A shopping-center developer called to report that a new mall's centrifugal chillers had broken on opening day. The chiller manufacturer flew in technicians and parts to rebuild the chillers as quickly as possible, which cost close to $100,000. The developer wanted to find out why the chillers failed. Was it a manufacturing defect or something wrong in the installation or startup?

I met with the mall's management, listened to the maintenance man recount the events, examined the installation, and collected failed bearings and compressor components for analysis. After a long discussion, I asked the maintenance man to take me to the chiller plant for a final look before I left. I had him tell me, step by step, everything that had happened.

At one point, he showed me how he had wedged the compressor motor starter on the first chiller into the "on" position with a broom handle, causing almost immediate disastrous results. When that didn’t work, he tried it again on the other chiller with a similar outcome. My heart sank as my chance to be a hero to this new client evaporated: The oil pump on the chiller was a separate device that was not started by a compressor motor starter. He had run these high-speed units without lubrication! I thanked him for his help, left the mall, and called the client.

"Your maintenance guy screwed up, and he caused the smashups," I said. "Do you want me to just get on the plane and make believe I never came here?"

"No," the client said. "Write up just what happened and why, so we can learn from the mistake and avoid having it happen again."

Over the next decades, the developer became my largest client, involving me earlier in more and more projects. I am proud to say he never again was blindsided by a major HVAC problem.

David M. Elovitz
Energy Economics Inc.
Natick, Mass.