5 On Your Side

Homeowners find green heating units can't take the cold

Posted April 27, 2015

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— 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.

12 Comments

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  • Don Pfister Apr 28, 2015
    user avatar

    I thought this was only me. I have been battling this for two winters in my MI home. I called the first time that it happened last winter and was told by Yellow Dot that it would cost me an expensive service call if they needed to come out to thaw it. They said that it was because of the unprecedented cold. I pointed out that it wasn't any colder then than in any other winter for the past 20 years and that a heater wasn't much use if it didn't work when it was cold outside. They still denied that there was anything wrong with the unit or the install. I insulated the pipe myself and it helped a bit but still had a multi-time per season trip outside with a hair dryer. Form Image

  • Ron Myers Apr 28, 2015
    user avatar

    As several commenters have stated, it is not an issue with the use of a green or high efficiency heating system but of a poor installation. Meeting the minimum building code while ignoring likely installation instructions for cold weather installation are problems that the builder should address and not the building code or the desire for decreased energy usage. While the headline infers that the problem is with green or high efficiency heating systems, the problem is with MI homes installation and their lack of a reasonable follow up of their poor installation.

  • Robert Wyrick Apr 28, 2015
    user avatar

    90 and 95% efficient furnaces are condensing furnaces that have a trap set on it to collect the water then run it down a pipe. These units work best in basements with drains built in the floor for the water to be piped into. Or where the run of pipe is short and doesn't have time to freeze before draining out of the pipe. The longer the pipe is run there is more of a need to increase the size of the pipe and insulate. The funny thing is the news is putting this as a green heating unit. Its not. Its just a high efficiency Furnace. Burning fossil fuels isn't really green.

  • Al Smith Apr 28, 2015
    user avatar

    Shocker! Green technology can't cut it! Again.

  • Mark Freeman Apr 28, 2015
    user avatar

    I don't work for MI Homes but to be fair I've heard of condensation freezing in drainage pipes in older homes in Raleigh with older non-efficient systems. Keep the fireplace roaring as a backup.

  • Gem Stone Apr 27, 2015
    user avatar

    The units will work perfectly fine if they are installed properly and set up to drain in the correct manner; its not rocket science. The builder is cutting corners and for no more that $40 in extra materials, I fixed the problem myself in under an hour. The sheer laziness on the builder's behalf and lack of proper building codes to handle the situation are the cause of this. If you are going to run a piece of PVC pipe on an outside wall, insulate it and don't expose the drainage opening to the cold air. Any 5th grade science student can tell you at what temperature water freezes at.

  • Daniel Corell Apr 27, 2015
    user avatar

    Blame the lobbyist that sold the idea to the politician who created the regulation that your home be green.

    All that money you saved will probably be needed to buy a new heater. I actually laughed myself silly on that thought.

  • Gem Stone Apr 27, 2015
    user avatar

    M/I Homes completely and totally screwed this up. Our development had two dozen homes lose heat within a 24 hour period during the cold spell and all they would tell us to do was to pour hot water down the unit's drain pipe. Their excuse was that the units were installed to NC code but it was simply too cold out. We have been after them for two+ months looking for answers and they have stopped returning calls. They are only doing something about it now because WRAL stepped in. I would not trust M/I Homes to build a dog house for me at this point. Their responsiveness and oversight of their construction crews is a complete farce.

  • Lee Rogers Apr 27, 2015
    user avatar

    "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." -Carolyn Carlo

    I see a green bucket next to the container- bailing comes to mind. Just saying, but no doubt this is a bad situation that needs rectifying. Even the power company knows that making a buck takes a back seat to the real need to stay warm. So if the home builder wants to show they really care about their customers, watch the speed of their resolution. If it takes a while, beware!!

  • Jim Frei Apr 27, 2015
    user avatar

    A wrap of heat tape with a thermostat set so it heats up at 28 or below on the condensate drain pipe would solve the problem.

    I wonder of the homeowner's closed their crawl space vents? I do every winter and never had this problem since I installed a similar green system.

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