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Thursday, May 7, 2015

What the heck is a heat pump water heater and why should I care?

What the heck is a heat pump water heater and why should I care?

If you read my previous blog article regarding the new Federal Energy Mandate (effective April 2015 ) regarding electric water heaters, you would be well on your way to understanding why you should care.  The new 2015 DOE energy efficiency mandates require higher EF ratings on most residential gas, electric and oil fired water heaters. This will have impact how water heaters are designed, manufactured, tested, distributed, and installed. It is my understanding that the new energy mandate no longer allows for standard / conventional  electric water heaters over approximately 55 gallons in size to be installed (simply because there are no units available that meet the new energy requirements, but perhaps will be in the future).  This likely affects many homeowners in my area, (Hilton Head Island, Bluffton, Beaufort, SC) since there are so many 80 gallon tanks in service. 

So, you wonder what you will have to do to replace your electric water heater that is a 55 gallon capacity or larger?  Well, the most common options are going to be “on-demand (tankless)” water heaters, and heat pump water heaters, and possibly gas if you have provisions for gas. Let’s tackle one thing at a time and look at heat pump water heaters and find out how they work and the pros and cons.  A future blog will discuss “on – demand (tankless)” water heaters.
I know you probably like glossy pictures, but how about just a basic diagram of a heat pump hot water heater?  
Home Inspection, Hilton Head, Sun City, Bluffton, Beaufort, SC

Heat pumps basically move heat from one location to another. There, how simple an explanation can you get?  Yes, there is a lot of wizardry going on in these units, but it is always good to have a mystery in life.  OK, so what else is special about how they work, you ask.  A heat pump water heater moves heat from your basement or mechanical room into the hot water tank. This will likely reduce humidity and lower the temperature in the area where the unit is installed. This can be good in warm climates, but not so much in cold weather climates.  Heat pump water heaters have electric heating elements installed (just like the conventional heaters they are replacing) to compensate for large hot water demands. Most HPWH can normally heat 8 gallons of water per hour. In comparison, a conventional electric unit can heat 20 gallons per hour. Not to worry though, since most are going to function in 3 to 4 different modes of operation:
“Hybrid Mode” – uses both electric heating elements and the heat pump. This is the recommended setting  and should be the default setting on units. 
“Heat Pump Mode” – uses only heat pump. Not a recommended setting as the hot water recovery time is considerably diminished
“Full Electric Mode” – works just like the dinosaurs they are replacing,  (a conventional electric hot water tank)
“Vacation Mode”- when on vacation, puts unit into sleep mode, (not all units will have this feature)
If you are expecting a Co- mode, that is a totally separate plumbing device. Quit interrupting me. On a more serious note, please pay attention to the types of operating modes if you are purchasing a heat pump water heater.

OK, you are wondering just how this beast is controlled, aren’t you?  Well, lucky for you I have pretty picture of a typical controller. Study it well.  

Home Inspector, Home Inspection, Heat Pump Water Heater, Hilton Head, SC

By now, I am hoping some of the mystery is gone for you.  But there are other mysteries here to look at. 

The Cons:
Heat pump water heaters have actually been around for some time, but they were an add on to a conventional electric water heater (imagine a large box next to a water heater).  As you can see from the illustration above, they are now neatly organized into one BIG container. Notice the emphasis on big. That was intentional. These critters are much bigger than the dinosaurs they are replacing (just one trade off).  They typically will require a large area to function properly (approximately 1000 square feet or more).  They are also heavier and larger (occupy more space) than a comparable electric water heater.  Can you guess that it will take more people and expertise to install one? You would be correct. Oh, and let’s not forget about maintenance, it will be more technical and expensive (remember the days of changing your own elements or thermostats?). And finally, the cost. Yes they will be more expensive. Enough, enough I say. No more negatives. Moving on to the positives. 

