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issue: October 2005 APPLIANCE Magazine

Ignition Systems and Gas Technology
Controlled Convenience

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by Lincoln Brunner, Contributing Editor

Safety, efficiency, cost, and convenience-they’re what designers of appliances aspire to (if they want to keep their jobs).

The Series III burners from Sabaf S.p.A. (Brescia, Italy) were designed to address what the company says are the most important user factors: performance, design and environmental impact. The new burner is engineered to optimize consumption and maximizing reduction of environmental emission hazards. Sabaf says its current burners provide an average efficiency (the actual calorific value of the gas being burned) of about 55 percent. Series III burners, however, have efficiency values of 66 percent in Sabaf laboratory tests. The company says using the burners for boiling water, for example, will require less time and gas consumption, with a significant reduction of polluting substances.

Designing safety, efficiency and convenience into products that capture the customer’s imagination is a real challenge. That’s why manufacturers of components and subsystems for gas appliances spend so much time listening to customers before they begin product development.

Juan Brunner, sales director for controls maker Mondragon Components in Marietta, Georgia, U.S., says his company’s ongoing product development is driven not just by customer demand but also what we think the end-user demand would be.

We service OEMs, so [we follow] whatever their marketing departments believe should be the future, Brunner says. But we also have internal research and development programs, which are going beyond what we believe the future should be and offering that to our customers. We’re more organized and focused on new features and value-added solutions instead of just innovation for innovation s sake.

Customers At The Controls

Consider Capable Controls, Bensenville, Illinois, U.S. The longtime supplier of igniters to Maytag, Amana, GE, and others has recently shifted its focus from supplying mainly stock products to customizing new ignition systems for customers.

One recent customization blossomed into several new products that Capable will bring to market in the next 12 months.

The first two-a series of intermittent ignition controls and a new direct spark ignition (DSI) unit-are microprocessor (MCU)-controlled units designed to compete with off-the-shelf products from other industry main players. Capable hopes to launch the line of intermittent ignition controls by the end of the year and follow it up shortly with the new DSI unit.

Capable then plans to introduce a line of intermittent and DSI controls with a new remote communication device by summer 2006. The company developed the device, along with a specialized DSI control, more than a year ago for one of its customers. It allows remote access to diagnostic information stored by an MCU.

Remote communication is new, says Capable Controls president Ted Singer. Nobody else is doing that; there’s nobody else we know of even trying to do it. The company gave the controls functionality beyond what’s offered by other more generic units, Singer adds.

We looked at what is commonly available, and we tried to be conscious of component content and flexibility, Singer explains. For the first round, we just recreated what’s available now and put it in a smaller, more convenient format, with the intention of making it very price-competitive.

Singer adds that engineers are the real heroes of the product development process-a process that can reap great rewards for a company that listens to customers like his business did.

Maxitrol’s Plug1 gas outlet is designed to provide natural gas and propane users the ease of use and safety of an electrical outlet. The “on/off” switch is an added feature for North American customers.

Improving Current Issues

Bettering the control unit isn’t the only thing that can make a system more efficient.

Back in April 2005, the gas ignition and temperature controls specialists at Kidde-Fenwal, based in Ashland, Massachusetts, U.S., set out to make one of Groen’s boilerless steamers more reliable by improving the flame sense current of the igniters. (The flame sense current is the signal to the control confirming that flame is present.)

As Applications Engineer Paul Finn tells it, he and fellow engineer Chuck Natario began the project by baselining the components of a Groen SmartSteam SSB-10GF, recording the flame current with the existing controls igniter and electrode inside.

In reviewing how to improve the system, the engineers zeroed in on the flame sense electrode. Finn and Natario noticed that the existing electrode utilized the edge of the burner as the ground for the current, as it looped back to the igniter. To improve the system, the team developed another electrode, which included a ground parallel to the sense electrode, to serve as the ground about 1/8-inch away from the igniter.

That allowed us to move it away from the edge and get it located in a more stable portion of the burner flame, Finn says.

