A plumber’s perspective on water heating technology and its implementation.
I met Armin Rudd at the Hot Water Forum in Berkeley. He was giving a talk on combined domestic hot water (DHW) and space heating systems he’s been working with. One puzzling and persistent problem he found has been this bluish grey goo clogging up filters in the system. As a plumber who likes hot water, I told him it was corrosion product from an aluminum anode and he looked a bit stunned.
Having been involved with plumbing since I was fourteen, I’ve been forced to become a fan of elegant simplicity. In the field, things go wrong. The more complex the equipment or its installation, the greater the likelihood of problems. The greater the technical demands on the installer or end user, the bigger chances are of details gone missing or maintenance forgotten. Combining DHW and space heating creates opportunity to build amazingly complex systems that almost beg for a spare bedroom near the equipment room, so the technician is always close at hand. The real challenge is to make things mechanically simple and comprehensible.
Despite the existence of trade schools and many other resources for educating trades-people, most of the training we get in the US is on the job. Our bosses and co-workers share what they know and by making mistakes, we learn what not to do. There is little room in this scenario for the science in books to filter into the plumber’s work, but lots of room for old plumber’s tales. So, it becomes a protective thing plumbers do when they avoid new technology, because personal experience is what they rely on rather than science or other’s research to feel comfortable installing and guaranteeing equipment and systems. Those are only two of the roadblocks to making our use of hot water more efficient and sustainable. But they’re big ones and can be broken down by bringing education and science to the field and at the same time bringing field experience to the lab.
I try to do what’s best for the end user as most plumbers do, and want things to be simple and easily understandable. I try for lowest life-cycle cost, even if it’s not the very most energy efficient. I want comfort for the user, because if it’s not comfortable, the system won’t live a long and fruitful life. Comfort has various faces. It means a comfortable and quiet home, an adequate hot water supply, little waiting for hot water, little time spent fiddling with the system or waiting for the technician, predictability and not too many dollars spent.
Putting all of the above together is what I’ll aim to do. So I’ll begin with the obvious, but sometimes forgotten detail that if we really want efficient housing, we need to look first at the building shell. Shell work can be durable and effective, though I’m still waiting for insulation to be sexy. A good shell adds to user comfort and then allows us to look at technologies like combined space and DHW systems that don’t need to pour out enough heat to warm the entire block. As homes get snug, we find the DHW load exceeds the space heating load, both instant and yearly. For example, filling a bathtub can take a lot of energy, quickly, but heating an efficient home simply doesn’t have that big energy demand; which leads to using one heat source for both and sizing it for DHW loads. Of course, that’s a water heater!
I put shell efficiency first because it’s really the low hanging fruit. Also in that category is plumbing distribution. Jim Lutz, formerly of Lawrence Berkeley Labs has been measuring plumbing system efficiency and sadly, it’s not good. A really efficient shower event delivers 80% of the energy and water that went into the system as usable hot water at the shower head. A bad shower may be 20% efficient. So, install the sort of plumbing distribution Gary Klein has been talking about that can deliver hot water anywhere in the house wasting only one or two cups, (demand plumbing or central core plumbing) and you’ll get to install a smaller water heater!
So far so good. By making the shell of the house and plumbing system efficient, we’ve been able to significantly downsize water heating equipment. That equipment can be many thing such as electric or gas tank type or tankless heater; electric heat pump or in the near future we hope, gas fired heat pump. Solar or heat recovery can reduce the demand further. The concept of simple solar has hardly been looked at or explored seriously for commercialization by anybody I know other than Steve Baer of Zomeworks in New Mexico. http://zomeworks.com .
As an example of what can be done, I built an efficient off grid house that’s heated by solar hot water and a wood stove as back-up. It uses a gravity driven radiant system in the walls. Its claim to fame is the ability to keep the house at 70 degrees with 80 degree water. So, if solar weren’t involved, I could use condensing technology and keep it running in its sweet and most efficient spot. Low grade heat distribution is a natural for condensing technology. It’s not hard to do with hydronic distribution, but harder with air. Did you hear the challenge?
Having been in hot water for years, I’ve seen a range of equipment subjected to a variety of waters and conditions. Hard water is tough on anything that has high heat flux rates. Acidic
water loves to dissolve copper. Dissimilar metals have trouble together in conductive or over-softened water. Not planning for temperature extremes will burst the odd pipe or solar panel tubing. Leaving the plumber’s apprentice alone too long on the job might not be cost effective!
Let’s think about corrosion for a bit. One thing in plumbing you want to corrode is the sacrificial anode in tank type heaters. But thinking it through, metals, as they corrode produce a quantity of corrosion product that is bigger than the original metal. Our experience is that aluminum creates far more than other common metals. Where is all that going to wind up in your system? Magnesium anodes produce less stuff and are not considered unhealthy. So, knowing there will be anode corrosion product and possibly hard water scale and maybe some sand in the bottom of the tank, doesn’t it make sense never to pull water from the bottom of that tank? In the past some manufacturers have done just that and even mixed in brass fittings just to make sure the steel tank rusted to protect the brass. This makes an unwanted rust blockage where the brass screws into the tank. If the anode is doing its job, it will plate out the brass with mineral from the water and block flow there too. So, one bad connection in the wrong place can have three forces working at it to cause trouble.
Perhaps the most common plumber’s tale is that brass or bronze nipples are better in steel tanks than copper. I think it implies the wrong question and sadly, it’s true, but only by a very little bit. These three metals are all in a group, a ways away from steel on the galvanic scale, thus they all have similar desire to make steel rust to protect them. Better is always to use a lined steel nipple in the tank to put distance between different metals, greatly reducing galvanic corrosion.
