There seem to be some misconceptions and false assumptions surrounding the use of expansion tanks, and we'd like to try to clear these up. The five W's provide a good framework for this, with a HOW? thrown in now and then for good measure.
The WHO is you, of course. You want to have a good understanding of expansion tanks so you can recognize and solve thermal expansion problems for your clients.
WHAT Is Thermal Expansion?
When cold water is heated, the water expands. This thermal expansion occurs in all residential and commercial plumbing systems that have tank-type water heaters. Though usually not a problem, thermal expansion can lead to high water pressure and cause expensive problems. The main reason to have an expansion tank in a domestic water system is to prevent the damage from high water pressure, defined as anything over 80 PSI.
In most cases, expanding water simply flows back into the main supply to the house. But thermal expansion is becoming more of a problem now because backflow preventers and pressure regulators are being used more frequently. As increased population has led to increased water demand, public water pressure has been more difficult to control. Building code now requires pressure regulators when pressure exceeds 80 PSI, and backflow preventers are sometimes required to prevent cross-contamination.
HOW Do Pressure Regulators Help?
Newer pressure regulators operate differently from most older ones. With a newer one in place, expanding water will pressurize the system up to line pressure, then flow into the main line through a check valve built into the regulator. Assuming the water heater's relief valve kicks in here as it should, this backflow will happen only if the line pressure is less than 150 PSI. (Note that in hard water areas, the check valve in the regulator tends to get stuck and so should not be depended on for protection.) Older regulators usually don't have that check valve. So with those older ones and with backflow preventers, the expanding water will simply build up pressure until the relief valve on the water heater drips (lucky) or something in the plumbing system breaks (unlucky). In either case, the plumbing is being subjected to high pressure and to large pressure fluctuations multiple times daily, and something is going to wear out.
WHAT Are Some High Pressure Problems?
High water pressure will add roughly 30% to the water bill just because more water flows out the tap every time it's used. High pressure makes relief valves leak, hiking the bill even higher. Water heaters suffer when high pressure cracks the glass lining, and you may even hear them groan as the metal flexes. High pressure causes faucet washers and automatic valves to wear out faster. Sink and washing machine hoses are more likely to burst. High pressure caused by thermal expansion produces uneven water flow, and it magnifies water hammer. For folks who have to deal with periodic water rationing, high water pressure causes not only higher water bills, but threatening letters from the water company and perhaps even a flow restrictor at the meter.
WHAT Can Mitigate The High Pressure?
Before expansion tanks were common, plumbers used to put an adjustable pressure relief valve in the system, anywhere downstream of the regulator. Often it was installed on outdoor plumbing and placed to drip on a flower bed; it was put close to the front door so the owner would notice if it dripped too much. However, relief valves used this way are made to operate so often they can fail quickly and leak all the time. Hard water makes the problem worse. Perhaps a better alternative is the Watts Governor 80. This is a toilet fill valve that is designed to relieve any pressure over 80 PSI. It has the advantage of being able to be used in any climate, not just where freezing isn't a worry.
WHEN Is An Expansion Tank The Best Choice?
The expansion tank offers a benefit the others cannot. Pressure will fluctuate very little with a correctly sized and inflated expansion tank. With the other methods, the pressure must go up fifteen to thirty PSI to operate the relief or fill valve. It's best to keep pressure as steady as can be and as low as possible (but still maintain good flow), particularly if water hammer is a concern. There's an advantage to using both an expansion tank and a relief valve in homes using a pressure regulator. In our hard water area, regulators last roughly five to ten years. Failed regulators are usually not discovered until someone notices a leaky relief valve on the water heater or some supply hose bursts. That's why it's a good idea to use both an expansion tank for thermal expansion and a relief valve installed in a visible location. This covers the bases and lets you know the regulator is failing sooner than later.
HOW Can You Assess Your Clients' Systems?
Start by checking static pressure with a gauge both before and after the regulator (assuming there is one). First check the upstream pressure. (You'd expect a reading well over 80 PSI since a regulator has been installed.) Next, run a small stream of water indoors and watch the gauge you've put downstream of the regulator. Turn off the faucet and see if the pressure creeps up to line pressure in just a few seconds. These checks will let you know if the regulator is working and if water is leaking by it. Running the water will also briefly take care of any thermal expansion that would show up on the gauge.
There is one more thing to check with the gauge. Make sure there are no leaks and ask that no one run water for about twenty minutes. Leaving your gauge downstream of the regulator, fire up the water heater. In a few minutes the gauge needle should start to rise. If it goes up to line pressure (as measured upstream of the pressure regulator) and stops, you know the check valve in the regulator is working correctly. If it continues to rise, you know the check valve doesn't work. If it goes up to 150 and stops, you know the relief valve on the water heater is working. If the gauge ever goes over 150 PSI, don't leave the premises without replacing the relief valve on the water heater, because the relief valve is no longer protecting against high pressure or, more importantly, high temperature. You can't risk having a client's house leveled by an exploding water heater. It's been our experience that about one quarter of the relief valves we test don't operate properly. Of those, nearly one in ten is plugged up and will not let water pass. Those are the dangerous ones.
HOW Should An Expansion Tank Be Sized And Pressurized?