The Pros:
Testing by the “Electric Power Research Institute”  indicated that heat pump water heaters are 2.5 times more efficient than conventional electric water heaters, and in addition draw less than 25% of the electrical power compared to a conventional electric water heater. Water heating accounts for 15 to 20% percent of electric energy use in homes with electric water heating. Some new heat pump water heaters (HPWH) have demonstrated savings of up to 50% or more of a home's water heating energy use (perhaps under ideal conditions).
Units will typically have user-friendly digital temperature controls with vacation settings and options for operating modes.
Dehumidification of the installation area and some cooling effect is possible. This may be a benefit in warm climates but not cold climates. The amount of dehumidification and cooling may also be minimal.  
If you need help comparing the costs of operating water heaters, you may want to visit the Federal Governments’ web site that provides an energy calculator to do just that:

Considerations when installing a heat pump water heater:

Adequate physical space: heat pump water heaters are generally larger in all dimensions) compared to standard water heaters. Having limited physical space may prevent the water heater from being installed in a desired location within a residence or where the conventional water heater was installed.
Adequate air volume and circulation: heat pump water heaters have specific air volume and circulation requirements that can lower their performance if installed in a confined sealed space, such as a closet or a small room.
Condensate removal:  access to a drain or to the outdoors is required for removing the heat pump water heater’s condensate (liquid). Typically, existing water heaters will have a drain pan, but additional piping may be required for handling condensate removal. Also they will need an exhaust line (piping) for the TPR (temperature pressure relief valve), just like the conventional water heaters.
Noise: heat pump water heaters generate a humming or whirring noise when operating. Depending on the heat pump water heater model and location , this may be offensive.
Exhaust air:  as stated above, heat pump water heaters exhaust cool, dehumidified air into their surroundings, which may or may not be beneficial.

Hopefully you are now better informed if you need to choose a water heater, however I would urge you to do your homework and find out more about your choices.   Fortunately in our location, numerous 80 gallon tanks were installed not because the homes or villas needed that capacity heater, but simply because the Electric Company had a program that made it inexpensive to install one. I suspect a lot of folks can do well just by reducing the size of their water heater when it is time to replace it, and opting for a smaller capacity water heater (conventional).
One more interesting piece of information to digest: the water heaters are not hot water heaters. If the water is hot you do not need a heater, right? OK then, that is settled. Note that the grammar police will not arrest you if you still use the term “hot water heater”.  
As a Home Inspector in Hilton Head, SC and surrounding areas, I welcome your opinions, ramblings, musings, and fleeting thoughts.  

Thanks for reading

John M. Wickline, President
JW Home Inspections, Inc.   

Home Inspection, Hilton Head, Beaufort, Bluffton, Okatie, Sun City, SC
JW Home Inspections Inc., Hilton Head, Bluffton, Sun City, Okatie, Beaufort, SC, Home Inspector

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Oil in My Backyard?

Oil in Your Backyard? 
    Calm down Jethro, you are not going to get rich.

       If you have oil in your backyard around these parts (Hilton Head, Okatie, Sun City and Bluffton, SC), it may be in an underground tank if you have an older home or property. Historically,  above ground tanks and below ground tanks have been used for storing heating oil for homes (and businesses). While heating oil in storage tanks is seldom (if at all) to be seen in our locale, occasionally as a home inspector, I find evidence of a buried fuel oil tank. Such an incident recently occurred during a home inspection in one of the older plantations on Hilton Head Island.
Home Inspection, Hilton Head, Older Home,
Removal of buried heating oil tank
       The home inspection was going along quite well for an older home, and thankfully I was not observing a lot of defects to write in the Home Inspection Report. Towards the end of the inspection, I was outside walking the property to check the exterior inspection items, when I nearly tripped over two rusted metal pipes protruding from the ground (about one foot above ground. One pipe had a cap on it and the other pipe was open at the end (likely a fill pipe and a vent pipe for an underground home heating oil tank). I opened the fill pipe and noticed liquid in the bottom of the tank.  That is when I decided to light a match for a better look. Of course I did not do this, or this story would not be entertaining you (it is, isn’t it?).
Home Inspection, buried fuel oil tank, Hilton Head, SC
Fill pipe and vent pipe
       On a more serious note, if such tanks are leaking (or have leaked), there could be considerable environmental damage done to surrounding areas. One particular concern would be if residents at this home or nearby homes were using groundwater wells.  Petroleum contaminated water that is ingested or used for bathing has the potential to be deadly. The tanks are capable of leaking chemicals for a period of many years, considering that the corrosive process is usually slow.
      The Groundwater Protection Council has at one time indicated there are 640,000 in ground Federally regulated tanks storing fuel and hazardous products, and 465,000 of these have leaked, with most requiring cleanup. A large percentage of these could not be cleaned / removed due to not being able to locate the responsible party.
      Liability for leaking tanks with petroleum products can be quite large for a property owner.  Testing is usually around $500.00, however the cost to clean up and remedy damages could be significantly more.  If you are purchasing an older property, make certain your inspector is watching out for buried tanks in the ground that may contain petroleum based products. If such a tank is found, make certain it has been properly inspected and tested, and removed or drained and filled, as necessary. Testing can involve one or more of the following: 

  • Pressure testing: pressurized tanks are monitored for a period of time to observe any fluctuations in pressure that would indicate a leak. 
  • Soil testing: soil samples are taken around the tank and sent to a lab for analysis.
  • Other methods: Ultrasound and ground penetrating radar may also be used.

