I was just listening to news on the radio while driving around. There was a short discussion of tankless water heaters, talking about how they save energy compared to tank-type heaters. There was no mention of the cost of installation compared to tank type. No mention of the extra service a tankless needs to perform well and maintain warranty. No mention of how one can expect “different” hot water delivery, depending on flow rate. Nothing on condensing efficiency vs non-condensing. And lastly, they said tankless last twice as long as tanks, with no mention of maintenance. It seemed to this hot water nerd to be poorly informed news.
I used to be on a crusade to correct and educate the media about all the mis-statements and half-truths concerning hot water that I learned of. Turns out that’s a never ending job! (Just because, I did write to the radio station. We’ll see if they respond.) Mostly I seemed to upset media people and their writers, though some got into the habit of contacting me about hot water stuff. The plumbing industry is full of “old wife’s tales” and “that’s how it’s always been done” sorts of thinking. With good reason, plumbers are slow to change as there is a long history of new ideas being thrown out there for plumbers to try and then these things fail. The plumber is often left to deal with it.
Sadly, much of what the media gives us is simply a rehash of the old tales. Plenty of engineering and physics is involved in getting hot water right, and the sound bites we get from the media can’t give us the detail we need to make good decisions. No doubt the radio mention today will help with tankless sales, but there will be plenty the happy new owners of this technology will have to learn on their own in dealing with unexpected problems, and that won’t make the news.
Clearly, education is the key. If there were only, say one thousand people in North America who learned and became expert in hot water, all the mis-information wouldn’t go unchallenged. Also, when more than one person is telling a magazine that they missed some points, the magazine will probably notice and attempt to make things better and more accurate, at least in the future. As the field of hot water is big and complex, it’s tricky to put universally useful information down in a way that truly works for all. Understand that there are many thousands of different waters around the world and different waters affect plastics, metals and mineral build up in different ways. Heat alone is a game changer as it can speed up chemical processes and affect how and when metals corrode. I have only a plumber’s understanding of the chemistry, based on personal study and what I’ve met in the field. To me, it’s easy to understand why becoming a master plumber can easily take ten years. I’ve been doing plumbing for over fifty years and still there is something to learn (or re-learn) most every day.
I suppose it all boils down to the phrase “knowledge is power”. We need to educate ourselves and from there can educate the media and anyone else who cares enough to listen. For me, the education has come from mentors, old and new books, old and new equipment, manufacturers and people with different points of view. Sometimes it comes from simply looking at a question from a different perspective. Thanks for bearing with me!
There are, or should be some guiding lights to follow when designing and building good plumbing systems. The basic concepts are simple.
The first point sounds simple, but did you know that over 70% of the hot water draws in most homes do not deliver hot water? Who is willing to wait for hot water when rinsing hands? Most of us aren’t, but we turn on the hot tap anyway and finish before the hot water arrives.
And, have you ever heard of or done the “shower dance”? That’s when you are showering and somebody flushes a toilet, unbalancing the system and giving you a jolt of hotter or colder water than you were using, causing you to do the limbo away from the shower water. Extrapolating from this article: https://blog.aarp.org/healthy-living/beware-the-most-dangerous-room-in-the-house there are about 188,000 injuries in the US requiring an emergency room visit each year from falls in the bathroom, many around bathing. If you have to do the shower dance, now is the time to install a pressure balancing shower valve! So in addition to being inconvenient and unpleasant, unsteady temperatures can lead to life threatening falls. That’s rather unhealthy and it leads us to the second point about safety.
Uneven temperatures can lead to falls, but also scalding. Old and very young people may not be able to sense or communicate it when they are getting burned. Another thing that plumbing can give us is bad bugs, like legionella or ultimately Legionnaire’s disease. The balance between scalding and bad bugs is something the plumbing community has been struggling with for decades. Temperatures over 130 F effectively deal with most bad bugs, but that temperature also can burn people in not very many seconds. This problem can be helped with anti-scald shower valves and mixing valves, but ultimately, education of the populace in general is probably the best defense, so people don’t unknowingly put themselves in harm’s way. This leads me to the next topic, being energy and water efficient.
