The water heater story

1. 1st day, Friday

Friday, 6th of January, the old water heater definitely went whacko. When it got turned on, water vapor would appear around the upper heater, and the signal light would occasionally blink. When we pulled the insulation apart around it, we saw it was all quite rusty (except the screws which held the wires - they were still shiny) and wet. The edges around the bottom of the heater were always rusty, we knew that from the beginning, which was in July 2004 when we bought this house.

So we decided to buy a new one, possibly smaller. Forty gallons is a bit too much for us - we had a 50 liter one back home, and with a 2KW heater it heated up in 20 minutes, and there were five of us in the house. Furthermore, our washing mashine had its own heater, and we never had a dishwasher (still don't). Our current washing machine is one of those energy-efficient ones, which means it doesn't pull that much hot water anyway.

So, go web and see what's out there. Let's see - Lowe's has a deal with Whirlpool, and Sears seems to have one with GE, and Home Depot seems to have only flowthrough (aka "point of use" aka "tankless") and mobile home and other special models.

2. 2nd day - Saturday

Visiting our daughter in Richmond, we carried our towels and clean underwear, so we can wash in their bathroom. Just like last winter, when we were still dismantling the walls and everything from the old bathroom. Took us until May to have an operable tub, and until October to finish the tiling, painting, lavabo etc. Actually, still needs some trim - like a mirror and the doors.

3. 3rd day - Sunday

Sunday, we wake up in a cooling house. There's no power. Calling Dominion VA Power, after typing about two dozen digits (forgot that they don't have our phone number on file, so had to use SSN for ID), I hear the automated voice saying that "there is a massive outage in your area due to a vehicular accident". Translated, some moron has mowed a pole.

Why do they have to have cables on poles everywhere? Because it's cheaper. Well, cheaper to do the first time around, but then, had the cables been underground, there wouldn't have been so many outages. And not only from traffic, but also from any stronger wind, which usually breaks a few heavier branches which then fall on the wires. Not to mention that this is coast, there isn't much topsoil, and the trees' roots go less than a foot deep, because there's nothing edible below that, and any hurricane is about to topple many. Did I mention that we had no power for eleven days after Isabel? Two poles were in the pond, and they just fell. And they simply lost a fortune on field crew costs, having had to call extras from North Carolina. But then, it may be that the insurance covers their cost - and nobody covers ours.

Off we go shopping until the power returns. Looking at Lowe's first - they don't really have anything at 30 gallons. And generally there's to choose between Whirlpool and Whirlpool. Off to Home Depot. They have... well, can't remember anymore, probably General Electric (and Lieutenant Gas?), and then it doesn't matter. The guy there says there's only one manufacturer, Rheem, and they actually make all the heaters for Sears, Whirlpool and whoever. One only gets to choose between the label on the box. We took the lists of available heaters from both Lowe's and the Depot, wrote down a few prices on them, to decide over a coffee.

Coming home we run into a detour - a sizable chunk of Lynnhaven is cordoned off, there's half a dozen white trucks - Virginia Power at work - plus a couple of police cars under flashing lights in the middle of it. So a three-lane main street traffic is diverted through our area, where there even aren't any white stripes on the pavement, though the roads are wide enough for two trucks to pass each other between two other parked on the sides. We eventually get home and make a coffee on the little gas stove. Power returns around 14:30.

Cut off the water to the old heater. Then used the little electric saw to cut the pipes. I really hate the way they do the copper plumbing around here, soldering everything, and when you need to remove something, you have to cut it. Once soldered, it can't be unsoldered properly, it always clings somewhere. And when you have to reconnect, you have to solder it in most unreachable places. When they first put the pipes into the walls, the walls weren't covered - there was only the framing. They had all the access they needed.

And then we took it out. Which wasn't easy - it is stuck in narrow space behind the toilet seat. And the space between the seat's tank and the corner of the wall is about 17", while the heater is 18" in diameter. Tried to remove the seat, but the screws that hold it to the piece of plastic in the floor are rusty. At least it can swivel a dozen degrees, so we pushed it as far as it can go and took out the heater. Rusty muck dripping everywhere. It's so good that we still don't have any carpet downstairs, because it would have been damaged. The tiles only need some washing, and so does the pavement in the patio. I took off the exhaust piping off of it, as a souvenier. Later I'll see I'll need it.

We buy one for $290 (more or less - I don't care that it says 289.99 or anything, with tax it's always more anyway), plus a pair of flexible hoses to connect the water. Luckily, it's not as heavy as the old one (probably because there's no leftover water in it), and it fits the backseat of the Corolla. The traffic is still a mess, but I know some shortcuts, which are usually slower. Not today. Whenever there's a traffic constipation, most of the people here (namely, the military and the tourists, who don't have the time to learn the streets) take the main roads. I feel like such a native...

