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c o m 10 RSES Journal MAY 2014
Images courtesy of author.
BY N. ROBERT BURGESS, JR., CEM, CEA, LEED AP
Understanding RTUs, their operation,
preventive maintenance and current
technology can help keep your customers’
systems online and optimally operating.
The simplest definition of an RTU is a packaged unit that
rests on a curb adaptor and sits on the roof and supplies
one or all the heating, ventilation and/or air-conditioning of
Knowing if the issue is on the cooling side or the heating
side (shown here) of an RTU helps eliminate many compo-
nents that are in need of troubleshooting.
[Editor’s Note: This feature has been left in ﬁrst person to main-
tain the author’s personal experience.]
started to work on rooftop units (RTUs) more than 30 years
ago. As a young apprentice, I quickly learned several things
about working on these systems, including what a rooftop
unit is, how these systems operate, preventive maintenance
and current technology. This article will focus on exactly
What is a rooftop unit?
AHRI’s 2012 market share information indicated that approxi-
mately 301,000 of these units were shipped within the United
States. That is a lot of rooftop units in the ﬁeld that may
be in need of servicing. The simplest deﬁnition of an RTU
is: a packaged unit that rests on a curb adaptor and sits on
the roof and supplies one or all the heating, ventilating
and/or air-conditioning of a building.
It is very important to verify that the manufacturer has
sent the correct curb adapter for the new RTU. I have been
sent the wrong one in the past and it has stopped the job.
It is important to remember that a replacement job may
require a crane. In this case, you would also need to have
a rooftop company ready to make any repairs and you want
to ensure that you do not void the rooftop warranty.
In reference to RTUs, I have also heard the terms “air-
handler unit” or “packaged unit” being used. On several
occasions, I have heard people call a split system an RTU
simply because the condensing coil was located on the roof.
This is not accurate. Know too that a packaged unit can
also be found inside a mechanical room, so it will not have
weather-related exposure issues. In these cases, the metal casing
does not need to be as resistant as a rooftop unit that may be
made of mill-galvanized steel, which tends to be more resistant
The rooftop unit can have various fans and controls on
it. It can also use gas, oil, propane or electric for heating.
The air-conditioning can be supplied with a direct-expansion
(DX) system or a chilled-water coil (a chiller supplies chilled
water to this type of design). The duct work for supply air and
return air can have various options underneath: sideways or out
the end. As far as fan design goes, most units come with two
designs: constant volume, where the fan runs at full speed; and
variable air volume, which works with a VAV system. The VAV
system changes fan speed and usually works off of static pressure.
This type is very energy efﬁcient and can supply better comfort
control, which are two items owners like to hear.
The basic heating and cooling design is fundamentally the
same as any other unit in the ﬁeld. The rooftop unit might
have a return fan depending on the application. One fan that
service technicians may be unfamiliar with is an exhaust fan.
In some applications, the rooftop unit will be bringing in
ROOFTOP UNI TS
STAYING ON TOP OF
w w w . r s e s j o u r n a l . c o m MAY 2014 RSES Journal 11
Circle Reader Service No. 47
outside air for ventilation or free cooling along with return
air. Exhaust fans are often used to prevent air pressure from
building up in the tenant space, such as a hallway, and over-
pressurizing it. This could cause dangerous conditions and
contribute to elevator or entrance doors not working correctly.
In many cases, the rooftop unit has a sensor that measures
the difference between outside air and building pressures.
When this pressure is exceeded, the exhaust fan comes on
to lower this pressure. These other features will be discussed
more in the current technology section.
Every service technician must understand the fundamentals
of the ﬁeld. Once the technician understands how air-condi-
tioning and heating systems work, no matter what the system,
these fundamentals come into play. Knowing the sequence
of operation allows anyone to be able to walk through the
door and watch what the system is doing and compare that to
what it should be doing. Certainly, there will be exceptions, but
understanding these basics helps with troubleshooting a system.
Using an A/C gas-ﬁred rooftop unit as an example, the ﬁrst
question to ask is if the unit is being directed to run, either from
a thermostat on the wall, a thermistor sending a temperature
back to the electronic board in the rooftop unit, or energy-
management systems? Although it seems like a silly question, I
once had a rooftop unit that would not run. When I checked
the EMS, the building engineer had put it on a holiday schedule
the Monday before and had not switched it back. A simple ﬁx.
