Plumber Training: Boilers VS Hot Water Heaters—What’s the Difference?

plumber training

Plumber working on a hot water heater (Source: Clarence Risher)

Considering a plumber training program, and wondering what types of devices, tools, and issues you’ll work with after school? You can rest assured that problems with hot water units will feature prominently in your day-to-day work life.

Nothing is more fundamental to modern living than a plentiful—and reliable—supply of hot water. We take for granted that hot water will always be available, and rely on it for so many daily chores and needs.

When the hot water suddenly disappears, it’s panic time for many home and business owners.

The plumber gets an emergency call to come and figure out the source of the problem. Does the home or commercial building use a hot water tank, a boiler, or some combination of the two?

What’s the difference between these hot water supply systems?

Read on for an overview of hot water heating systems, their main features, and typical troubleshooting issues you’ll see after plumber training.

Main features of a hot water heater

Ever shared a home with roommates or a big family, and had to race to squeeze in your shower each morning, before the hot water ran out?

You were living with a hot water heater. The heater is essentially a big tank of heated water, which runs out pretty quickly when multiple people take showers or baths. If you’re last in line, you have to wait for the tank to fill and heat up again.

How does a hot water heater work?

Cold water enters the tank through a pipe in the bottom of the unit, gets heated up using gas, electricity, or solar power, and is pumped out as needed (to the bathroom, kitchen, laundry room, etc.).

The average household hot water tank ranges in capacity from 2-60 gallons. But there are also “tankless” hot water heaters. These are much smaller wall units that provide on-demand water heating.

Water passes through a series of coils in the unit, and heats up very quickly. There’s no need to store water, which means you’ll never run out in the middle of a shower.

Tankless systems cost more up-front to install (than traditional tanks), but they reduce energy consumption by up to 30%—which means lower utility bills for the homeowner. They’re great for full time occupancy, as well as part time homes, like summer cottages.

What are some typical plumbing issues with hot water tanks?

Some of the most common problems you’ll see after plumber training include:

1) Odours caused by bacteria build-up in the tank

2) Sediment build-up that affects water flow through pipes

3) Numerous ports through which water can leak

4) Leaks in the tank itself, due to corrosion (many consumers opt for glass-lined tanks to help prevent this issue)

5) Build-up of mineral deposits inside the tank, which can damage the heating elements

Main features of boilers

Boilers are also used to provide homes with hot water—and are commonly found in larger commercial buildings, like apartment buildings, hospitals, schools, and hotels.

The biggest difference between hot water heaters and boilers is that boilers can also heat the building itself. For example, boilers can provide hot water for showers and laundry machines, plus generate steam for a home heating system.

With a boiler, you can heat the air for a forced-air system, or warm up floors with radiant heating. And these units heat water instantly, so there’s no need for a storage tank.

Similar to tankless hot water heaters, boilers are quite energy efficient. They’re ideal for buildings with high hot water demand, or homes that are used just once in a while. Boilers may be powered by a range of fuel sources, including oil, natural gas, electricity, and liquid petroleum gas (LPG).

If you’re considering plumber training, you might look into programs that include gas technician training, so you’re prepared to work on systems like gas-fired boilers.

Boilers have a long life, but if they don’t receive regular maintenance, they will fall prey to numerous issues that can compromise efficiency.

What are the most common boiler issues you’ll see on-the-job?

1) Leaking and dripping (usually because of a broken pump seal or pressure valve, or corrosion)

2) Strange banging noises (often caused by low water pressure—otherwise known as “kettling”—which produces sounds similar to those of a giant boiling kettle)

3) Extinguished pilot light (could be a problem with the gas supply, exposure to a draught—which is blowing out the pilot light—or a deposit build-up)

4) No heat or hot water (this may be caused by a broken thermostat, or lack of water flow due to a closed valve)

Interested in learning more about plumbing issues, tools, career paths, and training?  Check out the Plumber Pre-apprenticeship category of the PAT blog.

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