Probably the first thing to keep on top of mind when looking for efficient plumbing systems is to keep the volume of water between heater and end use as small as possible. Why? Well, if there isn’t a lot of cooled water in the hot line, you don’t need to run as much water or wait as long for hot water to arrive. Also, you haven’t spent so much money to heat water that simply cooled off in the pipes. One can reduce volume by having shorter or skinnier pipes, … or both! Shorter pipes means putting all the wet rooms close together and keeping the water heater close by as well. That’s best done in new construction or when a gut remodel is being done. Skinnier pipes can happen when it’s time to re-pipe or just because you’re tired of waiting for hot water. A rule of thumb is that for every size up in piping materials, you roughly double the volume of water in the line. So, if you go from ½” to 3/8” pipe, you’ve cut the volume in half. That means you’ll wait half as long to get hot water :~) This also means you will have needed to heat only half as much water for the plumbing. So, there is a 50% savings in the plumbing without even mentioning insulation. But now that I’ve used the “I” word, let’s think about what that can do for you. Here is an article written by my friend Gary Klein: http://www.garykleinassociates.com/PDFs/15%20-%20Efficient%20Hot-Water%20Piping-JLC.pdf He goes into some detail on insulation and the benefits of having it. The main point to me is that good insulation will slow cool down of the piping (and water in it), so after the first draw of hot water you will get much more time where the water in the lines remains at a usable temperature, essentially giving you hot water immediately on subsequent draws. This also saves water, which actually matters in some places…
It seems most plumbers don’t carry a pressure gauge, but they should! If you know what the static water pressure is, you can size the piping appropriately to the use. Now, should you install a really low flow showerhead and you know what the water pressure is, you’ll know just how small the piping or tubing to the shower valve can be. I would not be surprised to find lots of places where ¼” tube would be sufficient to supply a shower with good pressure if you had a not-too-long run of tubing. One health benefit of smaller tubing is that water flow in it speeds up and this scrubs off bio-films that can harbor those bad bugs we don’t want. There are lots of benefits from using right-sized plumbing including lower cost to buy and install. How does that relate to my next topic, being simple and durable?
Every piping material is good for a certain flow rate through it before any damage happens to the pipe. With copper it’s about four feet per second and with cross-linked polyethylene or PEX, it’s more like ten feet per second. With copper if you exceed that rate, erosion corrosion begins to happen.It’s like running sand through the line. The pipe gets worn down internally, getting thinner over time. Eventually you start to get pinhole leaks. PEX, which is particularly smooth on the inside, gives you two and a half times that flow rate before damage starts. So, if there is adequate pressure, using small diameter PEX tubing can give you good flow without affecting the life of the tube. Also, it’s much easier to run than rigid pipe as it can be snaked through walls much like wiring. Another thing about using resilient PEX is that it helps with the problems of water hammer and also freezing. It can expand slightly when necessary to take up some of the shock of water hammer or enough to allow ice to form. When the hammer or freezing is done, PEX returns to its original size with no damage. PEX is still not freeze proof, but is much more tolerant of freezing than copper. Good design can help by keeping the piping away from areas more subject to freezing. That sounds pretty durable to me! Good design will also keep the system simple so there are fewer moving parts to get stuck or fail.
The four categories listed above each influence the other. When thinking about good plumbing it helps to take your time and make sure you have enough information to be able to meet all four goals. Then you can think about other important things, like cats!
I’ve been thinking about housing much of my life. Simply put, one of the big problems with housing is that most people in the US cannot afford to own it. We are not given much that’s useful in school about how to manage money or how to think about it, so the majority of us have little stashed away for emergencies or retirement and cannot come up with even the down payment on a conventional home. That’s sad as it makes us slaves to the lack of money. For most folks, a home is the biggest investment or indebtedness they will ever take on. So, I’ve been thinking about how to “do” housing in a way that costs far less yet still meets our needs. We have lots of expectations around housing, but to drastically reduce the cost of it, we’ll need to adjust some of those expectations. The “standard” expectation is to have a nice, stick built home on a nice lot. What I’ll propose here is to have some sort of manufactured housing in a small development. There are many other ways to chip away at the cost of housing, but this way has so many benefits, I thought I’d start with it. The recent interest in tiny homes just might be helping to do that.
I just did a search on my local Craigslist for Recreational Vehicles, (RVs) at up to $10,000. There were lots of them! I imagine it will be pretty much the same across the country. Certainly many will need work, but even if it doubles the cost, things could be worse. Mobile homes are another place to look. It’s not uncommon that people owning mobile homes in parks fail to pay their space rent for any number of reasons. One main reason is they up and die and no relatives can be found or the relatives have no interest in the mobile home. These homes can sometimes be had for free or just for the back space rent. Another thing that happens with mobiles is they sit on private land which gets sold or changes in some other way and the home needs to go. These homes will be cheap or free. The costs of ownership are in having a place to move one to, and then moving it.
