This got me a bit worried because the heater was 12-years-old and I knew it was on its last legs. When a water heater dies it’s not a pretty sight.
Trust me when I say it is always better to put an old heater out to pasture before it kicks the bucket — not after.
Two of my neighbors waited until it was too late and were duly rewarded with floods of biblical proportion — 50 gallons of water which was dutifully soaked up by area rugs, the walls, cheap wood storage cabinets and/or boxes containing irreplaceable photos, Christmas decorations, and important family documents.
I was determined that wasn’t going to happen to me. So I quickly got a few plumber estimates for replacing the water heater but, unfortunately, they all ran between $1000 and $1500 — which I was more than willing to pay.
Lucky for me, my father-in-law, Tony, came out to visit us last week.
Tony is an awesome car mechanic and one of those do-everything-yourself types.
His first night at our house, after dinner, I was telling him about the water heater and he convinced me to forget the plumber. He assured me that we could do it ourselves and save a few bucks along the way.
So the next morning we got up bright and early and started it our plumbing project. How did it go? Well … you be the judge:
7:37 AM: I hobble out of bed and go downstairs to the kitchen. Tony is at the table, chipper as always, with a cup of coffee and the morning newspaper. As any good do-it-yourself expert knows, being prepared is paramount before starting any job. “I’ve already compiled a list of all the pipe sizes and parts we’ll need to get this job done. But you don’t have a lot of tools, so we’ll have to pick a few up at Lowe’s when you buy the new water heater.” Me not have a lot of tools? That’s an understatement — if I can’t fix something with a screw driver, pliers, or a hammer, I usually defer the problem to a professional.
7:43 AM: Sitting at the table with my coffee I ask Tony if he’s sure he knows how to replace a water heater. “Of course, I’m sure,” he says, almost indignant that I would even ask such a dumb question. “How many have you changed before?” I ask. His one word reply: “None.” Hmm. Maybe this isn’t such a good idea. At least Tony knows how channel locks work — which is more than I can say for me — so who am I to question him?
8:30 AM: Before we stop at Lowe’s to buy the water heater, Tony stops at his ex-wife Rose’s house to see if she has a few tools. The less we have to buy, the better. Not much luck though. Tony does find a monster crescent wrench to take with us that would still look big if it were on Paul Bunyan’s tool belt.
8:35 AM: Before we leave, Rose signs Tony up to fix her old wall phone and a malfunctioning shower valve later in the week.
9:12 AM: At Lowe’s we find two 50-gallon heaters made by Whirlpool. They’re absolutely identical, except for the price tags — one is listed for $525 and the other is priced at $495. A young associate immediately spots us and offers his assistance. It’ll be good to have somebody there who knows all about water heaters.
9:13 AM: “So how come you’re selling two identical water heaters with separate price tags?” I ask. “I don’t know,” he says. “Let me check with my manager.”
9:16 AM: It turns out that the different prices reflect the length of the warranty. For $30 extra you get a 9-year warranty, as opposed to the standard 6-year warranty. I decide to pay the extra $30.
9:17 AM: Tony asks our knowledgeable associate if all the parts we need are included with the water heater. The associate’s reply: “Good question. Let me check with my manager.”
9:19 AM: The parts aren’t all included. It turns out there is a special kit that needs to be purchased, and I follow the associate to go get it. I’m praying he doesn’t have to check with his manager first to find out which aisle the kit is hiding in.
9:21 AM: There is a God; my prayers were answered. The associate found the water heater kit without any assistance.
9:23 AM: When I get back, Tony is putting on a clinic for three associates, telling them all about the different types of joint compounds and tips on how to properly solder copper pipes.
9:29 AM: We finish getting all the other stuff we think we’ll need to install the water heater including a water heater drain line and a few small tools that I didn’t have.
9:30 AM: We get to the checkout counter. Total bill before taxes are added: $607.43. Because Tony is an ex-Marine, a 10% Lowes Military Discounts is applied. The final bill: $595. The checker then asks if we’d like to purchase an extended 8-year warranty for an additional $59. “Is that warranty for the full replacement value, or is it pro-rated?” Tony asks the checker. The reply, and stop me if you’ve heard this before … “Let me check with my manager.”
9:31 AM: The public address speaker is turned on and everybody with at least one good ear at Lowe’s, from lumber to gardening and paint to electrical, now knows it’s “customer care” time at checkout counter 17.
