Citizen Plumbing (It’s not quite Galaxy Zoo)

Posted By Pamela on Oct 3, 2008 | 16 comments

If, like me, you are eagerly awaiting the launch of galaxy Zoo 2, but not quite sure what to do in interim, I invite you to participate in a new citizen plumbing project dedicated to determining when (and why) the flame in the video below keeps going out.

FlexMonkeyPatch “Pilot Episode,” is a program to figure out why my husband and I can’t always take hot showers. For mysterious reasons, at completely random intervals, our water heater’s pilot light fails. This usually happens in the middle of the night. Sometimes we’ll be okay for weeks, sometimes it will go out 3 times in 1 day. We’ve had the plumber out several times, and he hasn’t a clue.

Having gotten sick and tired of traipsing in PJs from the 2nd floor bathroom to the basement water heater, my overly technical husband has now setup a webcam on the water heater pilot light. If you see the light go out, can you direct twitter him @turdotherun?

Please help. Without your citizen plumbing, we may not be able to get a repairman to acknowledge we have a problem.


  1. What a cool use of the Internet. I hadn’t heard of Mogulus, but I bet someone could roll out a webcam-based security service for their house around it.

  2. You could (potentially) write an AppleSript/Automator action to take screen shots and compare them…then send an email/sms if it looks like it’s out.

  3. same thing happened with mine a few years ago, try replacing the thermocouple ($7 piece of copper), not that I’m an expert, and you probably already tried that 🙂

  4. Any strange drafts that could be blowing the pilot out? I’ve seen mine go out occassionally when we sleep with our bedroom windows open (east side of the house) and we get a gusty west wind. The wind blows down the chimney, under the basement door, and out our windows. It isn’t much wind but it doesn’t take much to blow out a pilot light.

    On a mechanical side, as Jay said, “thermocouple”. Failing that perhaps the whole thermostatic control.

    Good luck.

  5. You needn’t a webcam. A small uV detector and a small piezo alarm and a few wires and you’ll know the pilot went out. The water heater should stay warm for many hours after the pilot goes out. If you wake to cold water, the pilot was off all night or more.

    I’d replace the thermocouple. Had a similar problem on a furnace (just a year or two old) when I lived in the frozen north. Fixed it right up.

  6. You probably just need to take the burner and pilot apart and clean them out with water, they will get dust and dirt built up in them over several years use, you shouldn’t run without the cover, but it would be hard to keep an eye on the pilot that way.
    If this unit is close to 10 yrs old, you should just replace it, it’s not that difficult to do yourself, and will run you between $200-$300, unless you get one with a power vent.
    Phil Plait is concerned that you folks are having to take cold showers, thought I would offer some advice.
    E-mail me if you need any more info.

  7. Ooops, X2 on the thermocouple, but the plumber prolly already did that.

  8. So far we’ve replaced the thermocouple and had the plumber clean the thing.

    Still sadness.

  9. (1) I really enjoy your blog and podcast. AstronomyCast is great. Thanks for all the work you and Fraser do to produce it.

    (2) Might consider getting a new repairman.

    (3) If the repairman can’t figure out the problem, just ask him to replace the pilot light assembly – although the webcam is intriguing. I’ve had similar problems with pilot lights. Cleaning the assembly sometimes helps (for reasons that are not clear to me), but it’s sometimes best to just replace them. Cold showers are no fun.

    Best Regards,


  10. Well, looks like the pilot assembly is not the original, at this point I would replace the whole thing.
    Like I said above, you could do it yourself, but if you aren’t comfortable working with gas, have the plumber do it.
    There are much more energy efficient models available, albeit at a much higher cost, and you wouldn’t have to take cold showers, which is not a fun thing to do!

  11. My knowledge of water heaters and plumbing ends at calling my dad when there’s a problem but this is an interesting puzzle. So although this will most likely be the stupidest suggestion offered I thought I’d toss it up anyway. It looks to me like the pilot tip is too far away from the fire ring thingy. What I mean is, when the fire ring thingy ignites it probably blows the pilot light out but then immediately re-ignites it. But if the tip is too far away then there would be random instances where the flame from the fire ring thingy can’t reach it and it doesn’t relight. Does this make sense? It’s just a guess 🙂

  12. I was wondering where the buzzing sound came from: the live video! I think I can hear faint music or other sounds in the video.

    The big flame just got lighted.

  13. I just found a website that is an almost exact copy of your blog post here (but truncated), and it’s on someone else’s website. Just Google “citizen plumbing”. I have a feeling that it’s some sort of webbot-operated blog.

  14. Very helpful. I liked your advice.

  15. How clean is the pilot light burner? Make sure there is nothing clogging where the pilot flame comes out.

  16. This is an awesome project idea! The video isn’t available anymore. Hopefully you got everything figured out!


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