If your test showed water pressure over 80 PSI (downstream) when the water heater fired, an expansion tank is definitely needed. Expansion tanks are sized to the volume of the water heater and plumbing. Get one that will take care of all of those gallons. Because of shipping regulations, tanks come pre-charged at only forty PSI. If your gauge showed 40 PSI as the household water pressure, you can leave it at that. Otherwise, pump it up to gauge pressure before installing it. (Pumping it up after installation works only if there is no water pressure against it.) This makes the most effective use of the tank. The bigger the difference between the air pressure in the tank and the actual water pressure, the less effective the tank will be at controlling thermal expansion.
WHERE Should The Tank Be Put?
The tank should be installed in a cold line. Anyone who wants to put it in a hot line should be prepared to get calls from clients complaining that hot water is now running from the cold taps; they may also tell you they particularly dislike the toilet steaming. What's going on? The expansion tank is pushing hot water back into the cold line when cold water is used and causing trouble for all concerned. The rubber diaphragm in the tank will probably have a shorter life in hot water, as well.
Heating systems and domestic hot water systems use different expansion tanks that should not be interchanged. Heating system tanks won't take the higher pressure or oxygen that DHW tanks are designed for. It may seem we're stating the obvious, but we have actually seen the wrong kind of tank installed.
WHAT Else Should You Consider?
Install the tank so it will be easy to service. At some point it may need to be recharged, and many years from now it's going to leak. So provide easy access. Take a look around and avoid placement where leaking could cause damage. Remember, it can go on any cold line downstream of the regulator. Be sure to install the tank with good support so that it will not sag down or strain the pipes when it has some water in it. Next, add an adjustable pressure relief valve or install a Watts Governor 80 in the toilet. If you use a relief valve, set it 20 PSI higher than the regulator setting. Install it so its drain line can be seen, and make sure to let your client know what a running relief valve means.
If a system involves old clogged steel plumbing, you may run into a few difficulties. If you set pressure down to the "right" level (ideally, 50-60 PSI), you may not get adequate flow from the taps. It might be necessary to increase the water pressure in the system and air pressure in the tank. If the main line is restricted, a larger expansion tank (like those used for wells) will help water delivery if it is installed where water comes into the house. Ultimately, the best fix for old, rusted steel piping is replacement. However, many clients resist that proposition, thinking it will be too much trouble.
WHY Use An Expansion Tank In A Domestic Water System?
We hope you can answer that question easily now. The need for expansion tanks isn't mysterious at all if you keep a pressure gauge handy with your tools. Used correctly, that gauge will demystify the complexities of pressure and flow and help you to take care of your clients' plumbing woes.
Article by Larry Weingarten & Zak Vetter
Way back in 1978, I (Larry) installed my first solar water heating system. I continued with solar thermal, installing new systems until tax credits left in 1986, then kept nearly all the local systems up and running for years after that. It became painfully obvious to me that simplicity is essential for the durability and longevity of any solar thermal system. Complex systems just die young. Back then, the holy grail of solar thermal was to come up with a system that would cost $1,000--which was never really done.
These days, you expect to pay $6,000 to $10,000 for a solar hot water system, installed. I have a friend, Martin Holladay, who wrote an article in March of 2012, titled “Solar Thermal is Dead.” He generated a lot of discussion with that article, including some dissent, so he wrote another article in December of 2014, “Solar Thermal is Really, Really Dead.” Martin looked at solar thermal prices and compared them to using photovoltaics (PV) and a heat-pump water heater to do the same job. After doing the math, PV and a heat pump appeared to beat solar thermal for water heating.
But, clearly, it depends on what your assumptions are! I’ll add that heat pumps are new enough that we don’t really know how long they will last. Also, good PV extracts about 20% of sunlight’s energy, while efficient solar thermal gathers around 80%, and even the “inefficient” system described in this article gets about 60%. These are reasons to continue to explore how to make solar thermal work.
Enter Zak Vetter. Zak asked me to help design and install a solar hot water system for him, but he had a set of goals I’d not heard before. He wanted:
Note that cost was not given as a limitation!
I had never worked with such a list. Many assumptions go into designing and building a traditional solar thermal system, and those got challenged by Zak’s goals. Here is a quick list of assumptions we typically work from:
Design rules also involve assumptions:
Clearly, Zak’s goals didn’t line up with the standard assumptions. But I’m glad he challenged convention, because ultimately we built a system that costs less and performs better than any solar thermal system I know of. The system cost right around $4,000 and provides for 95% of the yearly hot water need. A handy person could do the same job for around $3,000, if they built their own collectors.
Following is the thinking that got us there. Wanting efficient collectors forces us to build more complex, expensive systems due to overheating and freeze concerns. So, instead, we used really inefficient collectors! These are just coils of ¾” polyethylene tube, under an acrylic glazing.
There is no insulation in the collectors, so they cannot overheat and are unlikely to be damaged by freezing. The hottest we’ve measured in summer with no water flow is 170 F in the collectors, and they have frozen multiple times without problem. This type of collector has been under test in San Jose, California, for sixteen years with no trouble. Essentially, they are pool collectors, modified to produce domestic hot water, simply by adding glazing. They are commercially made by Gull Industries in San Jose. Here is what the coils look like installed on Zak’s roof.
The coils are 26 square feet each. Another benefit of using “inefficient” collectors is that we eliminated the need for copper pipe to and from them, by running PEX tubing. With traditional copper collectors that can stagnate in the summer sun at up to 400 degrees F, PEX tubing would melt pretty fast. But we were able to use poly pipe and PEX for nearly everything, simplifying the job even further. We purposely oversized the system, so it could coast through periods without sun and recover quickly when the sun returns.