Plumbers tale number two is that dielectric unions work. A dielectric is usually brass and steel separated by a thin rubber washer, in water. It’s also the only place in a modern potable system where steel is encouraged to be wet. Typically the steel rusts, bridging the rubber washer and eventually the dielectric turns into a seeping, rust filled, flow restricting bump in the line. Using a lined nipple with a flex connector that has a true dielectric in it will give good separation of metals without the problems.
This brings up the concern of stray current corrosion. Anything that blocks electrical current flow in plumbing forces that current to jump off the pipe, swim through the water and land further down the line back on the metallic pipe. The point where current leaves the line will disintegrate. This does make one want to use dielectrics only where absolutely needed. It also promotes jumpering and grounding systems to give the current an easier path to take to get back to earth. Normally, using #6 solid copper wire between hot and cold over a heater and
then running that to the ground bar at the main electric panel is good. Single point grounding prevents trying to force current through the earth and building up differences in voltage between grounds. All this only means you keep any current from flowing through the plumbing and equipment, which is good.
Stray current comes from at least three sources. It used to be common practice to ground the electrical system to metal plumbing. Should any appliance have internal electrical leaks, it would energize the plumbing a bit. Meter repairers have been electrocuted by removing a water meter without jumpering between the two pipes first. I’ve often found leaks in electric heaters where the heating element sheath splits or corrodes, letting water into the element and electricity out. This is easy to test for with a volt ohm meter in the ohms setting. Another source of current in metal lines is simply wiring running close by. It acts as a crude transformer, inducing current in the plumbing. If a known good ground can be brought to suspect plumbing one can test for voltage between the ground and pipe. An extension cord and meter are all that’s needed. It’s common in my area that the main steel supply line to a home gets replaced with PVC. If plumbing was used as a ground path, now it doesn’t work anymore and current will be forced to find new routes. Tying existing plumbing into the main panel’s ground when the water supply is replaced makes sense, but isn’t always done. It turns into a “that’s not my job” moment. A third source of current would be nearby lightning. During a lightning storm might not be a good time to be fooling around looking for leaks to ground or golfing.
About 85% of the US has hard water. That is a concern when trying to get heat quickly into water. I’m lucky in a way that my little corner of the world has water than varies from 40 to over 800 parts per million of total dissolved solids. I used to embarrass my wife by carrying around a total dissolved solids (TDS) pen and checking water at restaurants. A lot of water softening is done where I live. When water is over-softened, tank type heaters live short lives and no protective scale can build up inside copper pipes, leaving them to erode over time. The National Association of Corrosion Engineers suggests leaving 60-120 ppm of TDS in the water after softening. Softener people prefer softening down to zero. Odor problems happen much more often with softened water and with tanks that are too big for the usage they get. Tankless heaters don’t like hard water, we learn from their warranties. In boilers, even a little scale has a dramatic effect on performance. I have not seen a study on the effects of scale on modern tankless heaters, but hope to, because it would let tankless users know whether performance falls off or not with hardness and also help them to know when de-scaling should be done.
Hardness makes things that move inside the plumbing not move so well. Re-circulation lines often have swing check valves that lime up in the open position. Pumps get jammed when scale finds its way into them. Tempering valves all fail. Then there are relief valves. I like to test relief valves on tanks because I don’t want any heater I’ve seen to make the evening news by blowing up. One quarter of the valves I test don’t work for some reason. Of those, about one in ten will not let water through. They are plugged solid with minerals. This happens even when they sit up on top of the heater. I can only guess the anode wants to protect the brass and plates it out with hardness from the water. Still, if one of forty heaters has no protection, we must be relying on good controls to keep heaters on the ground. The problems of hard water can be reduced with appropriate use of materials; not just a well managed softener, but PEX piping, valve stems that don’t de-zincify and provisions for easily flushing any part of the system that could ever need it.
Homes will continue to get more efficient. As they do, combined systems will make better and better sense. We’ll probably need to come up with several system types for different climates, water quality concerns and budgets. Looking at distribution for a moment, I think it useful to consider both air and water as our friends for moving BTUs around. I read that a ½” pipe can carry as many BTU’s as an 8” duct, using about 1/50th as much energy to move them. This suggests simple heating systems could work nicely right now. Just as shell tightening can have a huge effect on the load, it might be useful to look around the house to see where other sources of heat could come from. We may, someday want to intentionally capture or vent out the heat off the back of the fridge, do something useful with attic heat, or see if earth tubes can be designed that stay dry and work as designed.
Even though I’m away from the coast where I live in California, cooling is seldom needed. We do have fairly dry air, so even if cooling were needed, I could use chilled water with little risk of condensation. Where high humidity is the norm, chilled air might be a better medium for moving coolth around.
Linda Wigington formerly of Affordable Comfort is working on the Thousand Home Challenge, http://thousandhomechallenge.com which sets the bar high for reducing home energy use. The people who are on the path for this challenge make a natural testing ground for ideas any of you may have for what makes a good combined system. Linda is creating categories for system types by region and housing type and I’m certain would welcome your involvement.
Although I’ve mentioned a number of technical considerations for combined systems, the biggest difficulties lie with plumber and end user education and expectations. Keeping a plumber on tap somewhere near the design lab couldn’t hurt either. Unless those needs are dealt with, getting good systems installed will remain the exception.
What would plumbing look like if it were designed only for superior performance and durability? What if politics and designing for the lowest common denominator didn’t enter into the thinking?
