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Nashville Scene Troublemakers

Water heaters make people boil

By Walter Jowers

JULY 13, 1998:  There's something funny about water heaters. From everything I can tell, each American water heater is what scientific types call a chaotic attractor. Think of it this way: At any given house, you'd expect all the trouble to be spread out more or less evenly, like marbles thrown onto a round trampoline. But then some buckethead comes along and drops a big, heavy water heater into the middle of the trampoline. The trouble rolls into the low spot and crowds around the water heater. Got that?

Water heaters are trouble attractors mainly because they're so screwed up themselves. I swear, sometimes I think there's a special school out there that trains people to mess up water heater installations. Candidates are drilled, over and over again, on the wrong way to do things. You're not getting out of THIS school, Bubba, until you get it WRONG.

Surely, it takes special training to mess up the installation of a water heater's temperature-and-pressure valve. The T&P valve is designed to open up should the water heater become overheated or overpressured. The idea is to prevent a king-hell, house-demolishing explosion. First step to installing the T&P valve: Just screw the thing in.

Second step: Install a discharge line. The discharge line is just a pipe that will carry away hot water and steam if the T&P valve blows. Every T&P valve comes with a big yellow instruction tag, which explains how to install the discharge line. Basically, it comes down to this: Attach a piece of copper pipe to the valve and run it straight down. Cut the pipe off about a foot above the floor. Job done.

But I'm here to tell you, buckethead installers find dozens of ways to screw this up. For instance, they use PVC pipe, which isn't even suitable for regular hot water, let alone hot-enough-to-blow-up-your-house water. Or they run the dang pipe uphill, which will block the outflow.

If the water heater's electric, it'll most likely be on a 30-amp circuit, which means it should be wired with 10-gauge--or fatter--wire. But installers use skinnier 12-gauge wire all the time, because that's what they've got on the truck. That's a fire hazard.

If the water heater's gas, chances are it'll have a metal flue (think exhaust pipe) that's made out of B-vent. B-vent has these words embossed right onto it: One inch minimum clearance to combustible materials. That's simple enough, isn't it? But every day, we see B-vent cheek-to-jowl with paper insulation, wood, or wallboard (which is covered with paper).

If the house is old, chances are the flue will be run into an old masonry chimney, which is full of bird nests, hackberries, leaves, and twigs. A blocked flue could mean carbon monoxide in the house. In low doses, carbon monoxide can make you feel awful. In high doses, it can kill you.

A few days ago, we saw a nearly-new gas water heater installed directly on a garage floor. Right on the front of the water heater, there was the standard safety warning, which says the water heater has to be installed so the pilot flame is at least 18 inches above the floor. The idea is to prevent an explosion if, say, your car's fuel line springs a leak. To drive the point home, there's a big picture, right there on the water heater, that shows fumes from a gas can drifting to the water heater's pilot light, exploding, and setting a little stick-figure guy on fire.

Often as not, we'll see the same mistakes--bad flues, improper clearances, installation instructions ignored--repeated at the furnace, which is right next to the water heater. This time of year, we also see blocked condensate (air-conditioner sweat) drains dripping directly into the furnace. This will cause the furnace to rust and die years before its time.

So why do installers, homeowners, and handymen keep doing things the wrong way? It has to be the special training, a conspiracy, or real-enough cosmic intervention. Then again, it could just be what my buddy Charlie Wood calls the 80-percent rule: A guy learns to do a job and retains 80 percent of the knowledge. He teaches another guy, and pretty soon nobody even knows 10 percent of what they ought to know.

Visit Walter's Web site at http://www.nash-scene.com/~housesense. Or e-mail him at walter.jowers@nashville.com.

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