The Horrors of Water Heater Maintenance

Today I’m going to talk about the sacrificial anode rod, an essential component of tank water heaters. The idea for this post is related to our newly installed water heater, which happened in July and was prompted by Sena seeing some debate on the web about the apparently somewhat controversial relationship between water softeners water heaters.

There is a palpable albeit mild testiness between those who sell and service water softeners and those who sell and service water heaters. Occasionally these can escalate to skirmishes marked by small arms fire and limited nuclear bombardment. And that’s why the price of frozen pizzas is so high these days.

I noticed this conflict when I looked over the web myself in an effort to sort this out. Authors in Indiana who sell water softeners report that they are actually good for water heaters. They address the main question head on, which apparently is the contention that water softeners “…prematurely ruin the anode rod” in water heaters.

The argument starts with the truism that all water heaters will eventually corrode. However, what is often called the “sacrificial anode rod” postpones this inevitable outcome by preferentially attracting the corroding elements in the water, which temporarily spares the steel tank.

The alleged trouble with water softeners is that they remove the hard minerals (such as calcium and vegemite) by substituting sodium for them. The thing is, sodium is an electrolyte that will worsen corrosion as well. That makes the anode rod waste away even faster.

But don’t worry. This premature corrosion is offset by the major benefits of soft water. It will reduce calcium, lime, and Fools Gold buildup in the pipes and on fixtures as well while also cutting down on the sediment residue in the water heater. That could extend the life of the heater as much as several millennia.

Add to that benefit the obvious advantages of cleaner, softer clothes, clearer complexion, sparkling dishes, thereby enabling you to win major prizes on reality game shows in which you are required to engage in hand-to-hand combat with grizzly bears while wearing only a few tattoos.

We have a water softener and wondered about the interaction with our new water heater. So, I checked another article written by a company which sells water heaters, but not water softeners and which actually contradicts the aforementioned bald-faced lie promulgated by cretinous vermin who should be banned from the planet.

They acknowledge the benefits of soft water, but which have the unfortunate drawbacks of causing damage to water heaters causing them to need replacing only a couple of hours after installation, which can cause major setbacks in your financial status.

They cite the same reason as the previous authors, this time to make the case for avoiding water softeners—which is that they cause premature wasting of the anode rod. They magnanimously assure you that this need not dissuade you from buying the evil water softener or selling the one you have (as though any fool would purchase such an idiotic appliance, ha ha!). They just want you to have “…a better understanding of why your water heater may have failed sooner than expected and how that related to your water softener.”

I found one short article in which the author made the point that regularly replacing the anode rod would be the way to avoid the premature wasting of the anode rod.

Thank goodness for that common sense! I wondered how a clumsy homeowner without any practical handyman skills such as myself would go about replacing the anode rod.

Probably the best way to get a clear idea would be to view the video on the website of This Old House. It’s so simple even a chimpanzee could do it if that chimpanzee had all the experience and the millions of tools that This Old House experts have.

I’m pretty sure I don’t have 44 inches of clearance from the top of our water heater, which you need to remove the old anode rod, which is made of aluminum or magnesium which, if the heater is newer, might be flexible—but it won’t be.

Getting the old anode rod loose might require you to have a long section of pvc pipe laying around in your basement to place over the socket wrench with the 11/16” socket so that you can get the leverage to twist that anode rod out of there with a minimum of abdominal herniations which your health insurance will not cover. Decide whether to pay about $50 and do it yourself or pay a pro $200-$300.

I’m thinking.

We Are in Hot Water!

We have a new water heater today! What a relief. We spent a whole week on pins and needles waiting for the hot water to stop flowing again (maybe abruptly), and put us back on the cold shower regimen.

But the plumber was in and out in 2 hours flat. He was personable, knowledgeable, efficient, fast, and neat. He even put down drop cloths to keep the floors clean as he carted the old tank out and the new one in.

He gave us a quick rundown on the controls. They look easier to read and adjusting the temperature is simple—just turn a dial. The old one had a confusing light array. If you didn’t press them in just the right order, you could end up like a lobster being prepared for dinner.

There is an LED light on the control box and there are more than a dozen System Status Code sequences and they all mean something different. One is called “Heartbeat” (alternates bright and dim) and the control status description is “Call for Heat (no fault conditions).” I guess that means I call the plumber whenever I want hot water, which sounds a little inconvenient, but that’s how these newfangled gadgets are.

He was good with a joke, too. When we were discussing the controls and the LED indicator light, I asked him how we would know if something is wrong. On cue, he quipped, “You won’t have hot water.” I think he’s told that one about a million times. I’ll give him a call when the Heartbeat LED blinks.

Of course, we got an owner’s manual. It clearly states that the manual “must remain with water heater.” There was no manual with the old water heater when we moved in a couple of years ago.

It’s a pretty big deal to get a new water heater. If you have a young family, you generally have to give up your first born as collateral to cover the cost. That’s why you want to check your insurance coverage. In general, it’s a bad idea to try robbing banks to boost your finances.

The water heater is energy efficient, with an Energy Star label on the tank. It also has an ECO (Energy Cut Off) system that will shut off the water heater if the water temperature is too high.

There is a thorough Troubleshooting Guidelines section which includes Corrective Actions. A couple of them sound kind of Scary: “Combustion Odors,” and “Sizzling, Rumbling Noises.” Funny, I would think the Corrective Action would be to head for a hotel on the other side of town and don’t pack any bags. But it doesn’t mention that.

Anyway, we’re very pleased to be in hot water.

