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White plastic debris particles coming from water heater tank versus black crud in the water supply:
Hhere we explain how white and gray debris particles in the building water supply and clogging faucet strainers were traced to a bad water heater plastic dip tube. The dip tube was replaced, but then we had to flush the water heater to remove the old dip tube debris fragments. Here is how we did it.
The articles at this website will answer most questions about diagnosing and curing noisy domestic water heaters and about the procedure to remove mineral deposits, lime, water scale, silicates, sulfates, aluminates, or silt and sand from a water heater tank.
White or gray debris in the water supply: As an example of how one might find and cure the cause of debris clogging of faucet strainers and debris found in a building water supply, This article describes and photo-illustrate our diagnostic and repair procedure.
Ralph asked if we could take a look at the sudden appearance of debris particles that kept clogging the faucet strainers in his home.
Other white crud on plumbing fixtures can be caused by mineral deposits or from other problems
but these particles, as we show just below, did not look like a naturally-occurring substance.
Our photo shows a faucet aerator that has been disconnected and its debris dumped out onto a black dish drainer.
There were plenty of white and white-tan colored particles of varying sizes.
That didn't work.
These faucet strainers would clog up again in just a few days.
Clearly there was a problem particle source that we needed to track down.
Watch out: black debris in the water supply, (which is not what we saw in Ralph's faucets) including in the water heater tank, may be from bacteria (common in water heaters), sulphur, magnesium, organic debris, or silt.
In addition, several water contaminants such as iron and magnesium can feed bacteria in the water system that produce orange or black slime and odors that may smell like fuel oil, heating oil, sewage, or even cucumbers.
See WATER STAINING CONTAMINANTS where we discuss the relationship between these stain sources and odors in the water supply.
Odors in water are diagnosed beginning
It was not easy to identify just what these particles were by naked eye examination. But looking under magnification such as a high power hand-held magnifying glass or better, under a stereo microscope we could take a look at the particle size and shape for clues.
Mineral deposits and random soil or dirt particles will be irregular in shape. We didn't take this step but we could have. It might have saved some time.
If the faucet-clogging particles are mineral crud or dirt or soil particles or rust, they will be rough and random in shape.
Had we looked closely at our particles we might have seen that at least some of them were rather shard-like and a few were roughly rectangular with straight edges. That would have suggested that these particles came from a wo/man-made material. We didn't look this carefully, but we could have. It might have saved some time.
We did observe that these particles were pretty soft - you could easily mash them to powder between a thumb and forefinger - this was not sand or dirt. You can see this with the naked eye, but it was instructive to examine these particles in our forensic laboratory (photos below).
The particle shapes (tending to be rectangular and flat) and texture seemed to argue against their consisting of mineral fragments (that tend to be irregular in all dimensions).
In our lab photo below left you can see several interesting features about these white particles:
The edges of the particles tend to be straight or linear, the top surface shows multiple fine cracks or fragmentation in process (stressing I'd call it), and where the particle was easily crushed using light pressure from forceps, it crumbles into a very fine dust in which particles are reduced from 1/8" to to micron-range sizes in their longest dimension.
Look closely at the debris particle at upper left - you can also see some brown staining that appears to be iron deposits or possibly silt from the building water piping and supply.
In our later photos (below) you can see this same orange coating on the interior of the dip tube pipe fragment.
Our second forensic lab photo of the white debris particles found in Ralph's faucet strainer (above right) demonstrates what happened when we exposed the particles to a mild acid. Any mild acid would have been fine. The particles remained intact and went into suspension, even after five minutes or more of exposure. Exposure to a base also did not affect these particles.
Note: Acids commonly used for particle immersion include lactic acid and acid fuschin. Bases commonly used in the lab for particle immersion include KOH and NaOH. Thanks to reader Tom for pointing out the need for this clarification - 9/6/12.
If these white debris particles had been calcium, a common mineral deposited in "hard water" supply systems and one that can leave white deposits or even build up into thick white deposits , they would have dissolved. Our acid had no effect on these particles, lending credence to the hypothesis that they are plastic and were formed from a deteriorated plastic water heater dip tube.
We could also have put these particles in vinegar (a mild acid) to see if they would dissolve.
A common restoration repair for mineral-clogged and coated faucet strainers or other plumbing parts is to soak them over night in vinegar.
The acidic soak will usually soften and often dissolve calcium or magnesium mineral deposits and crud while leaving the chromed or plastic parts un-damaged. We didn't take this step but we could have.
