Wednesday, July 12, 2006

What’s With the Water Heater?

Let’s just start out by admitting something here: I know nothing about water heaters. I don’t know how they work, why they don’t work when they stop working and what to do about it. Well, maybe I know how they work. Flame on the bottom heats the water in the middle and it goes into the house at the top, and therein lies the problem I was faced a few days ago.

I had decided to do some laundry, as I was nearly down to the bottom of my underwear drawer, and that means I had to spend the day walking around with Indian underwear that constantly creeps up on me. Periodically picking a wedge of cotton out of your fault line every time you take a step isn’t how I like to live. The good news, however, is that the last pair is well ventilated (can you say holey underwear, Batman!) with an elastic band that’s merely a shadow of its former self. And if I ever got pants’d while wearing them, there’s not a whole lot keeping them where they are and the effect would be legendary to whomever did the pantsing. As a side note here (right, like this whole thing isn’t a side note), what is with the sizes printed on underwear? I’ve got a few pairs that are sized “36/38,” and I don’t know what that means. Is it a size 37? Is it designated that way to make the 38 people feel good that their underwear size is a petite 36, or is it to make the 36 people think that’s there’s still a lot of wiggle room left?

Okay, so I’m gathering up whites for a load of laundry to avoid wearing the e-pair of underwear currently stuffed in the corner of my sock drawer. There were a few especially dirty socks by the garage door left over from a rousing jaunt of yard work; my work boots have holes in the bottom of them, so what I step in goes right up onto the sock, hence their sequestering to the garage until a load of whites are rounded up. It’s like a cattle call, I gallop around the house rustling socks, herd them together and drive them to market. I reach down to pick up the stray socks and they're soaking wet. It had been a few days since I discarded them there, and there should be no reason to believe that they could have stayed wet that long.

Then I looked up to the water heater and underneath the behemoth was a slowly growing puddle of water creeping out from some unknown leak (and mushrooms! No kidding). Great. What now? Do I need a new water heater? One would assume so, but even if this one was installed when the house was new, it is only eight years old, not long enough to stop working.

Home Depot Trip Number One: Water heater aisle. There are about six different kinds and sizes ranging from a 20 gallon to a 75… and the prices start at 250 bucks and skyrocket from there. The one I would need was $400. Nobody ever gets excited about buying a new water heater, and what’s more is that they charge almost 50 percent of the cost for installation (and you have to have a permit from the city). What a waste.

If you’re saying that $400 isn’t much to spend for the luxury of hot running water, a little background: I spent most of my 20s with a money’s-no-object attitude, and if I wanted something, I just bought it without much thought about the cost. Now that I’m in my 30s, I realize how much money I wasted over the years on things that don’t matter now (and barely did then) and now I feel that money is very much an object. Furthermore, if I can shimmy out from underneath an unexpected $400 expense on a less-than-glamorous water heater—money I could easily spend elsewhere on something much more rewarding—then I’ll do it, or at least give it a shot. Call me miserly, cheap, frugal, it doesn’t matter. I’ve got higher priorities for my bank accounts than to finance a water heater purchase.

Fearing that the water heater would suddenly explode at any given second, I investigated for the leak with extreme caution; remember, that I know nothing about them, so it unexpectedly bursting at the seams and showering me with scalding water under high-pressure was not completely out of the realms of possibility. There’s warning signs all over the thing alluding to this very idea. I sat there on the garage floor with a flashlight looking for any signs of a leak, a drop of water, a drip of anything falling onto the floor. I sat there a long time and nothing, no so much as a trickle. I turned on the hot water in the downstairs bath tub, thinking that if I lowered the pressure, it would cycle through another tank of water and the source of the leak could be found. Twenty minutes and nothing.

Home Depot Trip Number Two: Water heater aisle. With their floor models naked, I could see what was hiding behind the insulation on mine. Drain valve, pressure release valve, hot water out, cold water in, and a heat vent at the top. No other intended holes. Back home, I climbed a ladder to take a look at the top of my heater. Eureka! Water everywhere, and I found the general location of the leak.

One of the crafty ways they get you to replace your water heater more frequently is that they use an aluminum tank that won’t rust, copper pipes to and from the house that won’t rust, but iron fittings that connect the copper pipes to the tank… that does rust. On top of which, each water pipe is fitted to the tank in this quarter-inch-deep indentation that traps water there long enough to rust away whatever’s nearby. What’s nearby? As you can see in the picture, it’s the iron fittings, of course. It looked like the bottom of an old car in there, and both of the divots (one for cold water and one for hot) were filled to the brim with red, rust-hued water. Apparently, when the water heater pressurized after cycling through a tank of hot water, it would leak, overflow the divots and spill down the back of the tank, underneath the insulation, and onto the floor. Nice.