The tank was another consideration. Normally, with any glass-lined tank (nearly all tank-type heaters in the US are glass-lined), you want to turn over the volume of the tank daily to prevent stagnation and odor problems. Turns out the anode that comes with all glass-lined tanks generates hydrogen gas, which some bacteria really like. We got around this by installing a 105-gallon Marathon tank, by Rheem. This is a non-metallic tank that needs no anode, so does not “age” the water. The benefit of this much storage is the ability to survive happily through sunless days. Here is what the tank looks like:
One other benefit of the Marathon tank is its insulation. It’s got three inches of foam, and the literature says it loses only five degrees F in 24 hours. Our data-logging suggests it’s more like six to eight degrees in our situation, but still, not bad. Insulation is something else we played with. Pipe insulation seldom comes really thick, yet keeping heat loss down increases the actual solar fraction and reduces the amount of back-up energy needed. So we decided to double up on the insulation where possible. Here are photos of how that worked:
Solar water heaters are normally designed as one- or two-tank systems. One tank is better, if you can make it work, as there is less equipment to lose heat from. These days, this can only be readily done with electric backup. So another thing we did was to disconnect the lower element in our single tank and use only the upper element for backup. This prevents the electric heat source from competing with the solar one. We wired it at 120 volts rather than 240, so there was no need to do anything more than just plug it in. It does take four times as long to heat at half the voltage, but Zak wanted a good test of the solar--so he hasn’t even plugged it in yet! The system was installed in November of 2014 and he has yet to use the back-up.
The system is managed simply with an off-the-shelf Goldline GL-30 solar controller. It measures the temperature at the solar collector and at the bottom of the tank. It compares the two and, when the collector is sufficiently hotter, turns on the pump. The control has adjustments for fine-tuning this set-point. Fortunately, we do not need the control for freeze or overheating protection.
The system was simple to install. If you look just at installation time, it took only six man-hours, which is very fast. In the good old days, a fast installation used to be three guys and one long day, or something like 24 person-hours. This system went in so quickly because:
Here are photos showing some of the time-saving hardware.
Performance so far has been good. We’ve data-logged at multiple points across the system in order to understand just how it’s working. Following is a graph of the Spring Equinox performance. You’ll see that the system produced water ranging from about 110F to a little over 140F.
The term “solar fraction” is used to indicate what percentage of one’s hot water is heated by the sun. Done right, determining the solar fraction would involve measuring total hot water use and subtracting the portion of water heating not provided by the sun.
We opted instead to simply notice when the solar-heated water was hot enough to shower with. If the stored water is around 105F or more, it’s good for showering. When we say the system is producing 95% of the hot water, it means Zak gets acceptable shower temps 95% of the time.
It’s a quick, non-mathematical way of understanding generally how the system is performing. If we took accurate measurements to determine solar fraction, it would probably be higher than 95%. But because we consider anything under 105 F inadequate, we’re presently not taking credit for water that isn’t quite hot enough, but is certainly well above groundwater temperature.
Following is a graph that shows the system at its worst. The vertical yellow bars represent periods of sunshine, and the vertical blue bars are night time. Between the 21st and 22nd you’ll even see rain! But note how just a few hours of winter sun on the 23rd gives the tank about a 20-degree boost.
Another two graphs show the differences between December and March. Note that, in these graphs, we measured outputs from each collector to see if all four were useful. It turns out that the first two collectors gathered more BTUs, but the following two collectors each bumped the temp up higher, so they really did help--particularly during the colder times of the year.
Where to go from here? Clearly there will be limitations on where this sort of system can be successfully installed. If these collectors are covered with snow, they might not function too well, so it could make sense to avoid areas that stay below freezing for extended periods of time.
Also, if tax credits are the main motivation, this system won’t do, as this collector/system isn’t yet SRCC-certified. Still, this system should cost less then most other systems, even without the benefit of tax credits.
There is a way to make the system cost even less, by making one's own collectors. It turns out you can buy enough of the right type of poly pipe to make a coil for $194, cutting collector cost by at least $300 each!
To wrap up, it’s clearly a good thing to bring fresh perspective to solar water heating. By intelligently questioning old ideas and by using newer materials and hardware, Zak pushed us to do better than I had believed possible!
Larry Weingarten was raised on the Monterey Peninsula of California and has been self-employed most of his working life. He got his general contractor's license in 1982. Larry has written articles on water heating and energy for various trade journals; has taught about these topics for PG&E, California State Parks, Affordable Comfort, and others; and has recently helped create DVDs on these and related topics. In 2006, he finished building an off-grid home; designed to be very efficient, comfortable, and inexpensive, it was the 13th home to meet the "1000 Home Challenge," a competition for creating superefficient homes. He likes cats.
Zak Vetter was also raised on the Monterey coast. He has been self-employed for over ten years, repairing and teaching about computers. Since 2008, Zak has been learning about the wide-ranging world of energy-efficiency while improving his own property. The solar water system in this article was inspired by a visit to Larry’s off-grid house, which demonstrated how much was possible with solar power.
This “article” began life as a worksheet, tied to the Water Heater Workbook. For years, I’ve been teaching classes on how to understand the life and death of water heaters. We do this by catching heaters on their way to the dump and then taking them apart. Sometimes fun tools like the Sawzall or really big pipe wrench get used. It’s instructive to actually see what happens to heaters over time in different conditions. You can even tell how much or how little the people who came into contact with the heater during its life, knew.
