Save my neighbor's tree from my hot water heater!
September 20, 2011 3:41 PM   Subscribe

Are we killing our neighbor's tree with our hot water heater? If so, what can we do about it?

We had a tankless water heater installed on an outside wall of our home about 5 years ago.

There is a juniper/cedar (?) tree in our neighbor's yard. The trunk is maybe couple dozen feet from that side of our house, and the limbs stretch into our yard, with some touching our gutters. It was not that big when we had the water heater installed.

Over the last year or so the lower limbs facing towards us have been turning brown and dropping leaves (?) quite prolifically. It was only within the last month or so that we noticed the proximity between the tree and the heater's vent: one of us was running hot water and the other was outside and noticed the venting air blowing around the limbs! It seems like the limbs that have grown out towards our gutters are creating a pocket to trap the vented air. It's a lovely tree and we'd hate to see it go, but moving our hot water heater would be complicated at best.


Is our hot water heater to blame for the tree's condition? If so, is it just the heat of the air or something in the vented gases?

Would limbing up the tree help the rest of the tree? Is there anything else, short of moving the heater, that would help? Will the whole tree need to be removed?

Is it something the installer should have noticed? Admittedly, the tree was much smaller then.

How do we gently approach the neighbor about the problem?

We are generally distant but friendly with the neighbors, a couple about our age with a young child. In addition, we'd love to talk about mutual landscaping for the edge between our two properties. There's a wire fence along the property line, most of it is about 2-3 feet tall. They've done some great work putting in plants to give privacy to both sides, but some of the plants seem a bit overcrowded. I'm not sure whether to approach this as a discussion about all the plants or about helping this one tree.

Location: US Pacific NW, throwaway email is
posted by anonymous to Home & Garden (14 answers total)
If you were out there standing next to you're hot water heater when someone was taking a shower, would the exhaust from the hot water heater feel warm, hot, uncomfortably hot, or what? I don't think the heater I'm familiar with pack the umph to cause the effect you're describing.

I'd suspect some kind of blight.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 4:10 PM on September 20, 2011

The junipers I know like it cool so it seems likely that the hot dry air would affect the tree's branches only where it blows on them; can you trim branches back? If branches are touching your gutters it's probably time to trim for that reason alone. Pretty much any plant is going to have difficulty with heated air.

I don't think the rest of the tree would be damaged, only the branches that got drier than they like, so selective limbing would help beautify it.

An installer might notice, but might not think years ahead. I wouldn't really blame the installer.

Talk to your neighbors about it all ... good fences and all that. Be prepared to help, maybe financially.
posted by anadem at 4:14 PM on September 20, 2011

The branches that are over your property are, almost always, your responsibility -- although you may well want to cooperate with your neighbor depending on his attitude toward such things. Just say you want to talk about the landscaping generally and bring it up in the middle of that.

What you want, probably, is an arborist to look at the tree and tell you whether your theory has any validity, and what needs to be done about the tree's condition. For something like this, you may be able to get a free consult.
posted by dhartung at 5:30 PM on September 20, 2011

If the air is hot and dry around the water heater, it may be affecting the tree. I would expect to see a pattern of dead/dying stuff near the heater, and not on the other side. If that's not the case, I would suspect another problem.
posted by oneirodynia at 5:39 PM on September 20, 2011

Wait, the trunk is a "couple dozen" feet away from the house and its branches touch your gutter? Is this juniper like 40ft wide? Maybe these things are regional, but in my experience you'll see brown and empty at the target area before the tree is worrying about it. Anyway, something doesn't add up distancewise, but my impulse is to suggest trimming it.
posted by rhizome at 5:50 PM on September 20, 2011

These are two separate issues! Deal with the tree now, put the landscaping gripe on the backburner - possibly indefinitely. Although if the tree issue goes well, consider mentioning it or asking if you may cut back the parts (carefully) that are on your side of the fence.