If you step back and think about it, these two types of dwellings (RVs and mobile homes) are the tiny home of yesteryear. But think about the cost. These homes may be had for very roughly $40 or less per square foot and in livable condition. Note that the $40 number comes from one of those $10,000 RVs, that looked to be in great shape. It’s easy to find older mobile homes for ¼ that amount per square foot. Tiny homes are often over $500 per foot.
None of those costs include land. The normal approach of owning a lot and putting utilities on it isn’t cheap. How about changing things up a little and following the cohousing model? Here’s an interesting primer on cohousing: https://www.aarp.org/home-family/your-home/info-2018/cohousing-community-fd.html And, here’s another link that will take you much deeper: http://www.cohousingco.com/ A good cohousing development has up to about 35 homes. Let’s imagine something between a mobile home park and co-housing. If the development were designed following cohousing guidelines; like being people-centric rather than car-centric and if it had a main building that housed a kitchen, room for gatherings, laundry facilities, maybe a shop and even some guest bedrooms, that building would get a lot of use and help eliminate the need for those functions in the private homes, which could then be simpler and smaller (read less expensive!). Buying into a development like this could cost far less than your normal single family home. Also, you get a community where people know and learn to care for each other, making things safer and potentially far more enjoyable. It’s normal that when a cohousing community is built, property values around it go up, so neighbors are happy too. Splitting infrastructure costs 35 ways does help cut the individual cost of owning. I’ll add that if the “tiny home” idea just sounds too small to be comfortable in, there are ways to create inexpensive transitional spaces that bring the outdoors inside and give you more real living space that can change with the seasons. It’s a fun and interesting approach that blurs the line between inside and outside. I hope to discuss this more in a future post. But back to the benefits of cohousing; other things like a community garden, playground, teaching classes based on the skills of the residents, and sharing responsibilities, like child-sitting or elder-care could be woven into the fabric of life at such a place. These things all add up to the potential for a richer life than the usual, semi-isolated single family home can give.
Unfortunately, many of the biggest hurdles to overcoming expensive housing are baked into our regulations and how they are enforced. Many places discourage manufactured housing of all sorts because they think it’s substandard or will bring adjacent property values down… or will not yield as much property tax as conventional construction! Still, public officials decry our lack of affordable housing. Perhaps they need to encourage, rather than put up barriers to novel thinking about low cost housing, so that we can test and learn what really does work in the real world.
This article is bit of a divergence from my normal fare. Perhaps being in a plane, miles above the Earth, makes my thinking want a larger perspective and a longer view. So this is more of a ramble into what ifs, rather than something directly actionable. Hope you find it of interest!
Just took photos of badlands while flying to Denver from San Jose. Got to wondering about the challenge of building and living in 'hostile' places like this. With the sun and wind, energy would be little to no problem. Water might be, depending on the amount needed and how effectively it was kept and reused. Rain catchment with lots of storage would be a good thing. “Water from air” devices exist. Would those sources be enough? On the space station they use about three and a quarter gallons per day per person. Clearly the technology exists. How difficult might it be to bring it down to Earth? Then there is transportation to deal with. Assuming no roads, will travel be by land or air? Hmmm. How about growing food? A greenhouse would greatly cut water use. Or perhaps there is a way to grow plankton or another tiny food source. Would an earth sheltered home be best? As long as it’s not in a place that could flood! Too much water is just as unhappy as not enough! What about communication? Could be a satellite based phone...rather than smoke signals. And would this living in the sticks, really work for an individual or family? Seems a community would be longer lived and more stable, in addition to having more useful talent available. Might be fun to see how a solar decathlon home would work so far off grid. Suppose the question of how much land would be needed isn’t very important as whatever the acreage, it probably could be had for next to nothing. Or, maybe it makes more sense to do something that’s easy to move. A portable community would be a very different design. Teepee’s are fairly portable!
A bigger question is why even bother with this idea? What are the benefits of it? What are the downsides? Quality of life in a big city is certainly a question. Real quiet doesn’t seem to exist there. A bunch of people you don’t know might be riskier than being tested by a strange land. It certainly would be fun to see if any wildlife were around and how it/they would deal with the new kid on the block. Maybe tarantulas could be our new best friends! Shade, water feature, relative warmth, and whatever else, could be good ways to be a better neighbor to the locals. I prefer to think of animals, not as a resource to be exploited, but rather as individual beings who just might be willing to show us what they know and how they see the world. It's likely that humans have only a tiny understanding of the world around us and generally don’t see the full spectrum of its richness.