In order to eliminate many components during the trou-
bleshooting process, it is always best to know if the issue is
on the heating or air-conditioning side. Is the blower fan
running? Remember, in some cases, local code or ASHRAE
62 is requiring that the fan run constantly to pressurize the
hallway and to prevent odors and provide air for exhaust in
a residential dwelling. In some commercial buildings the fan
runs around the clock to ensure better air circulation. If it
is in the air-conditioning mode, are the compressors trying
to run? Or is the rooftop unit using a chilled-water coil. A
review of the central plant might be needed to check pumps,
chillers, etc. A lot can be learned by listening, seeing and
touching, even before gauges are used. Also be sure to talk to
the customer. They are always able to provide vital informa-
tion about what is happening.
Spending a few minutes on the heating side, ﬁrst determine
what type of heat the rooftop is using. If it is electrical, check to
see if the heating element is being held out by a safety switch,
such as a high- temperature cutout or air-ﬂow switch. Are the
fuses blown? Many units will either use sequencers or contactors
to bring on the electric heat, check to see if these are working
properly. Proﬁciency in using electrical meter and reading a sche-
matic are keys to troubleshooting these problems. Remember,
safety ﬁrst. Lock out and tag out when necessary.
In most cases on gas-heat units, the draft fan needs to run
to pre-purge and exhaust fumes. When walking to the unit,
the technician should hear the fan running or feel exhaust
air blowing out of the unit. If this is not happening, the air
Checklist Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
Clean Return Air Grilles
Replace Return Air Filters
Replace Unit Disposable Filters
Clean Unit Outside Air Filters (Metal)
Check Condensate Drain
Inspect Evaporator Coil
Inspect Condensor Coil
Check For Noise or Vibration
Check Supply Air Flow cfm/Velcoity
CHECK FAN BELT TENSION/ REPLACE IF NEEDED
EVAPORATOR FAN WHEEL FOR DIRT/CLEAN IF NEEDED
INSPECT MOTORS, STARTERS/CHECK ELECTRICAL CONNECTIONS
LUBRICATE ALL BEARINGS IF NEEDED
CHECK ECONOMIZER (DAMPER) OPERATION
OUTSIDE AIR DAMPER CLOSES W/UNIT
DAMPER OPEN W/UNIT ON
CHECK CONDITION OF HEAT EXCHANGERS & COMBUSTION AIR BLOWER
CHECK FOR PROPER PILOT IGNITION
CHECK FOR PROPER BURNER FLAME APPEARANCE
CHECK HEAT EXCHANGE LIMIT SWITCH
CHECK UNIT HEATING CONTROL SEQUENCE
CHECK FOR DIRTY CONDENSER COIL
CHECK FOR DIRTY EVAPORATOR COIL
CHECK FOR REFRIGERANT PRESSURES/TEMPERATURES
CLEAN CONDENSATE PANS AND DRAINS
CHECK CONDITIONED AIR DISCHARGE TEMPERATURE
CHECK UNIT COOLING CONTROL SEQUENCE
Burgess Green Facilities Service
Rooftop Maintenance Schedule
Customer Name and Location:
w w w . r s e s j o u r n a l . c o m 12 RSES Journal MAY 2014
This is a sample of a preventive-maintenance schedule for RTUs. Always take into consideration the make of the
system and manufacturer recommendations when creating a PM schedule for a customer.
pressure switch will not close and the system will not run. Look
for items such as a no call for heat, blocked exhaust, pressure
switch is not being made or there is a bad air-pressure switch.
If everything appears normal and all safety precautions have
been made, watch the unit as it ﬁres up. Some units have a pilot
while others light off directly with no pilot. Is the unit using a
hot surface igniter or electrodes to light off the fuel. Thirty years
ago, most items were mechanical, but today most units are full of
electronic boards and will ﬂash a message or use lights to explain
what is occurring. In these cases, it is very helpful to attend a
manufacturer’s training seminar through the manufacturer or
a local supply house. These seminars provide valuable short-
cuts and information that can be used out in the ﬁeld. As
RSES frequently states, education is truly power.