       Above ground tanks can also present similar problems from leaking  and also need evaluated.
Home Inspection, Inspection report, Hilton Head, Bluffton, Sun City, SC

       Again, I stress the point that if you are buying an older home, make certain your Home Inspector is aware that there could be buried tanks on the properly and to look for them.  

Thanks for reading my Blog. 

John M. Wickline, President

JW Home Inspections, Inc. Home Inspector, Hilton Head, SC
Member of InterNachi
Member of InterNachi

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Death By Code

Death by Code
I came across this article by Jeffrey S. Sargent (read below) and thought it was interesting.
There are numerous building codes in our country. While some states allow for local jurisdiction to amend codes, some states have statewide codes. As a home inspector in Hilton Head (and surrounding areas), South Carolina, I see variations in building codes from one town to the next. When political and economic concerns get involved, safety and common sense can fall to the wayside. Add local interpretation of adopted codes, and areas where code officials have little power, and you may have a mix for tragedy, such as the story told by Jeffrey, which resulted in death as a result of a local jurisdiction amending the codes. While this may be extreme, I hope it calls forth some interesting and productive discussions on code enforcement and code adoptions.

A Cautionary Tale

by Jeffrey S. Sargent

I had dinner recently with a good friend and colleague, and our conversation drifted to the topic of 2014 National Electrical Code® adoption. I told him adoptions were going well, but that some jurisdictions had passed or were contemplating amendments reducing the level of safety afforded by the NEC. The only “technical” support for these amendments, in most cases, were anecdotal accounts of operational problems and overstated financial concerns.
This led my friend to share an experience he had while working as the chief electrical inspector of a mid-sized city. He’s no longer employed by that community, but it was clear that the impact of what happened had not faded.
He told me he’d been at his office early on a Monday morning, and that he’d just closed out the last inspection report from the previous week when his phone rang. The caller explained he was interested in learning about the background of a city-specific amendment to the NEC. The amendment had exempted receptacles installed in garages and on the outside of homes from the requirement that they be provided with ground-fault circuit-interrupter (GFCI) protection. The inspector explained the exception was on the books prior to him assuming the chief inspector’s job and had been added in response to negative feedback on the requirement that had been received by a member of the city council from local homeowners. The council member was in the homebuilding business.
Anyone who has served responsibly in the public sector understands the governmental chain of command, and in this case the inspector did what he believed was right by not disparaging those who were elected by the citizens of that city. He also knew that, had he been in the chief’s position at the time the amendment was proposed, he would have made every possible attempt to dissuade the council from reducing the level of safety established in a national consensus code. As it was, the amendment stood, and he had no desire to attempt to reverse a decision of the city council.
The gentleman on the other end of the line began calmly explaining the reason for his call. His family had recently moved into a new home in the city, and during the previous weekend they held a cook-out at their home. At the time, electrically heated outdoor grills were a new and easy way to cook outdoors—just plug in and cook. This family’s grill was flawed, however. The man’s young son had come in contact with the grill—which was plugged into an outdoor receptacle that lacked GFCI protection—at the same moment he was in contact with ground, and received a severe shock. He died en route to the hospital.
The electrical inspector was speechless. There were no words he could offer to justify why the amendment existed. He knew the amendment was wrong, but now he knew just how wrong: based on what the caller was saying, the amendment might be complicit in the death of a child. A lawsuit was filed against the city, and an out-of-court settlement was reached. The amendment was subsequently repealed.
Deeply disturbed by what had happened, the inspector vowed he would never again work in a jurisdiction where convenience and financial considerations were placed above safety. He never again wanted to be in the position of having to explain to a grieving parent the shallow reason why a fundamental safety feature had been amended out of a national consensus code for safe electrical installations.

End of article.

Thanks for reading my Blog.

John M. Wickline, President
JW Home Inspections, Inc. 

Bluffton, Hilton Head, Sun City, Okatie, SCNACHI, JW Home Inspections, Inc.

Monday, February 23, 2015

What Color Are My Pants? Fire in The Closet!