Because of what Ralph said in the next step in our water particle crud diagnosis discussion this whole lab step of trying to dissolve particles to see if they were minerals could be skipped. Ultimately we confirmed by direct inspection and discovery of the source that these small white fragments were debris from a disintegrating plastic dip tube in the water heater.
The New York home where these water system particles is connected to a municipal water supply. A first guess would tend to rule out mineral deposits or crud that might be breaking free in a water heater or in water piping. But we didn't fully rule that out: the home is old enough that it might have been previously connected to a private well and hard or high-mineral-content water.
But we didn't' think hard water was a likely cause of these particles because usually mineral build-up sticks like glue to the inside of pipes and water heaters. Unless something disturbed it such as the water heater de-scaling operation described
In discussing the history of the building pipes and plumbing equipment, Ralph mentioned that the water heater (which was more than 10 years old, had recently been producing tepid "hot" water. A plumber was called to diagnose the trouble. He found that the water heater dip tube "needed replacement" and a new one was installed.
A leaky water heater dip tube can cause hot water to run tepid, as we explain
and also illustrate
Because most sink and tub faucets use a common spout for both hot and cold water, it won't be obvious whether particles or debris are coming just hot water, just cold water, or both hot and cold water when we just examine a clogged [sink] faucet strainer.
But we did observe that faucets that were used to run a lot of hot and warm water - the kitchen sink, for example, clogged much faster than other faucets in the home.
We decided that there was a good chance that water heater dip tube parts might be the source of this building water supply debris. Also, since Ralph pointed out that the water heater tank had never been drained, we figured that performing that normal maintenance task was a good idea anyway.
Like vacuuming refrigerator coils, the manufacturer may recommend an annual maintenance task but many building owners have other problems on their mind.
We decided that it made sense to drain and flush the water heater tank.
We figured that we would be able to see if there was a scaling or liming problem or some other rust or crud problem by peeking into the water heater tank bottom through the water heater drain valve opening.
See photos in this separate article at WATER HEATER SCALE DE-LIMING PROCEDURE.
Our photo (left) is a sneak preview of what we found inside this water heater and of what was confirmed as our building plumbing particulate debris source.
Watch out: draining and flushing out a residential water heater is pretty easy and only a few common hand tools (adjustable wrench) are needed.
But it's only easy if nothing goes wrong. A stuck or broken control valve or drain valve, or difficulty finding how to drain water out of a basement-located water heater with no nearby floor drain can all present challenges during the drain operation, and there can be a few surprises when you are putting things back together too: a leaky water heater drain valve or leaky water heater relief valve.
That article describes dealing with the more common of these water heater tank draining troubles: defective water heater tank drain valve, water heater cold water-in supply valve won't operate. .
Watch out: Safety Warnings: don't tackle this water heater cleanout project on a Sunday night when you can't call a plumber or buy a replacement part. Water heaters, their heating source (oil or gas burner or electricity or solar hot water), and particularly their relief valves include critical safety components.
Do not modify or remove relief valves, chimney connections, draft hoods, etc. as you may create dangerous conditions.
Following the first steps at WATER HEATER DRAIN PROCEDURE we drained the water heater tank, but we had to make use of a pony pump to get our water heater to drain "uphill" and out of a basement window, as we illustrate here.
At WATER HEATER DRAIN PROCEDURE the basic steps illustrated there include:
Use a pony pump if you need to drain "uphill" from the hot water tank to a suitable drain location.
See PUMPS, PONY PUMPS for details.
Because there was no convenient floor drain to accept water heater drainage, we using a common garden hose routed to outdoors or to an indoor building drain lower than the water heater outlet.
The basics of how to drain a water heater tank are
at WATER HEATER DRAIN PROCEDURE
The tools we needed to flush the water heater are shown in the photo:
a pony pump,
a washing machine hose to connect the pump to the water heater drain outlet, and
a garden hose (not shown) to connect the pony pump outlet side to push water up and out through a basement window.
Watch out: some pumps will be damaged if they are run "dry" and others may be damaged by very hot water.
Then we opened the water heater bottom drain valve to feed water into the pump, then we plugged in (turned on) our pump to push water out of the tank and to outdoors.
I was a little worried that water heater debris might clog or even ruin the pump - we stopped once and disassembled the impeller to check but it was fine.
Our photo shows the basement window out of which we routed our drain hose fed by the pump.