We start by figuring out how old the heater is, because you would expect different stories from a four year old heater than a forty year old one!
1) DETERMINE THE HEATER’S AGE This is done by looking for date codes on the heater itself, or the relief valve or the controls. Sometimes there is even a date code on the dip tube, inside the tank. Some of the main codes are: A81 means January of 1981, B81 would be February and so on. 181 also would mean January of 1981. 281 would be February. 8101 would be the first week of 1981, while 8152 would be the last week of 1981. Bradford White has their own code, which is available here: https://www.bradfordwhite.com/serial-number-date-code-reference-100#
2) LOOK AT HEATER FOR CLUES ABOUT DRAFTING If it’s a fuel fired heater, this can tell you how well the heater “breathes” and how safe, or not the heater is. If you see evidence of backdrafting, that means carbon monoxide may be getting into your living space. Not good!
Do you see any of these things?
Corrosion on the flue side of the nipple? (A clear indicator of backdrafting)
Melted insulation at the draft hood? (Same as above)
Ring of rust or discoloration on top of heater? (Acidic condensation may drip down onto the heater, causing a ring of rust, it’s a sign of poor draft)
Discoloration or soot around combustion chamber door? (This is where flames or hot gasses leap out of the combustion chamber, suggesting a blocked flue or other problem.)
3) LOOK IN COMBUSTION CHAMBER
Do you see any evidence of leakage in combustion chamber or flue? (This matters because there is no point in working on a tank that has already failed. This also is a first clue about the condition of the anode inside of the tank. If you find heavy or wet rust, the tank has leaked and is not worth fixing.)
4) REMOVE ANODE AND ASSESS CONDITION
Use: torque multiplier. (This is a tool that pros use as it works and helps prevent unnecessary strain on the person doing the work. Removing anodes can be challenging and having good tools really matters. Once the anode is out…)
Is the metal on the core wire depleted? (This lets you know how much life the anode has left.)
Is the anode magnesium or aluminum? (Aluminum is soft, easy to bend. Magnesium is stiff and a bit springy. I don’t like aluminum in tanks as I think it’s a health risk that we don’t need to take.)
Is it hex-head or a combination type? (If it’s a hex type, that means you could add another anode in the hot port!)
Is there anything unusual about it? (Here we’re looking for “passivation”, which basically means the anode has stopped working, or other stuff, like the rod being split, or chunks falling off.)
The ideal time to replace an anode is when six inches of core wire is exposed, the rod has even wear and is not coated over with a hard calcium buildup.
5) REMOVE OLD DRAIN
Use: crescent wrench & basin wrench; you may need a screw driver, hammer & rag. The first two tools are for removing the drain valve. The others are for removing any plastic remaining from the valve and for preventing much water from pouring out once that valve is removed.
What sort of drain was the original equipment? (The best drain is a full port ball valve. Between the tank and valve, you want a lined steel nipple and at the outlet of the valve, you want a hose adaptor.)
What, if any, difficulties were encountered in removing the old drain?
How big an opening is provided by that drain? (It’s fun to try and look through some factory valves. With some it’s hard to see how water or sediment could ever get through)
6) REMOVE NIPPLES ON TOP OF TANK
Use: pipe wrenches, including ratcheting type; you may need a hammer & chisel
What condition are they in? The point here is to see two things: are the steel nipples clogged up with rust, slowing flow and is there enough rust to weaken the threads, increasing the risk of leaks?
How does the tank look where they were attached? (Rust is the enemy!)
7) REMOVE DIP TUBE
Use: channel locks. This is done by sticking one handle of the tool down into the dip tube, then wiggle it around and pull up at the same time.
How does the dip tube look? Here you’re looking for cracks in the plastic, or holes, or even some or all of the tube broken off and missing.
Does it have any cracks or holes? If so, the cold incoming water will mix with the hot and give you a luke-warm shower :~[
8) TRY T&P LEVER TO SEE HOW IT FEELS: THEN REMOVE IT
Use: pipe wrench
Look at the back of valve to assess amount of sediment build-up.
Blow through it. If that doesn’t work, clearly a new valve is needed. This is really important as the relief valve is the last line of defense against the heater blowing up if things go bad.
This has been just a brief overview of how to look at a water heater. For a heater still in service, these steps will tell you if the heater is worth maintaining and how safe it is or isn’t. There is a lot more info at www.waterheaterrescue.com
For many experienced plumbers, there really isn't much to replacing a water heater. It's an easy job: just pick up one that matches what's there, maybe strap it in, and leave with the old tank. Whoa. What's wrong with this picture? Just this--it portrays the minimum. Unless you're quite happy with the amount of work you have, the amount of money you make, and the amount of satisfaction your work provides, it's to your advantage to be able to deliver the maximum. When you get jobs because you offer substantial benefits rather than the lowest price, you'll gain long-term, trusting clients and business from their friends, as well.
Stand out from your competition. Hot water can change from bread and butter work to something you can actually be proud of. Many clients will gladly pay for superior work. It's true that people often call just shopping for price. (If you look in the Yellow Pages, you'll see most all the ads shouting, "We cost less!" Inadvertently, plumbers' ads have been training consumers to focus on price for years.) Never mind. Stop and talk to these callers. Tell them how YOU install a heater. Explain how the extra things you do will save them both money and worry because the heater will be safer, perform better, and last much longer than an ordinary installation. Let them know that you can provide simple, ongoing maintenance to at least double the life of their new heater. In most cases, you can keep their heater going for as long as they live there. (Some of our clients' heaters are more than fifty years old.) Many people will be very interested in what you have to say.