The system had previously relied on the chassis framework as the ground path. Countering that, Finn ran a separate ground wire from the electrode in the framework chassis of the burner directly back into the controller, to alleviate any high resistance connections.

Groen was happy with the results, and Finn gives the credit to his associate, who knew the inherent difficulties in getting a decent flame sense from the ceramic-style heaters used in the SmartSteamer. By bypassing that high resistance, the team brought the grounded current directly back to the igniter and achieved the results it needed: a flame current of 2.5 to 3 µA in the finished product as opposed to 0.7 µA in the baselined sample.

By improving the system’s flame sense current to such a degree, the Fenwal team in turn improved the reliability of the SmartSteam’s igniters, which had been, over time, failing to reliably light on the first try. Chefs and other kitchen workers using the SmartSteam would think they were warming up the unit, only to come back to a cold steamer later.

It wouldn’t be lit or up to temperature, Finn recalls. Our goal was to have it ready, on demand, all the time.

Dormont Manufacturing’s SafetyQuik system allows fast and simple disconnects for commercial appliances that need to be moved for cleaning or other purposes.

Making Gas Safer

That kind of convenience has come to be expected of both electric and gas appliances, but the level of safety consumers feel around the two still differs. Bridging that gap was what gas controls maker Maxitrol had in mind when it recently introduced the Plug1 product to the North American market.

Watching the growing popularity of outdoor living areas, Maxitrol was determined to come up with a gas control product that could switch gas flow from one appliance to another easily and safely. The company’s answer was the Plug1, a gas outlet available in Europe for about 3 years and introduced to the North American market this summer. The new outlet allows users to attach standard gas plugs from dryers, barbecue grills, patio heaters, and other appliances and then flip a switch to start the flow of either natural gas or propane.

The Plug1 has an integrated excess flow valve and high-temperature-activated shut-off valve. The North American model also features an on-off switch that mimics an electrical switch. The company is hopeful that contractors can use the Plug1 in tandem with flexible gas tubing and the company’s 325 series of pressure regulators to cut down on the cost of installing gas in new homes.

It offers an opportunity for builders or developers to put gas systems into a house that is pre-piped with gas and have great-looking outlets that are safe [and] flush-mounted, says Larry Koskela, executive vice president and chief operating officer at Southfield, Michigan, U.S.-based Maxitrol and managing director of Thale, Germany-based Mertik Maxitrol.

Because gas often competes with electric in North America, giving consumers peace of mind with gas is important for the future of the gas industry, gas appliance manufacturers and gas control manufacturers, Koskela says. What’s the best way to get people interested? Make it safe, convenient and easy to use.

Supplier Solutions

Plug1 represents an important collaborative effort between the two affiliates and demonstrates the kind of solutions-minded thinking the appliance industry is looking for in its suppliers.

Appliance manufacturers worldwide really have the same orientation and needs, Koskela says. They’re all looking for more efficiencies in their manufacturing process, and they’re looking for suppliers to supply them with solutions and subassemblies rather than individual components.

Maxitrol recently completed construction of a new research and development (R&D) lab in Southfield, where the company is testing its own prototypes and working with customers to apply its technology to their equipment and come up with more efficient systems. If a company has a viable project it wants to pursue but lacks the engineering staff to do it, Maxitrol often takes it on.

Customers need systems and solutions, and we’re investing in that, Koskela says. We’re bucking the trend. We’re investing in engineering and R&D, where many companies are cutting back at that end of the business.

Building to Code
For every customer demand on manufacturers, there seems to be a regulatory demand following close behind. However, those new codes can mean new product opportunities as well, as Dormont Manufacturing knows well.

The old American National Standards Institute (ANSI) codes regulating commercial food service businesses stipulated that any gas appliance on castors in a commercial kitchen had to use commercial-grade gas connectors. The new ANSI Z21.69 standard and its Canadian and international equivalents go one better, requiring that any appliance that is on castors or is otherwise subject to moving for sanitation or maintenance must have commercial-grade connectors, as well.

