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"Fire in the water heater!!"
Old 03-28-2009, 11:57 AM   #1
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"Fire in the water heater!!"

(Another episode in the endless epic saga of "Whaddya DO all day?!?")

Spouse and I have been friends with another military couple for decades. They're on the Mainland for a few years so we're looking after their local home & tenants.

The tenants, oddly enough yet another military couple, are good people but largely clueless on home maintenance. Her spouse is in Iraq for another six months so of course the 15-year-old house has decided to kick off its midlife crisis. In the last six months we've dispatched a leaky refrigerator water valve, a clogged dryer vent (How clean is your dryer exhaust?), a broken dryer timer switch, a balky shower door, a worn-out dishwasher, and an incredible hairball in a plumbing drain. She's getting better with the basics but she has a full-time job, the parents-in-law have been visiting, other friends & family have made snowbird trips, and it's been a stressful/busy time.

The other night she had no hot water from their 10-year-old electric water heater. Next morning there was still no hot water so she called us. We talked about puddles, shut valves, and tripped breakers-- no obvious problems. So we drove on over with all our water-heater tools.

The water heater's connections had extensive and impressive corrosion around them. ("Oh, I think it's always been like that.") When I took off the thermostat cover, the insulation was dripping wet. Ruh-roh. The house electric panel's circuit breaker was shut so I reset the heater's thermal overload, which felt like it was grinding against sand. No click, no reset. I rotated the setting on the thermostat to try to get the heater to turn on-- nothing. Double ruh-roh. I strapped on my headlight for a better view in the dim garage (g#$%^mn presbyopia) and noticed that the entire thermostat was surrounded by more corrosion.

It's not easy to see the details of black plastic on dark brown rust, so I decided to take a closer look at it. I asked my spouse to go over to the electric panel and open the breaker for the water heater. It's hard to read the numbers stamped on the panel (she's g#$%^mn presbyopic too) so we were talking about which breaker to open. As we discussed it I noticed a reflection from my headlight inside the thermostat, but when I leaned closer to look at it I realized that the reflection was actually little sparks flashing around a terminal. As I backpedaled, the terminal wire's insulation began to glow, then it got brighter & bigger, and then the surrounding fiberglas insulation started to smolder.

As they say in the submarine force, "communications formality began to deteriorate".
Spouse: "Oh, I see the numbers now. #17, right?"
Me: "Yes, open the breaker!"
Spouse: "What's that funny smell?"
Me: "It's the water heater-- open the breaker now!!"
Spouse: "You want me to open it now?"
Me: "Yes, right now!!!"
Spouse: "OK, I'm opening it."
Me (getting frustrated): "Fire in the water heater!!"
Spouse: "Uh-oh. (*click*)"
Me: "The fire is out!"

As the smoke cleared from the charred fiberglas (is that stuff supposed to burn?) I noticed that the lower left corner of the thermostat was melted. I guess the water had finally shorted it out the night before and when I started tweaking it I probably made even more connections to ground-- although one of them had enough resistance to start the fire.

We drained the tank but it still had 50 pounds or so of water in the insulation. As we pulled the heater off the stand we could see all the water stains below & around it. I couldn't get the anode rod out and the cold-water inlet just crumbled away when I put the Ford wrench on it. I don't know how it managed to hold pressure, even if it had already started leaking. The water heater is 10 years old and I doubt it's ever had its anode rod replaced. I guess the rod corroded away as designed, but with nothing else to stop the galvanic process then the water inlets corroded next (along with the relief connection and both heater elements) and the corrosion finally worked its way into the electrical components.

So… how's your anode rod?
How to Change a Water Heater Anode Rod | Video | Water Heaters | This Old House
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Old 03-28-2009, 12:06 PM   #2
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Very descriptive, I felt like I was right there standing next to all that water, with my body creating a much more convenient path to ground than the shorted out thermostat. Hope you were'nt stepping in water as you terminated the water heater with extreme prejudice, as they say.
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Old 03-28-2009, 12:10 PM   #3
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how often should the anode rod be replaced?
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Old 03-28-2009, 12:26 PM   #4
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As they say in the submarine force, "communications formality began to deteriorate".
Spouse: "Oh, I see the numbers now. #17, right?"
Me: "Yes, open the breaker!"
Spouse: "What's that funny smell?"
Me: "It's the water heater-- open the breaker now!!"
Spouse: "You want me to open it now?"
Me: "Yes, right now!!!"
Spouse: "OK, I'm opening it."
Me (getting frustrated): "Fire in the water heater!!"
Spouse: "Uh-oh. (*click*)"
Me: "The fire is out!"

