November 30, 2023

I have been a plumber for twenty-seven years. I have been called by homeowners at all hours of the night for, broken water lines spewing crystal clear water everywhere making its beautiful presence known to carpet, seemingly to say, “I’m here to destroy you, or, “I am going to drench you, and fade your pretty color.” I have been called out to beautiful homes with sewage in every corner of the house, making it look like a barn rather than a mansion. Nothing is more frustrating than going to a home where the water heater is torn apart, and the homeowner is complaining that he must have hot water before morning, or he will surely die. I’ve wanted to say, so many times, “if you wouldn’t have touched it, and just left it alone, then it would have been fine until morning.” Had I said something like that, he would have been on the phone to my boss, and I can hear him now, “That’s your job. You are on call. If you don’t want to do the job, I’ll find someone who will.” So I bite the bullet, and talk nice to the home wrecker, I mean homeowner, while working on his screw up. After awhile I forget all about my irritation with him.

Anyway, enough said about why I’ve had to replace water heaters in the middle of the night. I may be able to shed some light on the correct mode of installation in this column, which I so diligently write to evince a different plumbing problem every week.

One thing about plumbing is that every job must be done in a step-by-step manner, especially water heaters. Once you’ve determined that the leak is indeed, from the tank…

1. Shut off the water to the appliance.

According to the Uniform Plumbing Code. (The Plumber’s bible.) There is supposed to be a shut off, not more than two feet from the water heater on the inlet, or cold side of the appliance. It will most likely be a “wheel valve.” It should turn to the right to turn off the water, and it should turn to the left to turn on the water. Turn this valve to the right, until it won’t turn anymore. The water should be off to the water heater. You will still have cold water in the house to all the fixtures. I recommend you don’t use the cold water until the installation is complete, because you will get a back- feeding of water out of the pipes you disconnected from the water heater. If the house is very old, or the original plumber didn’t adhere to the U.P.C. a shutoff may not have been included for the water heater. If you encounter this situation, you’ll need to shut off the water to the entire house at the main shutoff, which is usually located in the front of the house, on the wall outside. This act of necessity is not usually a problem for an experienced plumber, but can be a frightening experience for a homeowner, or novice repairman, because after you are finished replacing the water heater, and you can’t turn the water back on because of a leak or another unforeseen problem. Wives, girlfriends, or kids tend to get irate when they don’t have any water for showers or cooking. Also, it can almost ruin a marriage when you have to call a plumber at two in the morning on a Sunday, and pay him or her $2,500.00 for an emergency call, after you have worked on it all day.

2. Drain the water heater.

Locate the drain valve at the bottom of the water heater. It looks like an outside faucet, and you probably have two or three of them around your house at different locations. Screw your garden hose to the drain valve, and pull it outside to a location where you can let water drain. The water won’t hurt the grass.

Sometimes these drain valves are clogged with sediment, and need to be cleared so the w/h will drain in a timely manner. (A wire coat hanger works well.) Next, locate the temperature pressure relief valve at the top of the water heater, (also required by the code) and open it manually. (Some people call these the pop off valve) This will force air into the water heater and allow it to drain. The reason I do this is the same principle as holding your thumb on a straw, with water in it. The water stays there. When you take your thumb off, the water drains out. Open this valve and start the heater draining.

3. Disconnect the old water heater.

Locate the unions on the hot (outlet) and cold (inlet) lines to the w/h. (Also required by the UPC, not more than 12 inches from the appliance.) Undo the unions with two pipe wrenches. Shut off the gas valve on the left side, at the bottom of the water heater, and disconnect that union too. Disconnect the vent, by unscrewing the three sheet metal screws from the draft diverter dead center on top of the waterheater. The water heater is completely disconnected, and you can proceed to the next step.

4. Prep new water heater for installation.

It is time to get the new water heater ready to install, in the place of the old water heater. I always use a ¾” x3 in. brass nipple, with a brass ball valve screwed onto it for the cold side. (Remember, the cold side is the inlet, where the shutoff is supposed to be.) By having brass screwed into the steel tank of the water heater, I’m preventing electrolysis. Electrolysis occurs anytime copper is screwed into steel. It will greatly speed up the corrosion process, and the pipe will last about one third of the time, if you use dissimilar metals. Next, I screw a brass nipple into the hot side of the water heater, with a short piece of pipe, and add unions to both sides. Any home that is older than eight years or so, is probably copper, and will need to be soldered. The pipe and unions connecting the hot, and cold side of the water heater, will have to be cleaned with a piece of sand cloth made with aluminum oxide, and fluxed with a brand name flux, to make sure the solder takes well in the joints. Make sure the unions are at the same height from the top of the water heater, and solder everything. Also install a pipe from the new temp. and pressure relief valve to exactly six inches from the floor. (Also required by the Uniform Plumbing Code.) This completes the water hook up.

There needs to be a drip leg on the gas hook up to catch moisture, and sediment, as not to clog the pilot and burners. Install a new gas shut off, and reconnect the gas line to the gas control, on the left side of the appliance. Then make sure the vent pipe is the correct size in diameter for the B.T.U. rating of the new heater, and attach it to the new draft diverter. Make sure you use three sheet metal screws, in each joint of the vent. Drive them in with a screw gun.

5. Turn the water on.

Turn the water on after you have opened the hot side of the faucet only, on the bathtub. It is best to open the one farthest away from the water heater, to bleed the air out, and aid in a faster fills up. Also repeat the step that you did earlier, by opening the temperature, pressure relief valve, until you hear the water almost to the top of the heater. At first only air will come out. Once the water is flushed out good in the tub, close the tub faucet, and check the water heater area for leaks. Open the gas valve, and check for leaks at the gas line.

6. Light the pilot

When lighting the pilot use a long match, because most people can’t get their hand in the little firebox. If you can, you’ll probably cut your hand when you pull it out.
Push down the red button, while the knob is on pilot, and light the pilot. Hold the button down for about 30 seconds or so. When you let the red button go, the pilot should stay lit. Turn the knob to the “on” position, and turn up the thermostat, to the position that is marked, “normal.” The flame on the burner should come on with a woosh! Don’t be afraid, because this is normal. Inspect the flame from the burner. It should be a nice yellow color, with blue tips on the flame. Clean up the area, in front of the water heater.

The last thing I should mention is that you will hear a drip, drip, drip sound, that you immediately think is a leak. Don’t be alarmed! It is condensation from heating up forty gallons of cold water all at once. It will stop in about thirty minutes.

A new water heater has come out, and according to code, by September 4, 2007 the water heaters will be different with a sealed combustion chamber. These new ones will light by just pushing a button, and are much safer. You don’t even need to elevate them above the garage floor 18″ like used to be the code.

I hope it will be easier for you to replace that water heater when it starts leaking. Just remember though, don’t panic. Put a towel around the old, leaking water heater, and wait until the next morning to tackle the task. If you need me in the daytime though, don’t hesitate to call me!