Let’s start by thinking about what we want the plumbing to do. Assuming now that we’re talking about the hot water system, (because we LIKE hot water) we want the plumbing to deliver clean hot water quickly, in the amounts we need and with little or no waste of either energy or water. We also want the system to behave nicely for an extremely long time, with not a single problem. So, no leaks, no noise and plenty of hot water. Oh, and we want it to be adaptable to future changes in the building.
What would such a system look like? To start, we’d need to know the flow rates of the fixtures. We’d find the lowest flow rates we could that do the job at hand. That might be a 1.5 gpm (or lower) showerhead and kitchen sink and .5 (or better .35) gpm lavatory sinks. We might have appliances like clothes and dishwasher that heat their own water, so no hot line would need to be run to those places. We’d also need to know the pressure in the lines when no water is moving; called static pressure. In addition to knowing those two things, we’ll need to figure out how long the piping runs need to be.
Plumbing design with one main manifold, or possibly distributed manifolds will determine line length. Now, finally, we can size the tubing. A good (and free) tool for this is the System Syzer by Bell and Gossett. It is designed for copper, which likes water flow up to four feet per second. PEX can take ten feet per second if you have adequate pressure! One last thing to consider is water quality. Say it’s acidic. You wouldn’t want to use copper in that case as it won’t hold up. PEX is better for aggressive waters.
Modern plumbers seem hardwired to build straight and square. Modern materials, like PEX tubing don’t need that. They work best using the most direct route and the fewest fittings, so you suffer the least pressure drop, (friction losses) possible. Everything we can do to reduce the volume of water in the lines and decrease friction losses will help with better and faster hot water delivery with the least waste. Pressure compensating aerators and showerheads will help further, by keeping flow the same even when someone else uses water in the house.
One more thing modern plumbers do is to insulate as little of the plumbing as possible. We operate under the misguided idea that it’s not cost effective. Let’s look at this from another perspective. How cost effective will it be in 25 or 50 years? How long will this plumbing be in place? We can be pretty sure that energy and water will never come down in price, so let’s design the system to not need updating during its life. Insulate all of the hot plumbing and even the cold plumbing if it’s installed in a humid climate. This way, we save BTUs and prevent condensation damage, along with improving system performance. And as long as we’re insulating, let’s use thick insulation. A good rule is to use the same thickness as pipe size. Half inch tube gets half inch thick insulation, and so on.
Part of the fun in this is when you understand that the physics say you might be able to use ¼” or even 1/8” tubing to supply fixtures! Such small tubing with so little water in it means you won’t need to wait long at all for hot water to arrive. Yay! It also means the system will cost less than “normal” plumbing as you’re using fewer feet of smaller tubing, which will take less time to install; you’ll be saving gallons and BTUs every day; and you’ll be saving time, not waiting long for hot water to arrive… for as long as you live in the house!
The fittings pictured above are officially called Swoops. A friend, Gary Klein, figured out that fittings like this add almost no friction loss to plumbing, which may let us downsize the pipes. He decides to name the fitting “Swoop”. If you’re installing copper plumbing, this is good. If you’re working with PEX, just bend the tubing as needed with bend supports or long turns and avoid as many 90 degree fittings as possible.
Not many decades ago, we used to design houses so all the wet rooms were fairly close together. This allowed the plumbing and mechanical systems to be rather compact, saving money and increasing efficiency. More recently, we seem to have forgotten how to do this. Wet rooms now are spread out all over the place, as far away from the water heater as possible. Still, “central core” plumbing is a concept to keep in mind when remodeling or building from scratch as it can dramatically increase performance of plumbing and other systems.
Taking it one step further, if you do central core and build a small mechanical room where the machinery of the house lives, it would be pretty simple to build spare ports into the plumbing so more fixtures would be easy to add later on. I’ve also found that it’s possible to build chases where small plumbing can go, like oversized, hollow baseboard or crown molding. This makes adding or servicing the plumbing far easier than having to rip out sheetrock or notch studs.
This is just an overview of some of the possibilities, but you see that we can do a lot to make plumbing serve our needs better and more efficiently if we can just drop some of the commonly accepted limitations.
Without teachers, imagine how long it would take and how painful it would be to learn new stuff. Trial and error over and over again! (That sounds like something Yogi Berra might have said!) I’m lucky that a number of folks have taken me under their collective wings and each in their own way, taught me how to do stuff…(or sometimes how not to do stuff!). There is currently a thread on www.heatinghelp.com at The Wall, titled “Most memorable technician you worked with?” I chimed in about a man I worked with long ago, named Otello. He certainly gave me some different perspectives to work with!
I’ve been lucky with mentors. They have shown me their ways of thinking and their tricks. With multiple perspectives, there becomes almost no problem you can’t get to the root of.
I was taught how to service/rebuild a faucet when I was fourteen, by a man named Hap Hardy, and I’ve been doing it ever since. It takes 10 to 15 minutes to properly fix a faucet. I’m talking about the old style that has a flat rubber washer and a brass seat it rests against. Simply, you reface the seat, giving it a new flat, shiny surface for the rubber to meet up to. You also replace the washer, (or flip it over if the back side is good) and lube everything with faucet grease. It’s not hard. I just had a friend in the SF Bay area who needed this work done on a faucet. She called six plumbers and nobody knew how to do it! And they wanted $150 just to show up. She finally found a handyman who would just change the washer for $75. I need to teach some handy-people how to fix faucets!
This brings me to my next point, which is about passing on what I’ve learned. Being an old guy, it’s my turn to mentor others. Actually I’ve been teaching in some way or another for around forty years. A couple of the guys I’ve worked with went on to become skilled craftsmen in their own right, exceeding my skills in many areas. But I helped get them started. I like sharing what I’ve learned and we really do need the graying workforce to train the next generations, or who will keep all of this infrastructure we have operating?
