If you are a plumber or a trade professional who actively promotes the use of high-efficiency, condensing water heaters, boilers, or furnaces, you should be equally energetic in treating discharge coming from this equipment with some sort of neutralization. That’s the only way to protect your customers’ plumbing from the potentially harmful side effects of the condensation process. As the popularity of high-efficiency condensing products grows, so too will the problem of acidic condensate.
As a matter of fact, International Plumbing Codes (IPC) and National Standard Plumbing Codes (NSPC) require neutralization for corrosive waste. To elaborate, IPC and NSPC state that corrosive liquids, spent acids, or other harmful chemicals that destroy or injure drain, sewer, soil or waste pipe, or create noxious or toxic fumes, or interfere with sewage-treatment processes shall not be discharged into the plumbing system without being thoroughly diluted, neutralized, or treated by passing through an approved dilution or neutralizing device.
Why is Neutralization Important?
Condensing technology saves energy by maximizing the amount of heat energy transferred to the water during the combustion process. A byproduct of this process is water, or condensate, which tends to be acidic because of the chemical reaction caused by the heat of the gas burner. Indeed, the higher the efficiency rating, the higher the acid level in the water runoff.
TANKLESS AND NEUTRALIZED: TAP Plumbing & Heating in South Carolina installed a Sanicondens Best Flat condensate pump to neutralize the condensate coming from an on-demand tankless water heater. (Courtesy of SFA Saniflo)
If this runoff is disposed of through a home’s or a building’s plumbing system, the piping could corrode, rust over time, and cause serious damage to local sewers and water treatment facilities. Pumping the waste outdoors or into sanitary sewers could contaminate the groundwater or degrade the local water infrastructure. For homes with septic tanks, condensate waste might also destroy the good bacteria that are essential to keeping the system operating properly.
The higher, front-end costs of high-efficiency equipment are typically justified by lower energy consumption and the resulting lower monthly fuel bills. But those savings could be wiped out and then some if the plumber must return in just a few years to tear out and redo all the plumbing. The smart, long-term solution is to neutralize the acidic content in the condensate waste before it ever enters any piping.
Although International Plumbing Codes require condensate waste-neutralization, enforcement is spotty. Some sections of the country, such as New England, strictly enforce the code requirements; others — including the far West — tend to be lax.
Even so, the trades must become more aware of this problem because the acid in the condensate will just eat away the piping.
Several Ways to Neutralize
Neutralization can be accomplished in several ways. One is by manually cutting a bed of limestone into the floor where the condensing water heater, boiler, etc. is located, and letting the condensate drip into it. Another is by positioning a limestone-filled cartridge inside of the condensing unit to neutralize the water internally. There is also the option of hooking a neutralization kit — essentially, a piece of pipe filled with limestone — to the exterior of the condensing equipment and letting the condensate flow through it.
However, a more sophisticated neutralizing solution is available that falls into the third category: a condensate pump that couples a pump with a neutralizer to move condensate from the water heater or boiler through limestone granules in a tray before pumping the water into the sewer or septic system.
The pump ensures condensate waste does not linger inside or around the water heater or boiler, while the neutralizer removes the acidity that would damage water and sewer pipes.
Often, condensate cannot drain adequately via gravity, usually because the application lacks conventional, below-floor drainage. This problem can cause property damage or even create health hazards by adversely affecting IAQ.
Two-in-One Condensate Pump
A two-in-one condensate pump neutralizes and pumps away condensate. A built-in neutralizer is used to boost the pH of the acidic condensate before it can be discharged into a drain line — thus preventing corrosion.
Via two 1-inch inlets on the side and the other on the top near the neutralizer tray, condensate entering the system automatically activates a float mechanism that, in turn, starts the motor whose spindle/shaft drives the impeller. The condensate is neutralized as it comes into contact with the neutralizer pellets in the tray before being pumped safely away through a 3/8-inch discharge line into the sanitary sewer or a septic tank.
Not all condensate requires neutralization, however. In these instances, drainage can be routed into a third inlet, located on the top of the unit near the discharge line. This drainage bypasses the neutralizer pellets and moves directly to the pump impeller, where it is immediately discharged.
Consider a pump that is capable of serving multiple mechanical systems — up to a combined total of 500,000 Btu per hour — and that has an easy-to-refill pH-neutralizing pellet tray.
Enforcement of the condensate-neutralization codes will likely increase as the problem — and its potential toll on plumbing systems — become more widely recognized. But if you are a plumber who installs condensing equipment, you should not wait, if only for the sake of your customers.