Gas water heater guide:
How to buy, install, inspect, troubleshoot & repair gas-fired hot water heaters. The articles at this website will answer most questions about all types of hot water heaters as well as many other building plumbing system inspection or defect topics.
LP & Natural Gas-fueled calorifiers, hot water cylinders, water heaters. This page contains links to in-depth articles on inspecting, testing, and repairing problems residential hot water heaters of all types, including their parts, controls, and alternative sources for hot water as well as tips for improving hot water temperature, hot water pressure, and hot water quantity.
Our photo above shows an antiquated gas-fired water heater (white unit in left foreground) and just for fun, we've included an old Range Boiler water heater hidden back in the corner (silver unit behind the gas fired water heater).
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The sketch at left shows the basic components of a gas-fired water heater and is provided courtesy of Carson Dunlop Associates. It's easy to identify a gas-fired water heater:
if you can find your water heater tank at all, take a look at what pipes and wires are connected to it.
A gas-fired water heater will have two water pipes connected to it (cold-in and hot out), and a pipe or in some jurisdictions a flexible copper tube bringing LP gas or natural gas to the heater.
The gas fired water heater will have a flue or "chimney" which vents combustion gases outside, either by connection to an existing chimney or flue, or in the case of power-vented and high efficiency gas water heaters, flue gases may be vented outdoors by a plastic pipe.
You'll also see a thermostat and gas valve control which combines a temperature setting with a safety device that senses the presence of a gas flame. (If there is no flame the control will turn off the flow of gas to the appliance.) Lots of newer gas fired water heaters will also include a flue gas spill switch at the draft hood atop the water heater.
Caution: sometimes an electric or other additional water heater is installed as an additional or backup hot water source, so you'll also want to see if you have other hot water heating equipment installed besides the first water heater that you see. Other hot water sources, such as a Tankless Coil for Hot Water, may also be present.
Gas-fired water heater Inspection Checklist
Gas Fired Water Heater (Calorifier, Cylinder, Geyeser) Inspection Point
Gas Water Heater Hazard Details in This Article
Comments & More Information
|Chimneys & Vents||Gas Fired Water Heater Chimney & Venting Defects such as missing draft hood, blocked chimney, flue or vent, rusted or leaky flue or vent, short flue, short chimney, cold flue, backdrafting, flue gas spillage|
|Unsafe Venting or Inadequate Combustion Air: Dangerous Carbon Monoxide Hazards: examples|
|Burner & Burner Flame||Gas Fired Water Heater Flame Defects such as flame rollout, burn marks, improper flame color, uneven flame, noises, flame lift off burner|
|Combustion Air Supply||Inadequate Combustion Air at Gas Water Heaters due to location in an enclosed space or where combustion air intake is blocked|
|Temperature & Pressure Relief Valve||Gas Water Heater Relief Valve Hazards such as improper or missing TPR valve piping, TPR valve leaks, or TPR valve inaccessible|
|Installation Location & Position||Gas Water Heater Installation Location, Position, Mechanical Damagesuch as located in a bedroom, installed horizontally|
|Leaks at or around the Water Heater||Leaky water heater tanks& other leaks such as a leak at the TPR valve or at nearby water supply piping.|
|Temperature Settings for Water Heater||Water heater temperature settingsmay be too high: a scalding burn hazard, or too low, water is not hot enough.|
|Piping & Controls||Water heater controls, piping valves and materials, routing, such as leaks in the gas piping, use of plastic piping too close to the water heater, improper stop valve locations, corroded leaky piping or piping connections|
|Insulation||Check Gas Water Heater Insulation - add-on insulation is usually unnecessary and may be dangerous|
|Dip Tube / Sacrificial Anode||Sacrificial Anode & Dip Tube of the Water Heater Tank: a failed dip tube causes loss of hot water while a corroded sacrificial anode can cause odors in the hot water supply|
|Noises at the Water Heater||Water heater noises are often traced to the lime scale deposits on the water heater bottom or to water hammer (that can also cause TPR valve leaks)|
|Odors in Hot Water Supply||Water heater odors or odors in hot water, particularly sulphur or rotten egg smells are often traced to a bad sacrificial anode|
|Old or Antiquated Water Heaters||Antiquated & Antique Gas Fired Water Heaters may be unreliable or unsafe|
|Improper LPG <-> Natural Gas Fuel Conversion||To convert a gas fired water heater or any gas appliance betweeen fuels requires changes to the regulator, gas orifices, and other adjustments. Otherwise the equipment will not operate properly and is unsafe.|
|Water Heater Safety: other concerns|
|Water Heater Exposed to Freezing|
Caution: no inspection checklist for any topic can ever be complete or comprehensive; important water heater inspection topics may be omitted as we're working on this section.