I’ve got a younger friend who I’m teaching all about the concepts of efficiency. He’s a quick study, so is beginning to understand how so much of what he runs across was done in the normal, inefficient way, and it frustrates him. It’s a good sign that he cares and grasps the underlying reasons for pushing efficiency and durability. Ultimately doing a job well means it will take less of your time and money later. It’s easy to make time for teaching someone who cares. For the novice out there who wants to learn: find a mentor and figure out how you might be useful to that person. I’d happily work on Warren Buffet’s water heater for free if I got to hang around with him and gain some financial wisdom!
The book pictured above was mentioned in an earlier post on teaching. It finally did come out and is bigger and better than before. If you teach or are interested in teaching, this book will quickly move you light years ahead in the art of putting good stuff into other people’s brains.
I take it as my responsibility to those who have mentored me, to help and teach those who are trying now to learn what I’ve learned. They are unlikely to find the info in most schools, other than Union training. Searching for the answer to a question on the internet may help you solve a given problem but doesn’t give you the depth of know how that makes you into an expert. The quickest way to get there is to find a mentor and open your mind so that mentor can pour in some know how!
Here is a water heater that was made in 1895. That makes it about 123 years old. Certainly, we have much more efficient equipment now, right? Well, only perhaps. This is a condensing heater. It’s also a “contact” heater. That means flames/hot flue gasses mingle directly with the water being heated. Similar heaters when actually measured, showed an efficiency of 92%. Your standard modern gas heater is more like 60%. Another interesting thing about this heater is that it has only three moving parts. There just isn’t much to fail, and if it does, it’s easy to fix. Also, as you can see, it’s copper. As long as water is not acidic or aggressive in some other way, this heater won’t fail from corrosion. It’s a demand heater with no electrical use and no standing pilot, so has no standby energy losses either. All those ideas from one heater, called the Ewart’s Royal Geyser!
I collect old heaters and have over 70 of them. Each one presents ideas. Some are good, like this one I’ve been discussing, and some demonstrate ideas that are surprisingly unsafe or uninformed.
Here’s an example of a scary heater. It’s electric, but as you can see with only two prongs, there is no ground. It’s designed to strap to the spout on the kitchen faucet. You turn on the tap, then plug it in and you get a little stream of hot water from it. That was much better/faster than heating water on the stove. A plus to this sort of heater is there are no heat losses in the plumbing. It’s a point-of-use heater and very efficient. The problems however are in managing it correctly… first water flow, then power, or it melts down! But the main problem is the lack of a ground. If you put one hand in the water and your other hand on a metal sink, guess what… you become the ground path. That’s why you don’t see these anymore, because they seemed to like electrocuting children!
But, have a look at this heater: It’s got the same heating element, which is Nichrome wire, exposed directly to the water, but it also has two other things, a ground and a flow switch. This way, it can remain plugged in and can’t use a person as a ground path. It’s actually a heater used for showering. The showerhead mounts directly to the unit, so you get to shower with this device. How exciting can a shower be?! With this, you still have no line or standby losses. Not bad for an old idea.
Old heaters offer up a treasure trove of ideas to consider. Here’s a diagram of one such interesting design: See how the flue inside of it heads up to the top and then turns 180* and heads back down to near the bottom before it exits out the side? Then you’ll see the draft hood down towards the base of the tank. The benefit of this is it greatly reduces the standby loss from the tank as the flue is no longer acting like a chimney and sucking air through the heater, stealing heat all the time. This essentially is a heat trap for the flue, so it only flows when the main burner comes on. It saves lots of energy and has no moving parts. Also it doubles the heat transfer area of the flue for more efficient utilization of heat in the flue gasses.
When electric water heaters were first made, they didn’t seem to perform all that well as the electric supply to homes was small by today’s standards and the heating element might be only 600 or 1000 watts. Today the common element size is 4500 watts. The manufacturers got around this with the idea of a tempering tank: The basic idea was to place the uninsulated tank in a warm place, like boiler room, sunny place or wherever there was “waste” heat available. By doing this, it certainly made the slow electric heater more capable of meeting the demand, and probably reduced complaints to the manufacturer. I see no reason why we can’t do the same thing now and put some waste heat to use.
Using old ideas, it would not be difficult to build a heater that is far more efficient than most modern heaters, one that will last a VERY long time, (think the life of the house it’s installed in) and likely cost little more than a conventional heater to buy. Also, if we keep it very simple, the likelihood of it needing much upkeep is significantly reduced. Think of the savings this imaginary heater will give over its long life. Lastly, if we got used to thinking of life-cycle-cost instead of first cost, we’d be willing to spend a bit more for this heater that should never need replacing. Anyway, food for thought!
I like tools! They make life so much easier if you have the right ones. They make it so there is essentially no job you cannot deal with because of difficult to deal with piping. They make my ageing arms stronger. Pictured is a pipe wrench from 1922. It was made by the Hoe Corporation in New York and it’s my first choice of pipe wrenches when I need one. Why? For starters, it’s automatic. There is no need to turn an adjusting nut. It simply slips over the pipe or fitting and away you go. One benefit of this wrench is that it doesn’t care if what you’re wrenching on is round. Hex or square are fine too as it adjusts automatically. It doesn’t need to grip the pipe at 90 degrees. This wrench can be crooked on the pipe, which lets you work in difficult places with ease compared to the standard Stillson wrench.