Could this living apart be made self-supporting? What does that really mean? Earn money? One hot idea would be to focus the sun to be able to melt rock and make useful or decorative things from your homemade lava. Alexander Weygers wrote a book “The Making of Tools", years ago. He described how to build a work shop and all of the tools in it by creating a tool that could be used to build the next, slightly more complex tool. From hand tools, to power tools, and so on. Perhaps that approach would work for building a small community too.
That brings us back to transportation and the question of by land or by air. Without knowing the specific piece of land and the terrain around it, we’re best off now considering air transport. How about a solar powered electric plane? Sounds good, but that would require some sort of landing strip. Better, a “fat” solar plane that would be filled with helium so that less energy was required to fly and also a much smaller landing area would be needed. Hmmm, suppose building that plane is yet another project.
Let’s add the question of keeping your health, far from any doctors or hospitals. Keep a great first aid kit around? Build a holographic doctor? This is one place where having a community and a larger range of skills present, rather than just an individual or family, could be of benefit.
Finally, one could look at how people can and do survive in the Antarctic or the desert, or even what thinking has gone into moon or Mars bases. Those might be productive areas to explore for ideas. Sitting in a plane is a good time for mulling ideas. Now I’m sitting in a motel room in Westford Massachusetts, where a gathering of many of the best building scientists in the Northern Hemisphere will begin tomorrow. It’s called simply, Summer Camp. Some attendees have arrived and we’ve been talking. So many of the “problems” our world currently faces, like energy supply, building durability, and affordable housing, have long ago been understood and solved. The problem is that the know-how hasn’t been spread and utilized. Fixing these problems would help fix bigger problems, like climate change and ultimately our living world’s survival. :~)
In Berkeley, California, they just banned future gas hookups in new construction. It’s causing quite the uproar. Here’s a link to a discussion on it: https://www.kqed.org/forum/2010101872275/berkeley-phases-out-natural-gas-in-new-buildings It seems there are already roughly fifty other jurisdictions considering a similar move. I’m in an interesting position as I’m a member of a decarbonization group, which is essentially against burning fossil fuels, (for a number of reasons, like people’s health and safety, climate change, and saving money) and I’m also a member of an online community of technicians who do heating/cooling of all sorts (and life without burning any gas or oil would be a major shift for them). The views of the two groups are rather different, or perhaps I should say they are based on different sets of facts.
For decades, gas has been sold to us with the idea that it was clean. It has been considered clean compared to coal, and if you look only at emissions from combustion, that’s true. Now if you also consider gas leakage, the story is different. There are leaks where gas is generated, in the distribution system and where it’s being used. Looking only at the distribution system, it’s generally agreed that on average the leakage rate is 4% of what goes into the system leaks out before making it to the end users. Natural gas is basically methane, which is a potent greenhouse gas. Depending on the source, it’s thought to be 25 to 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide, meaning that 4% leakage makes gas a dirtier fuel than coal. Who woulda thunk?! Gas utilities have not kept up with the maintenance of their aging infrastructure, so it leaks. A couple of big, unhappy examples of this are from San Bruno CA, and Aliso Canyon, near Los Angeles, CA. Here is a link to a document from the National Fire Protection Association: https://www.nfpa.org/-/media/Files/News-and-Research/Fire-statistics-and-reports/Fact-sheets/FiresStartingGasFactSheet.pdf Did you know that between natural gas and propane we get this?
*168 civilian deaths per year
*1,029 civilian injuries per year
* $644 million per year in direct property damage
Perhaps Berkeley is different in that there just might be some residual memory of the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906. Leaking gas was the catalyst for the fires, which destroyed about 500 city blocks with 28,000 buildings, so perhaps the present inhabitants are more sensitive to the dangers of gas than populations in other areas.
And then we can get into the health effects of burning gas in our homes. Here’s a report on the effects of cooking with gas: https://heetma.org/gas-cooking-and-asthma/ I'll quote this from the report: "The analysis showed that children living in a home with a gas cooking stove have a 42% increased risk of current asthma (95% confidence interval [CI] 1.23, 1.64), and a 24% increased lifetime risk of asthma (CI 1.04, 1.47)". Might it be time to consider induction cooking? (Let’s not forget to investigate any electromagnetic pollution these cookers may cause!) Lawrence Berkeley National Labs has done a bunch of research on the pollution caused by gas cooking. Apparently it’s common for indoor levels of nitrous oxide and other pollutants to reach levels that would require abatement actions if they were outside. Nobody would knowingly subject their children (or themselves) to this.
