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Debugging And Plumbing

Jeremy D. Zawodny
Expert Author
Published: 2005-01-20

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As Murphy would have it, I had to visit the DMV today and try to figure out a plumbing problem. In doing so, I realized that good plumbers and good programmers have a lot in common.

This particular problem is like trying to debug code I didn't write and really never paid much attention to until it stopped working correctly. The symptom was a lack of hot water this morning. What I found is that the burner in the hot water tank was providing ample fire but the water just didn't seem to getting hot.

Noting that it was a Kenmore water heater, I called Sears. They transferred me to some local place where I got to discuss the finer points of water heaters with a rude, impatient, and dismissive woman. I left that conversation with two bits of data:

  1. The burner was running far too long not to heat the water. That must mean the hot water is going somewhere.


  2. She was a real bitch. I really wish I had paid attention to the name of the company she worked for.
I went around the house and checked each faucet to make sure none were letting any hot water out. Then I studied the water heater for a few more minutes to get a better idea of what could be going on.

There are 2 inputs and 2 outputs. One input is gas. It's used to heat the water and was functioning just fine. I adjusted the temperature control and proved that it also worked. The other input is cold water. It was clearly working as expected.

The two outputs are both for hot water. One is used for emergencies. It provides a way to let out hot water when something goes wrong. The second output is, of course, the hot water that goes to the rest of the house. And, strangely, it sounded as if water was flowing through it.

I noticed the valve on it and closed it. As I did, I distinctly heard the sound of the water's circulation being cut off.

Ah ha!

Hot water is flowing.

But where is it going? I have no fucking clue. Unless a neighbor has managed to tap into my hot water supply, I can't figure out where it's going. And that really bothers me.

Is it collecting in the walls? I find that hard to believe. I'd have seen evidence of it by now. Many gallons of water have flowed through the system.

The plumber I called is also stumped. I suspect that there's a leak in the wall behind the shower upstairs, but that's just a hunch. I managed to convince myself that I faintly heard water flowing back there a few times. He removed the face plate from the shower control but could find no evidence of a leak.

Grr.

A next logical setup is to let someone rip into the tile and do a better job of trying to find the leak. But I'm not convinced it is the right step.

Like with debugging code, I want to understand more of what's going on. I'd really like a portable X-Ray system that could see into the walls and allow me to map out the plumbing. But I don't know where to get one of those.

There's a bug here somewhere. I'm convinced of that. The water should not be flowing out of the water heater unless I'm using the water.

Tomorrow I'll call another plumber or two and see what they think. Meanwhile, I'm manually enabling the hot water only when I need it. I suspect a really good plumber will have better debugging instincts on this one.

Update: I found the paperwork for the "Home Buyers Protection" plan that my realtor bought me via FATCO. There's still a bit over a month left on it. I'll be using that phone number in the morning.

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About the Author:
Jeremy Zawodny is the author of the popular Jeremy Zawodny's blog. Jeremy is part of the Yahoo search team and frequently posts in the Yahoo! Search blog as well.

Visit Jeremy's blog: Jeremy Zawodny's blog.

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