Why pool heater installations require a trained professional!

Pool heaters require careful installation and maintenance!

Gas-fired pool heaters improve comfort and extend the swim season.  They also increase the value of the pool to a prospective home buyer.  Incorrect installation and poor water care can shorten the lifespan of the pool heater, leaving the homeowner thinking about expensive replacement costs!  Long life and consistent performance depend on a properly sized unit installed in the proper spot with the proper amount of gas and air available to it.  These devices use natural or propane gas and electricity to produce fire, by-products of which are poisonous fumes (Carbon Monoxide)that can injure and kill if not safely dispersed in the atmosphere. Improperly trained pool techs and do-it-yourselvers ( is that even a word?) can cheat or take shortcuts with the other pool equipment and the cost may only be monetary, but an error with a pool heater can cost injury or even a life.

“Often pool heaters aren’t taken as seriously as domestic water heaters are, because they’re for pools, and pools are fun. Because it’s used as a recreational product, it’s taken less seriously, and that’s a mistake,” says Eric Gabrielson, Raypak Inc., Oxnard, Calif. “Internet sales being what they are now, people can actually get these things online and do with them what they wish.”

Pool heaters should be treated with respect and installed by people who know exactly what they’re doing. Over the years, Gabrielson has seen his share of outlandish installations, with heaters stashed in bizarre locations without regard to their need to breathe in air and release hot fumes.

“One time we were called out by the insurance company to replace pool equipment burned up in a fire,” he says. “The homeowner bought a heater and put it in his garage, and that installation had eventually caused a fire that burned the place down.

“We were out there replacing things, and the guy actually got in an argument with us. He didn’t like the placement of the new heater — thought it was an eyesore. And we said, ‘Look, you had your shot at heater placement and installation, and you burned down your garage.” *

Installation and maintenance of gas pool heaters are a specialty, which requires training and experience.  Knowledge of the basics will allow a pool professional to spot hazards and situations that may cause damage to the pool heater or worse cause loss of life and/or home.  Every service manual for a pool heater requests a trained professional install the unit, noncompliance will terminate the warranty and liability should there be an accident.  Aquajoy Spa And Pool technicians attend manufacturer-sponsored classes yearly to stay up on the new products and refresh their existing knowledge.

 Pool heater installation is a careful thought process!

Installation concerns vary depending on location, is the unit is located indoors or outdoors. If a heater has been placed outdoors next to the house, horizontal and vertical clearances to things like windows and doors and air conditioning inlets are paramount. Never place a gas heater directly under a window, as the fumes can be sucked straight into the living area.  Just because the old pool heater sat in that spot does not mean it is the right spot for the new one!  Aquajoy Spa And Pool have been on jobs where the house was remodeled and now the unit is under a deck or window both places are unacceptable for the heater, it must be moved to a  new location.

“You just have to think about where your exhaust gases are going,” Gabrielson says. “Some people will want to hide the heater under a deck, for instance, not thinking about those exhaust gases coming up onto the deck where they can make people sick.” *

The National Fuel Gas Code Committee (NFGC), American Gas Association (AGA) and Canadian Standards Association (CSA) publish guides for safe clearances for both outdoor units and vents from indoor installations.  This is also explained in great detail in the installation manual of all pool heaters.  These units are not plug and play read the manual it may save your life.

Indoor installation is a particular focus,  there are three major concerns; explosion, electrocution,  poisoning from exhaust gases. Natural gas is lighter than air and will rise.  Indoors if the gas has nowhere to go it will build up and if ignited will explode.  If you smell gas:  Get your family out of the house and call 911 from a safe place (away from your house).  Do not try to fix it, just a simple light switch turning on may provide enough spark to cause an explosion! Propane gas is heavier than air and will puddle or pool on the floor, your water heater, furnace and pool heater all have pilot lights at that level, which may ignite the gas and cause a fire.  The properly sized pipe with the right sealing paste installed by a trained professional will keep your family safe.  Most new pool heaters are electronic ignition, standing pilot is still available but why pay $50.00 a year for the pilot to be on. There will be 120 or 240 volts at the heater.  When it is installed it should be properly grounded and bonded.  Venting is crucial for indoor pool heaters! Carbon monoxide is a by-product of combustion and toxic to air-breathing life forms!  Pool heaters must be vented per the manual, there can be no changes to this process.  Venting is a job for a highly trained pro.  Aquajoy Spa And Pool have installed hundreds of pool heaters, but even with all of our experience, we will hire a specialist for venting on some jobs.

Improper venting or blocked venting will cause the waste gasses to spill into the house.  Have you checked or installed a Carbon monoxide detector in your home? The wrong sized vent will also cause the flue gasses to cool prior to leaving the pipe, this causes condensation.  Condensation from any gas-fired unit is very acidic and will eat the vent pipe, this will allow carbon monoxide to get into your home.


