Getting Into Hot Water

 Ah, the joys of owning a home, one of which is maintaining said home so it can continue to provide shelter without endangering you and yours. The range of maintenance you can do yourself will vary with your skills, training, budget, and time, but preventative maintenance is always cheaper than repair or replacement.

We all like hot water. It's not essential, but it makes cleaning clothes and dishes much easier and bathing our bodies more comfortable. Hygiene is important in everyday life, and it becomes more important if TSHTF and medical facilities are scarce or overloaded. Cold showers suck, and back when I had to shave every day having hot water meant I could do so without bleeding all over the place. Think about it: what's the first thing you want to do after coming home from a camping trip or a long day of hard work? A hot shower will be on the top of the list for most people.

Type of Hot Water Heaters
Most homes and apartment buildings will have a water heater hidden somewhere in a utility closet or corner of the basement. Water heaters are a common household appliance, but they have the potential to become bombs if not maintained. I won't link to them, but there are plenty of videos on the Internet of the devastation caused by exploding water heaters. One of the insurance companies runs an ad on TV that mentions covering damage from a water heater that landed on a neighbor's car. Mythbusters covered them pretty well; the one video I saw had a 50 gallon tank launch itself 500 feet into the air. That's enough force to send a hundred pounds of tank through several floors and walls.

Electricity, liquid propane (LP), or natural gas (NG) are the main power sources for heating water, although I have seen wood-fired water heaters and add-on heat exchangers for wood stoves. Remote or limited-use facilities may have a tiny point-of-use heater tucked under the sink to provide hot water for personal hygiene. There are “tankless” water heaters available, but they're expensive and require more maintenance. There are also municipal hot water systems in large cities that provide very hot water or steam to buildings near a generating plant (sometimes as a byproduct of generating electricity), but that's beyond our control, so the maintenance for it is outside the scope of prepping. The same goes for living in an apartment building, since the owner has control over the central utilities. Let's stick to the common tank style water heaters that you'll find in home improvement stores for today.

Tank-style water heaters come in a variety of sizes and use the three heat sources I mentioned (electric, LP, or NG) depending on what's available. A lot of new houses are “all-electric”, while rural areas lack the NG pipelines found in town and have to rely on LP stored on-site. Electric units don't need to be vented (no combustion, no exhaust) while the gas units are more efficient and “recover” faster in my experience. They all have the same basic design: a vertical tank with cold water inlet and hot water outlet on the top, anode rod inserted through the top, heat source at or near the bottom, drain valve on the bottom, and a relief valve (T&P valve) on the side or top. They also all share a few ways to ruin your day.

Temperature & Pressure
The T&P valve is a safety device that will open and vent the tank if the temperature (T) or pressure (P) gets too high. Water expands when heated, and some expansion is expected and the tanks are engineered for it. Since water heaters are a closed system except for when the water is in use, this expansion leads to an increase in pressure. If the pressure gets above 150 psi, the T&P valve should open and relieve the pressure by venting water to a drain. The valve will also open if the temperature gets to about 210°F, which is just short of boiling. Boiling water produces steam, which takes up 1700 time as much space as liquid water (at standard pressure). Water heater tanks are not designed as boilers and will explode if the water inside starts to boil. 

By most building codes, the T&P valve has to be piped to a drain with an air gap between the end of the pipe and the drain, so that you can see water flowing if the valve opens or is leaking. Testing the T&P valve a couple of times a year will let you know that it isn't leaking, stuck, or plugged. Having a stuck or plugged relief valve is the same as not having a relief valve, so read the instructions on the tag or look up how to test your particular valve.

Hard Water and Sediment
If you have hard water or a lot of sediment in your water, sand and scale will settle out on the bottom of the tank. This layer of sediment will act as an insulator, causing the heat source to run longer to heat up the water and potentially overheat the water. A water heater that has a lot of sediment will start to take longer to recover after use, so watch for longer intervals between having hot water. If the thermostat sensor that controls the heating element or burner gets covered, you can have a runaway heater that will stay on until something pops. 

The drain valve on the bottom of the tank is there so you can shut the heater down once a year and drain the sediment out. Most drain valves are threaded for garden hose fittings, which makes it easy to connect to,  but you don't want to run hot water through a garden hose because they'll melt. Instead, turn off the heat and either let the heater cool down or open a faucet to let cold water in to cool it.

If you ever hear a “popping” noise coming from your water heater while it's in operation, that's a sign that you have scale building up. Water trapped between layers of scale will boil and “pop” as the steam escapes into the water. Old, limed-up teapots make the same noise and will often bounce or move on the stove when they do. This is from the energy released by the steam as it hits the water around it; now imagine your 40-50 gallon water heater “dancing” in the basement rather than a half-gallon teapot on the stove. 

Any movement of an appliance attached to gas lines needs to be accounted for, so make sure your gas line have a flexible section where it connects to the heater. They're usually yellow in color to designate that they carry a flammable gas. Gas leaks in a basement are a good way to destroy a house! I've seen it happen a few times; one was fairly minor and it blew out every window and lifted the house off of the foundation. A few others I've driven by looked like a tornado had hit the house, with nothing but a hole in the ground surrounded by debris.

Most tanks are made of steel and will rust on the inside. This is minimized by the use of a sacrificial anode rod of zinc or some other metal that is more reactive than iron. The sacrificial rod will slowly erode over a few years and should be replaced when it is almost gone. The rod is usually threaded into the top of the tank and replacements can be found in home improvement stores. If your hot water starts to look reddish or develops a sulfur smell, it's time to replace the sacrificial rod; not replacing it means allowing the tank walls to get thinner as they rust away, which reduces the pressure that it can withstand. That rust will also add to the sediment building up on the bottom of the tank that I mentioned above.

Avoiding trouble is one of the tenets of prepping, so do your maintenance. If you have any doubts about your ability to work on anything, call a professional or get the training. Plumbers and electricians are expensive, but not as expensive as a house fire or cleaning up after burst pipes.

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