Ensure Long Heater Life

When it comes to looking at the common causes of pool heater failure, many are linked to improper installation. Therefore, pool professionals that want to be sure pool water stays warm when pools are first opened this spring and into summer (in case of a cool summer), should take the time to review the heater installation for each of the pools they maintain.

Proper Heater Sizing

It is vital for the heater, along with other components in the equipment room, to be sized correctly for the facility's pool along with any additional bodies of water that might be connected. This includes spas and splash play areas. To size the equipment properly, the specifications for the heater should be consulted to compare them to the flow rate that will be pumped through the unit.

To calculate an approximate heater size for a pool, technicians must:

  • Determine the desired pool water temperature (average is 82 degrees F for competitive swimming).
  • Determine the average temperature for the coldest month the pool will be used (if it is an outdoor pool).
  • Subtract the average temperature for the coldest month from the desired pool water temperature. This will provide the temperature rise needed.
  • Calculate the pool surface area in square feet.
  • To determine the British thermal unit (Btu) output needed for gas pool heaters, the formula is calculated by multiplying the pool area (in square feet) by the temperature rise (ideal water temperature/average temperature in coldest month) by 12.

To clarify, heaters are sized based on a 24-hour temperature rise. Therefore, a heater with one million Btus takes 24 hours to raise the pool temperature 15 degrees for a 5,450 square foot pool. Based on this information, the appropriate heater can be selected for the pool.

If the heater does not appear to be sized properly, it should be replaced. In fact, replacing older heaters with new, energy-efficient units will not only provide improved water heating but will also reduce energy consumption and lower operating costs in the process.

Gas Meter Sizing

Just as it is important for the heater to be sized properly, it is also important the gas meter is sized appropriately for the heater. Assuming the pool heater is using natural gas, the meter must be sized—at minimum—to the capacity of the heater itself. In other words, if one is using a 400,000 Btu heater, the meter should be capable of providing 400,000 Btus. Always remember that there may be other items pulling gas from that same meter so must be calculated in when making sure the gas meter is properly sized. Low gas pressure can cause damage to the internal components of a heater, causing build-up that leads to blockage of the heat exchanger.

Propane Tank

If the pool heater is propane-fuelled, the tank must be large enough to supply the proper amount of gas to the heater. Improper gas pressures to the heater—while in operation—will cause lower efficiencies in the heater and possibly a buildup of soot, which could cause damage to the burners, as well as the heat exchanger.

Gas Line & Venting

Once again, sizing is very important. The gas line to the heater, as well as the venting of the heater, need to be sized and vented properly.

When venting heaters, it is important to maintain proper clearances 6 inches from combustible surfaces on the top and side of the unit. Check the heater manufacturer's manual for recommended clearances.

When considering requirements with respect to how far a heater can be vented, or how far ductwork can run to pull intake air, each 90-degree elbow reduces the maximum horizontal polyvinyl chloride (PVC) air intake run by 12 feet. Each 45-degree elbow reduces the maximum run by 6 feet.

The minimum requirements for air supply specify the room in which a heater is installed to be equipped with two permanent air supply openings: one within 12 inches of the ceiling and the other within 12 inches of the floor for combustion air. This installation procedure is in accordance with the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) Z223.1, National Fuel Gas code, as applicable, and any local codes that may apply.

Air supply openings should directly, or through a duct, connect to outdoor air. In the past, venting and air intake ducts had to be in balance and be the same length; however, with newer heaters, they draw combustible air from outside the structure and flue gases are forced out.

The color of the heater's flame is a good indicator of whether or not the unit is receiving enough combustible air to function properly. A clear, blue flame indicates the unit is burning 100 per cent of the gas. If the flame is not getting enough air, it becomes orange and releases carbon that turns to soot and clogs heat exchangers.

One of the more common mistakes that occur when installing a new heater is upgrading the size of the unit without having a large enough gas supply. For example, if the pool previously had a gas line for a 200,000 Btu heater and the new unit is rated 400,000 Btus, the gas line also needs to be bigger to accommodate the increased output.

Troubleshooting Heater Problems

The symptoms associated with heater failure can generally be narrowed down to issues with a burner or with the heat exchanger. The following are a few troubleshooting tips to consider for common problems experienced with pool heaters.

