New Brunswick

Saint John utility links hot-water heater failures to new, harder water

As more west Saint John property owners blame a new water system for plumbing damage, concern is also growing about harm to hot-water heaters.

Saint John Energy says it wasn't prepared for effects of mineral-heavy water going to west neighbourhoods

In west Saint John homes, some Oso brand hot-water heaters that customers rent from Saint John Energy have sustained excessive calcification on elements. (Matthew Bingley/CBC)

As more west Saint John property owners blame a new water system for plumbing damage, concern is also growing about harm to hot-water heaters.

At least 200 hot-water heaters leased to customers by Saint John Energy have stopped working.

We didn't realize the water was going to be as hard as it is, so we didn't anticipate that we would have this many failures.- Marta Kelly,  Saint John Energy

Saint John Water announced last week it would investigate the effects of the mineral-heavy water it's now distributing to west Saint John from its well field in nearby South Bay.

Until September, water for west Saint John came from a lake and was soft.  

Since the switch, dozens of Saint John Water customers have complained about the new, harder water, and some say it is causing their pipes to spring leaks.

Ken Hebert, the building superintendent at Hillcrest Village, a seniors complex, said leaks have been springing up much more frequently with the hard water.

"We're getting to the point where we have one almost every day now," he said. The cost of repairs is becoming unmanageable, with bills now around $20,000, he said.

Hebert is worried about the 115 hot-water tanks Hillcrest Village rents from Saint John Energy.

"I don't want a 40-gallon tank emptying itself on a second-floor going down to three apartments," he said.

So far, his tanks have held up. But some hot-water heaters leased by Saint John Energy have not fared as well.

Saint John Energy official Marta Kelly says the hard-water issues caught the utility by surprise. (Matthew Bingley/CBC)

"There seems to be a bit of a calcification build-up on the elements, which is causing customers to have no hot water," said Marta Kelly, the utility's vice-president of finance and customer service.

Around 5,600 customers on the west side rent hot-water heaters from the utility.

At first repairs were being done to individual tanks, Kelly said, but then the utility began swapping them out.

"We didn't realize the water was going to be as hard as it is, so we didn't anticipate that we would have this many failures," she said.

The problems seem to only exist with Oso hot-water heaters. They are stainless steel and heat water at a higher temperature.

Saint John Energy was already studying the future of its rental program, and the study will now include the effects of hard water. (Matthew Bingley/CBC)

Saint John Energy is now only renting Giant brand heaters to west Saint John resident. Kelly said the Giant glass-lined  heaters respond better to well water, because they operate at a lower temperature.

Kelly also said the utility has had to shift some of its employees around to deal with customer problems.

Issues with hot-water heaters are often discovered early in the morning or around supper, she said, so service workers have had their shifts adjusted to deal with the demand.

Saint John Energy was already looking into the future of its hot-water heater rentals, and the study will now include the hard-water issues, Kelly said.