There is another concept floating around out there called bio-gas or renewable gas (or similar things). Landfills, cattle ranches and sewer plants all produce methane, which normally just escapes into the atmosphere. Capturing that gas and putting it to work could do plenty of good. It could fuel fleets and/or be used to generate electricity. As it wouldn’t need to go into a leaky distribution system, that problem would go away and the gas would go from being a source of climate change trouble to being a useful energy source. Monterey County has a landfill in Marina CA, which has been doing this successfully for years. It clearly works!
I’m a proponent of efficiency. With some work, I’ve found that properties can be made from 60-80% more energy efficient. This isn’t pie-in-the-sky imagining, but rather just intelligent use of technologies we all have access to, along with plentiful helpings of elbow grease. Now if we begin by making things efficient, switching to electric heat pumps for both space and water heating becomes easy in part because the power supply system doesn’t need to be enlarged. Oh, by the way, those efficiency measures can pay for themselves at roughly 25%. That’s FAR better than most any traditional investment :~)
Looking ahead, I see there will be a need to make most of the existing buildings we have far more efficient and healthier to live in. We may also want to prepare for the inevitable change away from gasoline powered to electric vehicles. Fixing up our buildings to make them efficient and even capable of being self-powered, (or off-grid) while making provision for charging vehicles would drive an entire efficiency industry. Making our buildings safer and healthier would also improve quality of life while cutting health costs.
Here is where we can utilize those smart tradespeople who want to do the best for their clients. They already have a good grasp of the essential concepts of building science and can put them to use in the massive undertaking of making our world safer, healthier and more prosperous than ever before, while keeping an eye on the long term benefits to all of life. Now THAT’S “cooking with gas”*!
*“Cooking with Gas” Origin. In the 1930’s, the catch phrase Now you’re cooking with gas, meaning “you’re on the right track,” was heard on popular radio shows at the behest of the natural gas industry, as part of a quiet marketing push for gas-powered stoves.
What is this? A plumber type, writing an article on money?? The world is indeed a mysterious place… Well, you may remember that I wrote an article about “Asking the Right Questions”. That was from this blog, September, 2017. It seems to me that asking a good question about the way we view costs could be useful. You know that in our basic schooling in America, we get next to no education on finances and how money works. It’s up to us to figure it out for ourselves or find people good at money who can mentor us. I’m some mix of the two.
To define some terms here, “first cost” is just what it sounds like… “Life cycle cost” is different in that it takes all costs over time, and factors them in, to help one see what is a deal and what isn’t. What does something really cost? Let’s use a current example. Let’s say you want to buy a car, but you don’t imagine you have budget for something expensive, like a Tesla, so you’re looking at older Chevys. Just for fun, in comparing prices, you find a used Chevy for $10,000 and a used Tesla for $30,000. Let’s assume both cars already have 100,000 miles on them. Well, it seems obvious that you’ll save $20,000 by getting the Chevy. That’s first cost thinking!
Now let’s do this a different way. How many years will you get from the Chevy? If you maintain it well, you might get 100,000 more miles from it before it turns into a pile of oily rust. If you drive 20,000 miles per year, that’s five years before starting over again. The Tesla, because it’s mechanically far simpler than the Chevy should be good for 1,000,000 miles. (I did not make that up!) That means you’ll have 900,000 miles of driving before it turns to e-dust. That’s a good 45 years of driving at 20,000 miles per year. So, just from a replacement point of view, for $10,000 you get five years, or the cost of the Chevy is $2000 per year. Now, for $30,000 you get 45 years with the Tesla.That yearly cost is $667. Hmm, a savings of over $1300 per year! But wait, there’s more :~)
Let’s say the Chevy gets 15 miles per gallon. That’s 1,333 gallons of gas at $4 per gallon or $5332 for gas for one year. Some of the older Teslas come with free power for life… even for subsequent owners. So, that’s another chunk of yearly savings. There are other costs, like insurance and maintenance. To simplify this discussion, let’s just say those are the same for both cars, but we know that the gas vehicle will have higher maintenance costs than the electric one.
So, now let’s look at the yearly costs for both vehicles and determine how the life cycle costs compare. Initial cost are $10,000 for gas and $30,000 for electric.Gas vehicle costs are $5332 more per year than electric, but we can only extend this out for five years because the gas car then turns to rust. Then we repeat the cycle.
So, over ten years, the Tesla costs $30,000 and the Chevy (replaced once) costs $73,320! If you kept the Tesla for its full million miles, you would save something close to $300,000. That’s a nice little nest egg! The price of admittance was the $20,000 more for the Tesla, but it saved you $5332 in fuel every year along with purchase price savings of over $1300 per year. In fact, the break-even point is just around four years. After that you’ll be money ahead. Ultimately, that $20,000 investment made you $43,320 after ten years, or as much as $300,000.Not bad!
