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post #1 of 9 (permalink) Old 12-26-2009, 05:52 PM Thread Starter
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Default Help: Hot Water System Gone Wild

In other posts, I've mentioned problems with my hot water. Here I will try to explain what I have, my resources, and what I've done so far over a 25 year period. Brace yourself and try not to laugh too hard.

-------------------

I live WAY out in the country. Off grid. Photovoltaic and generator power.
Propane for cooking and propane refrigerator.

There is a gas well nearby which the gas company has abandoned. It gives off a very tiny bit of pure methane gas--from a coal seam about 600 feet down. I'm told that I could increase the flow by routinely pumping off the water that collects in the bottom of the well---but that would involve getting thousands of dollars worth of machinery: a gamble I'm not willing to bet on.

I hooked up to this well, and ran 200' of underground pipe to a large tank which I built near the house to build up volume. The tank is 20' x 2' round: a big project. From there it goes to my natural gas fired water heater in the basement.

There is only but a small volume and pressure to this gas. Originally, I started out with a 40 gallon HW tank. I had to adjust the flame on the tank to the absolute minimum size flame. (On a cookstove, it would be the kind of simmering flame that just barely rises above the burner---any smaller and out it goes.) Back to the water heater tank... a flame of this tiny size takes all day and night to recover a tank full of cold water.

The problem:
The longer this tiny flame stays on... the more likely that the gas pressure in the entire system would drop so low that it becomes impossible to even maintain the pilot!


I know it's hard to imagine living with such a system, but we did--and for a number of years. Yes---I could certainly "give in", hook up a propane water heater, and just pay for my hot water like everyone else, and forget about this small amount of "free gas"---but I cannot do it. I'm having too much fun being stubborn and trying to make it work.


I've had some improvements:

About 8 years ago, I switched tanks--and went from using a 40 gallon tank to a smaller 20 gallon model. BIG improvement! The smaller tank allows a quicker recovery--and an off period in which the gas supply and pressure can rebound and build. We've been able to squeeze several hot showers per day and dishwashing hot water from the system. as such---and only rarely (perhaps 4 times a year)would the system gas pressure drop down too low---an awful circumstance in which it would take at least two days to recover from. No real biggie---we can heat water on the propane cook stove or the woodstove in the winter. But not handy or fun.

---------------------

The most recent and really strange improvement:

Last summer, amidst cheers from my local Ace Hardware store (and un-relenting threats and bad vibes from my wife) I undertook a project which made my living room and kitchen quite a bit uglier, but improved my hot water system a great deal. I installed TWO water pre-heating tanks. I figured that, instead of putting cold well water into my gas hot water heater, I would put warm water in--and take a load off of my natural gas usage.

I bought two electric hot water heaters a 40 gallon tank... and a 6 gallon tank; stripped off the outer shells, insulation, thermostats and wiring--then painted them flat black.

Cold water from my supply comes into the first tank--the 40 gallon--which is sitting close to the back of my wood stove. In the summer, the water just comes up to room temperature. In the winter, the water gets warmed to about 85 degrees.



I nixed various schemes such as water-backs in the stove and/or thermosyphon connections to the tank--we sit very near this contraption, and there's no way that I wanted to even produce the potential for steam and/or explosions --betting our very lives on a TPR valve functioning as it should. I'm a little surprised and disappointed in the 85 temperature, and will experiment-- perhaps with some baffles and insulation.

From that 40 gallon tank near the wood stove the water goes (under the floor again) and then over to the kitchen where it comes up and into a cabinet above our propane gas refrigerator. The 6 gallon tank there gets heated from beneath via a short insulated chimney extension from the refrigerator's exhaust. Water in that tank gets up to about 100 degrees.



(I need to sew up an insulated curtain to go in front of the small tank--might raise the temperature even more.)

From the refrigerator tank, the water goes into our 20 gallon gas water heater in the basement (which is actually smiling at this point---it loves that nice warm water)

Our gas water heater hasn't gone out yet with this new arrangement. Knock on wood. We are taking nice long showers. No problems so far. Even my wife is liking the look of those tanks now!



Fine print:

All the tanks have TPR valves, TPR discharge piping, and tank drain piping that would meet any code requirement. There are a number of 2-way and 3-way valves in the basement which allow me to choose any path or bypass among the 3 tanks---and there is no combination of any possible valve settings that would produce a situation in which I have any tank not having a cold water supply to expand into (no closed systems). All hot and cold pipes insulated. The only "rule" that I'm aware of breaking is the admonition not to have propane and natural gas in the same dwelling---please: I think I'm not crazy enough to mix up those piping systems. Hey, I have three completely separate wiring systems all over the house (generator AC, inverted AC, and 12 VDC)... doesn't that entitle me to have two gas systems?