Well, what do you need to know to provide this superior installation and follow-up maintenance? It's useful to start with an understanding of the things that make a water heater fail. Most people have only a partial picture of what goes on inside a water heater that affects its longevity. Corrosion, pressure, and heat are the three things that can do a heater in.
How do you control corrosion? The sacrificial anode is the magic wand. All glass-lined tanks have at least one. An anode is a magnesium or aluminum rod suspended inside the tank. It acts like a weak battery when the tank is filled with water. A slight current is generated between the anode and the steel tank (cathode). The current prevents rusting at any exposed steel parts such as welds, fitting penetrations, and pinholes or cracks in the glass coating. The glass does a good job of protecting the tank, but without an anode, a tank would last only a few years.
You don't need to buy an expensive ten-year tank to install a high quality heater. Longer warranted tanks have either a second anode or a more substantial single anode. When you put a new heater in, go ahead and buy a five-year tank. Then transform it into the equivalent of a ten-year tank at less cost by adding a second full-length magnesium anode in the hot outlet. (This combination rod has the magnesium suspended below a plastic-lined steel nipple.)
Anodes corrode away over time. In normal waters the anode should be checked every three to five years. If you can see six inches or more of the rod's core wire, replace it. If the tank has a second rod, you can wait longer, checking every four to six years. Softened water is another story. It's more conductive than normal water and forces anodes to corrode more quickly. Over-softened water can completely consume an anode in six months. Don't ever soften water down to zero hardness. Instead, leave 60-120 parts per million of calcium hardness in the water. That's better for metal piping, as well as anodes.
You can fight corrosion at plumbing hook-ups, too. Just as magnesium anodes corrode to protect steel, steel will corrode to protect brass and copper. Avoid using brass and copper in a steel tank. Instead, use plastic-lined nipples for all hook-ups, such as putting a brass valve or copper flex-line on steel pipe. This prevents damage to the steel. When you connect to the lined nipple with a copper flex-line, you've made a dielectric union that doesn't expose any steel to the water. Now it won't fill up with rust and cause trouble. Sometimes plumbers have trouble with leaky flex-lines. The problem is caused by the rubber washers in the ends of the lines. Heat makes them shrink, and they may leak after a year or so. Go back after six months and snug up the flex-lines, or instruct your client on tightening them. After it's been done once, the flex-lines will perform nicely long term.
Even though they're rated at 150 pounds, water heaters are happiest with fifty to sixty pounds of pressure in them. Both higher pressure and greatly fluctuating pressures can damage the glass lining over time. You've probably heard the crackling noise a new heater can make as it's filled and finishes pressurizing. That's the glass breaking as the steel stretches under pressure. Anodes have to work overtime in such tanks and won't last as long.
And if you hear a tank groan when water is run, take out your 0-200 psi pressure gauge (with a female hose adapter attached) and check pressure at the heater drain. You'll find it's too high. If you flush sediment from such a tank, you may see blue glass shards coming out the hose. Pressure can peel the glass lining off so it's no longer protecting the steel.
Solving pressure problems means both helping your clients and gaining a little more work for yourself. You may need a pressure reducer, expansion tank, and/or relief valve to take care of a high pressure problem. Carry your pressure gauge with you the way a termite inspector carries an ice pick. Use it to troubleshoot and locate problems.
Another pressure problem is water hammer. We've seen water hammer collapse the flue in gas heaters, and that definitely affects their performance! Sometimes water hammer is eliminated just by getting high pressure back down to normal. Otherwise, install water hammer arresters just upstream of any quick-closing valves to quiet down noise.
Heat is the third cause of water heater demise. When temperatures exceed 160 degrees, the glass lining of the tank begins to dissolve. Temperatures higher than 1000 degrees have been measured under heavy sediment build-up in gas heaters. You can control sediment to prevent heat damage and subsequent tank rusting.
You've probably heard the rumbling or popping sounds fuel-fired heaters can make. The noise originates in the sediment, and it seems to be caused by steam. Water overheats in the sediment and expands into bubbles of steam. When these bubbles hit cooler water, they instantly collapse to a tiny fraction of their former steamy selves. (A pound of water is about 1/1700th the size of a pound of steam.) This implosion creates a shock that we hear as rumbling or popping (or a burglar, or a freight train--we've heard some colorful descriptions.)
You can check to see if a tank has sediment. While the heater is firing, turn on a tap (either hot or cold) to lower the household water pressure. If there is a sediment build-up, you will hear the rumbling noise when the tap is opened. It will quiet down when you've closed the tap. At 50 psi water boils at 298 degrees (the higher the pressure the higher the boiling point). If there is sediment, the water trapped in it is overheating. Running a tap will lower the boiling point, so that the overheated water will flash into steam, making the noise we hear. A clean tank can't make that noise.
You need to get rid of the sediment to protect the tank from overheating. Much sediment can be flushed out if there's good water pressure and flow. You'll need a couple of new parts to make the flushing effective. First, replace that troublesome plastic drain valve with a brass ball valve. Use a lined nipple between tank and valve and put a hose adapter in the outboard end of the valve. To keep the valve from getting too hot, use a nipple at least three inches long. That way, scale won't form on the ball and the seals won't get scored when the valve is used. Voila--no drips! Now you have a large, easy-to-use valve that won't plug up with sediment during flushing. Second, remove the heater's factory-installed dip tube. Replace it with one that's curved at the end. Aim it straight back, away from the drain valve. When the valve is opened, the curved dip tube sends the water swirling around the tank, picking up sediment and sweeping it out the drain.
