Help my water heater isn't working

Looking back, I thought it was a one-of-a-kind Rube Goldberg job. Someone's twisted idea for cobbling together a cheap indirect-fired water heater to work hand-in-hand with a modcon (high efficiency modulating condensing) boiler. Picture this scene: an 80-gal. electric water heater, wiring attached and run to a switch labeled Emergency Heat; a six-layer flat plate brazed heat exchanger with four lines

Looking back, I thought it was a one-of-a-kind Rube Goldberg job. Someone's twisted idea for cobbling together a cheap indirect-fired water heater to work hand-in-hand with a modcon (high efficiency modulating condensing) boiler.

Picture this scene: an 80-gal. electric water heater, wiring attached and run to a switch labeled Emergency Heat; a six-layer flat plate brazed heat exchanger with four lines of potable PEX; unsupported PEX lines snaking off to the hydronic manifold (where all of the hydronic zones were run in potable PEX) and the home's plumbing system; galvanized nipples spray-painted bronze to look like brass on both the potable and hydronic sides of the system's integration; and no hot water.

The first thing that jumped out, screaming for attention, was the temperature and pressure relief valve. It was perched no less than a foot above the tank due to the addition of the supply/return from the naked-as-the-day-it-was-born flat plate brazed heat exchanger, which was exchanging Btus with the atmosphere 24/7 for 365 days. Gravity flow ensured the flat plate would be acting as a radiator, wasting large quantities of energy.

But the real code violation was having the T&P valve's temperature-sensor probe (filled with wax and copper powder) sitting in the piping instead of within the top six inches of the storage tank. If a run-away overheat were to occur in the storage tank, the potential existed for water to become superheated while the now-blind T&P valve wouldn't be able to see the danger.

The regulations governing placement of T&P valves within a storage vessel are crystal clear, and this new home had been inspected. If you'd like a look at what can happen, Watts Regulator Co. produced a film, Explosion — Danger Lurks, in 1948, that's a real hoot to watch. A free preview can be seen at:

www.watts.com/pro/divisions/watersafety_flowcontrol/learnabout/learnabout_dvdorderform.asp#.

Another thing screaming for attention was the potable PEX in the hydronic system. It permitted passage of oxygen through its sidewall, leading to oxygen corrosion, which led to sludge, clogging the heat exchanger's passages.

Stop for one minute to consider the amount of time and materials the installer expended in his efforts to avoid the use of a real indirect water heater. I want you to “guestimate” the additional cost before reading further. Are you ready? I'll use R. E. Michael's catalog list pricing for our comparison and $100 per hour for labor charges.

Here we go: The time it takes to attach the potable lines and to run the hydronic lines to the tank are no different, but the time to install the heat exchanger and loop piping for the potable side is all extra. That, by the way, was a combination of copper and galvanized nipples, plus the bronze circulator to move water around the potable side. Looks like $400 extra labor. Add $299 for a stainless-steel flat plate heat exchanger. Add $302.26 for a bronze circulator. Add $153.46 for additional copper piping and fittings. Add $933.18 for an 80-gal. electric water heater. For wiring and an Emergency Heat switch add two hours at $200, and toss in $135 for the breaker, switch and wiring materials. The total cost is $2,422.90.

A stainless steel 45-gal. indirect will accept the full Btu output from the modcon and outpace the Rube Goldberg arrangement to heat water in gallons per hour (212-gal. vs. 60-gal.) without even breaking a sweat and retails for $1,601.31. The installer doing this the right way would save $821.59, the homeowners would have ample hot potable water, the modcon would be happier because of uninterrupted run-times and the T&P relief valve would rest its probe in the top six inches of the storage tank's water.

We've come across two more installations that are far worse than the first one. If my firm is seeing three bad jobs, then no doubt other firms are dealing with this installer's work too. He was the low bidder for a large residential builder who built homes and went belly-up. The race to the bottom took them all down the drain long before the economy tanked.

The homeowners are still faced with expenses to correct the mechanical mayhem. The three homeowners we're working for detailed thousands of dollars for the work they have paid for to correct deficiencies in their HVAC systems: undersized equipment that left them cold/hot and ductwork imbalances so severe only the addition of mini-splits could resolve the discomfort issues.

So, what happens to the original installer? Nothing! The statute of limitations has run out and he did too — to Florida where he's no doubt having a ball hoodwinking retirees. What could have been done to prevent this misfit from wreaking havoc? Not much given the current state of inspection and licensing issues professionals see every day. Race-to-the-bottom pricing is contested by every wanna-be professional trades person and the inspection game that has become little more than a revenue generating source for municipalities.

Unfortunately, the homeowners get stuck holding the bag.

Dave Yates owns F.W. Behler, a contracting company in York, Pa. He can be reached by phone at 717/843-4920 or by e-mail at [email protected].

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