. Aha!

While the boiler heats both the radiators and the tap water, it should do so independently. The radiators are a closed loop system, and the taps are, obviously, not. Our three-way valve inside the boiler was malfunctioning and it was trying to raise the entire house to the temperature of our shower water. Oops.

Now we had to decide if we should try and find a replacement piece for our old no-longer-manufactured model of boiler, or to get a new boiler. Our boiler was known to be at least eight or nine years old, and boilers in general don't live much longer than cats. It's one of those "When do you stop repairing the car and buy a new one?" situations.

We decided to buy a new boiler.

Boiler #1

At this point we had to decide which kind of boiler we wanted. One option was a combustion chamber boiler, which sits outside on the balcony and has a tube within a tube running a meter or so off the balcony to suck in oxygen and expel the exhaust. These boilers tend to be slightly more expensive, but are safer. The problem with this option is that we'd have to tear up part of the kitchen ceiling to run the four water pipes and some electrical wires out to the balcony. Yuck.

The other option was an "atmospheric boiler", which goes inside the house (our dying boiler was of this type) uses the oxygen in the room to burn the gas to heat the water. Because of the inherent danger of having a machine in your kitchen that's burning all the oxygen, the regional government has actually prohibited the installation of atmospheric boilers. However, the manufacturers still have them in stock and are delighted to get rid of them, and really the probability of collapsing of asphyxia in your kitchen on a cold winter's morn while someone is showering is actually quite low. Manolo, the Hydrosanitation Engineer, replaced his atmospheric boiler with another atmospheric boiler just two years ago because he judged the risk to be significantly lower than the annoyance of the kitchen destruction. He was pushing us towards the atmospheric boiler.

After some consideration we decided that we just wanted to get things fixed as soon as possible, so we chose to buy an atmospheric model, from the unfortunate-meaning-in-English German company, Junkers.

Later that week, Manolo sent over two of his employees to remove our old boiler and install the new one. Unfortunately, for some reason, the boiler wouldn't start. Manolo says this is a one in ten occurrence, and he'd already called the Junkers service technician in advance, pretending to be me, and claiming that the boiler wouldn't start. He says you've got to preemptively ask for them to come because they can take up to 48 hours to show up. Our old boiler was already in pieces out by the dumpster. No hot water...

Oh, and also during the installation, the workman drilled a hole clear through to the hallway, popping out a big chuck of drywall and leaving a hole in the wall. Just like every single technical person, including myself, in the whole history of the world, he said, "Man! What kind of idiot would build a wall that thin?" The first thing they teach us in Engineering 101: It's always the fault of the previous tech guy.

Well, it still took two days for the service technician to show up. He begins inspecting the boiler, and immediately his expertly trained amygdala starts warning him that something's wrong, "Something's not right here," he tells me. He asks for the boiler manual and thumbs through it. Eventually he says, "Yeah, your problem is that this boiler is a model that's designed to be used with a hot water tank, and you haven't got one."

Boiler #2

I call up Manolo and let him speak directly to the technician. It turns out that the manufacturer got his order wrong and had sent us the wrong boiler. At this point we'd been without hot water for two days, and Manolo vowed, at 11:00 in the morning that he'd get us some hot water by the end of the day, even if he had to install a propane tank in our kitchen. He kept his word. Later that afternoon, they came and brought us a tiny little low-powered boiler that had been ordered and would soon be installed in the workman's mother-in-law's house, but was in the shop awaiting installation and would be installed temporarily in our house.

For the first time in a long time, we had hot water. It was positively delightful!

Boiler #3

The following week, the plumber crew showed up again with our new atmospheric boiler. Being the same brand, the installation was quick, reusing the same holes they'd mounted the previous one with. It started up just fine, the water was hotter than ever, and the water pressure for a hot shower was like we'd never experienced it in our home. We were delighted.

The Junkers technician came the following day to approve our installation and sign us up for a two year maintenance contract. He explained that this new boiler had a digital readout, and that, if there were ever a problem, like the gas line was cut off or something, an error code would appear, and we could look up that error code in the manual to know what was wrong. That same error code was invaluable to the technician when calling up for a maintenance visit. Okay, fine. I nodded to everything and they left. Finally, we had our new boiler!

I took a shower that night and it was wonderful. Then my wife took her shower, but called out in the middle of it that the water had gone cold. Sure enough, there was an error code on the boiler. I wrote it down and reset the boiler, and she finished her shower with hot water. The description for the error code was "Exhaust gas blockage", or something like that.

We called up Manolo, and he came over the next day. He said, "Yeah, your problem is you have this temperature sensor here, and, when it gets too hot, the boiler shuts off." Umm...? He said that his boiler had that problem too, but that he simply removed the sensor and has been living fine for two years. He said this is a new safety precaution that older boilers, like our original one, never had, but that it was placed there for a reason. He suggested we call the maintenance technician back to see what he'd recommend.

The technician came back and deduced that the problem was that our exhaust chimney that goes up into the center of the building, presumably to the roof, wasn't sucking enough. It was probably good enough for our older, weaker, boiler (or it wasn't and we just didn't know it because it didn't have that safety sensor), but not for the new super-duper 2011 model.