This is what’s commonly sold these days, and it just doesn’t have the range of use that older wrenches offer. Imagine trying to play with a pipe that’s in a corner with this tool. It won’t be easy! The Hoe wrench has less trouble in a tight corner and there are other tools that are designed specifically for tight places. I’ve looked for years at garage sale wrenches, but now that we have the internet and specifically the worlds biggest garage sale, Ebay, it’s easier to find nice old tools for fair prices.
I take a two pronged approach when looking for tools. Searching the internet is good, but knowing what I want to be looking for is good too. I’ve found that there are some nice books on old wrenches. Here are two of them. There are more books, but this is a start. Finding the books can be tricky as well, but I’ve found a nifty site: www.addall.com, where they search all the book sites on the web. It’s one stop shopping! Once you’ve perused the books, you ‘ll have a better idea what’s out there that fits your needs and you can be a bit more precise in hunting down these tools. Unlike modern tools, some of the old ones are so well made with high carbon steel (too hard to file), that it’s a real pleasure to find one, clean it up and sharpen it with a grinder (think Dremel) so the teeth can grab the most recalcitrant pipe.
Some tools are just fun. How about this one? Any other plumber that sees it is gonna be a bit jealous! Squeeze the lever and the jaw opens. And note that the handle seems to be designed to put a cheater on. That was not uncommon with the older tools. Thing is, the more different types of tools you carry, the more able you will be to deal with whatever the jobsite is challenging you with. The word “can’t” is something I try to keep out of my vocabulary.
Here’s one more old tool for your consideration. It’s called an Eifel Plierench.
Look at what it can do. It has parallel, geared jaws. This gives you a lot of force. It’s easy to flatten copper pipe with these… Try that with normal pliers! The jaws are adjustable and replaceable with other attachments, like pipe jaws or even a cutter wheel for tubing. It has wire cutters, screwdriver and pry bar built in. Anyway, you get my point, that adding some good old tools to your collection can only help you do your job better and more easily.
New tools have their place as well, but I prefer them for different reasons. For example, I recently got a FLIR One. This is an infra-red device that attaches to your smart phone and lets you see heat or coolth. It can be quite useful in diagnosing a problem or simply being able to “see” things a bit differently.
Here’s an example of three hands. The young, energetic guy who exercises a lot is in the center. The older woman is on the left and her spouse on the right. When looking at buildings, it can show you poor electrical connections, water intrusion, air leakage, or heat loss from pipes and ducts. It can also make you wonder about what we “know” to be true.
For fun, here’s a photo of a lizard sitting on a log. They are supposed to be cold blooded … right?
There are other modern tools for “sniffing” out power in wires without needing to touch them; testers that tell you the condition of the wiring to outlets; line locators that make tracing underground pipes and wires much easier and another favorite is the gas sniffer that works better than my nose for detecting gas leaks. It’s even better than soap for finding leaks. Soap bubbles don’t form if the leak is too fast. For finding tiny leaks in gas or water lines an ultrasonic leak detector is the thing. It hears what we can’t, so saves a lot of time hunting down tricky problems.
The world of tools is big and having the right ones, makes life better. I hope I’ve whetted your appetite for looking into the wide world of tools.
That’s exactly what the guy said when I picked up the phone. I intelligently said “huh?”. He explained that he had called the gas company (who has a policy of not referring contractors) and they referred me, as no other plumber was doing water heater maintenance. Then he called the water company… same story. Finally he called his plumber who also told him to call me. No doubt he wondered how much I’d spent to pay off everybody :~)
I did nothing but work diligently to understand exactly how water heaters do and don’t work and then used that know-how to help clients. I sought out the most knowledgeable hot water people in North America and shared information. Early in my career, I was a generalist… trying to do everything that might ever need doing around a home. That’s a great way to know only a little about a lot of topics, and spend a lot of unpaid time researching info and hunting for parts. A truck is not made big enough that can carry ALL the stuff, (tools and parts) you’ll need if you try to do it all. It’s good and useful to have the generalist’s understanding of things, but understanding a topic in depth makes you the go to person in that field. And a good reputation means you don’t need to worry about whether or not the phone will ring.
Long ago in my area, the plumbers tried to make themselves look good by dissing other plumbers. It’s nothing unusual, but it is unfortunate as it just makes the entire group look untrustworthy. As I was transitioning from generalist to hot water guy, I started asking around, learning what each other plumber liked to do best. When I got calls about doing plumbing other than hot water, I began to refer the work to the plumber who really liked that sort of work. A couple of interesting things happened. I started getting hot water referrals back, and slowly, the plumbers stopped bad-mouthing other plumbers. The latter might just be co-incidence, but it made the local world of plumbing much nicer! The bar was raised.
You may remember a little book called “50 Simple Things You Can do to Save the Earth” (now updated and in print!) by John Javna. My work on hot water was one of the 50 things. That caused thousands of letters to arrive in my mailbox from all over the world. School teachers particularly seemed to use it as a class outline. I needed to buy lots of stamps as this was before the internet took hold, and I got a lot of questions to answer. This became the drive for writing “The Water Heater Workbook” as I got asked the same questions over and over again and began to understand people couldn’t readily find good, truthful answers.
Being considered an expert comes with responsibility. It means you cannot stop learning… you need to stay informed so that you give the best answers possible to those who choose to trust you. As long as I’m putting out thoughts on business and philosophy, there is one more thing I can say with certainty, though I still don’t really understand how it works. If you take care of others, you will be taken care of. Once, I sat down and did the math… In a period of ten years, I had a total of just under two weeks of slow work. That’s pretty good! Additionally, when trouble comes to visit, invariably, good arrives to help me deal with the trouble. Every single time. This always being the case, I’ve learned that worry has no place to stand and bother me from. Worry must find me frustrating!