Something in Your Closet Could Start a Fire
(and what color are my pants?)

by John M. Wickline, President
Hilton Head Island, SC 

OK, let's take a look at the safety issue first. The Culprit is Your Closet Light! Keep reading for information on Your pants.

This commonly applies to older homes. As a Home Inspector in Hilton Head Island, Bluffton, Sun City, Okatie, SC , I occasionally inspect older homes and observe bare bulb lights in closets. This poses a fire hazard, since paper and cloth goods (flammable) are stored in closets and often in close proximity to the closet lights.
Of course the fix is to install proper and safe lighting. However, don’t quit reading yet. At the end (of course, I have to keep your interest) I explain why some lighting choices are better than others. Not just any light will provide what a closet needs (OK, the closet does not need the light, you do). I will also help you with figuring out what color your pants are (the things you can learn on my blog are amazing aren’t they?).
Home Inspector, Hilton Head, SC, Home Safety, Fire Hazard, JW Home Inspections, Home Inspector
Bare bulb light fixture - Fire Hazard
A closet is one of the few places in a home or villa where flammable materials can come in close contact with a source of high heat (bare light bulbs do give off high heat, and can start fires). Closet lighting must be installed with adequate separation from clothes, boxes and other flammables stored in a closet. Also, the quality of the light, and the bulbs efficiency should influence your lighting choices. 

Now for some boring bits and kibbles (it gets better at the end):

The 2009 International Residential Code (IRC) on "Permitted Luminaires and Clearance from Clothing"

The IRC defines a "luminary" as follows: 
a complete lighting unit consisting of a lamp or lamps, together with the parts designed to distribute the light, to position and protect the lamps and ballast (where applicable), and to connect the lamps to the power supply.

Types of luminaries permitted by the 2009 IRC include:
  •  surface-mounted or recessed incandescent luminaries with completely enclosed lamps, surface-mounted or recessed fluorescent luminaries; and
  •   surface-mounted fluorescent or LED luminaries identified as suitable for installation within the storage area.
Luminaries not permitted by the 2009 IRC:
  •   Incandescent luminaries with open or partially enclosed lamps and pendant luminaries or lamp-holders should be prohibited.
Clearances permitted by the 2009 IRC:
The minimum distance between luminaries installed in clothes closets and the nearest point of a storage area shall be as follows:
1. Surface-mounted incandescent or LED luminaries with a completely enclosed light source shall be installed on a wall above the door or on the ceiling, provided that there is a minimum clearance of 12 inches (305 mm) between the fixture and the nearest point of a storage space.
2. Surface-mounted fluorescent luminaries shall be installed on the wall above the door or on the ceiling, provided that there is a minimum clearance of 6 inches (152 mm).
3. Recessed incandescent luminaries or LED luminaries with a completely enclosed light source shall be installed in the wall or the ceiling, provided that there is a minimum clearance of 6 inches (152 mm).
4. Recessed fluorescent luminaries shall be installed in the wall or on the ceiling, provided that there is a minimum clearance of 6 inches (152 mm) between the fixture and the nearest point of storage space.
5. Surface-mounted fluorescent or LED luminaries shall be permitted to be installed within the storage space where identified within this use.

Now to answer that all important question, “What color are my pants?”.
Ah yes, the old Color Rendering Index (CRI)

The ability of a light source to reproduce the colors of various objects faithfully, in comparison with an ideal or natural light source is a quantitative  measure called CRI. The closer the CRI of a lamp is to 100, the more it will render colors as "true".  A light with a low CRI is why people are laughing at your color mismatched shirt and pants when you arrive at work. Now you know you can wipe those smirks off their faces. The CRI should be as high as possible in your clothes closet lighting. Believe it or not the old reliable incandescent lights shine brightly in this respect. With a CRI of 100, they are the most aesthetic lighting choice (but are inefficient). Compact fluorescents lights (CFLs) have a longer life and are far more efficient than incandescent bulbs, but with a CRI hovering the low 60s, they are a poor choice for clothes closet applications. Low-voltage halogen and LED lights however,  are relatively efficient, long-lasting, and have a high CRI, although not as high as incandescent bulbs. 

 Take a look in your closet. What do you see? If you see a bare bulb, get that thing replaced.  What do you not see? If you cannot see the colors in your clothing, now you are armed with the information to improve your wardrobe selection (go get yourself some serious CRI).
Wiping the smirk off the coworkers faces…Priceless.

Thanks for reading,

Home Inspection, Home Inspector, Hilton Head

Certified Professional Inspector