It is important to look at the conﬁguration of the return,
outside and exhaust dampers, as these will have a signiﬁcant
impact on comfort and energy. The basic function of an RTU
is to supply conditioned air that returns back to the unit.
This cycle continues as long as the unit runs. If an outside
air damper is added, it will be used to bring in fresh air and
as an air-side economizer. In the case of the economizer, the
conditions are just right to use outside air to cool the building
instead of using mechanical cooling. At this point the return
dampers close. When the return dampers close, or bring in
outside air, the building would over-pressurize. In this situa-
tion, the exhaust fan comes on and exhausts the air, keeping
the building at a slight positive pressure. Some manufactures
will use dry-bulb or enthalpy sensors to automate this process.
It is important you ﬁnd out which are being used.
Customers are always told that the unit will fail to func-
tion, not work properly and waste energy if preventive
maintenance (PM) is not performed. Yet, year after year,
customers still neglect to perform preventive maintenance.
It has been made worse by the economy because customers
attempt to save money by not performing necessary (and
sometimes costly) maintenance. It is up to skilled techni-
cians to sell them on the beneﬁts of preventive mainte-
nance. Rooftop units are no different than any other piece
of equipment. It is always best to follow the manufacturer’s
instructions and PM plans. I have included a generic PM
schedule on a gas rooftop unit. There are many more items
that can expand the list, depending on the manufacturer
and what the customer wants.
Preventive maintenance may also need to be performed after
hours. On one occasion, a service technician tried to clean the
condenser coil while the unit was running and the smell went
through the outside air dampers, evacuating an entire ofﬁce
building in downtown Washington, D.C., which also brought
out the hazmat team and the ﬁre department—a lesson that
technician will never forget.
Rooftop Maintenance Schedule
Circle Reader Service No. 48
w w w . r s e s j o u r n a l . c o m MAY 2014 RSES Journal 13
There are a few PM items on a rooftop unit besides the
normal ﬁlter changes and coil cleaning. On many units the
service person might ﬁnd return dampers, outside air dampers
and exhaust dampers that may also include their own fan.
These dampers are all working together and, as such, are
linked together through sensors and controls. In some cases,
technicians may ﬁnd a piece of wood holding up a damper,
which points to a service technician who did not understand
the control sequence or an owner who did not want to spend
the money for the repair.
More stringent codes and increasing energy costs have made
manufacturers look at various ways to keep spaces comfortable
while also saving energy. In some cases, buildings are required
to bring in more outside air to keep CO
levels within accept-
able ranges. This sometimes requires extra heating, cooling
or dehumidiﬁcation to condition the outside air even more,
which increases energy costs.
Variable-frequency drives help to save energy. Service tech-
nicians should check if the fan in units with VFDs needs to
constantly run at full speed. In most cases, the answer is no,
in which case, cut down on the horsepower to help the owner
save on energy costs. Energy-recovery ventilation wheels, or
enthalpy wheels, have been gaining momentum over the past
few years and have been widely used in rooftop units with var-
ious results. As energy costs keep rising, manufacturers have
come up with better ways to service them. The basic principle
behind an ERV wheel in many commercial applications is that
the building is exhausting conditioned air to the outside and
bringing in cold, hot or high humidy air back into the building
to be used as fresh air. An ERV wheel takes that conditioned
air (already heated, cooled or dehumidiﬁed, depending on
the season) and transfers it to the incoming fresh air. Located
in the rooftop unit, this wheel takes the heat from return
air that would be exhausted to the outdoors and transfers it
to the outside air as it becomes the supply air. The opposite
happens in the summer, as it helps dehumidify and lower the
outside temperature of the incoming air. All of this lowers
N. Robert Burgess, Jr., CEM, CEA, LEED AP, is the Owner
of Burgess Green Facilities Service. He is a Master HVACR
Technician and works as an advisor for the real-estate industry.
Burgess, who currently holds 14 certiﬁcations and licenses
within the engineering and property management ﬁeld, has
served as Vice President of Property Management for various
companies, has authored three textbooks for BOMI, and has
been the lead instructor for the National Association of Power
Engineers for more than 28 years. Currently, he serves on the
Board of Directors for the Property Management Association.
For more information, e-mail robertburgess@burgessgreenfacilities
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