Oh wait! That money doesn’t need to sit there just getting moldy earning the same or less than the rate of inflation in a bank account. You get to invest it in something you know a lot about, like your business. I’ll be bringing up a tool (a saw) I got long ago in a little bit.With that saw, I built lots of things that people paid me for. I built decks, houses, and did remodel work… all using that saw. Way back when, the saw cost me around $35 or $40.It has helped to make me many tens of thousands of dollars. It really pays to invest in things that make you worth more to others, whether physical things or education. Doing this, that $300,000 could easily become millions. I like to ask myself when looking to buy something, “How cost effective will this be?” It’s a good way to differentiate between investment and entertainment.
It may be said that this was an extreme example, using cars chosen to make the point, but it applies to so many areas of life. When I buy tools that I know I’ll use a lot over time, I get good ones. I still have a Skillsaw that I got over 45 years ago. A cheap saw would have worn out many times over. When I’m looking for a tool for one time or rare usage, something cheap is just fine.
Investments that save energy also fall into the category where they can be judged for cost effectiveness. Yes, saving energy helps save the planet too, but I don’t wish to descend into politics. For this talk, we can look at “simple payback”, where, if a ten dollar investment in energy conservation saves a dollar per year, it pays for itself in ten years. But, also consider that if this was invested in your home, when the home is sold, you likely will get the entire ten dollars back as efficiency is something the new owners are likely to be interested in because it will save them money too.So, very roughly, instead of just paying for itself, your money was doubled.
So, consider asking the life cycle cost vs first cost question when you are looking at purchases, big and small. And know that investing in you is likely one of the best investments you can ever make.
Most people don’t really want to be thinking about plumbing materials… We just want plumbing to work flawlessly, forever! That’s nice, but reality does intervene sometimes and we then need to understand the practical considerations so we can get closer to our goals of flawless and forever.
So, here we go! Each piping material has different strengths and weaknesses. Sometimes the conditions piping will live in, or job site considerations affect which material or materials are best. Here I’ll go over some of the considerations that help to create a long lived, efficient and trouble-free system. I’ll take it one material at a time except where there may be interactions.
To start, we’re looking only at water distribution piping here. Drainage, fuels, or compressed air all have different considerations.
Let’s start with Galvanized Steel pipe, Pros:
PVC/CPVC Pipe Pros:
As a rule, it’s always easier to install smaller diameter piping. So, consider low flow fixtures when you remodel. This way you might be able to run really small stuff like 3/8” PEX, or soft copper (or smaller if allowed!). This becomes very much like running wiring, it’s so small and flexible. Also, it can be put in places that larger pipe wouldn’t fit, like flat raceway or hollowed baseboard.
This was just a quick overview, but hopefully it will help you to think less about and spend less time with plumbing. For fun, here’s a quote from Thomas Drummond, 1797-1840; “Property has its duties as well as its rights.”
I started using PEX piping in the early nineties and have long heard the rumor that rodents can chew through it. I've never actually seen a photo or known anybody with first-hand experience of this. To me, it had attained urban legend status, or perhaps my mind is from Missouri. So, imagine my surprise at seeing this. It's like staring into the eyes of a unicorn!
No doubt others have run across this many times, but for those who wondered about the myth, here's proof. You can see the stream of water leaving from the right side of the tube. This is a cold supply to a toilet and is half inch tube. Clearly the tube got chewed on a while ago as the wood around it has a lot of rot. Also the discoloration on the tube suggests it has been a highway for rodents. It had been wet for so long that the moisture had worked its way up right through the hardwood flooring and into the sheetrock wall.
This will be a job to fix with so much wood damage. Then there are the water bills. It makes me think rodent exclusion work is worth doing! The only plus is that I’ll keep that little piece of tube with the hole in it to use as a teaching tool for those who want to learn more about the nuances of plumbing. With this house, we’ll chase out the rats, then put up barriers to keep them out. That’s the best protection for PEX. In other situations, it can make sense to put the PEX in a conduit, like the grey PVC conduit used for electrical work, to keep rodents and their sharp little teeth at bay.
Ideally homes wouldn’t have places in them for rodents to call their own. Crawl spaces and attics don’t do much to make a home more livable, but they sure do invite critters! With some planning, it isn’t difficult to design a home so these unused spaces never get built, yet the function they give, access to mechanical and electrical systems, is still taken care of. That’s what I tried to do building my own house and so far the biggest invader has been ants. I found where they were getting in and caulked that, so no more ants! Actually one time a rat did get in. He had chewed through a plastic floor grate, so I went to metal.