Overheating and noise problems are also caused by aluminum anode debris, as well as calcium sediment. As aluminum corrodes, it's able to produce nearly a thousand times its volume in gelatinous goo. It can make a six-month old tank rumble, creating a complaint you must deal with. So replace aluminum anodes with magnesium rods. (Avoiding aluminum also avoids some serious health problems associated with it.) It's not hard to identify the rods. Aluminum is soft and easy to bend, while magnesium is much stiffer and somewhat springy.
Those are the culprits: corrosion, pressure, and heat. Once you've taken measures to solve and/or prevent problems in these areas, expect the heaters you deal with to last a very long time. Since you also want to offer the safest and most efficient heaters possible, look outside the tank next.
Having a heater that lasts forever is nice, but meaningless if that heater is unsafe. Check out the following items for safety and reliability.
The temperature and pressure relief valve is a piece of plumbing most plumbers fear to touch. We're afraid NOT to. If you service a water heater, guess who the authorities are going to call if the tank later overheats and takes off like a rocket? It's you who will be blamed for the plugged T&P.
T&P valves need testing at least once a year. They can and do get clogged with debris. While testing sometimes results in annoying leaks, more importantly it can show that the valve no longer has the ability to keep the tank from blowing up. If the valve does not allow full flow or if it doesn't re-seat, replace it. In our area, about one of four valves doesn't work correctly. It's useful to hook up the relief valve with a union or flex connector as you run the line to a safe place. The union makes future checks much easier.
Vents can do a variety of unsafe things. They fall off, fill up with mortar from brick chimneys, get their caps plugged or pushed down, and they get installed with too much run and not enough rise, so draft is poor. In addition, heaters are put into rooms with slight negative air pressure, so that air is sometimes or always getting sucked down the vent pipe, spilling combustion fumes. Wait, there's more. Inadequate slope allows condensation to eat holes in the vent. Vents are run past wood, scorching it. And then, people pile boxes, plastic bottles, and other flammables next to hot vents.
Take a good look at the venting of heaters you install or service. Check to be sure that if a vent goes into an attic it also comes out. When the heater is fired up, spillage around the draft hood should be for only a few seconds. If combustibles are stored too near the heater or vent, talk to your clients and make a note on your invoice. If you see evidence of back-drafting, let them know about carbon monoxide detectors. Clients will appreciate your looking out for their safety.
Even with the large earthquakes of the not-too-distant past and with the codes mandating specific strapping, we still see new heaters installed with inadequate bracing. Quakes WILL happen. We just don't know when. Be sure your heaters are correctly strapped.
Probably not life-threatening, leaks can cause a whole lot of costly damage. So look around each job site to see what would be damaged if the water heater leaks. (And if it leaks for three weeks while the owners are in Tahiti?) If nothing will be hurt, you don't need a drain pan. Otherwise, you do. The pan also needs a drain line that's actually hooked up. (We've seen drain pan outlets just covered with duct tape, out of sight behind the heater.)
There are some interesting devices on the market now which are designed to shut off water supply to the heater if it starts leaking. Another option which might give your client peace of mind is a water alarm in the drain pan. To avoid false alarms or damage to the heater, run the drain line from the T&P out separately. Lines from both the T&P and drain pan should end where the homeowner will see them and be alerted to any leak.
Recent energy difficulties have raised awareness in consumers and plumbers alike. The need for efficiency in hot water systems is better understood and accepted. Correct heater sizing is one of the most important factors in the energy picture, but it's often overlooked. If you're called to replace a heater, don't automatically put in the same size. Ask some questions. Did the old tank provide adequate hot water? Have new fixtures been put in (low-flow showers, aerators, front-loading washing machines)? Check older showerheads. If you find an old 8 gpm showerhead, you can probably reduce the heater size by installing a low-flow shower. The energy savings will quickly pay for it. Smaller heaters always have a higher energy factor, due to lower heat loss.
Whatever the size, heaters with good insulation cost little more than their thinner counterparts. If you're installing a new heater and can get those extra inches of insulation to fit into place, your client will thank you for it. Tanks with R-16 insulation are readily available these days, and in popular sizes they can even cost less than the old standard R-8 heaters. Blankets aren't nearly as good as built-in insulation. Even the best blanket won't insulate your heater to R-16 (and you should not cover the top and lower portion of the heater). Another drawback is that blankets cover up safety and operating instructions; they can also hide evidence of leaks.
Go beyond the tank itself and install heat traps on the lines above the tank. Avoid the chattering ball type and install silent ones; you can make your own by using long flex connectors to make an upside-down U in the lines. Heat traps prevent errant BTU's from wandering away.
In addition, insulate those plumbing lines. Insulate as much hot line as you can and the cold line back five feet from the heater, if possible. Use 3/4" thick foam; it takes no more effort than putting in thinner stuff, and it does a much better job. Leave the ends of flex-lines or other unions uncovered, as you may need access and you don't want hidden leaks.
THE END RESULT
It's within your power to give your clients the most satisfactory water heating experience they've ever had. Long service life, safety, and efficiency are intertwined, and serviceability (the things you've built in which make the heater easy to maintain) overlaps all three areas. If you don't set up a heater so it's easy to service, maintenance probably won't happen. Forget trying to offer the cheapest heater. Instead, educate clients a little so they will let you give them an outstanding job. They'll be happy you took the time to show them a better way.
