A Broken Hot-Water Tank

Reader Contribution by Cam Mather
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One of our hot water tanks broke. I can hear you saying, “One of your hot water tanks? How many do you have?”

We have three hot water tanks. The first tank is part of our Enerworks Solar Domestic Hot Water system. I installed this about 6 years ago. From there the water flows into a second hot water tank with an electric element. I use this as our “dump” or “diversion” load. When the batteries are fully charged by the sun I dump my excess solar electricity into this tank. So now I have a fairly big reservoir of hot water.

From there the water flows to our final hot water tank, which is propane. This tank basically doesn’t come on from about March to October. Since the water flowing into it is already hot from the previous two tanks, it doesn’t need to switch on.

Usually what happens is that one of us will be using hot water, washing the dishes for example, some day in the late autumn and we will hear the big “whoosh” sound that the propane burner makes as it lights. We make a big deal of booing and hissing and screaming and moaning and protesting. (Read more about that on my personal blog.) Somehow it feels like a huge defeat. We can go for so many months heating our water with just the warmth of the sun and then suddenly it seems we have day after day of cloud and there just isn’t enough solar thermal energy to heat our water. The big “whoosh” didn’t happen this fall. It wasn’t a huge problem since we still had lots of hot water. As soon as we begin using the woodstove for heat we load it up with kettles. We do the dishes with zero-carbon hot water from the woodstove. I shave with a kettle-full of water. We have baths filled with water heated on the woodstove.

Eventually we noticed that the water that was coming out of the hot water tap wasn’t very hot. This took a long time because the pilot light was on and the water was still warm. We didn’t need to use hot water from the tap very often.

Finally I clued in that the actual propane burner wasn’t coming on. I played with the temperature setting and you could hear it click on to signal to the burner to fire up, but it never ignited.

This began the process that is so routine at Sunflower Farm of trying to figure out how to fix something. We own the tank so it wasn’t just a matter of calling the propane company and asking them to replace a rental with a new one. If I had called them it could also lead to one of those hassles because safety codes change, and even though they inspected our place last year you just know the response would be “oh no, you can’t just replace that tank, you need a direct vent DC powered reverse osmosis LED programmed defibrillated gazingus pin powered over drive tank which will be $11,000.”

So I started calling around trying to get the parts to replace it myself. This was when I learned that you can’t buy parts for a gas hot water tank unless you have a gas fitters license. And so on and so on and so forth.

This left us in a quandary. What to do. This happened in the midst of 27 other projects and since we were still able to enjoy lovely hot baths and lovely hot water for dish washing, etc. it was kind of easy to schluff it off.

Then the holidays were approaching and Michelle reminded me that our daughters and their husbands would be coming for a visit and they’re kind of used to regular showers and that whole life with hot water from the tap thing.

I was hatching a strategy for staggered baths … just the like pioneers! It was going to be a “Little House on the Prairie” Christmas! The girls would wear bonnets and big lacy dresses with crinolines and we’d make our own decorations, and oh, just like the pioneers there’d be one bath a week … for everyone …men first… women last. Ya, I knew that would never work in a house full of feminists!

I was even willing to make the concession that our guests wouldn’t have to share their bathwater. Usually Michelle has the first bath when the water is scalding hot and I have the second bath once it cools off a bit later. But this wouldn’t have worked for my daughters. In fact I believe they have made it abundantly clear to me on numerous occasions that the idea of sharing bathwater is a disgusting and unhygienic concept. I’ve done it for years and it hasn’t killed me yet. So okay, I was willing to fill the bath tub up with woodstove heated water as many times as necessary during the holidays.

Shortly before they were due to arrive I went down to the cistern below the kitchen, which we use as our root cellar. I was getting potatoes for our breakfast hash browns. As I came up through the trap door out of the cistern I was actually at eye level with the hot water tank controls. So I took a closer look at the burner and the controls.

I don’t know if you’ve ever had to start the pilot light on your hot water tank, but it’s a good skill to have. They go out periodically and it’s nice to know how to restart them. A pilot light puts heat to a thermocouple. As long as the pilot light keeps that thermocouple hot, gas continues to flow to the appliance. But as soon as the pilot light goes out and heat stops, the thermocouple shuts off the flow of gas. This prevents your house from filling with gas should the pilot light ever go out. That would be a very bad situation so it’s a pretty brilliant concept.

I had shut the pilot light off back in March because by then the sun was heating all of our water. I turned it back on in about October. I guess this past October as I was restarting it I turned the control enough to start the pilot light, but I didn’t turn the igniter control far enough to actually tell the main burner to come on. So, once I realized this I turned that knob a quarter dial, and voila .. Poof … whoosh … on came the burner! Eureka! Hot water! Disaster averted! I’m a genius! I fixed the hot water tank! Or, I’m an imbecile because I didn’t turn it on correctly the first time. Doesn’t matter! Crisis averted!

Needless to say I see this as a great learning experience. I’m forever telling people that as we try and get the house to zero-carbon we are using a decreasing amount of propane. Well, this year we made it to December 22nd without the hot water tank coming on! So I basically just need it for January and February! I can work on that.

There must be some psychological term for the pathological behavior that allows someone like me to feel like a genius when I fix a problem I shouldn’t have been so stupid as to have created in the first place. If I had more time I’d research the name of this online. But when I look at my To-Do list for the day I know there are some things I can fix pretty quickly if I just remember what I did to break them in the first place!

To read more about life off the grid at Sunflower Farm please visitCam’s website.

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