In developing its latest line of connectors, Dormont looked at the new codes and decided to renew its corporate focus on safety and mobility, especially considering reports from dealers in the field that noted a preponderance of residential-grade gas connectors where moveable, commercial-grade connectors are clearly required.

We’ve been advocating these code and product standard changes for gas connectors because we’ve seen some unsafe gas connectors in commercial kitchens, says Evan Segal, president of Dormont Manufacturing, located in Export, Pennsylvania, U.S. Some kitchens have been using stationary, residential-grade connectors that were ruptured and caked with grease and food particles.

Dormont recently introduced SafetyQuik, a patented one-piece quick-disconnect connector and shut-off valve. The SafetyQuik includes a thermal shutoff valve that cuts off the gas supply when the internal temperature of the system exceeds 350°F (177°C). It also helps prevent the gas appliance from being disconnected from the gas supply until the gas is shut off.

When there is a potential for a gas leak, you’re literally playing with fire, Segal says. We’re always trying to develop new products to make everyone safe.

New Way to Vent
Emerson Appliance Solutions knows its way around the new code game, too. More than one U.S. state has recently ruled that, for all new construction, water heaters must be power-vented into the atmosphere rather than up the traditional chimney. Even in states where regulations don’t require it, it often is less expensive to run a PVC pipe out through the side of the building, much like a modern high-efficiency furnace, rather than run a flue stack through the roof.

That wasn’t the only incentive for the company to create its Intellivent control for power vent water heaters-there was also the fact that a primary customer, A.O. Smith Corporation, was using a competitor’s control for its line of power vent heaters.

The Intellivent project was Gary Hueser’s first for the company. The director of sales and marketing for Emerson Appliance Solutions’ water heater platform, Hueser had in mind from the beginning to leapfrog, in design and features, what was currently in the marketplace, he says.

Practically, that meant creating a fully electronic control with push buttons rather than the traditional rotary dial used to set temperature. That goal also compelled Hueser to include sealed switches and gold flash contacts that would resist corrosion for at least the 15 years that has come to be the benchmark for water heater control life. Long-term and accelerated tests showed that the switches and contacts in the Intellivent would last 20 to 30 years, Hueser says.

The Intellivent also features a series of six LEDs that indicate where the temperature is set and provides roughly twice the amount of diagnostic information than other controls do, Hueser explains. Rather than count the number of times that a light flashes to troubleshoot a problem, the homeowner can look at the sequence of illuminated LEDs and find the corresponding problem in the owner’s manual.

A regulation going into effect in 2006 stipulates that all new water heater controls be flammable vapor-ready-that is, able to detect flammable vapors right out of the box. Knowing that regulation was coming, We incorporated the circuitry needed for that at the onset of the project, Hueser says.

The Intellivent has been on the market for almost 2 years. Initially sold through A.O. Smith, other water heater OEMs are now picking it up.

Competing Globally
Sometimes it’s customers, sometimes it’s regulations and sometimes it’s the pressure to compete globally that drives a company to innovate. That was the case with Associated Ceramics and Technology (Sarver, Pennsylvania, U.S.), a manufacturer of ceramic insulators for igniters and other components, when it decided to change the binder systems used to make its insulators. Binders are compounds that hold the earthen clays together during the pressurization and firing processes. The company wanted to alter the makeup of its binding agent to enable itself to run more difficult parts as well as increase the production capabilities per die, therefore eliminating some of the cost, Vice President Jeff Lassinger explains. The process took about 1 year to complete, but was well worth it. Associated became more competitive, especially with customers moving toward more automated manufacturing.

It improved our quality and lowered our costs at the same time, Lassinger says. The actual material that goes to customers hasn’t changed, but it helped our process to become competitive in the global market. This helped us produce more intricate parts as well as speed our production.

These savings are akin to other gas technology innovations driving the industry-invisible to the end user, but vital for optimized safety, efficiency, convenience, and, of course, cost.


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