Joint of No Return - Page 3

Are Eichler's surviving radiant heat systems destined to be 'goners'?
Joint of No Return
This Eichler Network archive photo from a decade ago shows the Schick family of Walnut Creek—father Robin, and sons Ethan and Isaac—having fun atop the slab, in part thanks to radiant heat.


With all this talk of leaks, what can a homeowner do to begin their investigation and get a handle on a suspected leak?

"The process is to isolate the leaking line," explains leak detection expert Macaulay about his approach. "Once isolated, tracer gas is induced into the line. When the tracer gas reaches the leak, the leak is located by using sonic equipment, usually getting within inches of the leak."

The three most common leak detection devices tied to radiant heat are the ultrasonic listening device, the helium molecular analyzer, and thermal imaging.

"We first listen and confirm the leak location sonically," says Macaulay. "But sometimes leaks don't generate sound, and at that point we try to 'sniff' out the leaks" [with the analyzer]." The thermal imaging camera, he adds, "is good for mapping out radiant heat lines, but is limited in its effectiveness in locating leaks."

According to Macaulay, normal leak detection usually costs in the neighborhood of $500.

"Our leak detection process is limited to finding the most prevalent leak in a system," he says. "Therefore, after repairs are performed, the system is retested for leaks. Approximately ten percent of the time there may be a secondary leak in the system."

Macaulay also notes that, for one particular home with a copper system leak, "we chased up to as many as ten leaks to save the system. Of course, we would have deemed it a waste of time and money to chase so many leaks on a steel system."

When dealing with suspected leaks, Mike LaChance and his company pressure test the system, and if they find abnormalities, they typically request that the homeowner follow up with a leak location company like American Leak.

  Joint of No Return
American Leak Detection's Christian Macaulay with an ultrasonic listening device.


Once the leak location has been identified, the repair can begin.

"At that point, the flooring is removed," says Mike LaChance. "Once we jackhammer a 12-inch by 12-inch hole, we cut one section of pipe, pull out the bad pipe, put in the new copper pipe, silver braze the connection—more like welding than soldering—pressure test the system, and cover it back up with sand and cement."

LaChance's standard cost for repair runs from $1,200 for one leak, and up. "Sometimes it takes us three hours, sometimes a whole day," he says.

For very small leaks, LaChance sometimes uses a stop-leak additive that's not harmful to pipes. "It coats the inside of the pipe like a silicone," he says, "and when it hits outside oxygen, it creates a crust on the outside of the pipe."

After the repair is complete, Gerrard recommends a system flush and cleanse as a proactive maintenance step, and the introduction of a sediment inhibitor.

LaChance adds a point of caution for this step. "Some unlicensed installers do not add a regulator [device] while doing their work," he says. "This winds up putting too much pressure on the radiant pipes, which can cause the system to over-pressurize and introduce leaks.

"The regulator is an important ingredient—even during the installation of a new boiler. It maintains the same or proper pressure in the system. Hydronic specialists don't overlook this step, no matter what."

Thermal imaging camera maps out the radiant lines below the floor.


We asked our team of experts: When is the time for a homeowner to abandon their original radiant heat system and seek out a replacement heating option? Their responses varied somewhat, but all seemed to share a sense of hope for the future of copper piping and a bleak outlook for steel.

"The lifetime [of steel] is very unpredictable, because not all Eichlers with steel experience leaks," points out Hydrotech's Denis Roman. "But if one leak is found, and more leaks [surface] over a few years, homeowners should consider other options."

"Copper, we can repair forever," adds Big Blue's Paul Gerrard. "If you have steel pipes, it's a wrap [and not worth repairing]. All [steel] repairs that we have tried…have been useless."

And lastly, Lehmann Radiant's Jim Lehmann, who shares Gerrard's feelings. "Steel pipes? Forget about it," he says. "I wouldn't even waste my time [repairing]."

Troubleshooter using a helium molecular analyzer.

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