So, how do you fix such a thing? I don’t know. Another thing I noticed is that the cold water pipe, when the water heater would open up the inlet valve and suck in more water, it would leak at just above the fitting, where the copper tube and the tightening nut meet. Nice.

I mulled over it for a couple of days, called my dad to see if he’s ever fixed a leaky water heater before (he hadn’t), and he convinced me to replace it myself if I had to… and it does seem easy, just three pipes. But no fatherly water heater advice. “I’m interested to know how it turns out,” he said, signifying that I was on my own. Read on, Dad.

I tried to soak up the water with a towel, but as soon as I pulled the towel away, it would immediately fill up again. So, it was definitely leaking, and there wasn’t much to do about it but go to Home Depot again. Today was the day. I would fix it or buy a new one and replace the leaky one, reluctantly.

Home Depot Trip Number Three: Water heater aisle. Since I knew the cold water inlet copper tubing was also leaking, I found a replacement. They had regular copper pipe and fancy braided stainless steal lines in three lengths, 12, 18 and 24 inches. Of course, I had no idea how long the original line was so I bought the 24-inch, and I felt fancy, so the braided line came home with me (along with a flag stanchion, but that’s another story).

Up on the ladder again back in the garage, I turned off the cold water inlet at the wall and cautiously began to unbolt the copper pipe with a crescent wrench. A little water came out, and I expected that, thinking there was some still in the line. No big deal. Another turn with the wrench and a Niagara Falls plume of water jets across the garage, spraying a deluge everywhere, so now I’m wet, everything around me is wet too. It begins to mix with the half-inch layer of dust on top of the tank, making mud. Great.

No matter how hard I twisted the faucet on the wall, water sprayed out. Okay, Plan B, trigger the water pressure release valve and turn off the water main at the side of the house. Turn on the bathtub until the water stops pouring. I’m good. Back up on the tank, the original copper pipe came off nice and easy, but the stupid fancy braided stainless steal line I bought to replace it was too big. I tried to force it to make the 90-degree bend, but it was pinching at the bend and I figured that would do my hot water pressure any favors.

Home Depot Trip Number Four: Garden section. Hey, I needed other things; my life doesn’t revolve around the water heater, but while I was there, I returned the fancy steal line and saved myself a few bucks by getting the bendy copper line, 18 inches this time.

But what about the leak at the base of the iron fitting, where all the rust was found? What can I do about that? How about plumber’s putty? I’ve seen people do great feats of magic with this professional PlayDough, and it was only two bucks, making it well worth a shot. On the way home, the part of my brain that constantly thinks about cars, their acquisition, restoration and enjoyment, came up with a great idea…and I’ll share it with you later.

The replacement copper line fits perfectly, nice and tight. I turned on the water main at the side of the house and then the faucet at the wall. Nothing exploded (or imploded, you never know), no scalding water burst from the leak and nobody had to wear a Phantom of the Opera mask for the rest of his life. All went well, but it was still leaking. There was obviously a rusted-through hole at the base of the cold water fitting, and if I didn’t fix that, I didn’t fix anything.

Initially, I thought of my welder, just lay a bead of weld around the base of the fitting, filling the hole and stopping the leak. I’ve got some skills as a welder, but not that many, and I would probably burn a larger hole in the top of the tank, necessitating replacement of the whole thing. So, that’s out.

Then the revelation came. Por-15, a rust fighter’s best loved tool, and I’m surprised it took me so long to come up with it. Por-15 is a tough paint that forms an impervious coating over any rusted area, allowing no water and air to the metal and no rust on other nearby metals. I use it on the floorboards on all of my cars, anywhere there rust (or there could be rust).

I took some of the plumber’s putty and made a doughnut around the iron fitting and then filled the entire divot with Por-15, creating a thick layer of the sealer that will prevent any leaks once it is completely dry. Genius.

Of course, it is only a matter of time it completely craps out and I’ll have to buy a new one, but not today. Haha!

Did I mention that the washing machine is making a horrible noise during the spin cycle, like a cyclone is tearing through a mobile home park (I know, cyclones happen on water, but I think a cyclone sounds more terrifying than a tornado), and when the motor kicks in on the refrigerator from time to time, it’s beginning to growl like a hedgehog.

When a hedgehog growls, it spits dollar signs, and that always sounds expensive; but the long-awaited point here is that it isn’t going to be expensive today!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I just laughed until I cried. Nearly four years after your original post and I am absolutely cracking up (water heater puddle on my floor today...). :)


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