My point in writing this is not to toot any horns, but rather to share what has worked for me and might work for you, regardless of your field.
I wrote this a few years ago, and it appeared in Home Energy Magazine. Much of it is still true. Enjoy!
We hear in the news about all the foreclosed, abandoned, vacant or otherwise lost homes. We hear about the army of house flippers and people buying and fixing these homes to make an income from them, whether it’s by reselling or renting them out. Now we’re also hearing about rising sales prices and lack of inventory. How does an energy conscious person fit into this arena? Why should one even bother?
Lots of money is being poured into getting and fixing these lost homes, certainly because money can be made by doing so. Memphis Invest www.memphisinvest.com commissioned a study last September which found that private investors put 9.2 billion dollars a year into fixing up their real estate purchases. The average is $7500 per home/unit, though 16% spend over $30,000. The study found real estate investors are spending over four times what the Federal Neighborhood Stabilization Program is spending to rehab housing. Eleven percent of all Americans own real estate. Three percent of all Americans (or about seven million people) think of themselves as real estate investors.
So, ponder for a bit what might happen if energy conscious people decided to jump into the fray and become investors. First, although housing prices are beginning to rise, there has been no better period in most of our lifetimes to take control of properties to make them durable and efficient. The Great Depression might have been the last such opportunity. The best time to rehab a place is when nobody is living in it. Cellulose insulation and drywall dust just aren't appetizing. Also, working by the hour has its limits. Finding a way to create an income that happens even if you take a day off has some appeal. This could be called rentals, or becoming an energy efficient landlord. Appreciation of property is something to hope for but not count on. Perhaps appreciation is best thought of as retirement income. Real estate is also a relatively safe investment. It seems the FDIC has funds to cover only ¼ of one percent of deposits and securities in banks http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y1lX-ZkbUIA and only Who knows where the emotion driven stock market is headed! Additionally, many of the well-to-do people in the world got that way with real estate. It's got a proven record and has intrinsic value, unlike paper money.
Now if energy aware people get involved in housing and replace the lipstick flippers, the opportunity to make a difference really grows because homes aren't often available for being given an energy make over during their lifetimes. They remain occupied, often for decades. Sometimes the flippers aren’t all that good at fixing up houses, http://activerain.com/blogsview/2019273/mr-jay-s-neighborhood-meet-flipper and all that lipstick will keep the house stuck together and unavailable for real repairs for a while!
Appraisers are ever so gradually moving towards recognizing the value of energy improvements, so loans may be able to take these improvements into account some day. Another thing that happens when we replace the lipstickers, is we have steadier work as energy aware, RE investors because we control the job. No more need to try to make prospective clients see the light, because we ARE that client. Additionally, if we get “scary” homes; those cheap ones that look like a lot of work, we can save them from simply being demolished and sent to the dump. That can add up to some serious embodied energy savings. Many benefits can come from our involvement.
What do these homes look like; where are they and how do you find them? We are used to thinking of bank foreclosed homes coming up for sale on the local multiple listing service (MLS). Foreclosures range from multi-million dollar mansions to hovels that sell for a few thousand or less and they are in every state. They are in run down war zones in the bigger cities and in quiet countryside, way out of town. As a rule of thumb, if you’re on the coast go inland a bit and the deals will begin to appear. Sadly, MLS is no longer a good or reliable source of deals. There simply is too much competition. I've found that tax deed sales can be a good way to find and obtain neglected properties. These appear online at places like Bid 4 Assets, http://www.bid4assets.com or in person at the local county seats. Roughly half of the states in the US are “deed states”. A good source of information on tax deeds and more is at Tax Sale Resources. http://www.taxsaleresources.com HUD Homes can be another source, http://www.hudhomestore.com . Even writing letters to the owners of dilapidated properties can bring results. Also, it just might be a good time to locate a Real Estate Investment Club in your area http://www.reiclub.com/real-estate-clubs.php and attend a few meetings. Perhaps we can infiltrate the clubs and convert its’ members into energy aware people!
There is a lot to the business of real estate, with many, many flavors. There is a lot to learn. How does one get involved? Where is funding? What rules exist for keeping out of trouble? One of the better sites to get this sort of know-how for free is Bigger Pockets, http://www.biggerpockets.com Much information is shared there. It comes from “brand new to real estate” types on up to those who have been involved thirty years or more. There are lots of good real estate books as well and using “info per dollar” as a yardstick, books are a dramatically better deal than the gurus! There is one very good example of “bringing wow and green to foreclosed homes” with Dave Robinson’s “Green Earth Equities” http://greenearthequities.com. He sets a good example for what I’m talking about and offers up a lot of information useful to the energy conscious person, with a nice mix of science and practicality.
Once you’re looking at specific properties, websites like City Data, http://www.city-data.com will give you lots of detail about any given area and Crime Reports, https://www.crimereports.com or the like will tell you if it’s a war zone and you should be looking elsewhere. Also there is much that can be learned by going to public records, http://publicrecords.onlinesearches.com and browsing through the official information or simply contacting the officials themselves, whether they are in the building department, recorder’s office or with the tax collector.
I’ve focused on internet information so far, but ultimately, nothing beats actually looking at a property. The vast internet can’t tell you if the house that looks so nice on Google Earth has just burned down, so always go look. The neighbors might be willing to share some of the history of the property as well.