If you have comments, questions, suggestions, Contact Us by email.
Synomyms for "water heater" vary depending on where you live and include claorifier, hot water cylinder, geyser. The inspection points for gas water heating devices listed in this table apply equally to calorifiers, hot water cylinders and geysers.
Our photo (left) shows an LP gas fired water heater that caught fire. This outdoor water heater installation was observed at the Ex Hacienda, Gogorron, San Luis Potosi, Mexico. The complete absence of a venting chimney on this heater may have been a factor in its poor operation. The water heater inspection dog was a volunteer.
Check for proper exhaust venting of combustion products from your gas fired water heater. If necessary see these gas water heater venting guides:
Old chimney warnings: Where a gas fired water heater is connected to a large masonry chimney it may not be able to develop sufficient draft to vent properly. The result could be dangerous spillage of flue gases into the building.
Shared flue warnings: Where a gas fired water heater shares a chimney with other heaters such as a boiler, venting of the water heater's combustion products may be unreliable, depending on whether the other larger appliance is operating or not.
Some jurisdictions do not permit sharing a flue between a gas fired appliance and other fuels such as oil; other communities may permit shared flues provided the gas vent is properly connected: usually entering the main chimney flue below rather than above the more powerfully-venting oil fired appliance.
Watch out: a blocked or leaky gas appliance venting flue is likely to cause dangerous, possibly fatal carbon monoxide leaks into a building.
A gas fired water heater whose exhaust flue is too short may fail to develop adequate draft to vent the water heater safely and properly.
See your water heater's installation manual for the minimum allowable water heater chimney or flue height, and consider also the effects on water heater chimney draft of installations in cold or hot climates.
In our photo at left you can see an LP gas fired water heater installed outdoors beside a mobile home that we inspected in Monticello, N.Y. Notice (click to enlarge any InspectApedia image) that the water heater is not connected to its chimney, is installed outdoors with no protection from the weather, and is installed in a climate subject to freezing weather.
Also notice the old dead water heater leaning against its replacement. We figured that this water heater, if it's working at all, will soon join its sister. This is an improper and unsafe water heater installation.
Even a semi-outdoor installation such as the LP gas fired water heater shown at left can have problems. This water heater (inspected in San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, Mexico) is installed where it is completely protected from rain.
But the water heater was not adequately protected from periodic strong winds.
The clue that led to this finding was the parade of clay floor tiles stacked around the water heater bottom in a (usually successful) attempt to prevent the wind from blowing out the pilot light for this water heater.
Watch out: extreme measures to protect a gas fired (pilot light type) water heater from being blown out by wind may risk blocking combustion air - resulting in dangerous, potentially fatal carbon monoxide poisoning even at an outdoor water heater if the heater is not properly vented and is installed where its exhaust gases may enter a building.
See the water heater photo just above, outside the mobile home window, for an example of this hazard.
On occasion we find items stored atop of a gas fired water heater, or as in the photo at below left, debris which has been drawn into and around the draft hood, interfering with proper water heater draft and risking unsafe venting of combustion gases from the building.
At the property where we took the photo at above left, the occupants had kept a number of large, hairy, shedding dogs in the basement utility area and their hair had clogged the water heater vent.
In our LP gas fired water heater photo shown at above right, the installer simply didn't have room for the draft hood when the water heater was installed, so he just omitted it - leaving the draft hood atop the water heater but not connected - let somebody else figure out this installation he decided.
Watch out: Without its draft hood a gas fired heating appliance cannot be expected to operate properly & safely. We discuss gas appliance draft hoods further at DRAFT HOOD, GAS HEATER.
Check for evidence of flue gas spillage at the gas fired water heater's draft hood by looking for burn marks, rust, soot or debris.
The burn marks in our right hand photo show a serious flue gas venting problem with the gas fired water heater.
