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 Water Heater installed with no place to drain to
Author: dakotagrrl77 (NJ)

Hi - I recently had a flood in my condo building (not in my unit) that made me check all my plumbing for potential problems. And I found a doozy. Hopefully I can describe it properly:

Situation: I live in a 1909 high school building that was converted to condos in the early 80s. I have a brand new Rheem 38 gallon short water heater (electric, not gas) installed by the previous owner that works perfectly fine. BUT I realized recently that there is the potential for a catastrophic flood if the unit were to ever fail. The unit is installed in a centrally located utility room that also houses my HVAC and laundry. The problem is that there is no drain under the water heater. The drain for the laundry is too far away and too high to use for the water heater. There isn't even a drain pan under the water heater (which I realize would be overwhelmed by a catastrophic flood anyway). The water heater has the standard relief valve on top with a copper pipe that runs down the back of the unit. But the pipe just ends in mid-air over the floor. If the unit were to over-pressurize, the water would just spill out everywhere (likely going under the wall into the living room to ruin my hardwood floors and also into the condo below).

I've researched some possible options and would like an opinion on them. I also welcome any other suggestions.

Option 1: Disconnect the water heater and re-install it on a sturdy water heater stand (available at HD) that is sitting in some sort of catch basin capable of holding the contents of the tank. Since it is a short tank, there is enough space above to raise it at least ~20-24 inches. (Edited to add: I intend to also install an automatic shut-off at the cold water supply that would be triggered by a leak detection sensor. The catch basin would only need to hold the tank contents as the supply line would be closed.)

Option 2: Replace the water heater with an electric tank-less water heater. The units themselves are not that expensive ($500-$700). However, the amount of electricity they draw (4-5 times the amount used by a tank water heater) would require a massive electrical upgrade (new #8 wiring, new breaker box), making the install prohibitively expensive.

Option 3: Replace the water heater with a gas-fired tank-less water heater. I have two gas lines in the utility closet (one for the HVAC and one for the clothes dryer), however my condo is two-stories and I don't think it would be possible to run the necessary exhaust vent for the tank-less heater. I don't think its legal to piggy-back it into the existing HVAC exhaust either, and even if it is, that vent looks to only be 3" which is probably only enough to handle the HVAC exhaust. Also, the roof is common territory, pretty sure the association wouldn't let me poke new holes in it anyway.

So, it looks like Option 1 is the only plausible solution to prevent a flood (which did happen in the past judging by the water stains on the subfloor, horror stories from my downstairs neighbor, and the fact that the previous owner installed a brand new water heater).

Please give me your thoughts on the above and any other possible solutions I may have overlooked (aside from selling the condo and moving... ;-))

Thanks!

P.S. I realize that the WH install is not likely to modern code and was something my home inspector should have caught, but he didn't. When the condo conversion occurred in the early 80s, I imagine the codes were a bit looser. Or someone was paid to look the other way...this is NJ after all.



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 Re: Water Heater installed with no place to drain to
Author: hj (AZ)

If the tank has ANY "rupture" there is nothing that will hold the "contents of the tank" because the water will continue to flow until the supply line valve is closed.

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 Re: Water Heater installed with no place to drain to
Author: dakotagrrl77 (NJ)

I am also planning to install a whole-house emergency shut-off unit at the main supply valve that would be triggered by remote moisture sensors (example: Leak Cop). In lieu of that, they also make a sensor-mediated auto-shut off that you can install directly on the water heater supply line that would trigger it to shut off in the event of a leak. Either option is on the table.



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 Re: Water Heater installed with no place to drain to
Author: hj (AZ)

In that case a leaking hot water tank would normally NOT "drain out", unless a faucet or other device were opened to allow air in and break the vacuum holding the water inside the tank.

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 Re: Water Heater installed with no place to drain to
Author: dakotagrrl77 (NJ)

I understand that the probability of a catastrophic tank failure is low, but evidence shows that the previously installed tank did just that.

If you saw the video from the flood that occurred in my building just before Christmas (water streaming from the light fixtures and ceiling cracking in the condo beneath the flood), you might be a little more understanding of my paranoia.

Does anyone have any USEFUL opinions or alternate suggestions? THANKS.

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 Re: Water Heater installed with no place to drain to
Author: bernabeu (SC)

:) Option 1 :)

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

Retired U.A. Local 1 & 638 ~ Measure Twice & Cut Once

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 Re: Water Heater installed with no place to drain to
Author: Bagge (PA)

hj,

Can you explain in more detail why a leaking water heater will not drain out in case the supply line has been turned off?

I am in the exact same situation, and I just installed an emergency shut off valve on the main water line. My water heater is in my basement so I am not that worried about 50 gallons of potential water on the floor.

In your experience when water heaters start to die will there be warning signs, such as first a small leak followed by a bigger leak followed by a flood or does this vary too much to say.

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 Re: Water Heater installed with no place to drain to
Author: kingshakabobo (IL)

How about elevated slightly with a standby pump beneath to pump to your laundry drain?

Are laundry drain pipes exposed?or in the walls? Ares are exposed.

