Pete’s last blog post has left the floodgates open: he feels a need, now, to say a few more things about flexible water connectors. In this case: those used in conjunction with water heaters.
Unlike the flexible supply tubes supporting faucets and toilets, flexible connectors serving water heaters did not come about solely for the purpose of labor savings. (Though they did just that, and more). In this case the plumbing manufacturers actually showed some genuine concern for the public’s wellbeing.
Just as water conditions (good, bad, and downright ‘ugly’) and atmospheric traits (tornado’s, hurricanes, droughts and flooding) are apt to differ for regions across the U.S., geologic anomalies have given building designers and those who build their creations, fits, from time immemorial. The most prominent example in the arid west of PtP’s life experience: earthquakes.
At this late date, PtP, if he were asked which came first, flexible faucet supplies or flexible water heater supplies, he’d have to equivocate. If he was a betting man (which he isn’t) and he searched his recall, intuition would place faucet supplies in first place, with water heater supplies trailing (but not by much).
Early manufactured residential water heaters which were served by piping (opposed to manually filling (pouring) gravity operated reservoirs), were supplied water through lead and or cast iron/steel pipe. (If the reader wants the full history of water heaters, please consult PtP’s colleague, Larry Weingarten at larryweingarten.com. PtP admits he’s somewhat of a fossil but not all the way back to gravity W.H.’s. He’s also NOT inferring Larry is otherwise.)
In PtP’s arid west landscape, earthquakes are a common experience. The great 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire have had lasting effect upon building codes in his bailiwick, to this day. The author’s first recollection of a flexible water heater supply/connector occurred in this city. He immediately saw the advantage. NOT in labor savings, but in protection from property damage. Did San Francisco Iead in this practice? He knows not. But, prior to the trade’s acceptance of flexible water heater supplies, rigid piping was the foremost and often the only restraint keeping water heaters (during a quake) in the same exact location that the installing plumber left them.
The 1989 San Andreas Earthquake brought this observation into sharp focus. (PtP got “caught with his pants down”: he rode-it-out on the toilet. He survived but the toilet did not.) Afterwards PtP did a land-office business in righting, strapping/securing and plumbing water heaters that had been installed with rigid piping. A toppled water heater, depending upon the location in the structure, can be a source of a terribly bad flood (and fire).
The ’89 event was so powerful that existing, filled, heavy, holding tank heaters tossed about and broke rigid pipe supply (both galv and copper) and or connectors like dielectric unions and steel couplings, causing floods. Another fear: fire. This, arising from ruptured fuel gas lines and/or parted, ‘hot’ electrical wiring.
Following the ’89 seismic event new codes (in the author’s bailiwick) were established regarding the strapping and securing of water heaters (methods & hardware kits) and the manner of supplying them with water: mandatory FLEXIBLE supplies. (For gas-fired heaters this also applied to fuel supply, which will be a future topic of discussion.)
The Big 3
Today we can find three popular types of flexible water heater supply choices:
Corrugated copper (in the author’s bailiwick) was the first flexible water heater supply type on the market. And, it had a long run before serious competition arrived. During this time there were minor design ‘tweaks’ in the corrugations (Illustration 1) which the author also wishes to verbally illustrate further, because they are IMPORTANT differences which can still influence your success or failure when trying to employ this type.
If you will, please take a look at the corrugations in the copper flex in Photo 5 above. At what angle do the sloping sides of the corrugations meet? (Sharply). And, next look at the corrugations in the SS version in Photo 8a, below. The copper corrugations, Photo 5, have almost no RADIUS to their grooves (Illustration 1, above). The grooves of the SS corrugated, as shown in Photo 8a and Illustration 2, are wide and deep. Wide and deep, here, spells success. The width of the groove is equally important to the depth of the groove. But, you need a generous combination of both to be successful.
Copper, inherently, has a ‘behavior’ which works against plumbers (and to other crafts/tradespersons, by degrees). This ‘behavior” makes it hard to work with the more times it’s bent. It’s aptly named:
When trying to employ corrugated copper supplies/connectors, the fewer bends you make the better. Copper, by nature, becomes more stiff and brittle the more times you change its shape, (bend) at the same location. This reaction is called Strain Hardening. It happens because of increasing material fractures. When making bends, and these ‘locations’ happen to be too close together, your chances of success are quickly downgraded. (No Moody’s. ‘PtP’s are the franca here.)
So, the trick is to handle these gingerly and to the slightest degree possible, to ‘make your connections’. In other words: Do it right the very first time and make only surely thought out bends. If you are unable to bend it to your intent, successfully, on the first attempt, in most cases you’ll have ‘Lady Luck’ for one more roll. If you don’t have a full box of’m on the truck, it’s probably better to be doing your designs in corrugated SS, instead. The author will go into excruciating detail on that downstream…(Now’s your last chance to hop outta the canoe).
