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It is cold and your water heater decides to die, now what?

By Subraya Mallya on 25 February 2011 | Topics - Home Ownership

A month ago we got hit with a double whammy (if you count the battery in the van it is a triple whammy). In space of a week, our furnace and water heater jointly decided that this world is not interesting anymore and hence call it a day. All the fun behind owning a home – ha?

If my days were not already crazy enough, in California we were in the midst of one of the coldest winters. So it was pretty much like someone held a gun to your head. So we started a rapid research and deployment exercise. (Memo to myself : Use the same squeaky wheel does not get the oil formula you used at work at home too and attend to things that are working just fine).

Water Heater was relatively simple we thought – little did we know that the California code has changed since the last heater was installed. So also the advances in the water heater technologies in terms of efficiencies, ease of maintenance, not to mention the advances in the green paper (;) we need to give in return for a water heater.

So I thought, capturing some of the things we did might be useful for someone who finds themselves in this situation (tis not fun guys, I tell you). Granted it is not earth shattering but consider it as a ready reckoner in times of need. I will cover the water heater part here and get to the furnace part in the next post. Friday Afternoonitis has already kicked in.

Capture your existing Water Heater specifications

  1. Check the Capacity in gallons of your existing Water Heater.
  2. Check the First Hour Rating (in gallons). This is the capacity in gallons of hot water you might expect to get if you came back from vacation and switched the heater on and used both the bathrooms and kitchen at the same time. Most plumbers say it is  – number of girls in the house times 20. So if it is 3 girls it is 60 gallons.
  3. Check the energy efficiency rating. Higher the rating higher the savings. – Basically, it is spend less fuel loss and quicker heating.
  4. Check the fuel type – Natural Gas, Electric or Propane Gas.

Note: Natural Gas would over time be cheaper since electricity is expensive (in states like CA especially). If you are on the East Coast, you are probably using oil. Electricity might not be that expensive.

Opportunities to revisit past decisions

  1. To go Tankless or stay with Tank water heater. Tankless has been potraiyed as the green thing to do, but for most households with school going kids and working parents – the craziness in the mornings – you are better off with tanked.
  2. If you decide to shift allegiance to a new brand and model
    • to go with, check your local utility’s website to see the ones that are classified as energy efficient and chosen for rebates.
    • Check the EnergyStar website to see if the brand and model is rated well.
    • Check on sites like Consumer Reports – you can subscribe for just a month for few dollars
  3. Changing location of the water heater, if you have remodeled the house.

Start your hunt for the plumber

  1. Identify the Plumbers in your area – using BBB (http://www.bbb.org). If you are one of those who don’t mind paying money , Angie’s List is another option. (I think it is a waste of money if you have to pay when the plumber makes the money).
    • Check the length of the existence of their business
    • Check if they have a A+ rating.
    • Check if there have been any complaints
    • Also see if they have a website and if they do check their services section to see what other services they provide. The more detailed they are on their site, the better your discussion is going to be with them
    • Shortlist the plumbers if they qualify your criteria (Get atleast 3-4 plumbers to give you quote
    • Call all the Plumbers one by one. Here are some things you should ask
      • If they will come and inspect and give you a quote – for free.
      • Ask them if they would not mind giving you  a reference of one of their past customers that you could talk to.
      • Check if they have permit to perform service in your area
      • Ask them if they do both Tankless and Tanked water heater.
      • Ask if they will haul away and dispose the old water heater.
      • Ask what warranty they give on their labor (should something goes wrong later)
      • Ask if they will get city permits or you should do. Some do and some don’t. Factor that cost in your competitive bid analysis. Note: Don’t go with anyone who says permits are not needed. A few extra dollars in permits might save you big in eliminating possibility of bad work. Also permitting ensures the work is done to code and does not come back to bite when you try to sell the house.
      • Check if they will buy the Heater or you should. There are pros and cons to both approaches. If you bought then you will be responsible for shipping and return in case you have problems. If the plumber delivers it as part of the overall replacement, then expect to pay a premium to the market cost of the same heater. You can decide on either route based on how handy you are. We decided to let the Plumber buy it but did the research on brands ahead of time and asked for a specific one we wanted. In case you were curious – we went with Bradford White. The other consideration was Rheem. If you ask me most brands sold in the warehouses are ordinary.

Few Additional things to keep in mind

  1. You will find a broad band in the quotes you get. The best price is somewhere in the middle. The lowest quote does not mean the best. We got quotes in the range of $700 to $1400. We went with one around $900 dollars who was more open to our questions, consultative in nature. Also was also ready to come down on the price
  2. If you have a natural gas heater, you are required to replace the flex-pipe that connects the gas inlet to the heater. The guys with lower bid might try to suggest, the one still there is good and can be reused.
  3. Ask the plumber to show you how to flush the water. You will need to do it periodically – every 10 months would be good – so you don’t allow sediments to settle down and harden.
  4. Ask the plumber to show you how to check the Magnesium anode rod. For those who are not aware – the magnesium anode rod – it is a sacrificial rod that prevents corrosion of the water heater from the inside. You should find good articles to read more on that if you searched for Magnesium Anode Rod.
  5. If you have never done this before, also ask the plumber to show you how the Pilot is re-lit. This is the flame you ignite at the bottom of the heater for gas to burn and heat the water.

I could go on, but then again my intention is not to make a plumber out of you and put those plumbers out of job. Have a nice weekend.

About the Author Subraya is a dad, handyman, sports fan and in his part time works on geeky technology stuff. You can check out some of the stuff he is interested on PrudentCloud