Maintenance, they say, keeps the plumber away

Thinking ahead helps the homeowner avoid crises

Posted: Wednesday, March 06, 2002

When a homeowner phones for help after coming home to a cold house on a cold day, "It's a panic shot," said Pete Zecevich, service manager/dispatcher for The Plumbing & Heating Co.

"Heating is something everybody takes for granted, and the furnace is something foreign to them," Zecevich said. "So it's a real scream for help (when it's not working). If the house smells like car exhaust, they're worried about health, too. We have to assure them we will get there as soon as possible."

About half the local company's winter service calls are due to "no heat, no hot water," Zecevich said. Those calls, plus routine installations and repairs, keep four full-time plumbers in the service department busy.

Annual furnace maintenance can help prevent furnace outages, Zecevich said.

"We have about 25 percent of our customers geared to preventive vs. after-the-fact repair," he said. "A complete boiler service runs from $121 to $250, depending on the size of the system. If folks do that, it's literally the last time I hear from them."

He said oil, the source of heat for many Juneau residences, is not a clean-burning fuel, which is the reason furnaces need maintenance.

Service of a furnace includes changing the nozzle and the fuel filter, brushing and vacuuming, and checking the stack (chimney) temperature as well as using a computer analyzer to make sure the burner is running at optimum efficiency, said Don Cameron, vice president of Cameron Plumbing & Heating.

Skilled mechanics can gauge a burner's efficiency by eyeballing the color of the flame, Cameron said, which tells them the mix of oxygen and fuel being consumed.

Like The Plumbing & Heating Co., and Cameron, Larry's Quality Heating and Plumbing recommends annual maintenance to keep furnaces in "tip-top shape," said Janice Schultz, wife of company owner Larry Schultz.

"We get calls from people for three reasons: After a power outage, after someone has gotten low on fuel or run out of fuel, or if they don't maintain the furnace annually," Schultz said.

Larry's, which has been in business 14 years and has four service staff, charges labor plus parts for a maintenance call. Labor is $70 an hour, and parts include nozzle and filter. Maintenance averages $100, she said.

Some Juneau homes have ancient furnaces.

"Downtown we see some antiques, even some old steam boilers that were shipped up on boats 60 years ago as Sears catalog orders," said Zecevich of The Plumbing & Heating Co.

The two main types of furnaces in Juneau are cast iron wet-base boilers that heat water wrapped around the fire box; and steel furnaces where the water vessel lies above the burner. The wet-base boiler has a life of about 30 years, Cameron said, while the steel furnace has a life of 10 to 20 years. Most plumbing shops in Juneau no longer sell steel models, he said.

Three of the largest plumbing firms in town are The Plumbing & Heating Co., Cameron Plumbing & Heating, and Jack's Plumbing & Heating. All three have a service department, a new construction team and a sheet metal fabrication shop. Jack's also deals in ventilation systems.

Many of Juneau's dozen-plus plumbing contractors offer 24-hour service. That means they will show up at any hour of the day or night - usually for a premium - for an emergency such as a flooded basement or a furnace that won't switch on.

A new oil furnace gets only about 90 percent efficiency, said Zecevich.

"If that efficiency drops into the lower 70s, homeowners should think hard," he said. "Inefficiency means heat is going up the stack. You might be able to get away with replacing a burner, or you might need to get a whole new system."

Local plumbing firms that offer 24-hour emergency service include The Plumbing & Heating Co., Cameron and Larry's.

Ann Chandonnet can be reached at

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