Preparing to shoot a few segments of Big Jon in 5 for BEER2WHISKEY in our upstairs studio at Barley's Taproom in downtown Greenville. That's owner Josh Beebe preparing for his closeup.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Hot Water: Yes, It Is Important

An unexpected project.
I'm not the kind of guy who bellyaches about minor inconveniences – particularly those that will be short lived. I can deal with a center seat in steerage on an airplane ride of an hour or two without grumbling. I don't like it. Fortunately, I don't often do it. But I will if I must.

It was in this spirit of resignation that I faced a few days of cold showers when I returned home from an eight-day house-painting stint in Florida to discover that my water heater had given up the ghost. I wasn't surprised. When I purchased this house in 2007, I was aware its water heater had some rust around its base. It was obviously old at that point. I probably should have insisted it be replaced as a condition of purchase, but didn't.

I'm not a fan of crawl spaces; consequently, I take every opportunity to ignore mine. Once a year or so I open the access door and, waving a flashlight around, take a quick look to make sure nothing is blatantly amiss. In addition to the water heater, the air handler is down there as well. I spent a couple of days my first winter in the crawl space getting the furnace back up to speed. It wasn't pleasant. (Oh, Grasshopper, home ownership isn't all it's cracked up to be.)

The crawl-space access. The black thing in the right margin is a bookcase that had to be cleared and moved.

My tri-level house is built on an incline. The main floor is in the front with six steps leading up to two bedrooms and a bath in the rear, and six steps leading down to a bedroom, bath and my office. The crawl-space access is off the short hall between my office and the downstairs guestroom.

As these nasty areas go, mine is the Taj Mahal of crawl spaces. Through the access door, you drop down about two feet to a dirt floor covered wall to wall in heavy plastic sheeting. It only runs under the main floor. If it wasn't for the main-floor floor joists, I could almost stand upright. As it is, I have to crouch a little to move around. 

Gee, looks fine to me. Why isn't it working?
Situated just to the left of the access door as you enter the space, the water heater is pretty accessible. I'd estimate the old unit to be 30 years old or more. It was old enough that the hot- and cold-water lines were copper that were part of the unit. They extended from the top about eight inches where they could be soldered on to the house lines. The 240V electric line was hardwired through an opening in the top.

Water-heater manufacturers make a short-squat unit for installation in confined areas such as a crawl space. They are roughly 31 inches high and 24 inches wide. Weight: about 100 pounds.

With only a few days between my Florida visit and a planned trip to Tucson, I had intended to do some writing. I haven't been very ambitious where writing is concerned since Thanksgiving, doing the minimum to keep me in groceries, and content for my Web site and blog at least somewhat current. I didn't type a productive word while in Florida. I was due. In fact, I considered not addressing the water-heater issue until returning from Tucson. I could endure a few more days of cold showers, right? Right.

Curiosity, though, got the better of me and I embarked on an Internet search for water heaters. After an hour or two of comparing models and prices, I decided Home Depot was in the ballpark. With one of its stores just a mile or so from my house, I looked at what was available for store pickup. I found exactly what I needed online and my store had it. I decided to go on a fact-finding mission to see what delivery and installation might cost. Jumping in the Toyota Yaris I have this week, I drove the five minutes required to reach my Home Depot and headed for the water-heater aisle. There I found Steve.

Steve and I talked water heaters for a few minutes. He actually seemed to know what he was talking about – not always the case at this store. Turns out that Home Depot has a $20 delivery pilot program for appliances and such. They put the merchandise on a pickup truck and unload it at your door. My store happens to be one of the test stores. I didn't even get as far as determining the cost for installation because Steve launched into a discussion of compression joints for copper that eliminates the need to solder. What! Hey, I can do this myself in a day, I thought. Soldering would have added time and a lot of uncertainty to the project. I've soldered copper plumbing before and it was a real challenge. Taking soldering off the table filled me with enthusiasm for the project.

I paid for the water heater/delivery and set the delivery time for the next morning. The delivery guy knocked on my door at 9:15 the next morning. My new water heater was sitting in my carport. I flipped the guy ten bucks to help me carry it down to my office.

