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Monday, August 23, 2010

I Got Hit By A Small Bullet Yesterday - But I Dodged A Big One!

Yes, nowadays in my life, dodging big bullets (even if I get hit by smaller ones) is cause for celebration! As I wrote yesterday, my hot water heater was acting up and I was waiting anxiously for the plumber to arrive and deliver the bad news.

The plumbers did arrive finally around 10 PM last night. They were quite mystified as to what was going on too, and I had to demonstrate the symptoms of my problem to them. Then they started formulating their theories as to what could be going on.

It turns out that hot water heater connections include a couple of backflow prevention valves. Most sites on the internet about hot water heaters and their problems do not mention anything about these valves at all. They are not inside the hot water heater, but are installed on the piping that leads in and out of the hot water heater.

There is one backflow prevention valve on the hot water side that prevents hot water that has exited the heater from flowing back into it. There is another such valve on the cold water inlet pipe that prevents hot water from inside the heater from flowing back out through the cold water inlet.

The plumbers wanted to check these two valves first based on my symptoms. If neither of them was the culprit, then the hot water heater would have to be replaced because the clog would then be in the heater, and the plumbers said they couldn't fix anything that involved disassembling the hot water heater!

Even before we started, the plumber noted that my hot water heater was not installed to building code standards. It used a flexible gas line and a flexible hot water line, both of which are no-no's supposedly. Moreover, the pipes used to hook everything up did not have the right combination of metals touching each other. In fact, the plumber was amazed at the mix of copper, galvanized steel, brass and bronze fittings making up the plumbing of the hot water heater. Apparently, mixing metals at random in the piping causes corrosion and oxidation, and that could also have something to do with my problem.

Given all these caveats, I could see the big bullet of hot water replacement coming straight at me, and I was in a trance-like state, unable to move or get out of the way! I told the plumber that my water heater had been replaced under a home warranty service when we initially moved into the house, and I could not remember if a licensed plumber had installed it or just a general contractor.

My plumber was quite dismissive of the technical knowledge of general contractors and others who did not go to school to study how to do plumbing properly and professionally. He said general contractors know how to put things together, but they don't know what the code says, nor do they know or care about the long-term consequences of how they put stuff together. So, the water heater will work if installed by a general contractor, but eventually might get clogged and corroded out because of the technical problems the installation included.

The plumber was particularly harsh on Home Depot and other appliance sales stores. They usually use very cheap labor to install the products they sell, and he said he sees disasters all the time caused by illegal and improper hook-ups of appliances like garbage disposals, hot water heaters etc., all the time. I could relate to that based on how the Home Depot installers made a mess of my laundry room floor installing my washer and dryer, and how they used existing hoses to hook them up after forcing me to buy new ones!

In any case, we started with the hot water side of my heater. We shut off the water supply to the house and unhooked the hot water outlet from the heater. This involved some mighty effort on the part of the plumber because the whole thing was frozen solid. He had to use a combination of wrenches, hammers, etc., to loosen the thing and get it moving. He finally managed to disconnect the hot water line from the heater, and then the backflow prevention valve from the hot water line. The valve looked good and clean, so we had struck out on that side.

hot water heater plumbing diagramGeneral plumbing diagram of a hot water heater installation. In the case of my hot water heater, I did not have a thermal expansion tank installed on my system. I had a backflow prevention valve and shutoff valve installed on the hot water outlet side of the heater also.

Next, he tackled the cold water side. This was an even bigger problem because there were a lot more joints, and since they were many different metals mixed in, they had corroded and frozen up the joints making it very tricky to get the thing off. The corrosion also caused deposits to grow on the cold water shutoff valve, so he could not turn off water supply to the water heater without turning off water supply to the whole house. By this time everybody else had gone to bed, so it did not really matter much.

After much hammering and straining, the plumber managed to get all the pieces of the cold water side separated out. And this is where we hit pay dirt. The backflow prevention valve on the cold water side was a metal tube with a ball inside that is supposed to open up when water flows in one direction, but jams the ball up against the inlet side if water tries to flow backwards, preventing backflow.

back flow prevention valveA backflow preventer valve. Inside this section of pipe is a small ball that can shut off water flow completely when it is forced up against the inlet side of the pipe.

The problem was that this piece was very corroded inside, and the ball had gotten stuck to the inlet side jamming it shut. There were white deposits on the inside of the pipe as well as the ball, and they were causing the ball to stick to the inlet side and shut off water flow. The clanging noises I heard earlier were caused by the ball getting separated from the inlet side forcibly by the negative pressure created by the hot water heater. But apparently, in the last couple of days, the stickiness of the deposits could not be overcome by the negative pressure, so the ball had taken up residence in the closed position, shutting off my hot water supply.

Obviously, I was very relieved that we had found the problem outside the heater, and did not require a replacement of the heater itself. That would have cost me over $1,000. That bullet was dodged, but it sent off a smaller bullet my way, which was still quite painful. The plumber spent another hour after the problem was found, fixing the piping with new pipes and hardware that were up to codes and standards. The final bill was $250, and the plumber left around 12:30 AM today.

If you are having symptoms similar to mine (no water coming from the hot water faucets, cold water running abundantly without any problems), see if you can check the backflow preventers yourself. In most cases, these connections are soldered, so you may not be able to disassemble these pieces without special tools or the assistance of a plumber. But before you sign up for a hot water heater replacement under these conditions, ask the plumber to specifically check the backflow prevention valves and replace them if they are bad. That will save you a lot of money and your water heater may be good to keep going for several years after that!

I had a hot shower today morning for the first time in 2 days! There is hot water coming out of every faucet in the house without any unnecessary noises. I am happy! The plumber was happy too because if I had required a hot water heater replacement, that would have required him to come out again today and do a 4 or 5 hour job at my place. Now, he could go home, satisfied that he had solved my problem without any need for a return visit. Now, I hope the fix works for a few more years. I would be very happy, in fact, if everything in the house worked fine for the next few months without breaking or causing other problems! That is probably a lot to hope for, but you have to hope for the best and prepare for the worst, as they say!!

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