Friday, March 24, 2006

Lowe's vs. Home Depot

While we were in Houston, we stopped at Home Depot for parts to fix the water recirculating valve (a detailed discussion of which will close this post, below). I fully expected to find rebuild kits for the valves, which are simply RainBird irrigation ("sprinkler") valves with replaceable diaphragms. I could be forgiven for having this expectation, because I bought the damn valves at Home Depot to begin with. However, Home Depot now carries Toro and Lawn Genie brand valves, with no RainBird parts in sight. Harumph. I understand changing suppliers, but at least they can carry the repair parts for the product they sold for years.

As I mentioned above, we ended up at a Lowe's here in Austin, which had the kits. Years ago, I had determined that Lowe's was an inferior store to Home Depot. Quite possibly, my vision on this issue was somewhat clouded by the fact that I own a considerable amount of Home Depot stock (which has done quite well, thank you very much). Faced with a Lowe's and a Home Depot next door to each other, I would formerly, without exception, take my business to Home Depot.

I am switching teams.

For one thing, Lowe's has changed the layout of their merchandise, which, formerly, I found confusing and nonsensical. No doubt, they have been learning from Home Depot on this matter. For another, their product quality and selection now rivals that of their orange-hued competitor. But, mostly, it has to do with corporate parking policy.

You may recall that we spent several weeks in the Lowe's parking lot in Baton Rouge. Lowe's had generously donated space in the lot to the Red Cross for logistics operations. (To their credit, Home Depot is also a generous donor -- we had thousands of donated $10, $20, and $100 gift cards that we could use any time we needed hardware or tools.) This prompted us to ask permission at several other Lowe's for overnight parking during our travels. Every Lowe's we have asked has granted us permission to spend the night. Of course, we did whatever business we could in those stores (including replacing our air compressor).

In contrast, when we asked permission at a Home Depot recently, we were flatly denied, even though the store had a huge unused parking area around the side, in which were parked a handful of 53' drop trailers. The manager told us that it was Home Depot corporate policy, emanating from corporate headquarters. (I have been unable to independently verify this statement.) That would also explain why, when we started unloading bays at the Home Depot in Billings, Montana a year ago to do some repairs, the manager came running out of the store, across the expanse of the enormous empty parking lot, just to tell us we could not spend the night. We explained that we were only parking for a few hours to fix a water leak (do you detect a theme here?) with parts from his store. In hindsight, I am now sorry we spent any money there at all.

It looks like I will have to divest my Home Depot stock in favor of Lowe's.

That pesky water valve

For the many bus-nuts and full-time RV folks who read our blog, who may be wondering just what a "hot water recirculating valve" is, here are the details. (Arcane discussion follows -- those without technical interest in RV water systems may safely skip the rest of the post.)

As you already know, we designed Odyssey from the beginning to function well in "boondocking" mode -- self contained and away from any services such as water, sewer, or electricity. As it turns out, water and waste capacity are the gating factors that determine how long one can go, away from such services.

We knew that a certain amount of water is wasted (consuming both fresh water and space in the waste tanks) whenever one showers or washes dishes, by "waiting" for the water to "get hot." What "get hot" really means is "for hot water to travel the distance from the water heater to the faucet." The water already sitting in the hot water line, between the tank and the faucet, is close to room temperature if the hot water has not been used for a while.

We calculated the amount of water that would be wasted each time this was done, based on the diameter and length of our hot water plumbing, and it was quite significant -- over half a gallon each time. That amounts to 1.5 to 2 gallons per day down the drain, as it were. We decided to recapture this water.

Just before each hot water line reaches its fixture (one each for the kitchen and bath sinks and the shower), we installed a tee in the line. One leg of the tee comes from the supply, one leg goes to the hot water inlet of the fixture, and the remaining leg goes off to an electric solenoid valve. From the valve the line then returns to the fresh water tank. An electric pushbutton located near each fixture allows us to operate the solenoid valve, thus allowing the sitting water in the hot water supply line to return to the tank. When we release the valve 10-14 seconds later, instant hot water is available at the faucet or shower. No fresh water is wasted, nor is the space for that water used up in the waste tank.

Electric solenoid valves for pressurized fresh water can be quite expensive. We economized by using 1" irrigation valves available at any home improvement store. These are designed to work on 24VAC, but work just fine on the 24VDC we have on board Odyssey. Because of the design of irrigation valves, they can not be used in fully pressurized lines (where pressure is present on both sides of the valve, such as a line leading to a closed tap). However, in this application, the downstream side of the valve is open-ended into the top of the fresh tank, so there is no static pressure downstream when the valve closes -- exactly the conditions for which irrigation valves are designed. Also, irrigation valves are not approved for drinking water use (though I would not have any real concerns about this, after first running a few dozen gallons of clear water through them). No problem for us -- we don't drink out of our fresh water tank. We have a separate drinking water system, and use the fresh tank for washing only.

A week or so ago we noticed that one of the recirculation valves was leaking. Since we only heat our hot water while driving or when we know we will need it, we were distressed by finding the water in the heater completely cold after a while -- usually, the well-insulated water heater will keep it warm for quite a long time. Of course, the leaking recirculation valve was allowing all the hot water to slowly recirculate back to the fresh tank.

We knew when we chose irrigation valves that their rubber diaphragms had limited lifespans, and we were also concerned that hot water would accelerate their demise, so we were unsurprised, and fully prepared for a ruptured diaphragm or worn spring when we disassembled the valve. As it turned out, though, both were fine, and the leakage was caused by a small amount of hardened mineral build-up that was keeping the diaphragm from seating. The calcified minerals came off in my hand during the process, and I am sure the valve would have worked for many more cycles beyond that, but, as long as I had the thing open, I replaced the diaphragm, spring, and bonnet screws anyway, as preventive maintenance. I also now have two extra diaphragm kits and a spare solenoid on hand for future breakdowns.

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