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This is a cold water pipe just in front of the hot water heater it is feeding. Why is it shaped that way? What is its function?

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It is highly likely that that piping arrangement is made that way to facilitate the installation of a water softener. A water softener will have a need to accept a pipe with incoming hard water and another for the outflow of conditioned water to the rest of the residence.

When a water softener is installed the U shaped fittings at the bottom of those two pipes would be removed and replaced with a new setup that usually consists of three or four valves. The valve setup allows for bypassing the softener, allowing water into the softener and also a configuration to backflush the unit. These days the whole valve system is often all integrated into a control unit with solenoid valves so that the controller can manage the flushing under electronic control.

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    In fact, that is exactly what we intend to do, install a water softener in this home that has very hard water in the area. Thanks! – Rob Feb 10 at 15:54
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    @Rob, did the plumber know you were going to install a water softener? This is cool, but it seems odd they would take the time to do this just incase someone might want to install a softener in the future. – JPhi1618 Feb 10 at 16:07
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    It is actually not that uncommon when houses are built in areas with very hard water. Especially in instances where houses are built in larger developments and the builder may include a water softener option for the new home owners to purchase. – Michael Karas Feb 10 at 16:10
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    @JPhi1618 This is original to the house being built in 1997. The area is a small rural town with very hard water. We have to replace the hot water heater because it's knocking badly. My son bought the house just a couple of years ago. – Rob Feb 10 at 16:10
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    @JPhi1618 the plumber certainly knows when the town has hard water. – Harper - Reinstate Monica Feb 11 at 21:20
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Looks to me like a heat trap, intended to keep hot water from flowing back through the cold water inlet.

A connection for a water softener would be arranged so that all water to the house (with possible exception of the outdoor faucets and the kitchen cold) could be routed through the softener. Softening just the hot water makes little sense.

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  • Except that it protects the water heater from building up hard mineral deposits, which extends it's life. – jmarkmurphy Feb 12 at 13:50
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    @jmarkmurphy - And you don't want to extend the life of toilets??? – Hot Licks Feb 12 at 16:42
  • Lime scale doesn't really affect toilets that much. Maybe the fill valve, but the heat in the water heater coupled with the minerals in hard water cause the problem. Cold water, not so much. – jmarkmurphy Feb 12 at 21:25
  • Additionally, the fill valve of a toilet is a cheap and easy replacement relative to a water heater (especially given the frequency of replacement, which will generally be less than once a year). Also, softened water contains sodium, which people with certain medical conditions may not wish to consume (whereas most people don't drink hot water). – Doktor J Feb 12 at 22:06
  • @DoktorJ - Usually the sink cold water faucet is not softened, if it's practical to plumb it that way. (Though this is more a matter of taste -- the "added salt" in softened water is inconsequential from a health standpoint.) But most people want both the hot and cold water in their baths softened. – Hot Licks Feb 12 at 22:38
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Without knowing the rest of the layout, I can't be 100% certain, but there a few possibilities:

  1. As others have mentioned, it could have been placed that way because the original owner intended to fit a "softener" or "filter".
  2. Since the house is over 20 years old, its possible there was previously some other device fitted that has subsequently been removed.
  3. It's possible it is designed to limit backflow, for example when the inlet pressure drops, or supply is turned off for maintenance.
  4. Similarly, it could be designed to stop air bubble making their way into the heater and becoming trapped.
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@Michael Karas has it right. This website has a DIY that explains things rather well, complete with diagram and YouTube video. They recommend 10ft of pipe between the water softener and water heater to prevent backflow of hot water into the softener, similar to @Hot Licks heat trap, but I personally would use a check valve, which allows flow in only one direction (e.g. into the water heater.)

If you eliminate the outdoor faucets and kitchen cold from water softener, as both @Hot Licks and the above website recommend, there isn't that much water usage left unheated, 2 or 3 toilets, the cold on 2 or 3 sinks and 2 or 3 tubs/showers, maybe an ice maker in the fridge and maybe a dishwasher (hot and cold), perhaps a clothes washing machine (hot and cold).

So, @Hot Licks, since we don't know anything about the provisioning for softened water to the remaining cold usage points (ice maker, toilets, etc.), I would bet there's an easy way disconnect them from the incoming supply and connect them to the softener.

Regardless, softening just the hot water still can make sense. The hard water in areas with limestone and chalk, dissolved by weakly acidic rain containing carbonic acid, gets its hardness from calcium hydrogencarbonate (CaHCO3)2. When heated, calcium hydrogencarbonate breaks down into CO2(gas), H2O (liquid, obviously), and calcium carbonate (CaCO3, solid), also called limescale in this scenario. This can clog pipes and encrust the heating elements of a water heater, causing poor heating efficiency and hastening the burnout of electric heating elements. In areas with hard enough water, by keeping energy usage down and preserving the life of the water heater, a water softener just for the water heater can pay for itself long before you pay off the mortgage.

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  • The plumbing diagram on that site looks exactly like what we have. I'm hoping that the front of the house outside faucet is tapped into the mainline since it's closest to the water meter. Then I only need to worry about the back of the house outside faucet which is easy to get to and, hopefully, the plumbing is laid out with all this in mind. But I need to get to my son's house to double check. – Rob Feb 12 at 20:02
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Could be the supply and return loop tied together from and old indirect water heater. Possibly once the house was fitted with gas piping the water heater was replaced, eliminating the need to be connected to the heating system.

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  • Great answer, and welcome to the site! – IronEagle Feb 11 at 19:55
  • No. It was not. – Rob Feb 12 at 11:34

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