Loud, high-pitched whine

This symptom is generally associated with a burner issue; specifically with the flame being too "rich." To remedy this, check the pressure tap between the gas valve in the blower inlet and verify the gas regulator setting is -0.2 in. water column (wc). In some cases, it might be necessary to replace the gas orifice.

Flame is "fluttery"

Again, this is symptomatic with a burner issue and can be accompanied by an acrid smell from the exhaust. However, in this case, the cause is most likely the result of the flame being too "lean," and the burner may even fail to remain lit. As noted earlier, check the pressure tap between the gas valve in the blower inlet and verify the gas regulator setting is -0.2 in. wc.

Flame does not stay lit

Sometimes the combustion on the heater appears to be normal, but the flame does not stay lit. The cause is most likely a result of the flame not being detected. To remedy this situation, check the igniter to see if it is wet or possibly damaged. This may require the igniter to be replaced.

Further, verify the burner flame holder is properly grounded. This might also require the ignition control module to be replaced. Finally, be sure to inspect the manifold pressure. In doing so, check the gas supply line pressure when the heater is operating.

Boiling and "bumping" sounds

The heat exchanger within the heater can also be the cause of several problems. One of the most common issues is the boiling of water accompanied by "bumping" sounds. This is commonly caused by low water flow to the heater. This problem can also be caused by a plugged heat exchanger or a bypass valve that is stuck open.

The best way to fix this problem is to ensure the pump and filter are working properly so the water flow is sufficient to the heater. If the heater is not getting good flow, first check to make sure your filter is clean and not time for backwash or element cleaning. A dirty filter can reduce proper flow through the heater as well.

The heat exchanger could also be plugged because of improper water chemistry, resulting in scale formation. More often than not, this is because the water is out of chemical balance. If this is the case, the water should be tested to ensure the proper corrective measures are taken to get the water back in balance.

Reduced water flow

It is all about water flow. If it is too fast, it results in condensation. If it is too slow, the heater is not warming the water efficiently. In some cases, when a pump is not working properly it can contribute to heater inefficiencies due to irregular water flow. If this is the problem, it might be a good time to consider a variable-frequency drive (VFD) to ensure the water flow through the heater remains consistent.


Propane and natural gas, when burned, produce water as a byproduct. If the heat exchanger is too "cool" the humid flue gases will condense on the fins of the heater. Condensation on the heat exchanger causes carbon to adhere to it. The condensate collects, then drops on to the burners. The combustion is then compromised as "raining" condensate that interferes with the flame pattern.

This poor combustion turns into "soot," which collects on the fins and causes the flue gasses to be impeded. The condensation not only causes inefficiencies in heater functionality, but also causes oxidation on copper from low return water temperatures.

Brief periods of condensation on startup is normal for most pool heaters. In fact, all category I and III pool water heaters will condense if allowed to send very low return water into the heat exchanger. However, adding airborne chemicals to condensate on heat exchanger coils will cause the unit to fail more quickly. As mentioned earlier, "sooting" is often the first sign of a problem, but is often ignored. In fact, some service technicians who have not been trained properly may place jumpers on safety devices instead of paying attention to the "sooting" that occurs.

Soot formation on heat exchanger tubes

There are several items to look for to identify soot formation on heat exchanger tubes. The first contributor to the problem is low gas pressure. The heater needs an 11 in. wc for propane gas and a 4-in. wc for natural gas. The pressure of the gas should be inspected while the burners are lit.

Soot can also form when there is too much water flow through the heater. To remedy this, a high flow modulator or a manual bypass valve should be installed. Obstruction of the burners by some foreign matter can also be a problem; therefore, it is important to remove, inspect and clean all burners.

Maintenance Program

All aquatic facilities should establish a comprehensive maintenance program for the equipment room, which must include a specific action plan for heaters, as well as the pumps and filtration systems used on pools and other water features.

It is also a good idea to keep additional parts on hand just in case an aquatic facility needs to get a heater up and running immediately. Having access to items such as pilot assemblies, orifice parts for burners, and even a gas valve can come in handy during a time of need. Most facility operators would also agree that it is wise to post the phone number of a nearby service company directly on the heater in for emergencies. Avoiding heater problems this winter is important to all aquatic facility managers and, often times, the simplest best practices are the ones that keep pools running smoothly at all times.



Mike Fowler is the commercial sales manager for Pentair in Sanford, N.C. He has been with the company since 1992, starting his career in the technical services department at Purex Pool Products. Fowler has held many managerial roles within the company, including marketing, accounting, and products.