This is an article written years ago, but the message still resonates. Safety must come first!
A water heater exploded inside a restaurant in Southern California last year, killing one man, injuring several others and demolishing the rear of the building. Our purpose in writing about it a year later is not to second guess or affix blame. The precise cause or causes will probably never be known for certain. There is value, however, in looking at possible causes and contributing factors.
The water heater equipment at the El Torito restaurant was a fairly typical installation: a 726,000 BTU boiler, a ½ horse power pump and a 115 gallon, hot water storage tank. Water softening was provided by two adjacent tanks. Where are the potential weak points or trouble spots in such a set-up? We’ll explore several, some relating directly and others indirectly to the explosion.
One direct cause of the explosion was the lack of a temperature and pressure relief (T&P) valve on the storage tank, and a T&P is the last line of defense against overheating. When the system was installed six years earlier it is likely that a T&P was provided in the tank. For whatever reason, the T&P was plugged by the time the explosion occurred on August 1, 1993. You’ve seen leaky relief valves. It’s easy to imagine someone removed the annoyance from the tank, intending to replace it and then forgot about it. There was a pressure relief valve on the boiler, but that would not protect the tank from excess temperature as you’ll see.
One reason the tank explodes was that the water in the tank got too hot and there was no T&P relief. Now, how and why did the water get too hot?
We can deduce with some certainty that rusting was well under way inside the tank. First, the tank was six years old, and tanks which are not maintained, have generally begun to deteriorate by that time. (How many stories have you heard about five-year tanks giving out in five years and one day?) Second, this storage tank was fed with softened water. Since salt in softened water easily doubles or triples the consumption of a tank’s sacrificial anode, this tank had probably been without rust protection for several of its six years. (We’ve seen anodes completely consumed in as little as six months in over-softened water conditions.)
So the tank was most likely rusting away from both inside and out. Any number of conditions could have caused the weakened metal to fail--a restriction on the cold inlet, which blocked the expansion caused by heating, a water hammer caused by an automatic valve, or even a faucet closing. Fluctuation in line pressure could have done it. Or, if one too many molecules of steel rusted away, the bottom of the tank would begin to deform, cracking the already weakened metal and causing it to break. Once broken, a large leak would develop, instantly allowing the super-heated water to flash into steam with explosive results.
To get a clear picture of what happened to the tank at El Torito, you have to re-think your concept of water. Think of water as rocket fuel. And think of the steel tank, which holds the fuel as paper. With enough force, the tank will tear and wrinkle, just like paper does. Imagine that the static pressure involved here is 50 pounds per square inch (psi). The 18 inch diameter of the tank’s bottom has about 354 square inches, so that amounts to 12,700 pounds of pressure against the bottom… over six tons!
With a normal water leak, the pressure will drop as the leak grows, limiting the size of the tear. But with super-heated water/rocket fuel, the pressure will not fall off until much of the water turns to steam. The tank may already be through the roof by then! (Did you know a pound of steam is 1,700 times bigger than a pound of water?)
What ignited the rocket at El Torito? We imagine it was a combination of excessive rusting of the tank, some form of overpressure or water hammer and water which was heated over 212 degrees.
Whether or not incorrect equipment installation, improper equipment operation or equipment failure occurred is a moot point. It’s more productive to focus on the things which will make the system less dangerous.
It’s likely that people monkeyed with the controls, and not knowing all the effects of what they were doing led to an unsafe condition. To avoid this situation in your own work, talk to the people who actually use the equipment. Talk to the dishwasher. Is he satisfied with the hot water supply? Listen to any complaints or comments people have. Although they may not understand how the equipment functions, they know what it does or doesn’t do. Thy will give you the information you need to keep the equipment behaving, and that will help you to keep unskilled hands off the controls. Ask directly if anyone else adjusts or operates the equipment. Look for evidence of others’ work, like loose access covers, wrench marks or inappropriate settings. It’s not in anyone’s best interest to have unskilled hands on the equipment.
A comprehensive service routine and printed forms are needed to make sure regularly scheduled service/maintenance is adequate and complete. Mechanics may lose the ability to really see a system, especially one they’ve taken care of for a long time. Over familiarity can lead them to feel they know what components need maintenance, so some other parts may not be checked as well or as often as they should be.
It’s important to devise and use forms that require service and inspection information to be written down.
Keeping written records is still important even though we all use computers now. I like putting service info directly on the equipment, so it can’t be lost or ignored too easily.
I just finished teaching a class of about fifty maintenance people some of the nuances of water heater repair—and in the process I learned something about my source of strength.
We were playing with some dead water heaters that had been captured on their way to the dump. I like using old heaters as a teaching tool; they have stories to tell about their lives, if you know how to look. In that looking, we were removing pipe nipples from the tops of the heaters—and some were rather stuck.
A few students said, “This is too hard. I can’t do heater maintenance.” I don’t like the word “can’t,” so I jumped in to see if this old white-haired guy could make the stubborn pipe nipple move. I put my trusty Hoe Wrench from 1922 on the nipple and focused. The pipe came loose. Students were surprised!
It happened again twice. A student was unable to budge the pipe nipple (even using my wrench) and I waltzed in and made it spin. The young guys with visible muscles rippling in their arms had no success while the old guy did--what gives?