If flue gas spillage detection sensors (spill switches) are required in your jurisdiction they must be properly installed, usually at the gas vent draft hood.
(On some gas fired appliances such as furnaces or boilers additional sensors may be installed at or close to the gas burner as well.)
Our photo at left shows that we found a flue gas spill switch lying atop of the gas fired water heater - it had never been installed.
Watch out: Dangerous carbon monoxide warning & soot from gas appliances: If any gas fired appliance is producing soot it should be shut down immediately, inspected, and repaired before use. Soot from a gas appliance, or high levels of indoor moisture condensation that are traced to that appliance, are indicators of improper venting of combustion products and risk the production of dangerous, potentially fatal carbon monoxide gas.
See SPILL SWITCH, FLUE GAS DETECTOR for details about the flue gas spillage sensor switch.
Check for flame color indicating inadequate combuation air, damaged gas burners, gas flame roll-out burn marks, dirty or obstructed gas burner orifices, uneven flames.
See GAS FLAME & NOISE DEFECTS for details
Check for proper combustion air supply for your gas fired water heater. Failure to provide sufficient combustion air is dangerous: lack of adequate combustion air will cause a gas burner to produce dangerous, potentially fatal carbon monoxide gas.
Check the pressure and temperature relief valve on your water heater: look for evidence of corrosion, leaks, improper installation, etc. A missing, modified, blocked, or leaky pressure relief valve is extremely dangerous and can lead to a catastrophic BLEVE boiling liquid vapor explosion that can cause severe damage or even fatalities at a building.
Look for evidence of leaks in the hot water tank, or mechanical damage, or improper installation. For example most water heaters are intended to be installed in a vertical position. Installing a hot water tank horizontally or in a hole in a crawl space is likely to cause early failure of the heater, violate the manufacturer's guidelines, and may be dangerous.
In our photo at above left a gas-fired water heater is leaking.
That puddle on the floor needs investigation. Look for leaks at valves and piping around the water heater, leaks in the water heater tank itself, and look for leaks at the pressure/temperature relief valve.
Water heater temperatures set above 120F risk scalding the building occupants unless a mixing valve or anti-scald valve system has been isntalled.
Water heater temperatures may also be set too low, providing water that is not hot enough.
On a gas fired water heater the heater temperature control is usually on the gas valve itself - the black dial shown in the photo above..
See ANTI_SCALD VALVES & HOT WATER QUANTITY for details about safe hot water temperatures.
Check the water piping and control valves connected to the water heater for leaks, support, and for proper location of shutoff valves. An improperly installed shutoff valve on a water heater can be very dangerous, risking an explosion. Usually the "hot water tank shutoff valve" is installed only on the cold water pipe coming into the water tank (blue arrow in our photo at left)..
There should be no shutoff valve installed on the hot water line (red arrow in our photo) leaving the water tank.
Check for Gas Leaks: In addition to a characteristic odor that you may smell associated with LP or natural gas leaks, a prolonged gas leak may leave telltale dark stains on the gas piping or control.
See GAS LEAK DETECTION, LP / NG for details.
Vacuum relief valves are required at water heaters in some communities, to protect against collapse of the water storage tank and to prevent backup of hot water into the cold water piping should cold water pressure drop. See this Carson Dunlop sketch of a vacuum relief valve [image].
In our photo above a gas-fired water heater is connected to plastic water supply piping. The pressure rating of plastic water piping systems is usually specified in terms of the temperature as well as pressure in the piping system.
Watch out: hot water temperatures may reduce the permitted pressure rating of plastic water piping in some installations, depending on the brand and product type of plastic water piping installed.
The risk is a burst water pipe, scalding, or flooding in the building.
On some plastic water piping systems you may also find a hot water expansion relief valve installed to provide added protection to the system.
If plastic water piping is installed, such as polybutylene water supply piping, it should be at least 18" from the water heater itself.
Our photo above shows corrosion at dissimilar metals at the top of a water heater tank. When the connections at the water heater top are sufficiently rusted and corroded the heater will be un-repairable.
Look for insulation that has been improperly added to the water heater tank - it may be unsafe and may violate the manufacturer's installation instructions and warranty.