The new heater comes with two sizable chunks of thick insulation for the hot water pipes. I put them into place, though it won't matter much - because the next few yards, this pipe goes through the concrete foundation slab. And I don't believe it's insulated down there.

Manouvering it into place wasn't easy. Its diameter is 19 3/4 inches, so we have to pull it above the toilet tank, which is not the hard part. Lowering it down is. I've devised some noose from leftover carpet cutout strip, but there's no way you can hold it properly over a toilet. It goes down at some speed, and I could only slow it down. It went the last five inches on its own, and my wife's elbow gets caught between it and the wall. She sounds really bad, but it turns out not that serious in the end.

We decide we're tired enough for the day. We'll connect it tomorrow.

4. 4th day - Monday

Evening, after work.

The length of one of the connector pipes is wrong - we need a shorter one, or to cut the cold water pipe once more and use a longer one. I drive to Home Depot to replace it, and have a brain fart there - probably annoyed with the traffic and the nice weekend - I buy an 18" connector hose. And it has a wrong type of fitting on one end.

More coffee, drive to Lowe's this time, and there's no such fitting in the aisle where the heaters are. We decide to drive to the Depot... and then while walking to the car, she has an idea to just get a couple of fittings and use a piece of copper tube instead (the exhaust pipe is too long anyway - the new heater is 14" shorter) and make a stiff connection. Back inside, we can't find a proper fitting (which we did find at the Depot, even though Lowe's seems to have more of these), but we find a 12" flexible hose we came for in the first place. It just wasn't with the heaters. Wrong isle. You can probably find everything, it just takes time and keen eye.

My European boss says there's a special science to finding things in American stores - you never know where exactly you may find something. And he's right - for one, in some places lunch bags are with the party stuff, because that's where the paper plates and plastic forks are. In others, it's with the sandwich bags, trash bags and other bags. It's a bag, right?

The traffic still hasn't eased, and we got power hours ago. They must have a massive cleanup to do, or have connected our power via a temporary cable while they replace the pole.

Back to work - solder the fittings to the copper. Seems to be so easy now. This spring when we were doing the bathroom, the cold water pipe for the tub gave us all sorts of trouble, it just wouldn't solder. Did we acquire expertise meanwhile?

Turn on the water, wait for it to fill. Let the water out through the faucet for a few minutes (measured by a cigarette break), to wash out the industrial whatever that may dissolve. Close the faucet. Good.

Check in a few minutes later, it leaks. And not on any of our connections - it leaks around the safety valve. Call the manufacturer's (Rheem) 800 number tomorrow.

5. 5th day - Tuesday

When I got a BSOD on my machine, I decided to take a break and call the 800 number. Took only about five minutes of muzak, and the menu system wasn't too deep or too heavy. Speaking to the lady, described the case and she said, basically, to unscrew the piece that leaks, apply the ... (didn't understand) or teflon tape, and screw it back. What about "warranty void if tampered with" - she says it won't void the warranty, she is authorizing me to do this. Okay...

Evening, trying to unscrew the safety valve. The pliers can't hold it, but the wrench can. It's probably screwed in by some machine, because it won't budge. Eventually, it does, and I'm all sweat. Wish we had some hot water, I definitely need a shower. Apply teflon, screw it in, try. Repeat. There's some water around the cold water pipe, maybe that's the one that leaks. Unscrew (equally hard), teflon, screw. Nope, it's the safety valve that leaks. This one is tight - or maybe it was OK all the time.

Try to take the lid off to see where it leaks. There's eight screws around it, and of course four of them are too close to the walls to approach with a screwdriver. Used a combination of the Phillips bit and pliers. Two surprises - neither the bit nor any of the screws flew into an unreachable corner. And we can't open the lid because it is tightly pressed on. We may use some tools to get it off, but it would surely scratch the paint, inviting rust too early. Another twenty minutes to put the screws back.

After two hours and a dozen attempts, it still leaks. There must be some other trick to it - so we go to Home Depot again to return that extra connector hose and buy whatever they say would do the trick. They sell us a $1.60 tube of teflon putty, which is the greasy stuff the threads were full of originally. We apply that and it still leaks. So it must be leaking somewhere else. Call the 800 number tomorrow, it's already past 21:00.

6. 6th day - Wednesday

Called the 800 number again, got a guy online even faster than yesterday. Sounded pretty much OK, except he raised a slight fuss when I said there's someone at home at all times, because I work from home. That's because the warranty for offices is just one year, not 12, and he had second thoughts about extending the warranty from three days to four because of that. Eventually he said a local representative (or something) will call during the day.

Nice system they have - back home, any manufacturer had to have a network of repair shops, or to contract with regular shops, which happened rarely if you lived in any city above few dozen thousand people. Nobody has their own network here - too expensive. They have to teach the staff, and then risk losing them to private contractors. They'll rather have private contractors pay to learn, compete for a contract, and just charge the manufacturer for the repairs.

