The summer season is hardly a few days old, but the air conditioners in Old Town have been working on overdrive for days now. With the recent heat advisories and temperatures nearing 100 degrees, it's been scorching to say the least. Unfortunately, the first major heat of the summer is typically when air conditioning woes begin to make their entrance. And our household is no exception.

The steady hum of our AC has brought us our first surprise of the season. Alex and I were in our bedroom the other night just after returning from a nice dinner with my parents. We were full from an excellent meal and in a good mood, when out of the corner of his eye, Alex saw something fall from the ceiling above our bed. Thinking it was a stink bug, and knowing my deathly completely rational fear of them, my good husband started to investigate so I wouldn't have to. At about this same time, we both heard that horrible sound, "drip...drip...drip." You know, the sound that's never an indication of good things to come, and it only took us about two seconds to realize the thing Alex thought was a stink bug was actually dripping water coming from a leak on the ceiling. A quick glance up revealed a sagging water spot on our recently re-plastered and repainted master bedroom ceiling. (The water spot, as you can see from the photo below, oddly resembed a giant breast. We've been saying renovation isn't for the faint of heart!)

This nasty leak was our air conditioner's very own Tell-Tale Heart. "Drip...drip...drip." The large drops of water continued to smack the pillows on our bed.

Alex and I sprung into action. I grabbed towels and turned on the attic light, and then poked a pin sized hole in the center of the leak to drain the collected water from behind the paint. Alex pulled down the attic stairs to investigate. We didn't know the specifics of the issue, but we knew the air condititioner was at the root of the cause. "Drip...drip...drip."

The air conditioning's air handler/electric furnace is in the attic directly above our bed, and is one of the banes of our existence. The unit was installed sometime in 2001 or 2002, a while before we purchased our home. 

Let's flash back 2001. Faced with an aging furnace and air conditioner that the previous owner's real estate agent feared would hurt the sale of his home (which is saying a lot about the unit based on how the home looked when we bought it), he was instructed to replace the old dinosaur. The previous owner turned to one of the area's most well known HVAC contractors, <name redacted to protect the horrible company>, and selected the least expensive model that would pass as "efficient." The installers did one of the poorest jobs of an HVAC install that you can do. Duct work in the unconditioned space was left open and uninsulated, the unit was placed on a few old 2x4s for support, not installed level, and the electrical service wire was undersized for the full demand of the heating element. (So rather than blowing the breaker whenever the heat was turned on, they just didn't hook up half of the elements.)  

Back to present day and our Tell-Tale Heart Leak. "Drip...drip...drip."

When Alex burst into the attic with my Dad on his heels, he could immediately see the issue. Apparently the air handler in our attic, after days of working diligently to cool our energy in-efficient historic home, had developed a clog in the condensate line's trap right next to the unit. The result was a backup of water that spilled over the coil drain pan and began flowing into the secondary metal pan of the unit.

This situation was probably going on for hours, which should have been okay. The secondary pan had its own outlet drain, and it was functional. Unfortunately, the contractor's careless and negligent install hadn't properly leveled the unit, so as the water built in the pan, it began overflowing, saturating the ceiling of the attic and eventually penetrating the recently re-plastered and painted ceiling in our master bedroom.

Water had slowly been leaking from our bedroom ceiling onto our bed for several hours. Luckily, we caught it early enough to limit the damage. The water had merely soaked one of our pillows, and didn't do any damage to our antique Louis XVI bed. But unfortunately the ceiling was another story. 

Alex immediately realized two things. First, we had to clear the clog. And second, we needed a more permanent fix to ensure a future clog will not overflow onto our ceiling.

The PVC's connection to the air handler made it almost impossible to snake anything behind and into the opening, so Alex decided he needed to drill an opening in the top of the elbow to run a snake into the trap. Since we will eventually replace the connection on a more permanent solution, he wasn't worried about ruining it.

Once the hole was drilled, we used a bit of copper wire as an improvised snake.

As soon as the copper was pushed down through the trap, the clog was pushed free and the overflowed pan began draining again.

Once our immediate problem was solved, and as the ceiling began to dry, we realized the damage wasn't too severe. There's some residual damage and a little patching, sanding and repainting are in order, but it's not something we need to address immediately. We actually are very lucky that we were home and that Alex and I noticed what was happening. If we had turned a movie on downstairs, we would have had another two hours of water accumulating on our bed.

Alex did some research and ordered a new fancy condensate trap that allows for easier clean out and the ability to automatically shut down the air conditioner if a clog occurs. Once it arrives, we'll install it, do a tutorial, and keep you all posted on how it performs. But until then, as we lay in bed at night, though it may only be in our head, we can still hear the faint "drip...drip...drip..." of our own Tell-Tale Leak. 

Did the onset of the summer season bring any surprises, good or bad, your way?

Comments 5


6/22/2011 at 4:59 PM
I know this is an older post, but I just discovered you on YHL, and as I perused your blog I laughed at this. You see, I also had a leaking condensate line, and you were lucky. See pic here:
Best of luck on your renovations. I looked in Alexandria for a while when house hunting.
Thanks for the link. You are absolutely right, we sure are lucky. We just happened to be in the room where the leak had occurred just after it started to drip, we knew what it was immediately, and we were able to stop it before it got too bad. Had we been away, we would have come home to a ruined ceiling, soaked mattress, and possible a damaged floor and first floor ceiling.

If you didn't see it, be sure to check out the followup link with a solution to our problem. It is a relatively inexpensive item and can effectively ensure that you don't have a repeat of your very own chicken little moment.
Kelly Olsen
3/23/2012 at 4:27 PM
Do you have a central air unit in your attic as well as basement, or just AC hoses run up to your attic?

I ask because I wanted to get central AC installed in my 3-story 150+ yr old home and was told by an HVAC company that came to insulate the heat ducts that it wouldn't be worth it -- said we'd need a unit in the basement and one up on the third floor and that it wouldn't be efficient. Whats your experience been like if your setup is similar?
We actually only have AC in the attic. We've got an air handler and AC coil in the attic that cools the whole house an just heats the upstairs in the winter, and then an air handler and furnace in the basement that does heat for the first floor.

In my experience, HVAC contractors try to convince people not to put things in an attic that is unconditioned. It makes some sense, from an efficiency standpoint, but I also think it is because the job is just much harder to do right.

It might be much harder for you because you have three floors, but I assure you it is doable.

A few years ago we can the AC line sets and condensate drain up to the attic to replace old ones that were run outside of the house. This was a pain but looks much nicer. Neighbors have their AC compressors on their roof. This solves the issue of line sets, but you need a crane to put it up there, and maintenance on it is a pain.

I wouldn't take no for an answer. It might cost more, but if it's worth it to you, they can insulate and size the system appropriately. You might just end up with slightly higher AC bills.

Have you looked into a high velocity system with the small ducts?
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