Once you have a specific property in mind, how do you determine if it’s worthwhile? One old landlording rule of thumb is that you want to get 1% per month. This means as a gross number you want rent to be at least 1% of the total money you have put into a place. For example, if you bought a house for $150,000 and put $50,000 into repairs you would want $2000 per month in rent. This assumes you will be doing the property management. Otherwise you want to get more like 2% per month as managers usually charge around 10% of rents. Another thing to keep in mind as energy minded rehabbers, is we need to know beforehand how much can be spent on improvements and still have a cash-flowing property. It’s going to be hard to justify turning all your rentals into passive-houses.
Becoming a landlord is scary to many people, but that comes from lack of good information on just how to do it. I can suggest a good book called “Landlording” by Leigh Robinson. It’s in its 11th edition and has saved me countless troubles.
To close, I hope I’ve created a bit of interest in real estate. Putting energy conscious people together with distressed homes can create that authentic win-win and moves us forward in a positive way.
If only we would listen, water heaters would have a lot to tell us, their owners. Water heaters sorta like people, don’t appreciate not being heard. So, why do you think heaters fail on holidays and weekends? They just want attention! Most folks only pay attention when the heater has failed and they need a new one on Christmas morning, or some other inconvenient time. If you want to avoid that unhappy predicament, there are a few things you can do.
First, just have an admiring glance at the heater periodically. Has anything changed? Is there rust or moisture someplace? If it’s gas, is the vent pipe still hooked up? Is there a drain line from the temperature and pressure relief valve and is it piped to a safe location? Is it dry at the end of that pipe? Is anything stored on top or right next to your gas heater? I’ve seen the fire caused by a broom to close to the combustion chamber. It’s good to keep heaters from killing us with carbon monoxide, fire, or by blowing up. Some heaters CLEARLY don’t like not being paid attention to!
Next, it pays to understand why heaters die. The main neglect is the sacrificial anode has been used up and there is no longer any rust protection for the steel tank. It may be difficult to remove an old stubborn anode, but it’s far less work than replacing the heater. This is one clue you need to dig a bit to find. You might want to have a look at www.waterheaterrescue.com (WHR) for a lot more info on replacing anodes… and most anything else about water heaters! By the way, heaters just love having new anodes! The next heater killer is pressure. If water pressure is too high or if it fluctuates rapidly, this can cause the glass lining to crack and flake off, leaving bare steel to rust. Ideally, you want water pressure to be in the 40-60 psi range. Get an inexpensive 0-200 psi gauge and measure it. The heater’s drain valve is a good place to measure from. Also, watch the gauge when water is heating and no water is running. There is a gauge made that has a little red pointer, which shows you the highest pressure the gauge has seen. If it creeps up higher than the static pressure (static is when no water is being used) you know that thermal expansion, from heating the water is raising the water pressure in the entire house. This is common with homes that have pressure reducers or back-flow preventers. Sometimes there is a check valve in the water meter. A clue the heater may give you is the relief valve dripping periodically. Most open at 150 psi, so periodic dripping tells you the heater is suffering from too much pressure. Just because a relief valve doesn’t drip, doesn’t mean things are all good. In my area roughly one out of forty relief valves is plugged solid with hardness from the water. It’s like capping the line and gives you no protection at all. One in forty seems a bit too close to Russian roulette to me. You’ll see at WHR just how to test a relief valve so you know it’s working.
Sediment build-up in a tank also is not a good thing. In gas heaters, it slows heat transfer, causing overheating at the bottom and causing the glass lining to dissolve. Also, with gas heaters a rumbling noise can happen as water trapped in the sediment boils. In electric heaters, it can bury and burn out the lower element and be a cozy breeding ground for bacteria. Imagine just how bloated you would feel if you had all that sediment in you! WHR has flushing parts you can install (in your heater) to help reduce the problem.
Gas fired heaters can also give clues about how they are venting or not. On top of the heater is a “draft hood”. This exhausts combustion byproducts via a vent pipe to the outside. Sometimes if air pressures are wonky, you’ll see discoloration on the pipe nipples that live on both sides of the draft hood. If these nipples are rusty on one side or if insulation on them is melted, you know there is a venting issue. Additionally, if you see evidence of overheating towards the bottom of the heater, in front under the control valve, it’s more reason to check out the venting. Heaters like to breathe too! Having a carbon monoxide detector in the house just might not be a bad idea.
Another thing heaters sometimes do is provide less hot water. This could be a simple thermostat adjustment… thermostats do drift with time, but it could be a damaged dip tube. This is a plastic pipe inside of the tank, which delivers cold water to the bottom, so it doesn’t mix with the hot water. These dip tubes can get brittle with age and crack or just fall off. Or, the problem may have nothing at all to do with the heater. A cross connection in the plumbing can make it look like the heater is ill or in a bad mood. By mixing cold into the hot water, a cross connection can fool people into looking in the wrong place. If you shut off the water to your heater and open a hot tap, it should stop running in a few seconds. If it keeps running, there is a plumbing problem and the heater can remain happily blameless.
There is a lot more to discuss, but these are the main things that go wrong, along with their telltale clues… May your water heater get the attention it wants, so it can live a long and contented life, giving you hot water whenever you wish! It really would much rather live this way than having to think murderous or leaky thoughts! If you listen carefully to that heater you just maintained, you might even hear it say “Tanks!”.
I just finished up a week of teaching for California State Parks maintenance folks. I know some teachers and they are a bit jealous. It’s because I get the best students! My students have to compete to get into the class, they really want to learn, and they bring their own experience to class for others to learn from. “Real” teachers usually have to deal with reluctant students, crowd control and administrative headaches. I just get to share what I’ve learned and teach, which I’ve been doing for Parks now for 25 years. They have basic, intermediate, and advanced classes in plumbing and also a number of other fields. This was a basic plumbing class, with students ranging from newbie to a few that were talented enough, they could have been the teacher.