At below left we show a working Standard Combination Gas FIred Boiler / Water Heater manufactured by Keystone Supply in Philadelphia, PA. At below right The antique gas-fired water heater shown at left is installed in the Gaudi Apartments in Barcelona, Spain. By modern standards this is an unsafe water heater.
The dip tube on many water heaters functions as a sacrificial anode, as we show here.
By constructing the dip tube of a metal which is more readily corroded than the steel of a steel hot water tank, the anode protects the hot water tank from early failure due to corrosion.
Here Carson Dunlop's sketch shows the location of the sacrificial anode on an electric water heater.
If your water supply happens to be highly conductive or corrosive
(see WATER TESTING GUIDE) then the dip tub/sacrificial anode in the water tank may indeed corrode away until it leaks (dropping the hot water temperature) or disappears entirely.
If your hot water smells like rotten eggs, you should definitely check the condition of the sacrificial anode on the hot water heater, no matter what kind of water tank you've got installed.
For details of how to inspect or replace the sacrificial anode or dip-tube on a water heater, please see Water Heater Anodes & Dip Tubes
Reader Question: soot formed at gas fired water heater vent or chimney
4/19/2014 (at WATER HEATERS - home) Dan said:
I have a propane water heater. It builds up a very thick layer of carbon inside on the burner area. It has done this now for 5 years in a row. I have replace 5 water heaters in 5 years.
My problem is I can not get anyone to properly fix my issue. I have had 3 different plumbers come out over the last 5 years. I have replaced the water heater every year now for 5 years in a row.
I have spent more than $9,000 on water heaters and repairs in the last 5 years. The propane company has come out every time and checked everything line presure is good presure regulators are checked, I also have a propane furance which uses the same propane feed and has no issues. I suspect contanimation in the propane tank but the propane company disagrees mainly because my furance has no issues. Is their an independent testing lab that I can have come out and draw a sample from my propane tank and test it?
Perhaps I should add that these 5 water heaters have all been different brands. I was thinking it might be a problem with the water heater itself but seeing as all 5 have all had the same problem with carbon buildup and we are talking about 2 inches or more in a year enough to plug up the vent stack which is powered by the way and that causes the shutdown of the tank. Sometimes the gas valve sticks because of the buildup which causes the shutdown
But anyway it is all the same problem excessive carbon and lots of it. And all they do is replace the water heater with a new one. Every plumber says they have never seen a water heater look as bad as mine does. They are all stumped and so am I. Quite frankly I am at the end of my rope with this.
Dan I can only *speculate* as information is very incomplete in your question, but
WATCH OUT: it sounds to me as if there is a combustion air or venting problem that risks production of dangerous, even fatal carbon monoxide gas. [There may also be a propane gas leak hazard related to this problem - Ed.]
Normal burning of propane gas produces CO2 and water vapor if combustion is complete. If combustion is incomplete because of any reason the result is CO - carbon monoxide.
You should start with an inspection of the flues, vents, chimney connections, chimnney, and combustion air by a qualified expert, perhaps a chimney sweep and a qualified heating technician or by your local gas provider and building department.
The vent is PVC pipe it runs up 3 feet and out side of the house another 3 feet. It is 4 inch PVC and all of it was replaced last year including the vent cover on the outside of the house all done according to code and signed off by a building inspector because I demanded it last year from all involved parties. I did not want this to happen again but it did anyway this year. It is a powered vent with a presure switch that is supposed to shut down the water heater if it is not venting properly. That switch has never kicked out.
I can add now a horror story after the fact. The plumber came out to fix my hot water heater. The one I have installed now has a 6 year warranty I pay nothing for repairs or maintainence for 6 years.
And the install was certified by a building inspector as well to insure this warranty. So anyway the plumer comes out and I tell him if the tanks burner is full of carbon again then please replace it as its efficientcy will go down even if you do just clean it out. Then I went to work. I get a phone call 3 hours later. He cleaned it and well the bad news. I say what...
He says his vacuum cleaner he was using exploded on him and filled my finished basement with a black cloud of carbon dust. He called his insurance company and they sent out a hazmat team to clean out my basement.
Clean the furniture and the entertainment center equipment and several ultra high end computers systems all need to be opened up and cleaned the washer and dryer they opened up and cleaned out the motors and the circuit boards etc. 7 guys cleaned Friday and now today and all this week they expect to be done by this friday. So I said to the plumber wouldn't it have been cheaper to just replace the water heater like I asked. He said his boss told him the same thing.
