Homeowners find green heating units can't take the cold
Posted April 27, 2015
Chapel Hill, N.C. — During February's bitter chill, some Chapel Hill homeowners found that the homes they bought with the environment in mind could not keep up. Their brand-new heating systems suddenly stopped working when it got too cold!
At first the complaints were a trickle, but 5 On Your Side discovered the problem could end up affecting thousands of homeowners.
The "green" furnaces called 90 percent energy efficient are installed in most new homes and are a top choice for those who are replacing their furnace. They've become a big problem for some homebuyers in the Triangle's largest all-green community, Chatham County's Briar Chapel.
After 5 On Your Side raised questions, the builder, manufacturer, installer and building inspectors all amped up the search for a solution for some irate homeowners.
Carolyn Carlo thought her move to Briar Chapel would yield a trouble-free and environmentally responsible retirement. Then, during the winter of 2014, her heating system failed. Condensation on her furnace froze the unit.
"We have a green house, green energy, all this high efficiency, but we don't have heat," she said. "I mean it's ridiculous."
Carlo's neighbor, Eugene Stern said his indoor temperature dropped to 51 degrees.
Just as ridiculous, they say, was the solution that builder MI Homes offered for Carlo and Stern.
"Go outside of the house, and take a bucket of hot water, and, umm, pour it on the pipe," Stern described.
He didn't dare. "I couldn't walk here with a cane," he said.
MI Homes spokesmen told Carlo to wrap her exterior pipes.
"I got a big beach towel and I wrapped the pipe with tape and everything," she said. "Why should I be doing that in the blizzard weather?"
Both Carlo and Stern called MI Homes and the furnace installer, Yellow Dot, several times. The companies were responsive, but their solutions were confusing.
Stern said workers did something with hair dryers, while at Carlo's home, an MI Homes representative installed a pipe in her garage for drainage, then asked her to empty it multiple times a day.
"If it gets too heavy, I can't lift it," she said. "I have pushed it out of the garage and dumped it in the driveway. I mean that's, that's, that's sick."
MI Homes sent Carlo a letter calling the added pipe an offer of "goodwill."
"Can you imagine? This house cost over $300,000, and he's telling me that he's doing this, giving me heat, because of his goodwill," she said.
Even after the fixes, the heating unit still froze.
Worse, Chatham County Chief Building Inspector Tim Sawyer said the added pipe is not up to code.
"If something happens, you're gonna dump it in the garage. You can't do that. So that's totally wrong," he said.
Sawyer said a side effect of all brands of high-efficiency furnaces is increased condensation which can freeze when temperatures drop. Homeowners from Atlanta to New Jersey have posted similar complaints online.
"I don't want to have this problem," Stern said. "I want to have a house that I can come in and not worry about it."
5 On Your Side contacted all the companies involved.
The local president of MI Homes, Ed Kristensen, said, "It's a painful admission we failed to do the right thing. We now acknowledge we have a problem. We're going step up and correct it."
Kristensen said it was 5 On Your Side that really drove the company to investigate their installation requirements.
Carrier, the maker of the furnaces, was unaware of the problems in Briar Chapel. A spokesman there said they'd work with YellowDot, the installer, on a solution.
MI's Kristensen and Chatham County inspectors agreed that connecting the furnace drain to an interior drain, such as in a bathroom or laundry area, could solve the problem and keep houses in code compliance.
"It's unconscionable that we have been going through this for two years," Carlo said.