PtP will install copper flexes IF he can find them in 36-inch length (‘3-footers’). It is VERY important to create 360’s with the connectors, when installing them. When you do this, you have a high degree of assurance that the hot water your heater makes/generates will stay at home (NOT go outside and down the block.)
Stay At Home
Heat Trap nipples may be found, factory installed, in new holding tank heaters. These are an attempt to trap the hot water, between demand cycles. These nipples have moving parts. How many years will they function properly/effectively? ~10-15 yrs? Or, maybe, a lot less? The author doesn’t take the chance, he 360 loops all his supplies. See Illustration 3.
Yes? it’s costing someone $$$ to heat the hot water you use? Without functioning heat trap (‘check valve’) supply nipples in the tank, “offset bends” (Illustration 4) will not prevent this promiscuous behavior of your heated water.
The amount of work taken to create the supply/connectors path (hopefully 360’s) will differ between jobs. It is very handy if the material you are working with ‘likes’ you, or at least, holds no grudges. PtP (only because he’s been doing it for so long) will employ copper flexes (as described/illustrated, above). However, I would not recommend these to any ‘first timer’ and/or ‘timid soul’. Matter of fact: I would not recommend copper corrugated water heater supply tubes/connectors, to anyone if, you/I had access to ‘3-footer’ corrugated stainless ones. You should expect to have to call on/upon a “serious” Wholesale Plumbing Supply to find the ‘3-footers’.
The Chopping Block
It so happens that some wholesale plumbing suppliers are eschewing (altogether) corrugated copper AND stainless steel overbraid supplies (discussed downstream). Corrugated copper has taken the hit primarily for its strain-hardening, and has fast lost its appeal to installers ‘in-the-know’. The SS overbraid is unsatisfactory because it kinks so/too easily. Plus it (overbraid) is subject to material failure in certain situations (discussed downstream).
One Way…My Way
When you wish/need to replace the flexible supply tubing to an existing water heater (or need to do so on a new installation), and cannot find ‘3-footer’ corrugated SS (Photos 1, 2 and 3, above), and now can only do ‘offset’ bends using copper or overbraid “supply’s”, something important should happen. That something is heat trap nipples (Photo 11, below). New heaters often come with them factory installed. If your new outta-the-box or existing heater in question has functioning ones already installed, you could be safe using ‘offset bends’ not 360’s. (The heat trap nipples do (for what period of time?) what 360’s do on standard, straight bore nipples.) They keep water flowing in only one direction. (They do this with moving parts.) (360’s = no moving parts.) Heat trap nipples are also available color coded to eliminate installation confusion. These very handy dielectric nipples keep the water going only one way.
Before “leaving the copper’s behind”, PtP wants to tell you about one last tidbit. In Photo 5, above, we see a ‘whitish’ sleeve edge protruding out the back of the brass supply nut. This sleeve is ‘hat’ shaped. In other words, inside the brass supply nut, it does a 90 degree bend (Illustration 5, below) and also serves as the anti-corrosion (dielectric) shield between the supply nut (brass) and a steel supply nipple (regardless of heat trap or standard). The color of the sleeve has changed over the years. Initially they were red colored; and, a clear, an opaque, a white and a black version followed. You can still find multiple colors represented.
It took a long time though for the manufacturers to eventually develop a ‘survivable’ plastic compound out of which to manufacture this dielectric sleeve. In the ‘early days’ these sleeves would prematurely fail (all brands) due to both the compression forces (stress force) applied upon installation and excessive heat exposure when used on fuel gas powered water heaters. The ‘draft hood’ on some fuel gas heaters (because of poor design) could/can direct extreme heat from combustion onto the lower section of the supply where the brass supply nut fastens onto the steel heater nipples. When this occurs, the dielectric sleeve, under high stress, high temperature, over time, cracks and leaks ensue.
If you are a property owner and have (for whatever reason) successfully installed corrugated copper flexes at your domicile, because you live with the appliance, you can take an occasional look at these sleeves, and make any changes, if needed, to avoid property damage from water going the ‘wrong way’.