Years ago somebody came up with the phrase, “Rust never sleeps.” No doubt rodents do sleep, but they probably take shifts, “working” on our houses.
The Hot Water Forum (HWF) has been around for about ten years, meeting yearly. I missed one, once and still regret it. It’s a mix of manufacturers, code folks, researchers, utilities, local, state and federal governments, engineers and the odd hot water nerd, like me. People come from all over the US and some other countries to attend. It’s the place to learn what new stuff is coming, from energy codes, to new product roll-outs, to finding civil ways of duking it out between competing utilities… there is nothing else at all like the HWF. The event is put on by The American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, (ACEEE) https://aceee.org/conferences/2019/hwf . It’s a small conference, where everyone there is treated as a peer. I’ll guess that close to half of the participants are involved in giving presentations… so clearly there is a lot of know how in the room.
I moderated a panel on solar water heating this year. They even let me present a very brief history of solar thermal! For too long, there has been a tug between solar photovoltaic, (electric) and water heating, (thermal). One of my presenters had a collector that was electric on top and thermal on the back side. The idea has been floating around for years with nobody being that successful at it. But this one seems to work and has a good track record. One interesting thing is that if you keep photovoltaics (PV) cool, they work better. By collecting thermal energy as well as electric, the competition between energy outputs is gone and you get more electricity! Not bad.
Another fun thing was we got to tour the biggest water heater manufacturing plant in the world. It’s just outside of Nashville, Tennessee. They put us in an electric trolley and drove us around, so we could see just how heaters are made. They create a new heater roughly every 20 seconds. It’s rather impressive!
Back at the conference there was talk of a new kind of heat pump water heater, one that runs on 120 volts and can simply be plugged in. With California and other places looking to reduce their use of fossil fuels, this could be a game changer. Gas has long been considered to be a clean fuel, but nobody took into account how much gas the distribution systems leak, something on the order of four percent. Natural gas, or methane is a potent greenhouse gas and that much leakage makes it worse than burning coal, pollution-wise. There may still be good uses of methane, like capturing it from landfills and cattle ranches, and using it where it’s produced will largely eliminate the leakage concern. In California, about 90% of our water heaters are gas, yet the state is telling us we need to get off gas soon. This new heat pump could help make it possible.
One nice thing ACEEE does is to put up on the web all the slides from the presentations. They are organized by the year given and available for free. In the link above, you’ll see a link to “past hot water forums”. Please do go have a look. There is a LOT of good stuff there.
One last but rather important thing we’re learning is about pathogens in the water supply. The take away is that there are lots and lots of bugs in our water, not just legionella. Mostly they are not harmful, but there are still many that are. There are even bugs that are resistant to chlorine and chloramine! There are bugs that resist heat! Bugs live in the bio-films that form inside of pipes, particularly pipes that are oversized for the use, which is most plumbing. Codes have not caught up with the use of water saving fixtures, so flow rates in pipes are slower. This prevents the scrubbing that happens with higher flow rates and encourages bio-film growth. Turns out one of the most effective ways of dealing with bad bugs is to introduce good bugs. Who wants to do that? It would be a very hard sell.
It’s pretty easy to get into the technical weeds at the Hot Water Forum, and there is no better or more supportive group for doing so. It’s a perfect place for hot water nerds! If you are one, consider going. The HWF will be in Atlanta, Georgia next year.
The real world isn't an easy place to be idealistic about hot water systems and what could be. Many compromises are made in cost, quality, expectation and education. Money and ego play a part as well. We'd like to daydream out loud for a bit and share some 'what could be's" and 'only if's" as they relate to hot water.
The ideal water heating system would be supremely energy efficient. It would last as long as the building it was installed in. It would be a pleasure to live with. It would be absolutely safe and of course, the cost wouldn't be too much.
You're not going to get such an elegant system installed by a plumber who isn't thoroughly trained in hot water work, or one who may be more interested in bringing home the most dollars per job, rather than insuring your satisfaction. The challenge here is how to properly educate the workforce, not just in things technical, but also in business basics and management. Correctly trained plumbers wouldn't lose so much work to relatively unskilled (and possibly unsafe) handymen.
