Hot water has been in short supply around our house for a few years now. The problem is not so much that it runs out, but that it simply doesn’t get very hot. Moreoever, the water heater seemed to go to sleep with the rest of us, and wake up only when we did. This made the first shower of the day a distinctly less-than-hot one. Something needed to be done.
About a year ago, my friend Jason replaced the water heater in his new house with a tankless system. He offered the water heater, which was actually newish, to me. Naturally, I accepted it and resolved to replace my ancient water heater ASAP. There were, however, two problems: the first is that I am only moderately handy and was not confident that replacing the water heater was within my ability to do with a sufficiently high likelihood of success; the second is that my water heater is down in a small utility basement (with the furnace); draining it down there and hauling it out presented additional challenges. And Jason reported that it took more than a few hours to drain the one he’d removed. All these considerations gave me pause. I didn’t want to take such a prolonged time to replace the water heater, leaving both our house and Rocky’s house with no hot water or perhaps any water, and also risk having to call a plumber in on an emergency basis Sunday night if I screw something up.
I procrastinated for months. This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing as I embarked on other projects that seemed less daunting, like painting the kitchen and dining room. That took a couple weeks right there. Or running the speaker cables through the crawl space under the house. Yes, even braving unknown insects and critters in the dark was a satisfactory delay tactic. After several months of this, I started feeling like I really needed to face it. This weekend, the threat of severe marital discord made it a forgone conclusion: this weekend was it.
Of course by this time, the “newish” water heater had been sitting out in the yard, white-trash style, for almost a year. Would it be okay? Would I be calling for an emergency installation of a brand new unit?
The first thing I had to do was disconnect and drain the old tank. The shut-off valve at the tank did not close completely, so I had shut off the water at the main to the whole house. This led to increased risk should things go sideways, but I proceeded anyway. I finally decided to drain it into a little tub and use a portable sump pump to pump the water up and out to the street. This ended up working very well. The only kink was that (those) in the cheap old garden hose I connected to the pump. (I further resolved that the hose would go into the trash after this job was accomplished.) In fact, the draining of the tank went very quickly, much less than an hour.
After this was done, I managed to drag the old tank up the stairs and out to the street by myself without injuring my back or reigniting an old shoulder injury incurred 10 years ago while trying to lower a stove on a dolly down a steep set of stairs. Next, I managed to get the new tank down into the basement and into it’s narrow corner with no problems. I hooked up the water. I hooked up the gas. I turned on the water. Leak…
I took the stupid cold water connection apart and put it back together again three or four times, trying more teflon tape, less teflon tape, cranking it down more, cranking it down less, etc. Each time it leaked. Finally I got a better light and bent the flex tubing so that I could see in there. I finally realized that the washer had completely deteriorated and bits of it were in the threads. Time to go to the hardware store. I bought a 99-cent washer and, after chiseling out the remains of the old one with an awl, installed it. This time it worked–no leak.
The next test was the real one. Did it heat? Well it took a couple tries to manually light the pilot, but eventually it stayed lit. The burner fired up. Three and half hours and 99 cents later, the new water heater was working! Later that afternoon I scalded my hands at the kitchen sink; I didn’t mind it a bit.