Finally, someone asked me what my trick was. I had to think for a bit, but I remembered back about forty years when I was shown this: Rest your hand on a friend’s shoulder. Have your friend put both hands on the inside of your elbow and try to bend your arm down. Resist by thinking about your arm and give it all the strength it has to stay straight. In my case, my arm bent despite my best effort. Now put your hand on your friend’s shoulder again, but this time concentrate on the area just under your breast bone as your source of strength and keep your arm straight. Let your friend try to bend your arm and see what happens. In my case, they couldn’t do it. My arm stayed straight!
I’m just a plumber, and I don’t know how this works, but I know it does. It turns out I’d worked this approach into my practice for decades without thinking about it. It’s simply that I refuse to walk away from a job without finishing it, and this “trick” has allowed me to finish every job. The guys who couldn’t make the pipes come loose thought I’d bested them, but really the point was that I’d demonstrated a tool we all have that most of us don’t use. It certainly sounds woo-woo, but with no doubt it works.
There are a couple of other not-so-obvious tricks I’ve learned over the years. For example, the plumber who appears to move the slowest often gets the work done the fastest. When you go to a job, sit down and map out the work in your head before picking up a tool. Understand every step of what you’ll be doing before you start. This way, when you get going on it, things will go together smoothly and you won’t need to re-work anything. When you finish, it will be just as you envisioned. That feels pretty good!
Here’s another trick that helps me work effectively. I’ve noticed that I think in pictures. When I can get a clear picture in my mind of what I’m trying to accomplish, it inevitably works. When I can only get a fuzzy image in my head, it doesn’t work; I wind up needing to figure out a different way. So, when you have the opportunity, see if getting a clear picture before you start works for you on your next project. It just might save you some time and frustration.
The moral of my story? Sometimes it’s the subtle shifts in focus that make your actions powerful.
The man’s toilets were filling with hot water again, and he was upset. In fact he was steamed! He had had to put up with this problem on and off for years. People he had brought into help had been unable to figure it out because they saw troubleshooting strictly as an art. They may have imagined that if they stared long enough and hard enough at the offending toilet, a profound and clear insight into the root of the problem would result - sort of a transcendental experience.
We take a somewhat different approach when troubleshooting hot water systems. The basic premise is that we are dealing with physics, not the occult. Every action by itself is simple and predictable (although it can get interesting when a handful of them are thrown together). So, if metaphysics doesn’t solve your problem, the following practical suggestions may help.
Gathering enough information is the key. It’s important not to decide what the problem is until you actually go and look. You’ll waste time trying to justify your conclusions without seeing the facts in front of you. Listen to your clients. They live with the problem and are far better acquainted with its effects than you are. They can tell you the history of the system and describe how the trouble began. (Was it about the time their six-year-old nephew played hide-and-seek in the mechanical room?) Take it all in before setting out in any one direction.
Next, try to envision the system’s various movements. Use your imagination to follow its water flow and its heat transfer. Shift into fast forward and watch the corrosion processes. Can you see the plug of rust developing at each copper-to-steel connection? In the same way, watch the build-up of scale and sediment. (Could that be why the disc in that swing check valve is stuck open?) Then pretend you’re water. As the hydronics wizard, Dan Holohan, says, “Wander through the pipes… Unleash the power of imagination you had as a child.”
Try the system with a pump on and then off - or a valve open and then closed. Never assume a part works just because it should. (Have you ever opened up a suspicious valve to find the stem broken off and the gate missing? For whatever reason, the plumber before you didn’t replace the valve when the stem snapped off in his hands.) Try not to get tripped up by such mental land mines. Do a thorough examination. Don’t allow yourself to be hurried. If the system won’t release its secrets to you when you ask what’s wrong, ask what’s right. Check these items off your list as you find they behave correctly. Part of the fun is anticipating the results of various tests you devise.
Once you have a clear grasp of a system’s functions, its malfunctions and their causes will become more apparent. You will probably be juggling a great deal of information at this point, and you’ll find it easier to see if you make a detailed schematic. The more accurate your schematic, the easier it will be to spot the effects of variables such as convection or air in the lines.
Don’t disdain the printed word. The answer to your challenge may actually be hiding in the instructions for a piece of equipment, or it might be waiting for you in the technical section of a used book store. Old books can really hit the mark with their common sense answers to “new” problems. (Example: a 1951 book by Watts Regulator recommends installing tempering valves with heat traps to reduce valve scaling in hard water areas. This will also eliminate the full-time cross connection that can occur when a tempering valve “sees” the heat of the stored hot water and scales up in the open position. How many tempering valves do you come across where Watts’ advice was followed?) Relevant information can come from more than just the job-site.
The steamy toilet problem did get fixed. The man had two water heaters with a hot water recirculation line tied back into one of them. Although the tanks were side-by-side, plan changes during construction caused the cold supplies to be separated. When the recirculation pump came on, it pushed water back through the cold inlet of one tank, around, and into the other, heating the entire cold line between them. So, while cold water was expected at the toilets and other fixtures, heated water arrived instead. Once the cloak of mystery had been lifted, a spring check valve was installed in the cold supply of the tank which had the recirc line attached. This kept hot water from backing into the cold line and solved the problem.
The original and somewhat misleading question was “Troubleshooting: Art or Science?” While it’s clear that troubleshooting can be an art, its foundation must rest firmly on method and science. Successful troubleshooting relies on a real marriage of both art and science.
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!
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.