Water heater double whammy

BY ROBERT P. MADER Of CONTRACTORs staff WATER HEATER manufacturers are facing two significant design and manufacturing challenges in the next 20 months. By March 2003 all water heaters will have to pass a flammable vapor test designed to keep water heater pilot lights and burners from igniting spilled gasoline. Just 10 months later, in January 2004, new U.S. Department of Energy water heater efficiency

BY ROBERT P. MADER

Of CONTRACTOR’s staff

WATER HEATER manufacturers are facing two significant design and manufacturing challenges in the next 20 months. By March 2003 all water heaters will have to pass a flammable vapor test designed to keep water heater pilot lights and burners from igniting spilled gasoline. Just 10 months later, in January 2004, new U.S. Department of Energy water heater efficiency requirements take effect.

An industry consortium made up of water heater manufacturers devised the flammable vapor requirements to answer a rash of lawsuits in the 1980s and ‘90s. Consumers using gasoline or other flammable liquids as cleaning solvents would spill the gas near a water heater, causing an explosion and fire. The manufacturer would be sued and often lost large court judgments.

American Water Heater Co. was the first on the market with its Flameguard water heater in 1999, proving that the technology was doable, although at a higher cost.

“The water heaters have to be such that they won’t ignite the vapors outside the water heater,” said retired Gas Appliance Manufacturers Association executive Jack Langmead, who is the coordinator of the Water Heater Industry Joint Research and Development Consortium. “They either consume them or they shut off.”

All 30-, 40- and 50-gal. standard atmospheric water heaters will have to meet the flammable vapor standard by March 2003, followed by power-vent models in 2004 and 75-gal. gas water heaters in 2005, noted Ron Massa, president of A.O. Smith.

The consortium involved CEOs, attorneys and engineers from all the water heater manufacturers who devised several flame arrestor systems that will meet the standards. Research took place at manufacturers’ facilities and independent laboratories such as Battelle Memorial Institute in Columbus, Ohio.

The choice of which flame arrestor technique to use is up to each manufacturer.

“There have been a number of ways, all involving some type of flame arrestor, but all use different components, methods or techniques,” Massa said. “Those various ways are open to any consortium member to use, but each manufacturer can pick whatever they want to pursue. They may feel more comfortable with one method that fits their product better, or they can make or source that technology better.”

None of the water heater manufacturers would divulge its flame arrestor technology, other than American Water Heater, which has a cutaway diagram of its Flameguard water heater on its Web site, www.americanwaterheater.com. American Water Heater uses a flame trap on the bottom of its water heater. The gasoline vapors are consumed inside the combustion chamber.

While reticent to give details, Jim Bienias, senior project manager and program manager for flammable vapor transmission for Rheem Water Heaters, said the technology resists a fire by having combustion air enter the water heater differently.

In addition to devising methods to prevent flammable vapor fires, the consortium also developed a consensus test standard that’s being administered by CSA International through its laboratory in Cleveland. Water heaters passing the test will be CSA certified.

The test contains two parts, explained George Gruss, director of certification services for CSA. The first is the flammable vapor test. The second is a lint, dust and oil test, designed to mimic the type of dirt and debris that may clog a flame arrestor over the 20-year life a water heater.

CSA spent $1 million to construct a test room in its laboratory. The test water heaters are placed in a corner of a 6-ft.-by-10-ft.-by-8-ft. room with blowout panels in case of an explosion. The test room also contains a fire-suppression system and is equipped to handle spilled gasoline in accordance with state and national EPA requirements. The tests are controlled remotely from a control room via closed circuit video.

A gallon of gasoline is spilled by means of a pneumatic arm toward and away from a water heater. Multiple tests use summer and winter blends of gasoline. To pass, the water heater can’t ignite the gasoline outside its combustion chamber. The water heater is observed for two hours or until the level of flammable vapors inside the room is too low to cause combustion.

The lint, dust and oil test uses a cotton lint, which is cut to an exacting specification, and ISO-rated test dust and corn oil. The contaminants are released into the test room at a prescribed rate for nearly 24 hours.

Langmead noted that the reality of lint, dust and oil contamination in the field will create a new service task for plumbing contractors. Cleaning of water heaters equipped with a flame arrestor will be simple but it will, nevertheless, be something to which plumbers must pay attention.

All the manufacturers said the new water heaters will be direct replacements for existing water heaters with no new installation requirements. The new technology will come at a price.

“The cost will be significantly different,” Massa said. “I hate to put a cost on it, but it could be greater than a 20% to 25% increase.”

American Water Heater’s experience is that the technology will be well accepted by the public. The Lowe’s chain of home-improvement centers has adopted the Flameguard technology as its “up-sell” water heater line under the Flamelock label, American Water Heater President Bob Trudeau noted.

Following close behind the flammable vapor requirement will be the next stage of the National Appliance Energy Conservation Act.

The efficiency requirements are “fairly aggressive, an 8% to 10% boost in efficiency and we already took a huge hit on last go-around,” said Mike Gordon, vice president/engineering for Bradford White. “We’ll have to invent a new technology, I suspect. Even though a water heater is a simple device, how cost competitive it needs to be makes it interesting from a technology standpoint. If you could charge $5,000, you could do a lot, but you can’t put more money into a product than people are going to save in fuel.”

A major impediment is that the Montreal Protocol has banned chlorinated fluorocarbons, including water heater manufacturers’ favorite insulation blowing agent HCFC-141b. It’s replacement, HFC-245fa, has less insulating value.

GAMA technical director Frank Stanonick said it’s uncertain how much 245fa will be available and how soon because a production plant is still being built in Louisiana. A water-based blowing agent is another option, Stanonick said, as are flammable cyclopentanes, which would require production lines to be changed to eliminate the risk of a fire.