Collector Pressure

Last fall I volunteered in the fly loft at the Calumet Theater for the Calmuet Player’s musical. I’ve been doing this for a long time now, and while it does take a lot of time, I do enjoy it each year. (Click HERE for a story about last year’s show.) It means I almost never make sense of the shows, because I have to watch them from 30′ above the stage floor, and I always miss the same parts of it each night, because that is when I’m busy in the loft. Alice usually attends a performance or two, and she often explains what I’ve missed on the drive home.

As last fall’s production was winding down, the weather turned colder than expected one night. I got home late and fell into bed. In the morning, I heard an ominous sound coming from the bathroom… a sound of running water. I got up while rubbing the sleep out of my eyes, and it soon became clear to me that the solar collector had frozen the night before, and at least one copper pipe inside the collector had burst. I quickly shut everything down, drained the system, and covered it up for the winter.

Fast forward to May of this year. I usually set the collector back up in early May. I have a heat tape on the bottom header of the thing, and I’ll often plug it in on the few cold nights we get in May. This allows me to harvest the sunlight while avoiding costly freeze ups. This May I couldn’t set it up as usual, and, truth be told, I do dislike repairing the collector. For one thing, if I hadn’t been so stupid as to leave it operational on a frosty night, I wouldn’t have to fix anything. For another, I’m not a great plummer. Mistakes often make me have to start over, and I seem to make plenty of them.

So I put the project off. About 2 weeks ago, I got everything taken apart and found that two pipes had burst. Not as bad as I thought it would be. I assembled my tools and went to work. Copper pipe has to be properly prepared prior to soldering, or the joint will likely fail. In this picture I’ve adapted my cordless right-angle drill to ream out a fitting. It is kind of hard to see, but Franco has strategically placed his stick on top of the tool he thinks I’ll need next, and is waiting for me to notice it and give it a toss. Once everything was cleaned, I installed a coupling, put it together, and started soldering. Things went pretty well until the last joint.

When a copper joint works properly, the solder melts and sucks down into the joint, until a lovely collar of solder forms all around the lip of the joint. When you see that collar, you know you have a good joint. The last joint, for whatever reason, would not allow any solder to enter. It just melted and dripped along the outside of the pipe. Time is of the essence when the joint is hot from the torch. I tried everything I could think of, but nothing would make the solder enter the joint. So I grabbed my channel locks and tried to remove the stubborn fitting from the pipe. It would not budge. Arg! I’m not the type to start throwing things when projects go sour, but I did cut the pipe above the now useless fitting, threw it away, and put my tools away. That was a couple of weeks ago.

Today, I finally got my nerve up to try again. It can’t be a sunny day, because without water circulating through the collector, it can get too hot to work on. It was overcast this afternoon, so I pulled the cover off and assembled my tools. Just as I was getting into it again, it started to rain. Fine. I decided I wasn’t going to let some rain interfere, so I soldiered on. I got the first break repaired with no troubles. I cut out the second break, measured and assembled the pipe and fittings, soldered it all together, and it looked like this one was going to work. My only mistake on this one was I installed the jam nut on the wrong end of the coupling, forcing me to reheat and disassemble the coupling, install the nut, and then finish that pipe. Every joint presented the lovely molten collar that takes on a beauty that is hard to describe.

As I got my camera out to take the above picture, I looked at the lcd screen on the back of the camera as usual. Somewhere in my travels today, I must have hit the camera hard and cracked it. I could still see through the viewfinder to take the picture, but I’m thinking this camera is toast. Shoot.

Alice and I worked together to test the joints. We used out little walkie-talkies. She was positioned at the valves in the tank closet in the bathroom, and I was outside on the ladder observing the collector. When she turned on the water, I did have some leaks, but they all looked to be at the coupling joints. I asked her to turn the water off while I grabbed the necessary wrenches, tightened the leaky couplings, and we tried it again. No leaks. Yay!

Tomorrow, I plan to remove the cover and let the sun dry out the inside of the collector, so no moisture will be trapped inside. If I’m not careful with this, the glazing I put over the collector will fog on the inside, decreasing the efficiency of the system. Once I think it is dry enough, I’ll install the glazing, and then sit back and let the sun heat our water again until the fall. I’m thinking seriously about looking for a frost alarm to install near the collector. If they have one that says, “it’s getting cold out here you idiot,” I think I’ll buy it.

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