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Burning Down the House

by Damion Trombley

In 1982 the Talking Heads released Burn’n Down the House. That has nothing to with what we are about to talk about today even though it is an excellent song. Today we will be talking about how an HVAC Technician or the homeowners’ decisions could literally burn down the house!

All year we run into issues where parts in systems catch fire. In most cases these parts are either extremely old and not maintained or they are rigged from a previous technician or homeowner to save a couple bucks. In some rare cases it will be from pests chewing wires.

AC Fire in Palm Bay, Florida

The image above is from a service call where the customer has recently purchased the home. Here in Florida, it is not common for us to use our heat very often. One morning it dropped to the high 20’s – low 30’s which is just ridiculous for us Floridian’s. The homeowner in Palm Bay, Florida started his heat for the first time and last time.

The homeowner smelled something burning and knew instantly it was not that dusty burn smell you always get when you first turn on your heat. He cycled the system off and called the fire department. The Palm Bay Fire Department arrived on scene to find that the wiring to the electric heat strip package had gotten so hot it started to melt and ignite the plastics and wiring surrounding the connections, which then started to cause electrical arcing. The fire department assured the circuit breaker was secured and had the customer sign a waiver stating he would not turn it back on until it was reviewed by a licensed HVAC company or a licensed electrician.

The customer called Quality Comfort Air Conditioning and Heating Inc. in Melbourne, Florida. I was the lucky technician to arrive and start to perform diagnosis. We will begin with stating the system over 17 years old. Average life expectancy for an air conditioning and heating system in Brevard County, Florida is about 8-12 years. Most the parts on this system are discontinued as per the manufacturer.

Bypassed Circuit Breaker

During the diagnosis, the first thing I noticed was the breaker was bypassed. A huge NO! NO! I can only assume what happened, but I have been doing this a long time and seen it over and over through-out the years. These breakers are not a breaker type many of us carry on truck stock. These are OEM type breakers that the manufacturers use in many HVAC systems. It appears the breaker went bad. Instead of replacing it, the technician or the customer made the decision to just bypass it. The mounting lugs on the breaker are extremely secure. Making the electrical connections tight and a much lower risk of overheating.

Melted wiring from Air Conditioner

However, the large blue wire nuts you see partially in the photo are not as secure. They can loosen like any connection with vibration, thermal expansion, and contraction and of course corrosion. That is clearly what has happened in this scenario. A loose connection most likely caused the wire to overheat, in-turn causing the plastics to ignite and eventually started burning the wiring itself.

Any maintenance technician, at least at our company would have noticed the breaker was bypassed and let the customer know it needed to be repaired properly. Remember, this is why you hire us for preventative maintenance. To assist in preventing unwanted breakdowns.

This story does have a happy ending as we will be replacing his homes central air conditioning and heating with a new Tempstar split system. If you live in Brevard County and want to have your system check out, give us a call at 321-242-2513 or schedule on-line at Quality Comfort's website!