Fun with Dip Tubes


Dip what? Dip tubes I say.

So, last week I was in the bathroom (on the second floor) and while brushing my teeth I noticed that the water pressure suddenly dropped down very low. I checked both the hot and cold side and it was low on both. I dismissed it for the evening.

The next day while taking a shower, right in the middle of the shower, the pressure dropped off so low that barely any water was coming out of the shower head. Hmm.

I then checked a few things and surmised that the problem couldn’t be a simple clog as the hot and cold water are on separate lines once they leave the water heater. It could be a leak outside and I do have a sprinkler system. I called the water company and they verified that the leak wasn’t on their side. With all my sources turned off the water meter wasn’t moving so there was no leak on my side either. Furthermore the water company checked my water pressure and it was at nearly 60 pounds. 20 is all they have to provide and 60 is excellent.

I then went back to the shower head. When I removed it the water blew out of the raw pipe with ease. Hmm. I put an older shower head on and that seemed to “solve” the problem. I looked at the first head and found it had tiny little white flecks in it but when I’d touch them they’d crumble into a fine powder. Then I started posting to plumbing forums.

One plumber replied with the answer. First, let me explain a bit about a dip tube. The dip tube feeds cold water into the water heater. It’s a long tube that feeds this cold water into the bottom of the water heater. That’s important because without it the cold water would mix with the hot water at the top and cool it off while you’re trying to use it. Sending it to the bottom lets you keep using the hot water at the top of the tank while the cold water is heated at the bottom.

So, back to the problem: Back in the 90’s (my water heater is at the end of its life as it was made in 1995) every single water heater made used dip tubes that came from the same manufacturer. These tubes were all made of a plastic called EVA (Ethylene-vinyl acetate). It’s a bit like PVC. The problem is that later it became apparent that this type of plastic wasn’t up to the long-term punishment of being continually heated and cooled over a decade or more. It would slowly break down and disintegrate. For some it just starts eroding at the bottom of the tube slowly working upwards. Each inch up reduces the efficiency of the heater. In other cases it erodes anywhere along its length and eventually breaks off falling into the tank beyond reach.

The flecks I was seeing were the remnants of the EVA that broke off and were being pushed into my water lines. This got me to drain the water heater which isn’t as simple as it sounds. You need to be sure to turn off the power to the water heater and there’s not just a nice easy switch. Then you have to turn off the water supply to it. Then you hook up a hose to the spigot at the bottom. Great, except that mine is in the basement and there’s no drain there so I had to drain 80 gallons of water into a bin a couple gallons at a time and have my son drag that up the stairs, outside and back again (thank God for off-spring as slave labor). The flecks came out in chunks and the rest of what came out looked so disgusting that I had a hard time believing any shower could be “clean”. Thankfully after the first couple of gallons it changed over into very clean water.

So now the choice was to either replace the dip tube or to replace the whole water heater. Complicating matters is that I’m currently in the process of changing jobs and haven’t gotten my new situation fully resolved so I really don’t want to spend a lot of money until that happens. If I could fix this I could put off the big purchase until this was resolved.

Dip tubes, it turns out, are pretty inexpensive. We’re talking below $10 to $15. My problem was that every plumbing supply shop I called claimed not to have the one I needed even though it’s a fairly standard part.

I got a bit annoyed by this and then realized we’d been paying PSE&G (the power company) for a service contract that included the water heater. I called them, waited on hold for 30 minutes, and found out that the dip tube isn’t covered. It’s time to re-evaluate this so-called WorryFree contract as every time I’ve tried to benefit from it I’ve been told the item in question isn’t covered. It didn’t help when my ice maker broke. It didn’t cover the thermostats on the dryer. It didn’t cover the plastic teeth that turn the tub in the washer when they broke. It was of no value when the elements in our range died. So much for worry-free. It seems like yet another plan that’s designed to send more money to a company in return for nothing.

I then remembered that I could order a replacement water heater from them and put out no up-front money and just pay for it over time. That would work. So I called about that. It took 2 hours to reach someone. When I did it all went downhill. They only carry water heaters from one company, A.O. Smith. That might be okay except that they ask you to choose a model from the linked company brochure but the first two models I chose they don’t carry. The ones they do carry are mid-level models that aren’t as efficient as I’d prefer. What’s worse is that they’re incredibly overpriced.

I need an 80-gallon electric water heater. You can get a top-of-the-line Whirlpool from Lowe’s for $600 and installation is very easy. They wanted $1,300-$1,550 to install their mid-level models. No way.

So now I’ve just ordered a replacement dip tube with the hopes that it’ll extend the life of the water heater for another year or so while the employment situation is resolved. In the meantime I’ve cleaned out all the faucets of the EVA flecks and that should cover me until the replacement gets here.

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