In this article, we will talk about water heater backdrafting, the cause, effects, how to recognize it, how to fix it, and what you can do to prevent the problem.
The main reasons for backdrafting at the water heater are the poor vent installation and obstructions found in the vent pipe.
This problem affects mainly the atmospheric gas type water heaters that use natural convection to remove the combustion products, known as exhaust gases. The problem is even bigger if the house is well insulated, doors and windows sealed, and the unit is installed in the confined space.
The exhaust gases, which have a higher temperature than the surrounding air, tend to rise through the chimney and out if everything is ok. Inside the chimney, the heat creates negative pressure or suction, resulting in gas pull and out of the house. What you don’t want to see are the flue gases coming back into the house. This can be dangerous.
Proper venting is a must due to safety. The exhaust gases contain poisonous gases such as carbon monoxide, moisture that is acidic and can produce corrosion on the metal parts.
Every atmospheric vent gas water heater is equipped with the draft hood found at the top of each unit, where the venting pipe is attaching to the water heater. Also, this is the place where backdrafting can be identified.
The simplest way to check for backdrafting is to put hands around the draft hood, mirror or glass. You will feel the warm gases coming out while the moist inside the flue gases will make the mirror/glass fog up if used as the checking tool.
You can also use the lighter or matchstick beside the draft diverter, and if there is sufficient draft inside the vents, the flame will be pulled in. Or, the home inspectors suggested putting a smoke or a powder into the draft diverter, and if it spills back into the room, the test for backdrafting is positive.
If it was backdrafting for a long time… check the elements surrounding the draft hood; you might see some dark residues, also known as soot. Look for the plastic caps on the incoming cold and outgoing hot water pipes. As said, exhaust gases have a high temperature, and if they leak under the draft hood, the plastic elements can be affected - they can change the shape, discolor or melt.
Backdrafting can also result in metal corrosion because the condensate, which is acidic by nature, can appear on the top of the heater, where hot gases get in touch with the cold metal elements.
There are several reasons for this problem. One of them is the poor vent installation, such as horizontal or downward slope - the vent pipe has been installed with the improper pitch; too many turns (bends – especially with the sharp and right angles), sudden diameter reduction, sags, dips, long vents…
The solution for the improper pitch is to make sure that the minimum slope is per manufacturer’s instructions or codes – usually ¼” per one foot. Every manual clearly says for a specific model the maximum vent length and the number of elbows (angles) that have to be applied.
In order to prevent the foreign body from getting into the flue vents, it is recommended to install the vent cap, no matter if the vent termination horizontal or vertical.
If the vent cap is too far down below the peak of the rooftop, you must raise the vent pipe at least 12 inches above the rooftop and be careful not to install the cap way too down of the vent pipe.
And the last thought on the water heater backdrafting relates to the proper provision provided on the walls or doors of the room where the heater is installed so the sufficient fresh air is delivered to the combustion chamber for the proper gas combustion. The room where the water heater is located should have two openings, upper and lower, and the size should be done per manufacturer’s instructions, so the outside air can freely enter the room and in a sufficient amount.
If you want to avoid this problem from the start, don’t buy the atmospheric vent water heater, but power-vented, which uses the electric fan to remove the gases. If the atmospheric model is the only option… this article is for you.
The recommendation is to buy a high-efficiency water heater, with an efficiency of over 90%, such as Vertex from AO Smith or Polaris. This is especially important if converting from the low efficient unit to this type. A high-efficient water heater does not vent flue gases through the standard chimney but the sealed plastic pipes.
Keep in mind that all the venting installation should be done per the manufacturer’s instructions and local codes. As said before, backdrafting test is easy, and it is recommended to perform the check after several minutes of running with the windows and doors closed.