---------------

Ideas rejected over the years:

  • Circulating pumps: not with my limited electrical resources.
  • Solar water heating: not in this cold climate. I've really looked hard at all of the possibilities. None fit.
  • Propane water heater: I'm a tightwad--although I didn't mind spending a rather large pile of money on copper and tanks this summer. Basically, I'll spend ANY sum of money to avoid getting a monthly bill. Real tightwad!


Any suggestions? Please: no advice to move back to the city... been there, done that. New Jersey, no less.

Thanks for putting up with the length of this...

Gene
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post #2 of 9 (permalink) Old 12-26-2009, 06:24 PM
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Hi Gene,

At my former workplace, they too have a gas well. Very rarely ever used. They also ran into the problem of low pressure. I'm not sure but, I think all they did was run a sump pump or similar to remove the water, of course they had to do that about once a week, maybe once every 2 weeks.

Only suggestions I may have is, since heat rises, have you considered enclosing just the top part of your large tank? Also, a simple door with cut-outs for the plumbing for your small tank. You could still cover that with some drapery. Hold that heat in, this may help.

Otherwise, if it works for you, then, it works.

I should note, operating a "gas well", takes a lot of work and effort but, it does pay in the long haul.

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post #3 of 9 (permalink) Old 12-26-2009, 07:06 PM Thread Starter
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Thanks Ken. I did think (and still am thinking) about some insulation on top and to the rear of the top. On the big tank, it's a matter of concern with the close proximity to the stove pipe. I know the tank is losing heat just as fast as its gaining, but have to be careful with what I use to insulate. I'm thinking that perhaps I should have just removed one side of the shell and foam insulation. But what I learned from removing the shell, REALLY gives me pause about putting that foamed insulation anywhere near a woodstove--even if it is covered with a metal shell. That foam burns with an intense vengeance. (Don't ask me how I know...) If any were to ignite inside a house, it would all be over. I'd rather deal with a gasoline fire than that stuff! Situations like this are why asbestos was so popular!

At least part of the problem is that the wood stove is a convection type. If it were a radiant heater, I would be doing better. Maybe.

I'm going to concentrate my efforts on improving the small tank over the fridge first. That makes the most sense.
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post #4 of 9 (permalink) Old 12-26-2009, 07:30 PM
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Try this, use some "tin" sheets, make a box and line it with that Silver reflective insulation. This will be no heavier than a wooden box also, won't catch fire. One, it will reflect the heat both out into the room and back down on the heater tank. No worries of fire this way. Of course, you'll need to do both sides. You might want to even try using it to redirect some of the heat from the stove to the heater tank. Perhaps some behind the stove? The reason I'm suggesting the reflective stuff is, that, it works.

I know about that foam insulation and fire.... nasty. Nowadays, they're using a spray foam that is very fire retardant but, the cost of installation.... I think the price would knock an elephant over.

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Last edited by Hamlin; 12-26-2009 at 07:30 PM. Reason: spelling
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post #5 of 9 (permalink) Old 12-26-2009, 08:33 PM
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seems like you might use the heat off of the wood stove chimney like a metal box that holds the water and the chimney runs through to heat the water a small pump to move it to your tanks, also bury you main tank 6-12' down the ground stays 78deg year round at 6' in most areas,

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post #6 of 9 (permalink) Old 12-26-2009, 08:40 PM Thread Starter
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I don't know what Reliance is up to, but I bought these two tanks this summer, and... the words "fire retardant" do not come to mind when putting a match to that foam. I doubt if a fire extinguisher would get it to stop burning once underway---which took about two seconds. Really dangerous stuff.

Perhaps they use a different formulation on gas water heaters--since the flue comes pretty close to the insulation.

-----

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post #7 of 9 (permalink) Old 12-26-2009, 08:57 PM Thread Starter
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Thanks Rick. Years ago there was a device known as "Blazing Showers" that used a coil of pipe to pull heat from a chimney and heat water. Many copycat items followed as well. All of them proved to take too much heat from the chimney--and caused a great deal of creosote formation in the chimney.

Burying a tank 6 feet underground probably would work, but at this point in time, if I were to dig a tank-size hole 6 foot deep.... if would be more likely that I would wind up buried in that hole rather than the tank. I'll give it some thought the next time someone owes me some backhoe time (which has happened.)
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post #8 of 9 (permalink) Old 12-27-2009, 06:23 AM
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Gene,

You've done a pretty thorough job! There's one thing you haven't mentioned and that is heat recovery from your generator. I recognize that you don't run it often or for long periods of time but I've seen it make a major difference at friends cabins (also off the grid) here in Alaska.

With an internal combustion engine, only about 1/3 of the energy (at best) from the fuel goes out as "work". About 1/3 is lost to friction (heat either air or liquid cooled) and 1/3 goes out the exhaust. The small ones my friends have were air-cooled though recovering heat from a liquid-cooled unit would be even easier).

