*Wayne Borkowski of Alpine Heating and Air cleans the flame tubes inside the huge Burnham boiler. Each tube (there are about 15) gets removed individually to vacuum and clean the insides. The gas we burn is not a pure substance. Particulates gather and can create yellow flame instead of blue decreasing the efficiency of the burn. See: The Blue Flame Project
It was 1996 and Julie and I had begun a renovation of our first Oak Park home at 923 N. Marion. We had a classic heating system known as a “dual-shot” vapor system. Very common in larger vintage Chicago apartment buildings, but very rare in a single family home. View it as a form of steam heat but more efficient and more of a vapor than a heavy steam. The gas-fired boiler burns up a smaller pot of water that sends vapor to the radiators through one pipe. When the vapor cools, it starts to return through another pipe system creating a vacuum at the same time. That vacuum then pulls more vapor off the top of the boiler pot and sends more heat to the radiators. Two shots (dual shot) of vapor for every burn of gas to heat the boiler!
Well, the thing stopped working in the middle of the night. We had just started working with the HVAC guy recommended to me by my brother who was living over on the 900 block of north Euclid at the time - Wayne of Alpine Heating and Air. But I didn’t have Wayne’s cell at the time, or not thinking clearly at 12am, I opened the phone book and called the first local company that advertised emergency 24-hour service.
So… they came to the house. Very thankful for the late night service call. Bummed that he turned my sophisticated vapor system into an all-night knocking full water gravity heat system. The technician was not at all familiar with the system and filled it with hot water. But we had heat! The next day, I had to call Wayne to completely restore the system and replace a few parts. It was this experience that I realized Wayne was far more than an HVAC contractor. We often do not really get to know the many men and women who come in our homes on a regular basis and repair our appliances… patch our roofs… clean our sewer lines… Due to my line of work I actually spend a better part of my time with many contractors. It has proven to be one of the most rewarding parts of my career and the lessons learned and the friendships.
I have referred Wayne to many friends, family and clients and at times we all often refer to Wayne as “the genius”. Wayne has not just learned his trade by basic training and trial and error. If Wayne were to put together all of his formal training, additional specialty classes, and seminars, I am sure there would be enough there for a Masters of Heating Ventilation and Cooling. Since I have known Wayne, he is always going to specialty sheet metal seminars and continuing educations on coolants, air balancing and a host of other learning sources that make me ask, “Where were you?!?! How do you even spell the title of that class?!?!?” I really do consider myself an HVAC geek and I am fortunate to be able to say that all I have learned about hot water boilers, steam and vapor, heat exchangers and pumps… I have learned from Wayne. The mechanics are fascinating and to be able to understand exactly what I am looking at when going into houses with clients has been priceless. The heating and cooling system is one of the major systems of a home that is the heart of the home.
Back to Part Deux! Obviously I called Wayne that -3F January day. I NEVER call Wayne on his cell. I call Wayne the old-fashioned way. Call the office landline… listen to his wife, Maureen’s, voice announce that nobody is able to take the call at Alpine Heating & Air, leave message knowing full well that Maureen is going to call or page (yes… page) Wayne and he will call me back in about 30min or less. Well, on this day, I was calling his cell. And when he answered, I remember as if it were yesterday because I could hear the surprise in his voice that I was actually calling him on his cell. He stated he would be at the house in less than 2 hours.
By the time Wayne arrived I had done even more investigative work including going out to the hardware store to get a number of tape type wraps claiming to stop leaks of all kinds! To an extent, they worked and would have worked even better if the elbow that burst was not buried deep in the wall cavity. Immediately, Wayne gives me the best plan of attack, but never the worst case scenario. Why even go there when it is time to get concentrating on getting this fixed now?!? And to do that… we needed to get that elbow out of the wall cavity. A task NOT for the faint of heart or muscle… or balance… or fear of falling 50lb pipe wrenches.
So this is where it became a family affair. If able, I am always wanting to be at home when Wayne is working on anything in the house. But today I knew I had to be home. This was going to be a big job. Not big as in complication or size but this is an almost 80 year old heating system set into a 130 year old home. These pipes are black iron going into cast iron radiators. This isn’t thin copper and solder. These are threaded steel pipes. They have not been turned, unscrewed, touched, moved… in 80 years since they were installed. Getting these pipes apart at their threaded joints and “unions” had Wayne and I each with a pipe wrench the size of a small person and Wayne saying… “OK… you push that way! I’ll pull this way!” Well, after an hour or so of that going absolutely nowhere… it was time to bring in the serious muscle...my wife. And Julie doesn’t fool around or hesitate a bit. It was getting colder in the house by the minute. “Let’s go!", she said.
So now Wayne is up on the ladder as the pipe is up to the ceiling. Julie is backing up Wayne's power at the end of their wrench and I have my own going the other direction. This is where we really needed to be careful. It only took one falling 50lbs wrench and all of us yelling “WATCH IT!!” to be alert and coordinate precisely. Is was after another hour of nothing but brute force from the 3 of us to realize we were headed to the worst case scenario. It was time to cut the pipe. The union was completely seized.