Nthing you might want an arborist to give you some input. Do you have a nearby botanical garden? Likely they have someone on staff who will be willing to come out, probably on their own time. A botanical garden is a good resource because you aren't looking for anyone who wants to bid on any potential problem, you just need an educated and objective opinion. I've done this. Worked out great!
posted by jbenben at 6:22 PM on September 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

You might be able to re-direct the vent so it doesn't blow on the tree.
posted by lobstah at 6:29 PM on September 20, 2011

It's not your problem. Don't mention it to your neighbors. Do not
engage them until they engage you. Be prepared to talk to them about
it if they contact you.
If a portion of their tree is growing over your property line, and it dies,
cut it off at the property line.
If their tree limbs are fouling your gutters, cut them off on your side
of the property line, to prevent roof and gutter problems.
Do not conflate your concerns about their landscaping with your
concerns about their tree.
posted by the Real Dan at 10:50 PM on September 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

The Real Dan is right. Fuck those people, it's not your problem.

Or, you could be neighborly and talk to them. You obviously don't really know what kind of tree it is or what the problem is; don't assume it's the vent, because while it's possible, most should not be very hot after a few feet. Is it possible that the side facing your house is getting shaded out? If it's some piece of crap like a Leyland cypress, they grow fast and are very shade intolerant, and can start to drop needles on the shaded side. While it could be the vent, there are a number of other things it could be. As others have said, an arborist could probably give you a better idea, but if it's your neighbor's tree, you wouldn't send someone over without talking to them. I vote for talking to them, in any case.
posted by Red Loop at 3:29 AM on September 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Do you see the neighbors outside from time to time?
"Hey, Neighbor! How's it going? I was noticing that your juniper tree is dying off in spots."
they say "really? I hadn't noticed" and you say "let me show you"
or they say "oh, yes, I guess it is, but whatever, man." and you say "it would be nice to do something about it, those dead needles are really scraggly-looking and sharp to walk on, can you come take a look?"
or they say "oh, yes, I'm worried about it" or "oh, yes, I saw that but I have no idea what's going on" and you both walk over and look at it together.

Then you both look at it and maybe they say something, and eventually you say, "it's right near this hot air exhaust vent. It was doing fine until it grew up close to the house. I bet it would be much healthier if it were trimmed back."

Then they'll say something that either presents some other theory, or agrees with you.
Maybe they're volunteering to handle it. Or maybe they say something should be done and then trail off... in which case you need to know what you're willing to offer - would you split the cost of a landscaper to come up and do a professional pruning? Do you have a landscaper to recommend to them but you won't suggest splitting the bill? You should have some idea on offer here.
Depending on the neighbors, you might also want to be prepared for them to try to blame you (yeah, whatever, the tree is too big for the space if it's touching your house), and/or make you pay for all of it. I'm not sure on property laws, but it may be technically your bill to trim any of their tree that's on your land, but the key thing here is "I was planning to call a landscaper to come prune it, to make sure it's done right, and I just wanted to first of all let you know since it's your tree, and secondly find out if you were interested in hiring them to prune the rest of the plant while they're here." Assuming you are, in fact, willing to pay a landscaper.
posted by aimedwander at 5:53 AM on September 21, 2011

could you attach an exhaust pipe to the heater to make that air dissipate above the leaves?
posted by zombieApoc at 6:29 AM on September 21, 2011

We re-directed a vent that was pointing outwards, straight up with an extension piece once we needed to build something just under it and it was in the way. Be careful that you get a properly registered contracter to do it but it was quite affordable, the part was £35 and his labour was £75. Ours is gas and I won't take any chances with gas.

He mentioned at the time that he'd heard of some innovative products "in America" for capturing the heat and using it to heat something else in the house but we didn't get any details.

so why not research that first as it might save you money.

agreed that if the branches near your heater are turning brown it's likely the hot air.
posted by Wilder at 6:29 AM on September 21, 2011

IF the branch is on your property you have nothing to worry about. Just trim the branch to the end of your yard and be done with it.
posted by majortom1981 at 9:43 AM on September 21, 2011

majortom, while often it is legal to prune limbs overhanging your property from another property, the laws vary from state-to-state, and there often are limits to just what you can do.
Also, most conifers are incapable of sprouting from cuts farther in than existing foliage, so cutting some limbs kills the limbs all the way to the trunk. Not always the end of the world, but potentially relevant.
posted by Red Loop at 2:22 PM on September 21, 2011

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