Venting diagram from the manual.

pool Heater install

Do you know if your heater is vented properly

Often, it’s an improvising installer that sets the stage for this predicament, Gabrielson says. “You have a diameter specified by the manufacturer for a flue pipe. But on the install, they’ll decide to change that diameter. They’re adapting it to a vent. Or they want to put the exhaust up an existing fireplace or masonry chimney. *

Poor venting (not enough fresh air and not enough air for venting)will also cause the pool heater to soot up.  The soot builds up on the heat exchanger stopping the vent gasses from venting out.  This will cause the flames to roll out of the heater, hopefully tripping the rollout sensor.  Still, there is a potential of CO poisoning or even fire if the heater door was left off.  The cost to clean the heat exchanger and replace the venting will negate the savings of a cheap heater purchase and install.  If you have a concern about your indoor pool heater call NICOR they will send out a technician to check out the installation.

 Pool water chemistry is the number one cause of heater failure:

Aquajoy Spa And Pool learned an expensive lesson a number of years ago.  We were called out to replace an old heater (23 yrs old).  It had sprung a leak.  After replacing the unit and checking the venting (indoor) and gas line the unit was fired up.  Everything worked and the customer was delighted!  Three weeks later we got the call, “my heater is leaking again.”  We the “pool pros” had neglected to check the water chemistry prior to replacing the old heater.  Our customer’s water was so out of balance that our test kit could not even read how low the Ph was! Heat exchangers are very expensive!

Low Ph is acidic, it will dissolve the pool heaters copper tubing and turn your heater into a sprinkler.  The cost to repair is about 3/4 of the cost of a new pool heater.  Low pH water makes chlorine efficient and extremely successful at killing algae.  Symptoms of low Ph water should be obvious to bathers, as its relative acidity makes it uncomfortable to swim in and cause their eyes to burn.

Other chemical issues may include high chlorine levels, high or low TDS and minerals such as calcium. The popularity of salt chlorine generators, the opportunity exists for a pool to build up high levels of salt which can be very corrosive, but these levels would have to be in excess of 4500 ppm to cause a problem, and many most Salt units shut down well before these levels are reached.  Checking your salt levels will avoid this from ever becoming a problem.

A more likely issue is calcium. Calcium loves hot water and will come out of solution the warmer the water is. The warmest spot in your pool is the heat exchanger or tube bundle. The result is the same as cholesterol build up in your veins, the tube bundle (heat exchanger) calcifies shut.

To avoid gas, electrical and venting issues always have your heater installed by a competent professional.  To avoid chemical issues in your pool and heater balance your water at least once a week.  Heads up salt pool owners that means you also, just because it always looks perfect does not mean it is.  We have noticed Saline pool owner become complacent which can lead to very expensive repairs.  Last but not least buy your heater from a dealer and not on the net.  Many pool heater manufacturers are not excepting internet sale warranties, why?  The majority of the warranty calls are due to improper installation or improper chemistry neither issue is covered.

This is a tragic example of what can happen when shortcuts or budget cuts meet a pool heater install:

Last summer (June 2013), tragedy struck at a Best Western Hotel in Boone, N.C. when carbon monoxide fatally poisoned three people. The culprit? The swimming pool heater, which had a faulty exhaust pipe — riddled with holes and supported by a VHS tape and a hotel ice bucket — that leaked the gas directly into room 225.

Daryl Jenkins, 73, and Shirley Jenkins, 72, were the first victims — yet when authorities noted the couple died of natural causes, room 225 was opened six weeks later. Jeannie Williams and her 11-year-old son checked into room 225 and quickly began experiencing nausea. Jeannie Williams later woke up in a hospital; her son passed away.

However, there were other signs something was wrong. Serene Solinski checked into the Best Western three days after the Jenkins’ death for a birthday party for her daughter — in particular, room 325, one floor above the room in which the Jenkins died. As the festivities progressed, all nine girls fell ill, experiencing nausea and vomiting. While Solinski says she notified the front desk about the sudden bout of illness, hotel management claims they never learned of the incident.

There were so many warnings on this incident that it amazes me no one caught this before it becomes a tragic story! No carbon monoxide detectors in the rooms, a vent for the heater under the window air conditioner, a heater installed by untrained hotel employee’s, a contractor that did not pull a permit, health inspectors that did not insist on the vent repairs prior to reopening the pool, a medical examiner that did not find blood with 70% CO in it, a hotel manager that did not check to see if the room was safe, a fire  department that did not check for CO just because the dead were old.  Do these people need a sign that lights up? One competent trained person and a CO detector would have saved three lives.

Aquajoy Spa and Pool recommends that all homes have smoke and CO detectors in them and that they are kept in good working order.  Did you know that both units have a lifespan of only 7 years?  If yours are older replace them.  Most Fire departments give them away for free, call your local department and see if they do! (your tax dollars bought them.)

Signs and symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning may include:

  • A dull headache
  • Weakness
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Shortness of breath
  • Confusion
  • Blurred vision
  • Loss of consciousness

Carbon monoxide poisoning can be especially dangerous for people who are sleeping or intoxicated. The fumes may be fatal before anyone realizes there’s a problem.

*The above-highlighted excerpts were taken from an article in Aqua magazine by Scott Webb.  Scott Webb has been with AQUA magazine in one capacity or another since April 2001; he now serves as executive editor. Scott has a degree from the University of Cincinnati in Aerospace Engineering and lives in Madison, Wisc.


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