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Vents and Piping. Upgrades and replacement.
~mike gradziel.
January 2014:
After years of fretting about the condition of the water heater, which from its perch in the attic over the garage was situated to wreak havoc if a fast leak developed, I replaced it with a sleek efficient new made-in-USA Bradford White ultra low NOx 40 gallon tank. The old heater almost certainly had never been drained (it should have had annual flushing of sediment) and I was afraid to touch it for fear of setting off a series of failures before I was ready to install a new tank. The top of the outer casing was deeply rusted, and I didn't know what condition the tank itself was in. I got a permit from city hall, drove across the bay to a plumbing supply in Pleasanton to buy the heater, and bought a new drip pan and some pipe fittings. From REI I bought two pulleys meant for hoisting gear while rock climbing, and I rigged these from the rafters using webbing and carabiners from my climbing gear. With 12mm static line strung to make a 2:1 lift, lowering the old tank and then raising the 160lb new tank was feasible - I scheduled the job for when Dad was visiting, and the two of us had it all done within a few hours.

First we shut off the gas and then did laundry and sent Joy to take a shower to use up the good hot water. Upon disconnecting the hot water pipe I discovered that my new self-adjusting mixing valve at the bathtub will pass water from cold to hot, so I had to shut off water to the whole house instead of just isolating the cold water supply to the tank. I drained the tank onto the thirsty lawn (still hardly any rain here this winter) and we soon had it lowered to the ground. After vacuuming and setting out new blocks to distribute weight better, we raised the new tank into place and flushed a few gallons through it before filling it up and connecting the gas. I strapped it to the wall and fired it up, then soldered in the temperature/pressure vent pipe and connected the drip pan drain piping. Despite a few minor issues along the way - the water shutoff and related minor flood, and the usual challenges fitting new pipe into old piping, this was one of my most trouble-free upgrade projects ever. This heater has twice as much insulation as the old one, 2 inches, so I haven't decided yet if I will put a jacket on it. A jacket needs to be well sealed, especially at the top of the tank, to prevent air circulation and with the strapping it is hard to do this.
the old water heater rusted tank shell hoisting out the old tank
hoisting out the old tank new drip pan vent and water connections
raising the new heater raising the new heater new heater, strapped and connected

Fall 2011:
Some of the water supply was copper, and the rest was galvanized steel - even little stubby foot-long sections of steel between copper pipe installed at different times. When we turned the cold water on in the tub, which hardly ever gets used, the water would come out rusty brown. The washer cold water hose screen was full of rust (the hot water had been replaced with copper, but not the cold water pipe. The previous owner was being cost conscious but not practical). While running new buried pipe to the back yard for irrigation and hose hookups, I replaced the rest of the galvanized pipe in a single twenty-hour long session that also involved turning off the gas supply and tearing out gas pipe so I could put a clean sheet of drywall behind the water heater in the garage and then run pipes through holes in the wall, rather than do some sort of ugly slotting. Plus, the gas line looked like it had been added on to half a dozen times using whatever fittings the plumber happened to have leftover from the last job. When I took it apart, I found one almost completely obstructed by a big gob of hardened pipe seal compound. There is only one foot-long section of steel left supplying the toilet, and I will replace that when I re-wire the adjacent bedroom and am making holes in walls there.