9:32 AM: While waiting for the Oracle at Lowe’s (aka “my manager”) to answer our question, I begin to wonder: What would happen if I asked a Lowe’s associate who their manager was and they didn’t know the answer? Would the Earth stop spinning on its axis? Would the poles reverse direction? Would a black hole form at checkout counter 17 and slowly grow until it swallowed the entire planet?
9:33 AM: The Oracle has spoken and the news is not good; the warranty is pro-rated. Why pay an additional $59 in current-year dollars for a pro-rated warranty that doesn’t take effect for eight years? Think about it. If I make a claim in 2021, they’ll tell me the water heater is worth ten percent of the original purchase price and I’ll get $50 if I’m lucky. We’ll pass on the warranty; I’m not certain $50 will even buy me a Happy Meal in 2021.
9:35 AM: Two associates help us load the water heater into the back of Tony’s SUV. One of the associates notices my Dodger hat. Uh oh. He’s wearing an impish grin and he looks like he’s dying to tell me something. It turns out Gene is originally from Philadelphia. “Playoffs! Two years in a row, Bra! My Phillies beat you guys two years in a row! Remember?” Trying to quickly change the subject, the only thing I can come up with is, “Do you know where I can get a good cheese steak around here?” Not skipping a beat, Gene tells me about a place just down the street that’s pretty decent. “It ain’t Pat’s,” he says, “But it’s pretty good.” Great. Now shut up and put the water heater in the car. “Bra.”
9:41 AM: Driving home, Tony sees me stewing. “You know,” he says, “I remember. The Phillies did beat the Dodgers two years in a row.” If I had a knife right now I’d probably slit my wrists.
10:17 AM: We’ve been working on installing the new water heater all of ten minutes and my 11-year-old son, Matthew, has already converted the large box it came in into a fort — complete with a secret side door and several booby traps. I sure hope we don’t have to take this thing back to Lowe’s.
10:32 AM: Tony asks me to pass him the vice grips. I dutifully hand him the tool. “That’s a crimper, Len.” I knew that.
10:53 AM: The special parts kit that we supposedly needed has flex fittings that are way too short. We decide to use the flex lines from the original water heater. Although that is not normally recommended, they are in excellent shape and we take a calculated risk. Meanwhile, Matthew is working on building a moat around the cardboard box fort. The only thing he’s missing is a small trebuchet.
11:12 AM: Almost finished. This really wasn’t a complicated job at all.
11:16 AM: Uh oh. We have a complication. Needing to shorten the exhaust vent, Tony asks me to get him a hack saw, which I hand to him. “That’s a coping saw, Len.” I knew that too.
11:39 AM: Everything is finally hooked up and we’re ready for the moment of truth; it’s time to use the automatic starter to ignite the pilot light. The idea is simple: Depress the red button and simultaneously push a black button to ignite the natural gas running through the pipe, then voila! – hot water for everyone! So while Tony pushes the button, my job is to look through the little window at the bottom of the water heater to verify the pilot light gets lit. Piece of cake. Tony pushes the button once, twice, three times — no luck. Four, five, six, seven times. Not yet. Eight, nine, ten, eleven. Uh-uh.
11:49 AM: Sixty-three, sixty-four, sixty-five times. Nope. “You think we should call the gas company, Dad?” I ask as delicately as I possibly can. “We must be doing something wrong,” he says. Ya think?
11:59 AM: Ninety-six, ninety-seven, ninety-eight. Sorry. By pure chance I look down at the gas line — the valve is closed. Good thing we didn’t call the gas company.
12:01 PM: The pilot light is lit! But I think Tony’s fingers are badly bruised from all that repetitive button pushing.
12:30 PM: Thanks to my father-in-law, the house has a brand new functioning water heater and I end up saving roughly $400. Tony’s got a well-deserved beer in his hand and I’ve got a big grin on my face. Did I say I just saved about $400? It really wasn’t difficult at all, as long as you have somebody handy like Tony around to do most — okay, okay — in my case, all of the work for you.
12:45 PM: We’re going out to lunch, and I know just the place. The cheese steaks are on me. Maybe I’ll even run into Gene and we can talk a little baseball.
Photo Credit: Bart Everson
This is an updated article that was originally posted on November 15, 2009.