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Sunday, October 30, 2005

Quest For Hot Water!

I think the cavemen wanting fire had an easier time with their quest. I haven't had hot water since early September. I haven't complained much because you have people in hurricane regions with no homes, or their homes survived but they don't have electricity, water, gasoline, etc. It put things in perspective. Besides the water wasn't cold, simply tepid. The low powered heating element still worked fine.

So began two months of adjustments. If I wanted hot water for the dishes I simply boiled a few pots worth. I got used to cold showers or simply using a washcloths to clean myself (it works in most parts of the world). If I didn't use any hot water at all, then every 3 days I could get a decent shower. I got hot showers at the gym or at friend's home after I helped with yard work. Yes you can exist without hot water.

I should clarify my living situation. The condo used to be my grandmother's. When she moved to the assisted living home I moved in to be a caretaker of her stuff. One aspect of the deal was I took care of this place so there is no maintenance person on-call and no landlord to complain to if something breaks. That's my job. On the plus side I get to redecorate so I get some of the joys of home ownership: new wood and tile floors, new paint colors, redo the kitchen and bath. All the improvements stopped when I went back to school. I've literally had a few problems lasting a few years simply because until I get a job I can't fix them: a water leak from the upstairs bathroom, a patio that needs some reworking, and I have to replace the shed and fence soon (a visible 10 degree lean isn't a good sign the structure will survive the winter).

Back to the recalitrant water heater, Dad and I decided to simply replace the faulty heating element. Little did we know this would be such an adventure.

Sunday October 23, The Simple Plan:
Electric water heaters usually have two heating elements: one near the top, one near the bottom. The bad element was near the top meaning we only had to drain half the tank. Lucky us as the silty goo and water that came out wasn't nice to look at. The tank is at least 10 years old so we weren't surprised at what was coming out.

One trip to Lowes and we came back with a replacement element and special wrench. Of course you always need a special wench for projects like this. Welcome to home ownership if you're not aware of this. The wrench is actually a special pipe about 6 inches long. One end of the pipe is hexagonally shaped. This end fits over the element which is hexagonally shaped. You see how that works? The other end is circular and has two holes through which you place a screwdriver. You actually use the screwdriver as a lever to twist the pipe/wrench. Simple in theory.

Mom and the dog were our cheerleaders as we tried this out. Okay the dog slept unless he spotted a roaming cat. The plan failed due to bad engineering on the part of the manufacturer: the hexagonal part of the heating element sticks out only a quarter-inch. There wasn't enough surface area for the wrench to grip, much less allow us to twist. Penetrating oil didn't help either. Don't tell me we'll need to replace a $20 part with an entire new water heater? On second thought this might be crafty engineering!

Since the heater won't cooperate we decide to put in a dryer vent through the wall of the utility closet. I have to cut a round hole through the wall above the heater that has been mocking me for 2 hours. Cutting the interior hole was easy. Cutting the exterior hole in the cold drizzle was more difficult. Oh yeah my shoelace got stuck on the step ladder so I fell into the mud. By the end the dryer vent was installed, but I was cold, wet, muddy, covered with sticky insulation foam and still lacking a hot shower to clean myself off with. Some days it doesn't pay to get out of bed.

Wednesday October 26, The Simple Plan Version 2.0:
Tip for you to know: when a screw is stuck heat it and hit it to break the seal. Mom was cheerleader again as the dog chased off cats. Dad had the blowtorch going and heated the element. After a minute or two we used a hammer and chisel to ping the edges of the element. Once again the special $5 wrench slips off the element. A $20 part is resisting the efforts of an engineer and a lawyer-handyman. At this point I contemplate finding deer slugs for the 12 gauge and simply blast a hole into the element.

Time for a new plan.

Saturday October 29, Trash The Junker:
Alright we'll just get a new heater from Lowes. Theirs was the cheapest. I drain the heater, but 40 gallons is coming out slowly. Dad takes the drain valve off and shoves my screwdriver around to loosen up the sludge. The resulting grainy liquid scares me. The EPA might want to bring in a HAZMAT team on this one. Put the valve back on and reattach the garden hose to let the water onto my patio. Cut the two water pipes, unhook the electrical wire and lift the heater into my kitchen. OHMYGOD this thing is heavy! Is this thing made of cast iron? Mom keeps the patio door open and holds back the dog. Dad and I carry this thing outside as I'm yelling, "Don't stop, don't stop, don't stop!" since I don't have a good gripe on this oversized cylinder.

Mom fixes lunch as dad and I hit Lowes. One water heater, two pipes, a few connectors, an insulating blanket, and a drip pan later we're back. I note the new heater is much lighter than the old one. How much sludge is in the old one and what is it made of? Two more trips to Lowes for different piping, different connectors, and some electrical conduit we finally have the damn thing installed. It's filled with water and we got the air out of the piping. Suddenly my dad doesn't think the damn thing is working. He says he doesn't hear anything. Okay my dad has typical older male notch hearing so the fact he doesn't hear anything doesn't provide me with any useful information. I note this is an electric heater and I've never heard the old one make noises either. He states the water isn't even tepid yet. Dude, we just filled up 40 gallons of cold water. It's going to take more than 5 minutes to heat up 40 gallons! I know gas is good, but it isn't that good.

After 8 hours the parents and cat-chasing dog leave. I'm piddling around for an hour then turn on the hot water faucet. For 20 seconds I'm wondering if the old man was correct then I feel true warmth coming from the water. This isn't tepid, but actual heat! I head to Champs for steak, beer, and football to celebrate. I have my first hot shower in 2 months when I return.

Sunday October 30, I've Been Slimed:
Everyone comes back to finish the job. The dog scares off the cats while Dad and I discuss how to install the insulting blanket. The blanket keeps more heat in the tank and in theory reduces how often it has to come on to heat your water. Just a tip to you homeowners out there to spend the $15 to get one. A little clear tape later with some cutting and taping of the blanket we have it installed. Move the dryer back in place and now we can clean up the trash and pack the tools. Heavy trash pickup doesn't exist here so I'll drive the tank to my parents house and use their heavy trash pickup.

Never mind my big toe as the tank is set down upon it. We slid it into the bed of the MGR and figure it isn't moving. Guess what, as I start and stop the tank moves. Even gently accelerating provokes a tremendous thud. I wonder if the tank will bust through my tailgate and crash onto the road.

At my parents' house they note the scaly, sludgy slime comes out the open pipes whenever the tank slams against my tailgate. I have a yellow ooze all over my tailgate. I've been slimed by buffalo if appearances are anything. You're supposed to drain your water tank every few months to avoid sediment buildup. I might do that with the new one to avoid the sludge problem. Have you ever drained your hot water heater? I didn't think so.

Okay Problem 17 is solved and I have hot water now. This To-Do List never ends.

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