A bigger job than installing the new unit was disconnecting the old one. That involved draining the tank, cutting the water lines, unhooking the electric lines and wrestling the unit out of the crawl space.

Draining the tank; sounds easy, right? Yeah, not so much. Opening the drain valve didn't produce so much as a single drip of water. Not one, nyet, nada, zero, zip, zilch. Crap. Thirty some years of sediment clogged the drain. I retreated to my PC and searched “water heater won't drain” on the Internet. Two solutions came up that seemed feasible. One, work an old coat hanger into the drain to try to break the sediment loose. Two, use an air compressor to force the sediment loose. I tried the coat-hanger approach: no joy. My air compressor was already in one of the upstairs bedrooms where a remodeling project is currently underway. I fetched it. Hooking a garden hose to the drain, I took the other end into the downstairs shower. Firing up the compressor, I forced air into the hose and was rewarded 10 seconds later with a surge of rusty, sediment-filled water squirting into the shower. I had to repeat the operation several times because the sediment continued to settle, blocking the drain.

Eventually the flow of water from the tank ceased entirely. I disconnected the hose. I cut the water lines, disconnected the electric and maneuvered the old tank off the concrete blocks on which it was resting. I worked it to a point where I could lay it on its side and then rolled it out of the way. With my main goal being to get the hot water flowing again, I decided not to waste any time or energy trying to get the old tank out of the crawl space and then out of the house. I had no clue what I would do with it at that point anyway. I left it on its side in the crawl space (where it remains) and moved on to installing the new unit.

Where old water heaters go to die.
Installation involved getting the new tank down into the crawl space, working it into position, connecting the electric, connecting the water lines, turning the water back on and flipping on the water-heater circuit breaker. Easy-peasy.

Laying the new tank on its side in front of the access opening, I eased into the crawl space and pulled the tank in after me. Working it into place, I leveled it. I connected stainless steal hoses to the three-quarter-inch male connectors on the tank. The other end of the hoses had those miraculous compression fittings that simply snapped over the ends of the copper water lines. This is the greatest advancement since scoopable kitty litter. Once the unit was in place, the installation required about 15 minutes.

I turned the water line into the house back on. My circuit-breaker box is outside; so, I headed out and flipped the water-heater breaker. I didn't put anything away yet. I wanted to make sure I had hot water. I figured 30 minutes would tell the tale. I didn't smell smoke and decided I had managed not to muck up connecting the two wires necessary to get the unit operational. 

Oh, maker of hot water.
I amused myself catching up on some e-mails while I waited. Is this suspenseful or what? At the end of 30 minutes I turned on the hot water tap in the downstairs bath....COLD! I cussed for three minutes and never repeated myself.

Storming out to the circuit-breaker box, I ripped it open only to discover that I hadn't flipped the water-heater breaker on, but had flipped the air-handler breaker off. I flipped them both on and settled back in in front of my PC for another 30-minute wait.

The screaming you may have heard around 6:00 that night was me celebrating the first trickle of hot water from my bathroom faucet. I jumped, I danced, I cheered, I cried. It was a spectacle that scared the cat and wrenched my back. If I was in better shape – younger, I mean – I would have been turning cartwheels in the front yard.

Clean up took another hour or so as I returned tools to my shed, the compressor to the upstairs bedroom and ran the vacuum. But I got my first hot shower in three days. It was glorious!


  1. Congratulations on the successful installation of your new water heater! The previous one looks really old, so good thing that you’ve noticed that before it causes any more problem. You've been through a hard time installing that heater but it's all worth it. Thanks for sharing this, Russ. Take care!

    Levi Eslinger @ Capital Plumbing

  2. I recently had my hot water go out also and was not enjoying the cold showers that I had to take. Also, my wife made it very clear that she was not to fond about it going out either so I took it upon myself to do research like you when I happened to come across your blog and decided to buy a new water heater also.

    Carmelo @ PRO Hot Water Service

  3. Nothing like an unhappy wife as a source of motivation.

  4. Although the outside of that older hot water heater looked pretty bad, you never know how long they will last. I’ve seen some units last 5 years while the same model could go 15 years. The newer units are definitely more energy efficient, so you’ll not only enjoy your hot water for years to come, you'll save money.