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High Altitude Fixes for Your Gas Water Heater


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Natural gas is an excellent fuel source for hot water heaters . . . unless you live in the mountains. You've probably noticed that water heater manufacturers rate their appliances to work at a specified altitude. But what happens when you live above this level? Is there anything you can do?

Even if you live on a mountain top, there are ways to modify your water heater so it can operate properly. This article will explain why your gas heater struggles in high altitudes, and what things you can do to fix the problem.

High Altitude = Less Oxygen

High altitude problems are not exclusive to gas water heaters, in fact, all gas appliances need to be modified to function properly. Water heaters are designed and manufactured to operate at sea level. Since the amount of oxygen in the air decreases with altitude, the air-fuel mixture also changes. With the decrease of oxygenated air, combustion is compromised.

When the balance of gas fuel and fresh air is correct, a consistent, steady blue flame emerges. When you make any adjustments to the balance of gas and air, the flame pattern will also change. In some cases, the natural gas won't burn at all. A properly balanced air-fuel mixture not only assists your water heater to operate efficiently, but it also ensures a clean burn of the gas fuel.

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What is Combustion?

Gas water heaters use a chemical reaction called combustion which creates both heat and light. In order for combustion to take place, three components need to be present:

  1. Fuel  (gas)
  2. Oxygen (fresh air)
  3. Ignition (pilot light)

Once combustion takes place, a byproduct of carbon dioxide (a harmless gas) is produced. If the supply of oxygen is inadequate, the combustion reaction does not properly occur, and carbon monoxide is produced.

Without an adequate supply of air to support proper combustion, the amount of carbon dioxide is reduced, and in it's place, carbon monoxide is produced instead.

Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless gas that's produced by the incomplete combustion of any fossil fuel (natural gas, coal, oil, and even wood). Carbon monoxide will prevent blood from absorbing oxygen, and it's victims will be lulled into an unconscious state. It can be lethal, and is often called the silent killer.

We highly recommend having a carbon monoxide detector located near your gas water heater. They are inexpensive and will alert you to any problems.

Kidde AC Plug-in Carbon Monoxide and Explosive Gas Detector Alarm | Nighthawk Sensor Technology | Model # KN-COEG-3

Carbon Monoxide Detector

This carbon monoxide detector by Nighthawk also has an explosive gas alarm.

Less Oxygen = Less Fuel

Air provides your water heater with oxygen, and oxygen is needed to maintain the pilot and main burner flames. If combustion is not properly happening in your gas water heater, it's likely that there isn't enough oxygen to balance the fuel.

You may notice the following:

  • Yellow flame
  • Sooting on burner plate
  • Abnormal flame patterns (flame should be blue and steady)
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Less Fuel = High Altitude Modifications

The oxygen in the air decreases the higher you are above sea level. This means that if you live in a high altitude area, you will have less oxygen in the air. As a general rule, gas water heaters can function up to 2,000 feet above sea level without adjustments being necessary.

If a modification is necessary, it's done by adjusting the air-fuel balance. This modification will allow the water heater to adapt to the atmosphere change.

There are two options that can be done to modify you water heater for high altitudes. We highly recommend contacting a professional, especially if you need to make adjustments to your water heater.

It's important that you only do one of these fixes, NEVER DO BOTH.

Derate the Water Heater

Replace the orifice in the main burner assembly. The main burner orifice controls the amount of fuel that's released into the combustion chamber. When the orifice size is reduced, the amount of fuel released is also reduced. The general guideline is to reduce the main burner orifice size by 4% for every 1,000 feet of altitude.

Devalue the Gas Fuel

This must be done by your local gas utility company. Often gas utilities have already made the adjustment to their fuel if they service customers in high altitude areas.

Modifying your gas water heater for high altitude does not mean that your water heater is not operating properly. It's simply an issue with the atmosphere in which it is surrounded. By making a few adjustments, your water heater will be able to function at optimal levels.

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