So my wife is ready to sell the house we had to evacuate our house for Easter so much for our family get together. This is really getting to us. Everybody I have talked to about this says they have never seen a problem like this before.
Addendum I now have insurance adjusters that want to pull a sample of propane from my tank to have it tested.
It will be indeed interesting to check for contaminated propane. We don't know a thing about your fuel supplier, but once a year or so we do read about a fuel supplier, usually for heating oil not propane, who was fudging a bit on what they were delivering.
But one would think that if the problem were bad propane fuel, many other consumers in your area, served by the same propane delivery company, would be having similar problerms.
WATCH OUT: because of the risk of a fatal carbon monoxide poisoning problem the priority of attention should be
Where safety is concerned, a "sign-off" without being dead certain about the qualifications of the inspection person and the care of the inspection leaves me nervous. I've run into near-fatal safus involving too many assumptions and sign-offs.
Usually your best bet is to contact the company who made your heating equipment - they have a great interest in its safe, reliable operation.
WATCH OUT AGAIN: your story of an exploding vacuum cleaner is a strong suggestion that un-burned combustible gas was being vacuumed by the service technician. Most vacuum cleaners use rather modest motors that spark continuously and will certainly ignite an accumulation of combustible gas. A gas piping error or leak in or near the heating equipment could explain this explosion of the vacuum cleaner.
Only if a technician were using a special explosion-proof vacuum cleaner (such as those made by HafcoVac, Nilfsk, Ruwac, or Minuteman, ) would might this hazard sneak by - even then leaving an explosion hazard in the building! This is not a theoretical hazard but a real one, exemplified by your own explosing vacuum cleaner report and supported by case law such as these vacuum cleaner explosion citations and I'm sure many others:
Thank You for the warning on CO. I do have a CO detector in the room with the water heater for just that reason. Got it 3 years ago. It has never shown any signs of CO over the 3 years it has been in operation.
And again I have had everything inspected last year when this water heater was installed. Vents connections all was told to me to be in perfect condition and my "problem" was solved I would not have this new water heater carbon up on me. That was said last year and I said we will see about that, I bet I will have you come out again next year to fix it again. He said at that time well we do cover it under warranty so if that worst case happens we will fix it at no cost to you. I said fine see you next year.
And here we are next year same problem. They have no idea what caused it, The carbon build up which shut down the water heater. It is an on going problem now 5 years running. Until my basement is cleaned out end of this week I will not be able to have anyone work on the water heater problem.
It is working now after he cleaned it. How well I do not know. I may be burning an orange flame right now for all I know. I can not insect it til the hazmat team is finnished cleaning the basement.
Dan the exploding vacuum cleaner detail argues for a gas leak, perhaps inside the device. So we've got two hazards to watch for: production of soot often means production of dangerous CO, and exploding vaccuum cleaner while vacuuming the heater argues for a combustible gas leak in the area where the vacuum was operating.
When we hear about a heating device that produces soot as you describe, it should be patently obvious, even to a beginner servicve tech, that just vacuuming out the soot is not fixing the problem, and the equipment is unsafe to boot.
keep me posted and stay safe.
I was told by the service tech and he told the insurance adjuster that he thought the carbon dust caused the vacuum to explode similar to a grain dust explosion in a grain elevator. He checked the gas lines in the house for leaks before he started the vacuum. And the gas was turned off at the tank at the time.
I had not considered that the vacuum explosion was because of a gas leak inside the house. I have never found a gas leak inside the house. And I have had this done 5 years in a row now. Every year they check my system for gas leaks before they install the new water heater. 5 water heaters in 5 years now.
The propane supplier last year installed all new presure regulators one on the tank and one on the house and tested the supply for leaks and presure. They tested it all again this year and found no problems or leaks. They tested the line presure at the water heater and the furnace both were good.
All that was done prior to his cleaning of the water heater with the exploding vacuum.
Well that's encouraging and says something about the limits of speculation about what's going on with mechanical systems when we're offsite and texting.