They placed the generator in an enclosed area adjacent to the living quarters, ducted the exhaust outside using flex pipe (after leaving some inside to dump a little heat) and ducted the air filter intake outside to draw cold air. Then they installed an air-to-air heat exchanger with a small fan motor and mounted it in the wall. A thermostatic switch was installed to turn on an exhaust fan from the generator "room" in case it got too hot.

The unit is also somewhat self-regulating, since the rate of heat transfer is dependant upon the difference in temperature between the two areas. When you've been gone for a while and the house is "cold", it will work the best.

I don't know the size of your generator but if it were a 4,500 watt unit (1/3 of the fuel's energy), if you can recover 2/3 of the air-cooling heat and 1/3 of the exhaust heat, you'd gather about as much heat energy as the generator is putting out electricity. We both know that 4,500 watts of heat equals about 15kBTU. By timing your battery charging and other electrical needs around when you're going to want that heat, its possible to be a little more green and make better use of that expensive fuel you are burning. I've seen it work and, when trying to warm up a cold cabin, that extra 15kBTU's made a heckuva difference!

I've also known of people to drop the heat exchanger and directly port room air over the generator but it was both loud and smelly.

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post #9 of 9 (permalink) Old 12-27-2009, 08:40 AM Thread Starter
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My generator shed is about 100' from the house; well-insulated and baffled in a way that we just about have to look at the remote panel in the house when starting the generator to know that it started and is running. I appreciate peace and quiet--which is why I put the thing 100' feet away--and with a woodshed standing in between.

I knew when I made this arrangement that I would be be closing off the door to any kind of heat recovery scheme--at least as far as involving the house. I have given serious thought to using that excess heat from the generator to run through a small (yet unbuilt) building that would be in effect a kiln for drying rough-cut lumber. As you might know, the longer these "un-built buildings" remain unbuilt, the more fanciful and complex they become.

As far as the generator as a heat source goes, my whole design has always sought to run that generator for as short and infrequent a period as possible. Under most circumstances, the generator runs a half-hour every other day for a laundry session (combined with water pumping and perhaps other chores. In periods of cloudy weather, it also can be called on to run for 10-15 minutes sessions every couple hours at night to give a boost to our battery bank. That is not a lot of run time-- nor does it allow the generator to reach it's full heat output very often. The generator is an 1800 RPM unit--an Onan 4.0 BFA RV generator, air cooled and gasoline fueled. I bought it new 25 years ago. The most serious work I've done on it was replacing the brushes and points. Fine Equipment! It's shed is a rather complicated affair built from block and concrete--with three separate compartments below for starting battery, fuel tank, and muffler---and the generator atop a slab above--with a roof and walls surrounding it. The Onan is designed to blow a steady stream of cooling air through baffles surrounding it's alternator and then the engine--and then blow this air down and over the exhaust pipe and muffler.

Without a whole lot of work, I could capture all of this heat (except for what actually comes out of the muffler--and port it into my un-built lumber kiln. The lumber would get a bit of drying time every now and then--but would dry far faster and more thoroughly than at present just ricked up in the usual air-drying arrangement.

While that scheme does nothing as far as adding heat to my hot water system, it would cause me no small amount of delight in knowing that I would be squeezing every last dime out of the dollars I am sending to the oil companies.

My purpose in life is to amaze future archaeologists.


Thanks, Jim -- when I saw the number of posters on these forums hailing from far-northern regions, I suspected I would be getting some good problem solving tips. It always seemed to me that more problems exist in trying to live in a cold climate.

I've been to Anchorage twice for several weeks of work. I won't count the 30-minute refueling stop made in 1968 while enroute to Southeast Asia... all I remember about those thirty minutes is that everyone but me made a dash to the terminal to buy snacks. I stood just outside of the airplane---looking off the taxiway and across fields of tall purple grass and at the distant mountains which appeared an almost neon-purple in the late afternoon sun. This must have been those "purple mountain majesties" I had been hearing of whenever "America the Beautiful" was sung. Not a bad thing to see--considering where I was headed for.


----------

My other trips to Alaska remain in my memory mainly as a taste. A carpenter on my crew came in one day with a nice slab of smoked salmon which he gave me. Simply put, it was the best tasting food that I've ever eaten!

Oh yes... Anchorage holds one other special place for me. I had been studying to get my Amateur Radio license for several months, when I got the call for a work assignment up in Anchorage. After working a week or so, I somehow got wind that ham radio tests were going to be given at the local mall that evening. I thought, "Why not here? Why not now?" and wound up getting my ham radio license in Anchorage that night. When I returned to West Virginia, I built my radio station, and made my first contact with a fellow who lives right in our county seat. As it turned out, he was the area examiner for ham licensing and was very surprised to hear someone calling from nearby who had a license he didn't know about. We remain close friends to this day.
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