Dear Diary: How I Fixed My Water Heater Without a Plumber and Saved $400

Recently the Honeybee alerted me to the fact that our hot water heater was making popping and cracking sounds that she had never heard before.

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.



Comments

  1. 1

    says

    Maybe you should retitle this “How Tony Fixed the Water Heater…”. Just kidding! The title perked my interest because we also have an aging water heater.

    Thanks for the enjoyable read.

  2. 2

    Jason @ Redeeming Riches says

    Ha! This is totally me – always asking my handy father-in-law to help me out with something! Thank God for the “Tony’s” of the world – and for the Len’s to blog about it! =)

    • 4

      says

      @Boomer: But if I titled it “How Tony Changed My Water Heater”, nobody would read it. LOL Unless you have a life boat nearby, don’t wait too long to change yours out. Best of luck to you. It really wasn’t a complicated job.

      @Jason: Thank God for our fathers-in-law! In more ways than one. :-)

      @Susan: Thanks. By the way, it’s securely strapped to the wall with metal straps. Straps are required by code in California – earthquake country!

  3. 5

    says

    Can’t stop laughing at Paul Bunyon’s tool belt, LOL! Saving that kind of money with a little elbow grease (even if it’s borrowed :-) ) is always a great feeling.

    • 6

      says

      It was a big wrench, Ashley. I honestly didn’t realize they made them that big! By the way, although Tony used the wrench, it was overkill. He really needed a smaller one. I had a couple but they were too small. :-)

  4. 7

    says

    Great work Len! I’ve got a 10+ year one as well I believe. Just trying to understand here…. when my water heater stops working, will it necessarily break and flood my basement? What exactly stops working in a water heater in other words? Can’t it just stop making the water hot, signaling time to get a new one?

    I thought flooding was mostly pipes freezing and bursting and stuff. And if so, it doesn’t get freezing in San Francisco, so I don’t need to worry about that.

    Want to do a follow up post on fixing a furnace?! :)

    • 8

      says

      Hey Sam! I think a plumber would be better able to answer this… I do not think that it is guaranteed that the water heater will simply lose all of its water when it finally dies of old age. If you pay attention, the water heater will first start leaking slowly, dripping rusty water. The trick is to catch it at that stage – if you don’t, eventually the rusty bottom will simply fail under the weight of all the water it is holding. All I can say is watch the underside of your water heater for leaks.

      Our tank wasn’t leaking yet, but it was starting to make sounds it never made before. That, and as I mentioned, two of my neighbors tanks failed completely earlier this year. Since all of our homes were built at the same time I figured my water heater was due to go.

      Better safe than sorry!

      From what I also have read, if your water heater is simply not heating your water or not doing the greatest job of heating your water, that doesn’t necessarily mean the water heater needs to be completely replaced – it may be able to be fixed without replacing it entirely.

      Again, though, maybe if a plumber is reading this – and he isn’t too upset about this story, LOL – he or she can give a more expert opinion on this. :-)

  5. 9

    says

    Very helpful Len! I’ll go check this weekend the condition of the bottom. Didn’t realize that’s what happened to old water heaters.

    I’ll be honest with myself, I think if I had to change it I’ll just pay the labor fee :)

  6. 10

    says

    My water heater died last year. My son and I replaced it in about an hour. Of couse, I have the right tools, which saves a lot of time. I have fixed more plumbing than I care to admit.

    Bummer about the Dodgers. I was hoping for a freeway series with our Angels.

    • 11

      says

      One thing I learned from this little adventure, Bret, is that plumbing is not rocket science by any stretch of the imagination. All it takes is a little courage to give it a go. It does make it easier when you have a guy like Tony there to help.

      As for the Dodgers, just wait ’til next year! :-)

  7. 12

    Nick says

    We just replaced our water heater this past weekend. We paid for installation, but we got a great piece of maintenance advice from the plumber.

    Every 3 months, when you change your furnace filter, fill a 5 gallon bucket from the spigot at the bottom of the tank. This prevents lime sediment from building up in the bottom of the tank. Sediment makes the water heater use more energy to heat and reduces the wear and tear on the bottom of the heater.

    The plumber said he once did service for a woman whose husband religiously did this every month and their heater was over 30 years old and still going strong.

  8. 14

    Danielle H. says

    Len, I just want to say you have a VERY entertaining style about you. I found your site the other day through MSN’s Smart Spending Blog (where you had kids do a blind taste test of different cereals) and I have been hooked ever since!

    Keep it up!

  9. 16

    Scooter says

    Def agree that it is better to be proactive when it comes to replacing the water heater. Ours failed and it was not only inconvenient because we had to go without hot water for three days but you don’t realize how much water 50 gallons is until it ends up all over the floor of your house. (I have an old home where the water heater sat in a closet.)

    What a mess!

  10. 18

    Dave says

    Question about your water heater project…What did you do with the old one?

    I’m on my 3rd one in 10 years!( we have bad water there I live) First time I replaced it, I too got my father in law to help/do it.Saved us a few hunderd in labor. But I took the old one to the dumps and was charged $75 plus I had to muscle it over to the “Metals Area” by myself. Next one I left on the side of the house until we had a free dump day for our neighborhood. I lucked out because the dump day was only 3 weeks later.

    • 19

      Len Penzo says

      Dave, our city’s waste company allows each resident three free “oversized trash pick-up” days each year. All we have to do is call and let them know and they drop by and make the pick up.

  11. 20

    Wayne says

    Len:

    That gurgling sound from a gas water heater is typically due to sediment build up in the tank. As mentioned above, periodically draining the tank of a few gallons flushes out this sediment buildup. Usually the noise isn’t an impending water heater doom and a simple draining can allow it to function properly for MANY MANY more years. If a water heater does rupture it is also much more than the tank volume as the water will continue to run trying to fill up the tank until someone shuts off the water supply to the tank!

  12. 22

    deRuiter says

    Your local scrap dealer will BUY the dead water heater from you. It doesn’t bring much buy you’re paid for it and the material is recycled. The more people can recycle and keep out of the waste stream, the less your household trash bill will be, IF EVERYONE RECYCLES EVERYHTING WHICH IS RECYCLABLE. Same thing with all old appliance except possibly refrigerators. In our area there is competition by ambitious people with trucks to PICK UP appliances on the curb, ahead of the trash trucks, and then to sell the appliances for cash at the scrappers. There are a lot of people who make a few dollars (or a lot of dollars) every week by just picking up metals which others put out for the trash. Good for the environment, good for one’s personal finance, and helps keep town trash fees lower.

  13. 23

    says

    The water heater in my old house went just as we were preparing to put the house on the market so the buyers got a brand new water heater to the tune of $900.

    We caught it early when it just started a tiny leak, and I was shocked when I saw the original inspection sign off that was dated 1988! That baby lasted 23 years!

  14. 24

    Hollis says

    My husband religiously drains our hotwater heater every 3 months or so. We live where the water is very gyppy (lots of calcium in the water) and hotwater heaters tend to last only the length of the warranties. Ours have lasted up to 12-15 years which is really good for West Texas

  15. 25

    Kay Riley says

    I appreciate all the trouble you went to in writing this, but there are two things that don’t really make sense in the title of the article.

    Tony didn’t “fix” the water heater…he replaced it, right?

    And while Tony may not be a plumber by trade or license, he certainly knows his “stuff”. So you did have a person who did the plumbing for you…a “plumber”.

    I’m glad your hot water heater situation is taken care of; I wish mine was! :-(

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