I wonder if downstairs neighbor would be amenable to you dropping a drain through their ceiling and tying in to laundry drain? It's probably all common drain anyway. There would be issues concerning asthetics, venting and trap. An ugly exposed pipe is better than a flood. It would need a trap that you would occasionally pour water in to keep it from allowing sewer gas in (a little olive oil supposedly helps keep the water from evaporating)

I understand your concerns. We are looking at installing wifi water alarms in our first floor unit's duplex down to basmement and basement storage. We just had a back up in the laundry drain and it manifested itself in their unit. They called me to look at the washing machine to see why this brand new machine was leaking - while I was standing there the laundry box started over flowing soapy water from third floor neighbor laundry. It's now the third time we've had flooding issues that came close causing major damage in that unit. All three times we were lucky someone was home downstairs to sound the alarm to stop laundry up stairs or shut off water. A broken pipe in the storage almost reached high enough level to start going under their wood floor. The holidays sometimes cause me to think about this stuff when all six units are empty. Visions of swimming pools in the basement dance through my head. (Fellow worry wart)

If I'm not mistaken, a high efficiency gas tankless could vent horizontally through pvc pipe to a nearby wall. No need to go up. But there ARE restrictions where the vent terminates (near windows etc.)

My hvac guy told me builders get away with no pans or drains because the city lets them get away with claiming the utility rooms are not above "living space"

We constantly have leak issues with ac condensate drains clogging. Go in any of these 100 year old vintage buildings and you will see prior water damage evidence on floors and ceilings.

In the mean time, make sure your insurance is paid up.



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 Re: Water Heater installed with no place to drain to
Author: dakotagrrl77 (NJ)

Definitely all covered with insurance! (Apparently the previous owner was not. Total nightmare for the owner below me!)

I already had to address some plumbing problems with the laundry drain. The pipe run before the trap was too short to accommodate the output of the washer and would overflow. The solution was to add more pipe, but that raised the drain to a height that was too high for the HVAC condensate to drain by gravity. I ended up having to install a condensate pump to compensate for the new, higher drain opening. I plan to have a plumber come by soon to replace an old toilet and the rusty shut off (that's what failed in the other condo that flooded recently) and while he's here I'll ask about the catch basin vs. pump idea. The laundry drain is pretty far from the water heater, though.

I'm not sure what the configuration of the condo below mine is. None of the units in my building are the same, some resemble M.C. Escher drawings with multiple levels and stairs everywhere! Poking through their ceiling to run a drain line probably wouldn't fly.

Unfortunately, the utility closet housing all my condo's guts/laundry is right in the middle of my space. No way to run a vent for a tank-less heater horizontally out a wall.



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 Re: Water Heater installed with no place to drain to
Author: kingshakabobo (IL)

Maybe raise the water heater just high enough (6-12 inches?) to get a pan and trap under it. Run the drain line along or in your own wall and tie in to your own laundry drain down low with a "t" or "y" fitting

This may present other issues with creating a wet vent (or not? - Your plumber can tell you). But do you need to be concerned about that for an emergency drain that will most likely never be used?

Obviously the lay out of the room will dictate whether this is feasible. Maybe do the washing machine too.

You may also want to check/replace your washing machine hoses. They make a device that shuts off washing machine water when not in use. Keeps the hoses from being under constant pressure.

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 Re: Water Heater installed with no place to drain to
Author: jblanche (WI)

The pipe run before the trap was too short ... The solution was to add more pipe, but that raised the drain to a height that was too high for the HVAC condensate to drain by gravity.

I plan to have a plumber come by soon to replace an old toilet and the rusty shut off (that's what failed in the other condo that flooded recently) and while he's here I'll ask about the catch basin vs. pump idea.

Have the plumber check:
1) Is it practical to raise the water heater high enough to drain by gravity to the existing washer standpipe, even if the heater must be hung from the ceiling?
2) Is the laundry pipe large enough to add a second, shorter standpipe & trap to serve the HVAC condensate pump and an indirect drain from the water heater drain, pan, and T & P release valve? The receptor probably requires an air gap or at least an air break.

Also have the plumber replace the toilet fixture stop with a 1/4 turn valve. Then, exercise it and all of your shutoff valves regularly.

The laundry drain is pretty far from the water heater, though ... the utility closet housing all my condo's guts/laundry is right in the middle of my space. No way to run a vent for a tank-less heater horizontally out a wall.

Is the furnace high efficiency, or natural draft? If natural draft, it is sometimes possible to replace it with high-efficiency induced draft, and use the old chimney as a chase for multiple pipes. Then separate the individual exhausts/intakes as required on the roof. That doesn't seem likely if the place was built with only a 3" exhaust pipe, but if there was an older furnace originally, or if there is a chase to the roof used by multiple units, this might be possible.

Another thing to consider with a tankless is the amount of gas available. Your system was probably designed for just what it is serving - a clothes dryer and a furnace. Tankless requires a lot of gas (often around 100,000 BTU/hr) which can be achieved with higher pressure or larger pipes, or both. Figuring that is something a plumber or gas fitter would typically do, although you can learn how it's figured on YouTube.

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Links to the State of Wisconsin Plumbing Code:
[docs.legis.wisconsin.gov]
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I am not a plumber.
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 Re: Water Heater installed with no place to drain to :clap:
Author: dakotagrrl77 (NJ)

Thank so much everyone for the input. Really helps me organize how I plan to pick my plumber's brain next time he's here.

One of the first things I did in my condo was replace the old shut off valves for the laundry with new 1/4 turn valves. I always shut off the water whenever the laundry is not in use. I think I'm also going to move ahead with the plan to install a whole-house emergency shut off actuator with remote leak sensors at the main water feed to my condo. That would at least limit the damage in the event of a leak.

And here I thought I'd put some of this worry behind me when I moved from my double-wide to this condo! At least I don't have to worry about frozen pipes and cheap plastic fitting anymore.



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