HPAC Magazine

Establish physically and chemically clean surfaces inside piping

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February 25, 2019 by John Siegenthaler

Water is the “life-blood” of hydronic systems. Its chemical characteristics can make the difference between a system that lasts for decades, versus one that develops expensive corrosion issues within months of commissioning.
We discussed the advantages of establishing and maintaining good water quality in hydronic heating and cooling systems in the March 2016 issue of HPAC. Part of that discussion focused on removing dissolved ions created by calcium and magnesium salts, which are commonly found in groundwater. The resulting “demineralized” water would ideally have a total dissolved solids (TDS) reading between 10 and 30 parts per million (PPM). This gives the water just enough electrical conductivity to allow low water cutoff safety devices to function properly, but not enough to support galvanic corrosion. It also high enough to prevent the water from scavenging ions from piping materials, which can happen when the water’s TDS number approaches zero.
Although demineralization is the primary method for improving water quality in hydronic systems, its effectiveness is dependent, in part, on establishing physically and chemically “clean” surfaces inside the piping and other components of a closed loop system.
Although it is easy to think of a new crafted hydronic piping system as being internally clean since it was built with all new materials, this is seldom the case. To begin with, think about how copper or steel tubing makes its way from the mill to a newly assembled system. Those materials are typically handled, transported, and stored multiple times and at different locations before they make it to your job site. During that time they can be exposed to dust, rain, wind, pollen, road salt, insects, birds, mice and more.
It is inevitable that contaminants from some of these sources will get into piping that is not capped at both ends. These contaminants aside, there is also likely to be some residual of lubricants used during manufacturing. When copper piping is soldered together there is going to be residual flux inside the piping. Threaded steel piping is also going to contain some cutting oil.
Cast iron components, especially those that are not internally painted, or that have been stored in high humidity conditions, are going to have internal surface oxidation. There is also likely to be small pieces of metal inside the pipe from sawing, deburring, reaming, grooving, or other metal cutting operations.
These contaminants should be physically removed, to the extent possible, as the system is assembled. In some cases, this is as simple as wiping down components with a clean rag before they are joined together. I know one experienced hydronics pro who pushes and pulls a small wad of clean cloth through every piece of copper tubing that is four feet or less in length, before joining them into the system. After physical cleaning has done all it can, the next step is chemical cleaning–giving systems a healthy and thorough internal bath before filling it with demineralized water.
Internal washing is done by filling the system with water, adding a “hydronic detergent” formulation (now available from several suppliers) and circulating this blend through the entire system, with the heat source operating at normal temperature, for at least one hour.

Figure 1 Recommended setup

Suppliers of these hydronic detergents typically avoid giving out their proprietary formulations, which break down oils and greases within the system and suspend them in the circulating fluid. At the end of the wash cycle the wash water is completely drained from the system and disposed of based on the detergent supplier’s directions. Most of the currently available hydronic detergents are biodegradable and can be disposed of in sewer drains. The piping should get a final rinsing flush and drain to remove as much of the wash water as possible.

I recommend use of a double-ported purging valve, along with a sump pump and a clean five gallon pail for getting the mixture of water and hydronic detergent into smaller systems. The setup is shown in Figure 1.

The inline ball within the double-ported purging valve is closed during this process. A hose from the sump pump carries the mix of water and hydronic detergent into the system, the other hose returns it to the pail after it has passed through the system. A clean white pail lets you see what gets flushed out. Keep the fluid level in the pail high enough and the end of the return hose far enough away from the sump pump to reduce entrained air bubble entry into the system.
After the system has been internally washed it can be filled with demineralized water–assuming a source of that water is available. Alternatively, it can be filled with clean on-site or trucked in water and then demineralized using a “sidearm” assembly as shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2 Sidearm assembly

Demineralizing cartridges or carts are now available from several North American suppliers. Each time some of the system water passes through the demineralizer ions are removed. Water leaving the cartridge gets mixed back into the remaining system water. Thus, with this method of demineralizing it is necessary to draw small periodic samples of the system water to check its TDS reading. Maintain the demineralizing process until a TDS reading between 10 and 30 PPM is reached.
After demineralizing, best practices call for adding a film-forming hydronic system stabilizing formulation. Again, several such products, with proprietary chemical combinations, are available in North America. These products form extremely thin protective films on the inside of the piping and components that help isolate the water from the raw metal surface. They also stabilize the pH of the water, and help protect the system against the slow but unavoidable oxygen entry that occurs over the system’s life.
To keep the system clean you should include high performance air and dirt separation devices in every system. These functions can be achieved with separate devices, or a single device. If the system contains any ferrous metals such as cast-iron or steel, as most systems do, the dirt separating device should include a magnet to capture ferrous oxide particles. I also highly recommend dirt separation for systems containing high efficiency circulators with permanent magnet motors.
Internally clean hydronic systems help maintain peak component efficiency and lengthen service life. You wouldn’t take a bath in dirty water. You would not (knowingly) put contaminated fuel in your vehicle and you probably would not eat with a rusty fork. Treat your hydronic systems with the same respect and enjoy their benefits for decades. <>

John Siegenthaler, P.E., is a mechanical engineering graduate of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and a licensed professional engineer. He has over 35 years experience in designing modern hydronic heating systems. Siegenthaler’s latest book is Heating with Renewable Energy (see www.hydronicpros.com for more information).


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