I started replacing pipe late morning on a Saturday, crawling into and out of the space under the house countless times. Once the water was reconnected and flushed, and I could take a shower and go to sleep, the sun had come up and it was Sunday. To make things even more unpleasant, I had not reconnected any of the gas pipe and the shower was cold. It took several more days to get the gas pipe run to the water heater, because I had to put up more sheetrock and get pipe cut to length and threaded (and I had to spend my days at the office, working). I fastidiously cleaned the threads with isopropanol and a wire brush, applied the appropriate amount of sealant, and made them tight with pipe wrenches. No leaks. I put in new flex hoses to the appliances, new shutoff valves, and good pipe supports.
original gas piping rust-filled washing machine valve rust filled sewer vent pipe
cutting and soldering copper trenches for the pipe supplying hose bibs laying pipe
original faucet, disassembled and cleaned the utility area sans old pipe and sink utility area with new pipe and laundry hookup
sink back in place; new window molding new gas pipe and appliance flex connections
While replacing a gas pipe run tight behind a plumbing vent I broke off the galvanized steel vent at its base which I discovered was rusted through. It turns out the cast iron drain there is slow, and when the washer empties into our utility sink the water level in the pipes climbs into the vent, saturating it regularly. I tried to vacuum all the rust flakes out from downstream (cast iron pipe resists rust far better than galvanized steel) and then epoxied in a new ABS plastic fitting and installed new vent pipe. I used a steel pipe section where it protrudes from the roof, rather than running ABS straight through, and re-sealed the penetration with fiberglass tape and asphalt compound.

The faucet in our utility sink had bad seals and was covered with caked paint, but all the new faucets on the market were ugly, poor quality, and costly so I took everything apart and cleaned it thoroughly, soaking the chromium plated brass parts in a vinegar solution to try to get some of the rust off (citric acid would do this, but I didn't have any). The water turned green and the parts did end cleaner. There was rust from the adjoining iron fittings, and some green oxidation on the brass. I re-packed the valves and joints with expanded PTFE and put it all together with a new washing machine shutoff valve, which I fitted into new wood molding for the nearby window so it all looks nice but will frustrate future plumbers because you can't take the pipes out without removing the window molding with pipes attached. They will wonder how I ever got the pipes in. With the sink back in place, a new sink drain pipe, water hammer reducers, new sheetrock on the wall, and a new shelf behind the washer, the garage was starting to look nice. I even added painted molding around the kitchen doorway.

The house had no external ventilation fans, a real problem in the bath and kitchen. I like to cook, and even if I had the discipline to maintain grease filters in the recirculating fan hood, the moisture problem drives me nuts. I installed an 8-inch fan that can empty the entire kitchen of air in three minutes (about 450 cfm) and it is awesome. It passed the frying bacon test (can't smell it from the living room). There are two inlets, one in the range hood and another in the ceiling (that one has a throttle to balance the flow as desired). I managed to cut accurate round holes through the kitchen cabinets using a dremel tool, and ran the best looking piece of metal pipe I could find. I put the fan switch on the opposite wall because there was no closer place for it (and the switch wasn't rated to go in the range hood itself, a hot and wet place). Since the fan is on a speed control, in winter when I want to conserve heat it can be run nice and low when the full suction is not required. And since the fan is remotely mounted, it is pretty quiet.

The new bath vent fan is quieter, because I was able to use plastic flex duct to attach it (not so for the fire-safe kitchen vent, which uses smooth metal duct). The bath fan is constant speed but on a pushbutton timer, necessary because otherwise we would have no idea it is on (so quiet) and forget to turn it off. Actually it is fairly easy to tell when it is on because of the inrush of air under the door, at 250 cfm. Bathroom smells? With the push of a button, that is fixed in just a couple minutes. For the intake in the bath ceiling, I decided to make my own fitting from a plastic tub rather than use a standard metal fitting which would rust. There are plastic vent covers but they all looked like they would obstruct the flow hugely and be noisy, plus they were all rather ugly. I installed roof caps and sealed them up well - no leaks. Come summer, when the house gets hot during the day, when I come home to the cool evening fog I just need to open some windows and turn on the fans. The air in the house can be completely replaced in less than twenty minutes. Actually the new and old air mix so it isn't all fresh, but it will cool down fast! I'm not sure how this works in colder climates - I would want doors on my kitchen to isolate the vented space, and maybe a make-up air heat exchanger.
cabinets ready for cutting circle cutting sawdust catcher bag
vent pipe roughed in finished vent pipe old recirculator grille and fan switch are covered over
fantech FG8 in the attic bath vent uses flex duct kitchen vent uses metal duct
I moved the gas flue so it does not penetrate the garage firewall new gas flue and roof penetration used the old flue vent hole for the new kitchen vent cap

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