We’re in Hot Water!

When we first took over Galapagos, Melissa and I felt as if we had just bought the Queen Mary. Stepping up from our sweet Cal 34, Moonrise to big ‘ol Galapagos was intimidating and exciting all at once. To paraphrase Bernadette Peters in The Jerk, It isn’t just about the waterline, its all the stuff.

Of all the stuff that came with Galapagos, nothing could seem as luxurious as a hot water heater. Hot water from the tap? Just like home? What a time to be alive!

It wasn’t hard to slide into such decadence and when I began to re-plumb the whole boat with PEX tubing and new faucets, I knew that I wanted to update the old water heater and get it out of the engine room. So in January of 2017 after much perseverating, measuring and no doubt boring Melissa to tears with technical minutia, I bought an IsoTemp SPA 15 Marine water heater.

For the uninitiated, marine water heaters have an electric heating element, just like the units you have at home. But they also have a small heat exchanger that connects to the cooling system on the boat’s engine. That means you can have hot water just by running the engine for half an hour. The SPA 15 is tiny, only 4 gallons, but that is more than enough for Melissa and I to enjoy showers, wash dishes, and do all the usual domestic chores that can make living aboard a sailboat seem almost normal.

The main reason I chose this particular water heater was that it could fit, just, beneath the sole of the aft cabin. Getting the water heater off a shelf in the engine room not only freed up space for storage there, it placed a fairly heavy container down low, where heavy things should be on a boat.  This allowed me to secure it in place; confident that it would stay there in the event of rough weather or, heaven forfend, a rollover. It also simplifies the design and use of the the engine’s cooling system with the heat exchanger since no external header tank for coolant is required.

 

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This area beneath the aft cabin sole made sense as the center of our water system. There was room to locate the water heater, water pump and a simple manifold for the hot and cold water. The PEX tubing and fittings have proven to be quite reliable and really easy to use and modify.

For almost two years we have enjoyed what would have been an unheard of luxury when we first started sailing. In fact we may have grown a little complacent about having hot water and I suspect that Galapagos, like most boats, can sense when her owners are taking her, and her stuff, for granted.

In hindsight I shouldn’t have been too surprised when one night, lying in my bunk, I heard the water pump come on for half a second. Three minutes later, the pump bumped on again. Checking the faucets on the boat yielded nothing. Finally, pulling up the sole in our aft cabin, I could see a small trickle of water. Just an innocent little trickle. It could be anything. A loose PEX fitting, probably. In two years of cruising with lots of bumpy weather, things are bound to jar loose. I would have this fixed in no time I thought.

Sadly, all the easy things were ruled out and I could now see that the water was coming from under the water heater. If I wanted to learn anything more or have any hope of fixing this leak I would have to remove the tank from my super snug location under the cabin sole. I began to question the wisdom of locating the water heater there and was dreading the process of disassembling the bracing and fittings.

But bitching and moaning wasn’t going to stop the leak. And if I didn’t stop the leak we would lose precious water and,  quelle horreur!, Melissa wouldn’t be able to have a hot shower. That was a future too smelly to contemplate for long. Onto my belly I slithered and an hour or so later, I had the tank out. It got a lot easier after I had reinstalled and removed the tank a few times as I tried and failed to understand where the water was actually coming from.

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The water tank removed and in the shop. In trying to locate the leak, I had thought something obvious might reveal itself without too much effort. I filled the tank with water and looked for air bubbles. No such luck.

 

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This is the heating element and the associated controls that I removed while trying to locate the leak. The electric heater element is mounted through a plate that has a rubber gasket that acts as a seal on the tank. In conferring with the manufacturer, the gasket was mentioned as a point of failure and replacement gaskets are sold on the IsoTemp site.

After disassembling the tank’s electrics and eliminating the rubber gasket, a failure point suggested by the manufacturer, I had nothing left but the stainless steel tank itself. As you can see in the photos, the SPA tanks are encased in a hard plastic case with a foam insulation. Since I really had nothing to lose, I carefully cut the outer plastic casing and started cutting away the foam insulation so that I could see the steel tank.

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Here you can see that I am well and truly committed to finding this leak. By removing a hard plastic band from the middle of the tank, I could remove the bottom half of the cover. I then had to cut away the foam insulation that covered the steel tank. At the bottom, you can see the pin hole leak.

But even with the steel exposed and the tank full of water, I couldn’t find the leak. No, the tank had to be under pressure. Fortunately I was able to pressurize the tank without having to put it back under the sole by using some spare PEX tubing, fittings and a hose bib in the engine room. Voila! the leak finally revealed itself. I had suspected that the weld had somehow failed but as the photos show, the pinhole leak is actually a little above the weld. It is troubling that the tank failed after almost exactly two years and we are wondering if another leak will develop at some point in the future.

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Finally!

In researching how best to repair the tank, a few of options were presented. Some people have had good luck with JB Weld and if we were far away from services, we would have taken the epoxy repair approach. Melissa has never seen a problem that couldn’t be solved with epoxy and was ready to go that route.

But since we were only a short dinghy ride and walk from several welders, I thought it might be a more durable repair to just have the pinhole spot welded. Walking down the streets of La Paz, carrying my leaky, disassembled water heater, I knew that I had arrived as a cruiser. I also felt a bit like a local; no self respecting Mexican would throw away a perfectly good water heater just because it had a leak. Everything can be repaired and made useful again.

A short walk from Marina de la Paz I approached the men at Taller de Soladura el Chicote (Chicote’s Welding shop) and pointed to my little leak. One of the men took my tank and soon a few other guys were gathered round including a very old man that did not do or say much but seemed to have some position of authority in the business. Was he the elder Chicote? One of the guys did a bit of grinding, selected a welding rod and took my tank over to the welding station. The welding machine ran for all of five seconds and my pinhole leak was no more. Total cost: 150 pesos. About 7.50 USD. The shop seemed pretty busy but I think my job was so small they just took care of it while I waited. It took all of ten minutes and I was schlepping my tank back down to the dinghy.

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The guys at Taller de Soladura el Chicote look over the tank. It was a quick, easy repair for them.

Once back on the boat, I filled the tank and put it under pressure again to see that the weld was holding. Huzzah! No leak.  I reassembled the plastic case as best I could and sprayed expanding foam inside to provide a bit of insulation and to give the bracing and mounting hardware something to work against. It was a glorious site seeing the tank installed and holding water pressure. Let’s hope we get many more hot showers out of this tank.

A phrase that seems to pop up in our conversations chez Galapagos is “In for a penny, in for a pound”. There were moments in this project that made me question how much further down the rabbit hole I really wanted to go. Many of our adventures keeping our boat in good repair seem to involve a decision to push on, despite the evidence that we are in over our heads. But one of the luxuries of this lifestyle is an abundance of time. Time to read, enjoy the beauty of the world around us and time to expend ridiculous efforts where normal people would have just pulled out a credit card and bought a new water heater.

Once again, Melissa and I have proven to be abnormal.  What’s the most ridiculous repair you’ve done on your boat?