Wednesday, October 20, 2010

In and Out of Hot Water

New Hot Water Tank!
Friday our hot water tank died.
I learned a lot from working through this experience, so I hope our story will be helpful to others.
This particular emergency was not completely unexpected; when we bought this house we knew it was far from new. There were no dates on it, but it had a general vibe of late-1980s. We knew there was some sediment, as the drain water ran reddish, but it delivered hot water so we didn't worry.
Friday night we decided to turn the furnace on. We'd put it off as long as possible, but it was time. It fired up nicely, and after a while I went downstairs to check something and saw water on the floor around the tank. It was also on the low pedestal that the tank sat on, so I knew it wasn't from the laundry. The water was definitely warmer than the air around it. These clues led me to believe the tank was leaking.
I flipped the breaker switch off, and shut off the water. We resolved not to panic and call for emergency service; we'd all been born poor and didn't mind living without hot water for a short time.

Shopping

We shopped around, using the internet to research water hearing options.
We looked at an on-demand tank. This seemed to be a really great option, but when we read Seattle City Light's FAQ that costs it out, it didn't seem to justify itself unless we had gas already piped in, especially since it would be a bit more expensive up front.
At Home Depot, we saw advertising for a heat pump. This seemed very attractive way to greatly cut our energy use, but it had a very large up-front cost. Even with a 30% tax credit and up to $500 in rebates, it was $2000 up front plus $300-600 in modifications for an exhaust and so forth. I didn't feel comfortable fronting up to $2500 and hoping to get half of it back, especially when we could get a cheap tank for $248 and holding the other money in reserve for something like a roof.
I looked at installation. Both Home Depot and McLendon's quoted about $700 for tank and registration.  Instead of paying $450 for installation, we figured we could hire our friend who'd done the kitchen in our mother-in-law apartment for a lot better price, both for us and for him.
I'd hoped to get delivery for a small rate but when I called Home Depot and asked about delivery, I was forwarded to an installer. I tried again, with the same result. McLendon's was more straightforward; they didn't do delivery, just referred to an installer. We ended up doing our own delivery, using the mother-in-law's pickup.
First we had to do the actual purchase. When we went to pickup the low-level model, we noticed there were two heights. The taller tank was only an inch skinner and about $50 more. I asked the associate if there was any other difference, and he said no; some people just preferred the taller tank but they were equally functional.

The Purchase

We discovered later a financial incentive for staying with the taller tank. Our old tank was tall and the new one was short, and as a result, we had to buy a couple of new connectors. This wiped out the $50 savings. On the other hand, we now have some extra copper pipe if anybody wants some!
The Home Depot salesman successfully upsold us to a higher quality tank. The lowest quality level had a 6 Year warranty; the top quality had a 12-year warranty but cost about $200 more. He stated that the 12-year tank had additional features, notably a feature for dealing with sediment. Also, for $99 we could get a lifetime warranty. "Whose lifetime?" I asked and he said, "Well, anyone's. Yours."  The decisive factor was his statement that the more expensive tank lasted longer because it had better insulation and therefore used less electricity. I figured in my head that if the more expensive tank saved $2/month in electricity, it would pay for itself in 100 months or 8+ years. So ... we went for it.
The salesman suggested we do something to keep the hot water tank from resting on the cement floor, since it tending to suck up heat. We looked at some foam disks for this purpose, but decided to use some similar foam left over from the basement kitchen. (And as it happened, we simply re-used the blue foam pedestal that the old tank used.)  We didn't go for a drain pan since the cement floor would not be damaged if the tank did leak.
We got the tank onto a flatbed pretty easily and rolled it to the cash register. We got a 10% discount for opening a new credit card account (in addition to our existing credit card for the wash machine). We had to remind the cashier about the $99 lifetime warranty but that wasn't a big deal.
 I also got a Snickers Bar to replace the one I'd borrowed from the mother-in-law apartment fridge ;-)

Installation

Wrestling the new tank into the service room was straightforward, and the box was nicely designed to be cut up. Now we have cardboard up the wazoo! We drained the old tank, using a couple of plastic buckets, and disconnected the water pipes using the monkey wrench I'd gotten from MITS just last week (...it's a classic tool of the old school; real good metal made in the last century, and possibly lasting to the next one.)
Our friend Jeffy-Bob and his wife Lorraine showed up, with their weiner dog. He did a bunch of stuff with the electric wires that I don't understand. One of the copper pipes had been soldered, so we considered re-soldering it, but didn't have a soldering gun with us. This gave me an excuse to go check with some of the neighbors to see what tools they had. Unfortunately most of them were out to work, but I did finally meet the people working on the brown house across the street and over one. They seemed like nice handy people and we'll have to get to know them better. By the time I got to them, Ginger came over to say that Jeffey-Bob had decided to use a pressure fitting so no soldering is needed.
Disposing of the old tank was simple. It went into the pickup and, as luck would have it, Larry's hometown was having a free disposal day later that week! It'll soon be recycled into scrap at no cost to us.
The tank went in and started working immediately. We're very grateful that everything worked out. It was an unplanned expense, but not unexpected.

Learnings

I hope that this story is useful to anyone else with a water tank. It will fail someday, and it's nice to know that there is no need to panic.

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