By Steve Spaulding
Of CONTRACTOR’s staff
PALM BEACH, FLA. — When a water heater fails, it can make a huge mess; when it fails in a multi-unit complex it can make a huge mess both for the unit it’s in, and for the downstairs neighbors. At the Sun n’ Surf condominium complex in Palm Beach there is an added complication: Many of the owners are only part-time residents, using their condo as a vacation or winter home, which means that water heater failures can go undetected for days or even weeks.
General Plumbing of West Palm Beach has the service contract for the 30-year-old, 240-unit, ocean-side complex. Mike Williamson, vice president and service manager with General Plumbing, saw the results of many of the failures — some of which were little more than a nuisance (the condo owner was without hot water), and others that sound like a building manager’s worst nightmare.
“There was this one case that a water heater had started leaking on the sixth floor,” Williamson said, “and the water leaked downstairs into the lobby before anyone knew about it.”
Damage to floors, rugs, ceilings and even walls was often extensive. Since most of the water heaters were located in storage spaces, damage to the occupants’ personal items added to the headache.
All the water heaters in the complex are electric, but capacities vary from 50 gal. to 120 gal., depending on the apartment. Penthouses, for example, require higher capacities, as do larger, remodeled condos made by joining two adjacent units. Williamson attributed most of the failures to simple old age.
“Most of the failures were due to heaters that had been in there for some time,” he said. “Some were 20 years old, some were 15. You get corrosion buildup, and next it starts eating away at the heater. It gets a soft spot, which can turn into a leak and all of a sudden the pressure just lets go.”
After the first few failures, a service technician with General Plumbing left a brochure with a customer about Taco’s WAGS (Water and Gas Shut-off) valves that could stop the flooding and damage before it started. A few horrific leaks later, and the condo board at Sun n’ Surf voted to fit WAGS valves on all water heaters in the complex, and just for good measure, to have any water heater more than 10 years old replaced.
General Plumbing is installing A.O. Smith and Ruud water heaters to replace the older units. The work has been going on since July, and as of late January 2003, the job is 90% done.
“We took it one floor at a time,” Williamson told CONTRACTOR. “We got a list of the residents on that floor and coordinated with the building to let them know we would be in the area on a given day and would need access.”
Most of the stragglers consist of owners who wanted to be present for the work and instructed General Plumbing to wait until they showed up in Palm Beach for their winter vacations. During the busiest days of the retrofit, General Plumbing — a 25-man shop able to easily hire extra help for heavy workloads — devoted about 35 hours a week to the project.
Installing the valve takes from one to two hours. The WAGS valve works by monitoring the water level in the water heater’s safety pan. With minor leaks, the pan contains the water until it has time enough to drain. In catastrophic leaks, where the water is leaking under pressure (and pressure in the complex is between 60 lb. and 70 lb.) the pan overflows before the water can drain. The valve activates when the pan gets 34 in. of water in it, shutting off the water supply (and the natural gas on gas-powered units). At most, all the drain will have to deal with is the water already in the tank.
“There were a lot of water heaters that met the 10-year rule,” Williamson said, “so they never got changed out, they just got the WAGS valve added on. One problem we had was when the safety pan on the old heater wasn’t large enough to accept the valve we had to pull the heater, put in a new pan and then reset the heater with the new valve.”
The valves are already starting to prove their worth. Not too long ago Williamson got a call from a condo resident saying her hot water had gone out.
“She said her heater was only four years old and, ‘I think maybe one of your WAGS valves is bad.’ So we went over there, checked it out, took the valve loose, tied the pipes back in, turned the water back on and the heater started leaking. So the WAGS valve did its job. We aren’t even quite finished with the project yet, and it’s already saved them from another flood.”