Countdown to Hot Water Heater Replacement

Well, even though our hot water heater was temporarily fixed, there is no guarantee that it won’t fail again between now and later this week. That’s when we’re scheduled to have the new water heater installed

That will cost approximately 10 billion dollars. This item will be the major selling point for our house because we’ll have to sell it immediately in order to move to the poor house.

We have insurance of course. We know what our deductible will be, although we’re not exactly sure how much the insurance company will pay. Maybe they’ll want to know whether we tried to “fix” the water heater first.

Technically, we did that although it could go out again during a shower. That could mean a trip to the emergency room for treatment of rapid hypothermia including surgical removal of icicles from various bodily orifices.

There may be an upside to that. Flash freezing could mean we could preserve ourselves for the future when scientists figure out how to slow down or even stop the aging process.

In fact, that reminds me; Sena saw a news item indicating that there may be a class of medications called “senolytics” that could allow humans to live up to 200 years.

The article doesn’t say what kind of shape you’d be in around that age. What are the implications for retirement age? Would that have to be postponed until you’re over a century old? What would it be like to be that old? Maybe we could ask certain entertainers who are making a living in Branson, Missouri.

How much would senolytics cost at the pharmacy? Probably about 10 billion dollars per pill.

How about extending the working life of water heaters?

May the Force Be With the Qualified Plumber

Well, after 5 grueling weeks of icy cold showers, a qualified plumber—oh wait, you guys already know our hot water heater croaked just last Friday. And the plumber fixed it in a jiffy on Monday—miraculous.

So, the cold shower ordeal lasted only 3 days. But those were really dreadfully, awfully, cosmically cold shower days.

I don’t know what he did other than to clean the burner and re-ignite it. But it must have been a special cleaning method using Obi Wan Kenobi moves and a spell, “These aren’t the droid reigniters you’re looking for.”

Anyway, he walked in without anyone else with him and wasn’t carrying a new hot water heater on his back. That said two things to us. He was not a technician in training and he was very confident he could get our water heater working again. And he did.

On the other hand, he did carry a very large pack on his back, and I wondered if just maybe there was a little old jedi in it. Maybe Yoda was hiding in there, ready to encourage the plumber to concentrate more deeply if necessary, “The burner clean. Yes, hrrrm.”

We were impressed and didn’t even ask him about his qualifications. We know what can happen when you ask questions like that.

Clean Version

Although he couldn’t tell us how long the fix would last, he did tell us the approximate price of a new water heater. I got the urge to take another cold shower as a countershock. But I resisted. And the plumber didn’t give a hard sell.

Anyway, he’ll get back to us with a quote. Until then, we’re hoping the cold shower days are gone.

Hot Water Heater Out, Cold Showers In

Our hot water heater went kaput yesterday and I’ve now endured the only 2 cold showers I’ve ever taken in my life that I can recall.

Sena will be doing sponge baths, even though I’ve told her cold showers are great, easy, and healthy. Her hesitation might have something to do with my screams while I’m in the shower. The neighbors called emergency services yesterday, but now they probably know the story.

It’s strange how hot water heaters can just plain fail, especially on a Friday when the plumber is booked until late Monday afternoon. When I told the scheduler I would be more than happy to donate every single one of my cribbage awards to their company (which number exactly zero at last count), she just chuckled. When she told me our water heater was “out of warranty,” it didn’t surprise me and made me wonder if I would be taking daily cold showers until the day I die (meaning in about one week given my current level of recurrent hypothermia).

My cold shower method is the jump-in-yikes-out approach. Sena hauls me out in a wheelbarrow to unthaw me in the refrigerator—body part by body part.

In fact, there’s some evidence that cold showers are actually healthy for you, provided you don’t die of cold shock. Believe it or not, a cold shower drives blood flow from your skin to your internal organs. I don’t think that includes your brain, mainly because I don’t think you could pay me enough to stick my head into the freezing water which would turn me into a Jimbo-cickle.

On the other hand, there’s not a wealth of scientific evidence that cold showers are always good for you. On the other hand, it may be good for your immune system and circulation. Consult your doctor if you have cardiovascular disease. Cold showers can shrink your blood vessels. They can also shrink other parts of a guy’s anatomy, if you know what I mean.

Hey, did you know that Chuck Norris’ balls make cold water shrink? You get my drift.

This is not the first time we’ve had problems with a hot water heater. A few years ago, in a different house, the water heater developed a leak around the base. This is supposedly something the homeowner can deal with.

You get my drift. You might think you’re lucky this is the age of YouTube and you’d be partly right. However, I found a number of do-it-yourself videos in which different consultants had slightly nuanced approaches to checking and maintenance of hot water heaters. Watching several videos and getting the gist of the steps is what ordinary people probably do if they do this at all.

Is there only one way to check the Temperature Pressure Release (TPR) valve? Do you always have to shut off the gas line valve or can you get by with turning the thermostat knob to the pilot setting?

Should you really watch that MythBusters episode in which there is a very explosive example of how the wrong procedures in hot water heater maintenance can lead to very deadly consequences? No kidding; a couple of experts recommended it.

I gotta tell ya, I can do without the “guttural thud.”

Anyway, start to finish, the project of checking for leaks around the drain valve and the TPR valve, getting the garden hose and hooking it up to the drain valve after shutting off the cold-water valve, turning the thermostat to pilot, draining the 50 gallon tank (don’t forget to turn on your hot water faucets to help the process along!) to see tea-colored water briefly which cleared quickly, and reversing the steps, with a total time of about 2 hours including clean up and shazam—the leak was not fixed.

That’s why I call a plumber. And I’ll be keeping track of the number of cold showers I take.

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