Fortunately, when it comes to efficiency and longevity, we have lots of examples from the past to help show us the way. In 1906, there were condensing water heaters which claimed 92% efficiency (most modern gas fired heaters are more like 60% efficient). Since these were point of use heaters, there were no distribution losses or waiting for hot water. These were 'bath heaters' and the downside is they weren't all that safe. There were also "U" tube heaters. In these gas fired, tank heaters, the flue went up, near the top, then turned 180 degrees and headed down again. It would exit near the bottom. This doubled the heat exchange area of the flue, but even better, stopped much of the standby loss gas heaters suffer from. Our daydream has modern hot water engineers looking at old designs like these in order to incorporate the good ideas from the past into today's heaters. We’ve collected a bunch of interesting old heaters which the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen in New York will be putting on permanent display. Hopefully it will serve as a resource to future hot water engineers and anyone who’s interested in hot water.
Have you heard of Monel? It’s a copper / nickel mix that is currently used on high end boat fittings. From the 1930s to the 1950s you could get water heaters made of Monel. These and copper tanks were often the last tank a homeowner would ever need to buy. Such long lived tanks are essentially not available now. Roughly 85% of the nine million or so water heaters made yearly are sold as replacements. The manufacturers seem convinced that low cost is the most important thing to buyers, so proven long lived tanks are just a memory. Our dream has manufacturers competing to produce the highest quality heater, just as their predecessors did, instead of competing to make the cheapest heater. There are exceptions, but they make up a tiny fraction of the market.
The cost of the hot water system needs to be put in perspective. Manufacturers and plumbers both compete on price, but how cost effective is something that needs more service and frequent replacement? End users would need to be educated in the hows and whys of life cycle costing, where all costs over time are taken into account. This is the only way to know what really is a good deal. This may be an area where government and other institutions could set a good example and help to retrain the home owning public. More demand for long lived equipment would help to make such equipment readily available at reasonable prices.
Just as there are rating systems for energy performance in new construction, we'd like to see the same thing done for hot water systems. Ratings could be based on total energy use per person, waiting times for hot water, etcetera. This could motivate plumbers to do better than just meet code. Gary Klein is working on that with his “hot water rectangle”, which is a way of looking at wet room placement in a building and being able to see in general just how efficient it may be. See: http://www.garykleinassociates.com/
Sediment is a problem in many modern heaters, particularly those with aluminum anode rods. One fix could be the "external flue" heater. This had a narrow flue wrapping completely around the tank instead of the central flue common in modern heaters. Aside from increased surface area for better heat transfer, this heater allowed the lower tank head to be domed down. Sediment would collect at the low point in the center and be easily removed by opening a drain valve attached there. With modern insulation, external flue heaters would have much lower standby losses, making them very attractive. Us moderns have to live with pounding and thumping in gas heaters because sediment is so hard to remove from today's tanks. Aluminum anodes contribute by adding a great volume of corrosion byproduct. Magnesium anodes (although slightly more expensive) used to be the norm and don't make such a mess.
In our daydream, metal distribution piping, stealing BTUs from the hot water and holding way too much water would be a relic of the inefficient past. Manifold systems using well insulated 3/8" PEX tubing (or even 1/4” tubing for short runs) would be the norm for medium sized and smaller homes. This method provides quick hot water delivery, has much less water waste, and is installed more like wiring than rigid pipe, making new construction simpler and retrofit much easier. Efficiency can be had with devices that use electronics, pumps and various other active things, but long term reliability is one of our goals. For example: You can cut standby heat loss from an electric water heater with a time clock or with heavy insulation. We would opt for the "nothing to go wrong" insulation first. Of course a timer could be added to keep the heater off during peak periods, but it IS one more thing to get out of whack.
In an effort to keep heat from being lost, we've paid a lot of attention to combustion efficiency and insulation, but then we let all that heat go down the drain. Going the extra distance to recapture those BTUs with drain line heat exchangers (which are now made for both vertical and horizontal applications) begins to make better sense as the actual costs, both monetary and otherwise become known. In our dream, long lived, efficient systems would have minimal environmental impact.
We've been watching the progress of a non-electric flue damper for some years. It is a simple and inexpensive device that fits under the draft hood and cuts standby losses at least thirty percent. That could amount to a huge savings, but somehow, the long and winding process of getting approvals, perhaps combined with egos and territorialism all conspire to keep the device off the market. It would be nice to see more regulators and industry representatives looking at the common good rather than their own turf. As energy and clean water grow ever more expensive, such turf wars must become less relevant. Now, if you put one of these dampers on an external flue heater, you'll have one simple and high performance water heater!
Please don't think we have pessimistic daydreams. All the necessary technology already exists. Together we have the talent and muscle necessary to make dreams of efficient, safe and easy to live with systems a reality. We are only lacking consensus of all the players.
Looking back over my working life of 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.