Still, we want to know why there is so much soot being produced. Generally it's a symptom of improper or incomplete combustion or improper venting - which is why I've been worried about system safety. When you report that the sooting problem has occurred across a number of gas fired appliances installed in the same location and venting through the same chimney or vent system, then one tends to suspect the fuel, combustion air or venting system rather than the appliance, though I suppose the same installer might be making a similar mistake across multiple installations.
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(Feb 18, 2013) Monarch B said:
Do you have any troubleshooting information about gas-fired water heater pilot light going off frequently, sometimes 3 times a day? (Also, soot was found building up on the gas stove burner that is located within 10 feet of the hot water heater.)
Monarch: look for a bad thermocouple.
(Mar 2, 2014) Matt G. said:
A problem just occured with my natural gas hot water heater. it seems to be constantly running/heating and the vent at the top and the vent pipe going out seems to be abnormally hotter than usual. Even the plastic pieces around the inlet/outlets and the cap for the anode have melted from the increased amount of heat. Worried about a potential for fire, i shut the tank and gas off to the tank. anyhow have any suggestions of what's going on and what i need to do..thanx.
Matt I'd turn the heater off; it sounds as if a limit control switch has failed; it's unusual for a thermostatic switch to fail in the ON mode but possible.
(Dec 9, 2014) George Davis said:
Reader Question: soot formed at gas fired water heater vent or chimney
4/19/2014 (at WATER HEATERS - home) Dan said:
I have a propane water heater. It builds up a very thick layer of carbon.....
There is a good possibility that another mechanical device is creating the problem. An attic fan, exhaust fan, clothes dryer, power attic vent or similar device can create enough negative pressure in the room where the hot water heater is located to actually draw in outside air through the vent for the water heater. This could cause near stagnant air in the combustion chamber leading to a lack of oxygen for proper combustion. This situation might occur only intermittently but have cumulative results leading to the sooting of the water heater. By the same token, if the water heater is in a closet, when the service tech opens the closet door, then the problem no longer exists until he closes the door again.
Watch out: Sooting on gas fired heaters is quite dangerous, risking fatal carbon monoxide poisoning. Id ask for help from a plumbing and heating service company with expertise in gas fired equipment.
(Feb 28, 2015) RIMA W LANE said:
Hello, I have an LP water heater. I discovered I had no hot water the other day. I lit the pilot and when i turned the burner on it did fine for a few seconds and then caught in the burner. I tried this 2 more times with same result.Can you tell me what the proplem might be please? Whirlpool, about 6 years old, with sealed burner
Rima I'm not sure what's going on with your heater. But it does sound unsafe enough to ask for help from a plumber or service tech experienced with LPG hookups. It may be a bad thermocouple or something else.
(Mar 25, 2015) Dan said:
what is the function of the thermal switch on a natural gas hot water heater
I think you're asking about the reset switch that trips on excessive temperature - a safety device to avoid overheating, possible scalding, heater damage, or an unsafe heater.
(May 5, 2015) Joel Stonebraker said:
We have a gas water heater in the basement. The chimney it is exhausting into was a 5 inch that run up the wall in between the main bathroom and a bedroom. My local plumber suggested and installed a 3 inch flex lines in the 5 inch chimney as our furnace no longer co uses this route as it is a high efficient unit and vents out the side of the house. The problem is that if we use a lot of hot water the wall in the upstairs bathroom where the chimney runs get very hot to the touch. The top of the hot water tank does show evidence of back-drafting( melted plastic rings around water inlets).Is this normal?
Joel this sounds dangerous to me - not just the heat question but as you note, the backdrafting that can be a potentially fatal carbon monoxide hazard. Inadequate exhaust draft increases the production of carbon monxide - combined with backdrafting that could kill someone.
I would shut off the heater right away and I'd have the chimney inspected by a chimney professional such as a certified member of the Chimney Sweeps Guild.
keep us posted
be sure your CO detectors and fire alarms are properly installed, located, and working.
(July 9, 2015) Stephanie said:
Looking to update my hot water heater to one that can be side vented. How do I know if a water heater can be side vented? Natural gas or electric. It's currently vented through the chimney but the chimney top is in disrepair, needing removed.
The water heater manufacturer's installation specifications will list the venting options for the water heater. There are add-on direct vent kits that can work for many gas an oil fired water heaters but I'd be careful about doing such a conversion without also checking with the heater manufacturer.
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