If you step back and look at what people choose to do with their working careers these days, you’ll see that working in the trades is low on the list. People seem to want white collar jobs or something to do with information technology and computers. Across the trades, contractors are having a harder and harder time finding decent help. Yet, there is work to do. Plumbing still misbehaves, buildings still need upkeep and we still have an ever growing number of people needing a place to live and the service of all the infrastructure that living in a first world country seems to require. Who’s gonna build it and keep it all running? Plumbers and electricians where I live often charge over $100 per hour. If you become a member of one of the trade unions, you can get a good wage, decent benefits, and continuing education. We really need to rethink our push in the US towards getting all students into college while forgetting about the trades. Perhaps when plumbers can charge as much as lawyers, more people will be interested in doing plumbing for a living. And plumbing is a lot less messy! :~)
I used to feel nothing but awkward when getting up in front of any crowd… unless it was a small crowd and I could talk about something I really knew and liked, like hot water. Nobody has asked me to give a talk on cats yet, so I discuss plumbing! Years ago, I ran across a book written by Dan Holohan, of heatinghelp.com. The book is called “How to Teach Technicians”. Technicians are more visual and tactile than “regular” people. They want and need to touch things to understand them. I understand this rather well as I R one. I recently went looking for the book and found it’s out of print, but the good news is that it has been updated and will be available again soon, likely this winter. The book walks you through the entire process of teaching, from knowing your audience, your material, and the room you’ll be teaching in, to stories about the many ways teaching can get disrupted by things like dogs, crows and very hot lightbulbs! Dan makes it clear how important humor and connecting with your audience are for getting good results.
I know his approach works. Some years ago I was asked to give a talk on hot water at an AWWA conference. I brought along a cut-out water heater as my main visual aid. Every other speaker seemed to be reading from their power point presentation, so when I came up with this heater and other real things to pass around the room, people got excited. I noticed people in the audience calling their friends and telling them to “Get over here, you must see this presentation!” That much excitement over hot water feels rather good.
I got to finish up the Parks class by showing off what a plumber can do with copper. Liking cats, I made a copper “Cat in the Hat” from two inch down to ¼ inch copper pipe and tube. It demonstrates what you can do with silver solder and only a little imagination. The message was that playing can be fun and education can (and should) involve playing. I made a point of bringing in things every day that the students may not have run across and that could help with story-telling. I took in a water heater from 1895 that still works, and is more energy efficient than most heaters made today. Another day, I brought in a bunch of old wrenches that, in concert allow the plumber to work fearlessly on ANY pipe. I took in old water heater salesman’s samples, demonstrating how differently we used to think about hot water. We all had fun while learning. I don’t know how learning and teaching can get much better... But if you know a way, please teach me!
Rather a long time ago, I was telling my Mom that I was going to “do ceramics”. I really liked it so thought it should be my career. She didn’t answer with “you idiot” or anything along those lines. She was after all, an art major herself in college. She just replied with a question; “Will you make enough to live on?” Well, I didn’t know, so I started to research it. It became clear that only a very few people ever are able to support themselves by doing art and the pieces of art that get the big bucks usually have creators that are long dead. It looked like it would take five to ten years to make it work… if I were actually good at it! Ultimately I found that I was good at fixing things and that was a much more marketable skill. My Mom had asked a very good, life altering question.
The questions we ask, and assumptions we make, in part dictate the responses we’ll get. When most plumbers walk up to a ten year old water heater, they will likely say, “It’s ten years old and could leak any time. Better replace it before it does any damage”. When I walk up to that heater, I say, “Let’s check out the heater and see if it has any life left in it”. Maintenance can easily give you five times the normal life of a water heater, so the yearly cost is roughly one fifth of what it would have been.
Another example is the solar salesman, selling photovoltaic systems. If he just asks “How much power do you use?” The solar system will be sized according to your present power consumption. If he asks “How efficient can we make your home first?” Then you might only need a solar system 20% as big as it would have been. That’s a big savings, but not really in the interests of the salesman who likely is making a commission on sales.
Asking good questions feels like an art form, difficult to pin down just what goes into creating those good ones. Two ideas come to mind for doing it right. First is to be looking out for the well-being of the person you’re asking. Say you know someone who gets emotional and he or she wants to cut someone off at the knees for doing something thoughtless. A question to ask them, “Will that be useful?” Yes they’ll miss the short term pleasure of revenge, but not miss wishing they could control their temper! Second is to remove yourself emotionally from the situation, so you can give a clear and balanced perspective. Imagine some longstanding discomfort between a parent and their child. That’s a difficult one to deal with as the ruts have become so deep. But, asking how either side might behave differently if it were a friend and not a relative they were talking to, might open the way towards a kinder, more fruitful dialogue. It’s sometimes easier to be nice to someone you’ve never met than a blood relative. It’s hard to come up with that different perspective if you’re entangled in swirling emotions and habits.
Good communication takes practice and effort. It takes putting yourself firmly in the other’s shoes. A quick text or email has it’s place, but research has shown that the amount of info communicated these ways is roughly one tenth of the info we get from a face to face conversation. Just imagine the difference between getting a marriage proposal in person or by text! If the message is important, delivering it in person will give you the best chance of getting it across clearly. Asking good questions truly is an important part of good communication.
Looking back over my working life of nearly 50 years, it seems clear that self sufficiency has always been the best way for me to be useful. Now, mix in a strong interest in water in its many forms and the wide world of animals and you'll know what's important to me.