Berks County firm makes a device to prolong the life of water heaters

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A wear indicator is inserted into a metal part at Performance Metal Inc., of Bechtelsville, Pa. The Berks County firm has developed a sacrificial anode, a metal rod that is placed inside a water heater to prevent corrosion.

Beware the day the water heater dies and disgorges a pool of hot, steaming liquid on the floor. Showers go cold. Spouses and children become grumpy. Chaos ensues.

So Hank Leipert and his colleagues at Performance Metals Inc. in Berks County invented and patented a device they say can indefinitely prolong the life of a water heater, sparing the environment, saving money, and preserving domestic tranquillity.

Who wouldn't want such a useful device?

Most water-heater manufacturers, it seems.

"These people are in the business to make water heaters," Leipert said. "They're not in the business of making them last longer."

Rejection has only fueled the zeal of Leipert, chief executive officer of the Bechtelsville, Pa., die-casting company, which employs about 60 people. He and his team are on a crusade to convince America of the virtues of their invention:

The Intelligent Anode, designed to trigger an alert when a critical part in the water heater, known as the sacrificial anode, is imperiled.

A sacrificial anode is a metal rod that resides inside a water heater to prevent corrosion. The anode, usually made of magnesium, corrodes instead of the water tank, in a kind of heroic electrochemical suicide mission.

But once the anode is spent - its sacrificial rust-prevention role finished - water heaters quickly fall apart.

Experts say the main reason water heaters fail is because the anodes are neglected. A typical water heater lasts only a few years longer than its six-year warranty, said Randy Schuyler, a Californian who operates www.waterheaterrescue.com.

Yet Schuyler has kept his water heater in fine order for 29 years by periodically replacing the sacrificial anode.

"That's about four times longer than anybody else on my street," he said. "They can last almost indefinitely."

Until puddles form under their water heaters, most homeowners are blithely unaware of the condition of their sacrificial anodes. But by then, the damage is done. A standard new water heater, installed, can cost $500 to $1,000. That does not count any structural damage caused by leaks.

"The costs are phenomenal," Leipert said. "Twenty-three thousand water heaters crap out every day."

The folks at Performance Metals dreamed up the idea of attaching an electronic sensor to the anode, to send out an alarm when it needs to be replaced. The sensor can beep and flash, or it can send a wireless signal to the Internet, to a security system, or to a smart meter, the two-way devices now being deployed by utilities.

Leipert has licensed the technology to Honeywell International Inc., which is exploring ways of incorporating the Intelligent Anode into its water-heater controls. So far, nothing commercial has been developed.

Only one water-heater manufacturer has taken an interest: Giant Factories Inc., of Montreal, is testing the Intelligent Anode for use in a product line aimed at property owners willing to pay a little more for durability.

"We see great potential to do repairs before the tanks fail prematurely," said Jean-Claude Lesage, a company vice president. He said Giant was talking with insurance companies about promoting Intelligent Anodes, since water-heater failures are responsible for a large number of claims.

But American water-heater manufacturers have shown little interest, Leipert said, so he is trying to create a market with end users, who have a vested interest in keeping their water heaters intact.

Leipert is developing an aftermarket for homeowners who want to install Intelligent Anodes in their existing equipment. With retail prices starting at $120, though, experts like Schuyler think the new devices are too costly.

"You can buy a regular replacement anode for $40," Schuyler said.

The company also is trying to generate interest among big property managers, such as public-housing agencies, that maintain large fleets of water heaters and want to automate maintenance.

Leipert said he thought water-heater rental companies - more common in Canada than the United States - might be a potential outlet.

He also said he believed solar water-heater owners, who have invested thousands of dollars in their rooftop contraptions, might be more eager to pay for the Intelligent Anode system than homeowners who regard their conventional water heaters as disposable.

Leipert's die-casting business - its parent company is called SciCast International Inc. - stumbled upon the sacrificial-anode trade as part of a survival strategy.

Like many U.S. manufacturers, Performance Metals saw its business disappearing overseas a decade ago. Low-cost competitors in China were capturing its traditional markets, making cast-aluminum cases for power tools, like drills.

"We knew we were in deep trouble," said Martin Wigg, the company's president. "We weren't going to last much longer."

Performance Metals retooled and upgraded to go after defense contracts. Jobs making precision parts for military radios and munitions now make up about 40 percent of its $7 million annual business.

The company also discovered a market for sacrificial anodes, commonly used in places where metal comes into contact with an electrolyte like saltwater. Bridges, piers, and pipelines have sacrificial anodes of softer metals such as zinc to protect them from corrosion.

"We realized there are anodes everywhere," Wigg said.

Performance took aim at the marine market - boats have specially fitted anodes to protect the metal rudders, keels, and outboard motors. To distinguish itself, the firm invented a plastic wear indicator that is inserted into the anode to let the boat owner know when to replace the metal piece.

"From that day on, we didn't need to compete on price," Leipert said. Marine anodes now amount to about 20 percent of its business.

In patenting the wear indicator, company officials began to think outside the boat. They expanded the intellectual-property rights of wear indicators to other applications. Thus was born the Intelligent Anode for water heaters.

Leipert regards Intelligent Anodes as a way to transform the business, a signature product that becomes ubiquitous.

"We were looking for a home run," said Leipert, a relentless salesman.

Though the company has struggled to survive in the recession - management took pay cuts, and staffing is at half its peak level - hope springs eternal.

He pointed to the Canadian water heater on display in his office, equipped with the special device.

"That could be our home run, right there."


Contact Performance Metals at 877-612-5213 or online here.


Contact staff writer Andrew Maykuth at 215-854-2947 or amaykuth@phillynews.com.