Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Dripping Diary

26th January, 2016

Water started dripping from the ceiling in the pantry this morning. 

When you have water dripping out of somewhere, it's a good idea to find where it is coming from and stop it from going in there. 

The immediate suspect, like the last five times water has appeared in unwanted paces, was the ventilation system two floors above.

This is actually the second water incident in the last months, but the first one was quickly noticed from the sound of drips on the bathroom ceiling, so it never got to build up anywhere. 

There was no dripping on the bathroom roof this time. That's because it was not the ventilation system leaking, even though that's where the water was ultimately coming from.

I quickly came to a second hypothesis. Half a metre of snow outside... temperatures below freezing for a few days... the drain from the ventilation system coming out of the wall about twenty centimetres above the ground... frozen pipe! 

left: drain from ventilation system
The first evidence to support this hypothesis was the water spilling gently over the the top of the drain beneath the ventilation unit, rather than actually going down it. 

A bit of hosepipe with a loop usually goes from the ventilation system to the drain. I diverted it into a bowl to stop sending more water to the overflowing drain. 

The next evidence was outside: a large icicle coming out of the drain.
A few buckets of hot water and kettles later the icicle was gone. The visible part of the icicle went fairly quickly and was soon followed by the rod of ice from within the pipe. It took a little longer to thaw the elbow. Immediate problem solved, it was time to address the cause.

The ventilation system is going to produce condensate when it's cold outside, unless we also make it cold inside, or drop the relative humidity below about 20%. It's often going to be below freezing when it's cold outside, and that's where the water is going to be dripping. So it seems inevitable that ice is going to form and, sooner or later, the outlet pipe will freeze. It will then fill up with water and start overflowing. The only mysteries are: why has this not happened before? and why did the contractors not prevent this from happening?

I suspect this probably has happened before, but it takes a while for the pipe to fill up with water before it overflows, then it takes a while for the water to drip down, around the bath that is one level below the ventilation system, then onto the ceiling of the pantry below the bath. Some of this water will be evaporating all the time, and it could be a couple of days before enough builds up to break through the plaster boards and start dripping onto the floor. By this time, the temperature outside has always gone high enough above freezing, or a few rays of pre-noon sunshine have reached the drain and thawed it. 

I was wondering if there were any mitigating circumstances leading to this, and there are a couple of things that may have made a difference. I noticed when I was clearing away another icicle a couple of days later that I'd left a gardening stake directly underneath the drain, from which was growing a nice icy stalagmite. Perhaps such a stalagmite had helped to block the drain. I was in too much of a hurry to melt the ice before and didn't document the hydro-crystalline pathology very well. 

The other thing that we had done the night before this incident was to put on the humidifiers. It gets a bit dry in the winter since we're constantly getting rid of our humid air, and replacing it with air that's already fairly dry, and is then being heated so that the relatively humidity will fall about four times. We don't have any permanent remedy for this, but when we remember, and when it gets below about 30 percent, we switch on some of our humidifiers, usually at night time. So we are adding moisture to the warm air that we are expelling from the house over a steep temperature drop, and increasing the amount of water that will end up in condensate.  

According to my previous calculation, the amount of water that's going to drip on a cold night is up to around 450 ml per hour. One drop is 0.05 ml, so that would be about two and half drops per second. Not fast enough to represent constant flow, but perhaps slightly faster than the ideal drip rate for forming icicles, which seems to be around one or two grammes per minute according to the Icicle Atlas. The precise temperature and humidity of the air in the house will determine the dew point, which will likely be a few degrees above zero. The dew point is really the critical number since it will tell us when condensation starts. 

It's 23 degrees C and 30% humidity right now, so the dew point is 4 degrees. (According to this dew point calculator.) So if the air outside goes below about 2 degrees, it's going to drop below the dew point within the ventilation system. If we had 100% efficient heat exchange, then it would be cooling the air all the way down to 2 degrees, and the air coming in would be heated all the way up to 23 degrees. It's more like 80% so we lose a couple of degrees. Some ventilation systems will recover only 60% of the heat, so they will be less likely to reach the dew point. This is only a problem that will happen in well-ventilated houses with highly efficient heat exchange ventilation systems, so I suppose that answers the question of why the contractors hadn't thought about this happening, and why we've had so many problems with this. 

When I say we've had many problems, we haven't exactly been wading through water, just needed to use a small cloth to mop up a few drops from the floor every year or two. And hopefully the structure of the house has not been damaged by the moisture. 

The other problem ventilation systems have to deal with is freezing condensate. If the air is being cooled below freezing, it may start snowing in there as vapour in the air is precipitated. This would block the ventilation and we would no longer be able to ventilate the house, so the ventilation system does something with pressure differences to stop that. I'm not really sure what it does, but the result will probably be that it never gets as low as zero in there, and in fact there may only be a very narrow window of outside temperatures when condensate is actually being produced.

(Apologies to anyone who was hoping for a story about cooking fat from the North of England.)

The other drain in the picture is from the air conditioner, which we have hardly every used. This has a de-humidifer on it, and it would take moisture out of the hot air if we were using it. There is no chance of it freezing though.