Watch out: when you are finished pumping water out of the water heater (the pump sound will change because it's running dry) quickly turn off the pump so it's not damaged, and also quickly close the drain opening at the bottom of the water heater tank so that you don't siphon back water from the garden hose into the water tank.
It's not a catastrophe but we're trying to spill as little water into the basement as possible.
With the hose removed you can open the water heater tank drain valve again to see if you really successfully pumped all of the water out. If you didn't you may spill a bit.
We graded ourselves a "C" on step as we spilled water.
The photograph at above left illustrates the plastic water heater drain valve after we had removed it from the water heater tank.
The photos below show what we found in the water heater tank after removing the drain valve.
Above you can see a fragment of plastic dip tube resting right at the water heater drain valve opening.
Below we give a nicer view of the dip tube fragment as we began to fish it out of the tank.
A spring-fingered mechanic's grabbing/fishing tool was handy for this step.
This was by no means easy. In fact it was a mess.
We figured that in for a penny in for a pound, it would be stupid to just drag out that one big fragment and put everything back together. We wanted to do everything possible to stop that flow of plastic dip tube fragments through the plumbing system where they were clogging faucets every two days.
With the water heater tank empty of water and a plastic bucket held under the drain valve opening, we repeatedly gave the water tank a "shot" of incoming cold water, then quickly turned the water off.
That surge of water was sufficient to push lots more plastic debris and junk into our plastic bucket as you can see in our photo (below left).
This was a horrible job - with (mostly Ralph) making repeated trips upstairs and outdoors to dump our buckets of debris and water. We spilled plenty on the floor too.
We could have installed a short nipple into the water heater tank drain valve opening to direct more flush out into the bucket and less onto the floor, but we didn't.
I figured that we wanted the largest possible opening to try to get those big fragments out of the water tank.
Leaving any big fragments in the water heater would mean that they would simply be broken up and continue to clog the house plumbing and faucets in the future.
So we kept up this flush surge and bucket emptying cycle until no more debris came out of the water heater tank bottom. Our (limited) view into the water heater tank through this opening now looked clean.
If we had observed scale deposits in the water heater (which we did not expect) we'd have followed the procedure
But we were confident that the we now knew exactly what happened. When the plumber installed a new water heater dip tube, the remnants of the old one were left sitting in the bottom of the water heater tank.
If s/he had warned you about the possibility of dip tube fragments showing up in the water supply you'd have asked how to prevent that.
The answer would have been this tedious (and if you hired a plumber to do it, time consuming and expensive) process.
Many homeowners would have decided to wait and see.
Was this water heater tank flush out job successful and did it confirm the dip tube as our suspected source of particles in the water supply piping and clogged faucets?
It was easy to crush the larger soft plastic dip tube pieces into small fragments that matched what was showing up in the building's faucet strainers, and plenty of small matching particles also joined the big ones during our flush job.
We cleaned up and teflon pipe-doped the threads on the water heater drain valve and reinstalled it. [Photo at left is a different but similar water heater]
Watch out: don't over-tighten a water heater drain valve nor any other part during reinstallation. If you break the part or strip threads it can mean having to buy a whole new water heater.
In tightening a drain valve (or relief valve on the side of a water heater tank) we want the valve mouth to end up pointing down.
We re-filled the water heater tank with cold water and
We checked the water heater for leaks.
This job step got an "F" - the valve was leaking even when the water heater was still cold. We tried tapping on the valve gently and flushing the valve seat to no avail.
The leak was a slow drip that continued for a couple of days until we could return, drain enough water out of the tank, then replace the valve with a new one.
at WATER HEATER AIR INLET.
Additional tips on draining and re-filling a water heater tank can be found
at WATER HEATER DRAIN PROCEDURE
Watch out: DO NOT TURN THE WATER HEATER BACK ON BEFORE IT IS FULL OF WATER.
If you make that mistake, on an electric water heater, the heater's electric heating elements will be destroyed in a second or less.
On gas or oil fired heatrers the water heater may also be damaged, destroyed or unsafe if the heater is run before it is full of water.
We turned the water heater back on: restoring its electrical (if it's an electric water heater) or gas supply, and for older heaters that use a gas pilot one would have to re-light the pilot.
Check for leaks again later: We also checked the tank (Ralph did) a day or so after all of our repairs were complete, just to be sure nothing was leaking.
As these reader questions demonstrate, it's not unusual for a deteriorating water heater dip tube or anode to send debris into the water supply system, clogging faucet strainers and shower heads. A deteriorated sacrificial anode an also be a source of water heater odors.