We were left with a decision: continue further into the land of risk by removing the sensor, or saying screw it, let's put the damn thing on the balcony like we should've done in the first place. In the time we took to decide, we left the sensor off. And, if we'd waited any longer, lethargy might have gotten the better of us, but we decided that, on principle, dammit, we weren't going to spend a bunch of money on a brand new boiler that had known safety concerns!

Boiler #4

Above my kitchen ceiling

Manolo's workmen came to cut a hole in our kitchen ceiling. There's a surprising amount of room up there between the plaster ceiling and the concrete of the floor above. They determined that they could run the pipes out to the balcony via plastic bendy tubes, and they decided on where to put the pipes through the wall to get outside.

A week or two passed, because the order for the boiler was delayed, but eventually they came and spent two full days cutting another hole in the ceiling and mounting the new combustion chamber boiler on the wall outside on the balcony. They would've finished after one day, but a drill bit nicked a pipe – "What idiot put that pipe there?!" – causing a minor incident which required some tile breakage and rework the following day.

Pipes above kitchen ceiling

Because of our choice of placement for the boiler on the balcony, we had to move our gas valve from one side of the balcony to the other. This required cutting off the gas further away at a central place in our building where the gas counters are. For some reason (perhaps to prevent tampering?), the gas valves and counters are in a locked box. The day before, I had called up the building administrator, a private company in nearby Laredo that does nothing but handle paperwork for apartment buildings. They told me that, yes, they had the key to get to where the gas valves were. They told me that I could swing by the office anytime to pick up the key, as long as I returned it that day.

Hole in kitchen ceiling

While the workmen were busy installing my fourth boiler, I took the car to Laredo, and finally found the administrator office. I walked in and they said, "No, no. You have to call the gas company for that. We only have the key to get to the courtyard where the locked box is." That door is always unlocked anyway. They told me that I should have a gas bill in my hand to give them our account number, etc. when I called. Sigh... I drove home and called the gas company, who gave me another phone number, where they gave me another phone number of the local office in Santander. The Santander office told me that they could send a technician around to open it for me the next time a technician was close, but that there was no guarantee of when that would be, and it certainly wouldn't be that day. I was welcome, however, to drive thirty minutes into Santander, get the key, drive back, open the lock, and then drive the key back to Santander the same day.

Hole in kitchen ceiling

I broke the news to the plumber, who had tools strewn about the kitchen, and he let off a series of words that only an enormous, sweaty, blue collar man can properly intonate. "Show me the box," he said. Down in the courtyard, I showed him the padlock. He said that the chances were slim to none, but that he had about fifty keys in his van, some of which were master keys to this brand of locks. I wished him luck and left to buy groceries. When I got back, he was smiling. He'd managed to get into the gas box to shut our gas valve! Yes! It was about the only lucky victory in this whole unlucky story.

Like before, we'd preemptively called the maintenance technician, but since the workers were delayed with the burst pipe and we had a maintenance contract, the technician called to come over to get our boiler working that hadn't yet been fully installed. Oops. I had to make up some bullshit about being out of town that day to delay the technician. Later, the boiler started just fine, and I called him to tell him that, "Um, we actually got it working despite having called two days ago to say that it wasn't." At this point, the Junkers technicians must think we have some sort of boiler fetish.

But in the end, it was all working. We had the right kind of boiler, the kind we should've gone with in the first place, installed out on the balcony like the legislation demands, and we were good to go...

Boiler Pipes

...except that it made a weird vibrating sound for about 10 seconds every time it started up. No matter. The technician had to come anyway the following week to inspect the installation and change the model number on our maintenance contract.

The maintenance technician came, and I explained about the noise. I turned on hot water in the kitchen sink, and he observed the noise. He took the cover off the boiler and I turned on the water again. Immediately his "something isn't right" sense switched on. "Give me the manual," he demanded. I took my face out of my palms and handed it to him. He said, "This is a natural gas boiler, and you are on propane." What??? Can nothing go right?? I said that it had been working fine for several days, but he explained that it's releasing too much gas, causing a gigantic flame, which is not only wasteful, but exceedingly dangerous. "Don't use this again until I can fix it." He said that we didn't need to change the whole boiler, just the piece with the holes letting the gas into the combustion chamber, and that he'd see if they had one at the local Santander office, but if not it might take 48 hours to come from Madrid.

The next morning he called early and woke me up, saying that he had the piece and could come install early that morning. Sure enough, he did, and the boiler has been in perfect operation ever since.

New Boiler


Everything that could go wrong did go wrong.

Boiler #1 - They tore a hole in the wall, and installed the wrong boiler, one that expected a tank. Boiler #2 - Low power temporary boiler that actually worked quite well. Boiler #3 - The right boiler, but the chimney was clogged, causing danger of death. Boiler #4 - Two holes in the ceiling, a broken pipe and tiles, and installed for the wrong kind of fuel.

What a bloody nightmare. My wife and I are very lethargic when it comes to home improvement, and this experience has only reinforced our timidity.

All I want to do now is take a long, hot shower.