The guy called in the afternoon, had a little chat about diagnostics, and said he'll come tomorrow morning. We'll see. Itch begins. Luckily it's not summer, and our new aircondition thermostat is smart enough to shut up when it's warm enough.

The Latin crew were digging in our back yard, fiber optic cable for Verizon. Now that I have the fiber optic in my yard, I don't feel elated at all. Because it's Verizon, where it takes about 15 minutes of ironing your ear with the phone to get to speak with anyone, only to be patched to the wrong person, and then about six times more of waiting five minutes, and getting to repeat your complete story along with your phone number, name, address and account number to another wrong person. My total phone time with them was about sixteen hours - and I guess they have even fewer staff now. The money for the fiber optics needs to come from somewhere, they probably fired more people.

They once switched the power off, and turned it back off few minutes later. At least they didn't cut any cables, and I did save my work just before that. Lost just a few minutes and some more neurons.

When I went to bed, I couldn't find a shoulder to sleep on, as I sleep on the side. The top muscle in each arm is cramped. Comes from unscrewing the machine-screwed nibbles.

7. 7th day - Thursday

8:15 Tony's called and said he's coming in about 40 minutes. The garbage collectors have already taken away the old heater away, plus the usual trash and the old TV, the electric grill and the usual large bag of milk cans, waste paper. It's the recyclables collecting trashday, on alternate Thursdays.

8:50 he called again, said he's stuck - his van just died and he'll have to have it towed. May be transmission or something. Told me to call the 800 number to send someone else.

8:57 called them and they are sending a fax to Red & Whitehurst here. They gave me their phone number so I can call them if they don't call me. Google found these guys, but not on the map. They only have a PO box address. The 800 number doesn't work this weekend, so if this doesn't get resolved by tomorrow, it's calling contractors one by one.

11:00 called the R & W, and he said he wouldn't see the fax until he goes to the office in the afternoon, so it'd be tomorrow. Retold the story in brief, and had to explain to him how to find me.

11:12 Tony called, and it was the starter, wouldn't start, but it would clutch into the flywheel. We had that on the old Skoda, you hit the starter with a hammer or a stone and it would work a few more times. Probably the brushes.

About 13:30 Red Whitehurst came, tried the safety valve (unscrew, apply teflon, screw, turn on pressure, watch it leak, see that it doesn't leak there). Then he opened the anode rod hole, plucked out the polyurethane foam from it, and decided it leaks around the nut, i.e. bad welding. Wrote us a receipt with a diagnose, so we can just take it back and get a new one.

This time I'll try to remove the toilet seat completely. I asked him for any rust remover spray he may have, he recommended WD-40. Got that. The great American technology for mechanic repairs: WD-40 and duck tape. If it moves and it shouldn't - duck tape. If it doesn't move and it should - WD-40.

My wife managed to remove one screw in the afternoon, but the other one was too tough, even after it was liberally soaked with WD-40 half a dozen times. When I finished work, I took the drill with the steel brush bit on it, and cleaned up the rust off the threads. Took about 15 minutes to unscrew it even so. Again, luck has it that we still have no flooring in the main room, so we took the toilet and put it there. Managed to get most of the water out before that, though.

Took the heater out into the car. Just put it in its original nylon bag - any good intentions about restoring the box are left to the far future, when they may sell those things in resealable boxes. As it is, there's no way you can open it without cutting the cardboard.

At the Depot, we have to wait for the boss lady to confirm the replacement (probably because it's above some limit that the lone girl at the returns desk is allowed), and then it becomes quite simple. We just take another cart, load the new box on it, take it home, put it in place, decide on the angle. The old one had the exhaust pipe from the safety valve pointing left, to where the sewer outlet on the floor is (not that this outlet may work - it's capacity is about a spoonful of water a minute, it's so chock full of dust and debris). This one's exhaust points back. We decide to turn it about 30o so the front panel is in the right corner, and the exhaust in the back left, still reachable in a way. Not that there's any front panel to speak of, because it's covered with a screwed-on piece of plastic, with more insulation under it, and it doesn't even have the traditional red light to tell you when it's operating. The only thing you may adjust there is the thermostat, and they assume you'd do that just once. It's factory set to 120 F (48.8 C) which is, of course, right, and the washing machine can use that.

Connect the water, wait for it to fill. Have dinner while we wait to see whether it will leak again. Connect the wires. The honor of switching the circuit breaker belongs to my wife, who does it solemnly, graciously and with fingers crossed.

We take our turns at having a bath all evening. After about 145 hours of hassle.

And now that we've taken the toilet seat out, we may just redo the whole place. Remove the ugly plastic washbasin, do some tiling, repaint the walls, buy a new washbasin and faucet... and so it goes.