Stainless Over Braid (The False Prophet)
This late comer (Photos 6 & 7, below) as mentioned upstream, is losing it’s luster amongst most earnest plumbers and those supply chains who sell to plumbers. (We are asking for them less and less.) At first observation, the water heater version looks like just a big, or Jumbo version of the SS overbraid faucet supply. Basically the construction materials and method of manufacture are the same. But ‘what’ the overbraid faucet supply does well, its big sibling does poorly. And that ‘what’ is tight bends. Bend the WH version and you immediately ‘see’ how quickly it kinks. No tight bends here. To make a 3-footer capable of 360’s would (material wise) result in 1: probably a too expensive an article to compete with the corrugated. 2: ‘That’ length of reduced diameter supply tubing is a big obstacle to attaining efficient operation. Take a look at Photo 7. See what a much smaller hole (passageway) there is in photo 7 than there is in the stainless corrugated version in Photo 8. Between the kink problem and the issue of restriction (not to mention cost) smart people see the advantage of the corrugated SS.
Another complaint heard about the WH overbraid has been warnings of failure when subjected to high temperature, such as is possible when installations are ‘fuel-gassers’, in closets with no more than code sanctioned ‘make-up’ grilles. (BTU to “square-inch-opening” tables are published.) Under that “woven” bright steel wire, is a thick plastic/rubber hose. Now, ‘savvy’ folks know not to store cleaning materials like detergents and bleaches close to gas-fired water heaters, both holding tank and instantaneous. The reactions of off-gassing chemicals in cleaning compounds, and heat (both water and exhaust) can create a corrosive atmosphere which can cause an early demise of the heater’s burner exhaust, due to overly aggressive corrosion. The same conditions can be detrimental to the life of the rubber/plastic inner hose/tube. Tardy detection of major failure of the overbraid supply tube, on an installed water heater, for any reason, means property damage.
Because of the burst history of faucet and laundry machine supply overbraids, which share the manufacturing method with WH flexes, this is enough reason for PtP to shy away from them. We find most water heaters are usually installed in inconspicuous locations, where we tend to forget about them until a disruption of service occurs. Here, leaks can go undetected for a long time, with resulting property damage. The author prefers to not take the chance. He’ll go with the SS corrugated and peace of mind.
My friend Richard, (manager) at a serious wholesale plumbing supply company, told me recently that they had changed brands in their SS corrugated choice because of a sealing washer problem developing in their first-line offering.
PtP has never (thankfully) experienced this problem with any that he’s installed. The washer failure mentioned results with the rubber washer being shoved into the nipple bore. The joint then loses its H20 sealing ability. For those concerned, be dutiful in your record keeping and have original sales receipts of products and materials cross referenced to job site. Regardless of type of supply’s used, regardless of electric versus fuel gas, heaters that are set in quality pans served by conscientiously sized and installed drainage piping is the best hedge against a flood.
An inexpensive, battery powered leak alarm is also worth the investment. As Larry Weingarten (and his dot-com) would intimate to you, ‘Hot water was mankind’s first threshold to civilizing.” PtP sees it as society’s first request of him. (Right behind: where to poop). The almost profound luxury (freedom from the Stone Age labor of making hot water) the public has become expecting of it. Who wants the wrath for anyone disrupting this ‘demand’. Not Pete the Plumber. PARALLEL grooved SS (Photos 1, 2, 3 & 8a, above) provides a big degree of assurance the public’s expectations continue, uninterrupted.
A Stainless Steel Trailer
This trailer has not wheels. It’s an adios finale with a last minute recommendation. SS corrugated’s can be found with grooves of unequal performance. Thankfully, most traded today are of the parallel types as in Photos 1, 2, 3. However, there is a Benedict Arnold amongst us. When you observed the corrugations of copper WH supply/connectors, above, you noticed that they followed a Spiral. This shape tells us that it was created by being rotated in machinery as one piece, probably at a robust temperature. The spiral shape does help them bend by hand. But as discussed upstream, the spiral shape does not bend as tightly and easily, hindering its bindability. And thus a loss of plumber’s choice/desirability.
If you do not take the time (at sales counter) to make sure that the corrugations of your desired SS corrugated supply’s are parallel, you might purchase a ‘second tier' choice: a spiral corrugated Stainless Steel supply/connector (Photo 9, below). This wouldn’t be the end of the world if you were working with ‘3-footers’ in a comfortable height distance. These spiral corrugations often do not have the flexibility of parallel corrugations. Of course you may experience a price increase for going SS corrugated. There’s a legit reason though. See Photos 10 & 10a, below.
If using/working with these supply's will be a new experience for you, the author recommends that you revisit the installation site a couple of times to make sure none of the threaded connections have loosened to the point of a leak forming. The connections should be “snuggly” tight but NOT over tightened. Excessive stress force can shorten the life of a rubber sealing washer and/or hat sleeves, a risk for leaks.
Until Next Time…
Peter Hemp is a San Francisco East Bay residential plumber and plumbing author and former R & D steam vehicle plumber. His hobbies are ocean kayaking and touring the Left Coast by bicycle.
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