Joint of No Return - Page 2

Are Eichler's surviving radiant heat systems destined to be 'goners'?
Joint of No Return
Common signs that a leak has occurred in an Eichler radiant heat system are higher-than-normal water bills, cracks in flooring or nearby walls, a hot spot on the floor, the sound of running water when all the water in the home is turned off, and puddles and mildew under carpets. This horizontal strip of photographs above presents three different incidents of leaking radiant heat showing up on Eichler floors.


To zero in on the causes of leaking radiant systems, we reached out to Christian Macaulay of American Leak Detection, whose company services the entire Bay Area. He pinpoints three main causes of leaking radiant pipes.

"One is corrosion," he says. "In copper, this happens due to electrolysis, when a copper line has been in contact with the wire mesh or rebar in the slab. Or just corrosion due to wear and tear often observed in steel pipe systems.

"Two, the slab cracks and shears the pipes. And three, the pipeline is damaged by a third party, such as drilling holes in the slab."

Steel system leaks commonly occur due to the pipes' improper height at installation (which has been known to even extend outside the slab), their eroded terne coating, and ultimately corrosion that continues to eat away at the pipeline.

Denis Roman of Hydrotech Radiant Heating, covering the Marin and San Francisco areas for nearly two decades, also suspects undetected leaks as culprits. Based on his experience, some Eichlers leak inside the slab without owners ever realizing it.

  Joint of No Return
Mike LaChance of LaChance's Radiant Heating stands alongside a radiant heat manifold.

"A lot of the time," he says, "they find out [leaks for the first time] when they are in the middle of a re-do of the floors or a big remodel." In these cases, the water simply has been draining out underneath the slab.

At the X-100 steel Eichler, in the San Mateo Highlands, a costly $900 monthly water bill was the only tip-off that something was going on under the tile flooring.

"It wasn't a radiant heat leak, but similar—an interior garden one," says owner Marty Arbunich, CA-Modern publisher. "Everything seemed normal, except for the unusually high water bill. It was a small leak, but out of sight, and it went on and on nonstop. Eventually American Leak Detection came to the rescue."

  Joint of No Return
LaChance repairman reaches into a recently jackhammered Eichler slab while making a repair.


One of the most complex issues in radiant heating repair is determining when a system has finally reached the point of no return.

"I do not think we know what the expected lifetime is for these systems," says Paul Gerrard, who operates Big Blue Hydronics in the East Bay. "I learned plumbing in the UK, and worked on systems from the Victorian ages, over 100 years old. Eichler [systems] should last longer than that, surely."

Eastman looks to geology for answers, land settling over time, and such, and points out that Eichler's original concrete slabs, at least in his service area, did not have reinforcement—"no rebar, only wire."

Having a leak is a serious situation—because leaks can undermine the integrity of pipes, the concrete slab, and other system components.

  Joint of No Return
Jim Lehmann of Lehmann Radiant Heating: "Steel pipes? Forget about it," he says.

"Some tracts hardly ever get leaks, while others get tons," Eastman adds, citing situations that were so bad that homeowners took out their entire slab, repoured a new one after adding rebar, and installed a whole new heating system—an expensive proposition.

Considering that the more fragile systems were made of steel, and that copper systems historically have greater longevity, we asked how much repair is practical, and even possible, for each system.

Gerrard says there's no easy answer.

"I often tell the story of one client, for whom we repaired seven copper leaks in a year on their Eichler in Castro Valley. That was 2014, and the system has been fully functioning, leak-free since then," he says. "Yet, at another home, where they repaired a leak, another came up a week later, and the client threw in the towel."

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