I have small white particles that clog my faucet water savers I was told that plastic material was used in some water heaters and this deteriorates over time, causing this problem. Is this true? I have an A.O. Smith 55 gallon water heater made in 1995. - Bill 2/5/12
The dip tube is a tube that extends from the inlet to the bottom of the water heater to prevent the incoming cold water from mixing with the hot water causing a rapid reduction in temperature of the water going out of the tank.
In the 90's there was a period from about 1992-1997 where almost every water heater made by any manufacturer with few exceptions used a dip tube supplied by the Perfection Tube Company which proved to be defective with the plastic used disintegrating.
This was also the subject of a class action lawsuit for which the claims period is now over. AO Smith was one of the companies and the manufacture date is in the middle of the defect period I have no doubt your dip tube is bad.
On a 17 year old water heater I would recommend replacement as the most viable option. - Red Wood
Bill: we agree completely with Red Wood - Thanks Red for your comments.
We suspect that a combination of high water heater temperatures and possibly a water supply containing chlorine may accelerate the deterioration of this or other plastics in the plumbing system.
We also have had to drain and thoroughly flush a water heater after replacing the dip tube (photo above left). The client's plumber replaced the plastic dip tube that had disintegrated in the water heater, but clogging continued because no one had gotten all that plastic crud out of the tank.
In our article above, beginning
at DEBRIS in WATER SUPPLY, Water Heater we describe the diagnosis and correction of these white plastic debris particles left in the water heater when a plastic dip tube disintegrates.
At WATER HEATER ANODES, DIP TUBES we describe inspection and replacement of water heater dip tubes.
- Daniel [-Editor]
I just found out that our Weil McLain indirect hot water tank has a defective dip tube and has cause my entire home to have loss of water pressure and clogged plumbing fixtures and appliances. The problem became so bad that we lost use of our kitchen silk and shower.
After 2 years of investigation, I ended up contacting Weil McLain and they gave me a new water tank right away. Also, they have agreed to replace the damaged fixtures throughout the entire house.
I am contacting you now to ask if you are aware of any health issues that could arise due to ingesting these particles?
We have 4 small children ranging from 3 to 12 years of age which have been living with this problem (taking baths, drinking water and eating foods prepared with the contaminated water).
I realize this subject may be out of your zone of knowledge but thought best to at least ask, as your website seems very thorough on the subject of dip tub problems.
I thank you in advance for any information or resources you could share with us. - G.S. 3/29/2013
I'm sure sorry it took so long to figure out the problem. Someone who knew what they were doing should have found it in five minutes by checking a faucet strainer and recognizing the white particulate debris.
There may be potential health hazards IF the dip tube you describe was made of PVC (which many are - or more likely CPVC) but a literature search I conducted for this reply could not find a reference to such events. I did find reference to testing for CPVC particles from dip tubes in water supplies.
Your first order of business is to find out what the tube was made-of. Or if you have samples of the debris, to have them analyzed.
You'd need something like a, FTIR spectrograph of dip tube plastic and polypropylene.
This test is discussed in Qualitative Qualitative Procedures For Identifying Particles In Drinking Water [book for sale at Amazon], Stephen Booth, Blaise J. - Editors. American Water Works Association, 2005, ISBN 1583213740, 9781583213742
Also see Ruth Ricahrson & Marc dwards, "Vinyl Chloride and Organotin Stabilizers in Water Contacting New and Aged PVC Pipes", Web Report 2991, 2009, Water Research Foundation, 6666 West Quincy Avenue, Denver, CO 80235-3098. Their research included this finding "In all cases VC levels were below the MCL of 0.002 mg/L but above the MCLG (MCL Goal) of 0 mg/L."
Based on those sources I suspect that the actual health risk was low because of the comparatively low total volume of plastic material involved, and that the risk would also vary by water temperature, chemistry, and water volumes involved. But this is NOT my area of expertise.
Your second order of risk assessment business would be to ask an industry expert (see the article I've attached) for an opinion. Beware that there may be a very big gap between theory or opinion and demonstrable fact.
And of course, ask your doctor for an opinion.
Continue reading at WATER HEATER FLUSH PROCEDURE - how to clean out a hot water heater tank, or select a topic from closely-related articles below, or see our complete INDEX to RELATED ARTICLES below.
Or see WATER HEATER DEBRIS FAQs - questions and answers posted originally on this page
Or see WATER HEATER DRAIN PROCEDURE
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