That sounds like a conversation between Abbott and Costello...or bbbamI and Mr. bbbamI
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Old 03-28-2009, 12:29 PM   #5
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Timely. I'm still covered in mud from replacing our 1.5 year old busted-tank water heater.
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Old 03-28-2009, 12:34 PM   #6
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Timely. I'm still covered in mud from replacing our 1.5 year old busted-tank water heater.
Well, let's hope it doesn't go "en fuego" on you...
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Old 03-28-2009, 12:53 PM   #7
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Well, let's hope it doesn't go "en fuego" on you...
let's
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Old 03-28-2009, 04:13 PM   #8
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I like the "torque amplifier" as shown on the old house video. Says a lot for the wrench handle.
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Old 03-28-2009, 08:17 PM   #9
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Re: replacing your anode rod. Unless you are an anal retentive, tool proficient ex-sub officer with a lack of busy work i suggest not replacing the anode rod. In fact, in almost all things plumbing related, if it ain't leaking don't mess with it! This from someone who has 44 water heaters under his direct care. I also suggest not draining the sediment on a regular basis - those plastic valves suck rocks. Resign yourself to tank replacement every now and again. Thermostats, elements now and again, yes, but leave water connections alone unless you like problems that grow..... Just my opinion.
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Old 03-28-2009, 08:39 PM   #10
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Originally Posted by bbbamI View Post
As they say in the submarine force, "communications formality began to deteriorate".
Spouse: "Oh, I see the numbers now. #17, right?"
Me: "Yes, open the breaker!"
Spouse: "What's that funny smell?"
Me: "It's the water heater-- open the breaker now!!"
Spouse: "You want me to open it now?"
Me: "Yes, right now!!!"
Spouse: "OK, I'm opening it."
Me (getting frustrated): "Fire in the water heater!!"
Spouse: "Uh-oh. (*click*)"
Me: "The fire is out!"

That sounds like a conversation between Abbott and Costello...or bbbamI and Mr. bbbamI
Or perhaps this line was missing:

Spouse: Did you remember to send in your life insurance premium last week?
Me: Uh-oh.
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Old 03-28-2009, 09:01 PM   #11
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how often should the anode rod be replaced?
I think it all depends on your water. No single answer other than to check, or maybe get some opinions from people on your same water supply. Though I expect they would say "anode rod?" And make sure they realize you are talking about water heaters before you use that term .

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I like the "torque amplifier" as shown on the old house video. Says a lot for the wrench handle.
I tried to check/change mine about ten years ago. It was stuck so tight I figured I would break something trying to get it out. Used a very good persuader, but you can only apply as much force as the tank can withstand. I could just see the water heater twisting around, breaking the water connections and I'd end up with a huge repair job, and probably a new water heater. Like I said, that was ten years ago. But I still have the anode rod for the next water heater (hopefully teflon tape or thread compound or something will keep it from seizing).

Time to replace my water heater though, it must be on it's fourth life by now. I'll start another thread if I get the time - tank, tankless, govt rebates, etc..... sheesh, you can't even change a water heater these days without it having a "political" side.

-ERD50
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Old 03-28-2009, 09:19 PM   #12
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Nords, thanks for the narrative on water heaters. Guess I got lucky.

Talk about your Murphy corollaries. 2 hours before departing for #1 DD's wedding on the mainland last year, thought I ought to take one last look around. Found a puddle under the WH. Well, cwap! Too late to do anything, so shut off the water and pulled the breaker.

Upon return, paid the MAN to replace and he seemed to think it was just-in-time though he didn't know what the damage might have been had we not found the issue before leaving. All the way from a BIG wet spot to a flood to a fire. Who knows?

Currently (oops, I mean presently) enjoying plenty of electric hot water at the turn of a tap. Sounds like they just don't make 'em like they used to. Never had one replaced in parents' home as long as I lived there - 20 years? Well, it WAS gas, not electric. But water was much harder there so I'm sure the anode rod was shot. Do they have anode rods in gas WH? Think they have something to 'soak' up the hardness instead of plating it out. Thought that was what anode rod was for but I'm pretty clueless about these things.

Anyway thanks for the story and the tip. Will try to "barter" for my next anode check/change. Did I mention I do windows!?
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Old 03-28-2009, 11:46 PM   #13
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We spent a couple hours putting in the replacement this morning. No flames, no floods. The new one has a "smart controller", and I sure hope it's smart enough that I don't have to figure out why there was no voltage at the lower element. But it was making plenty of hot water, so maybe it's just a backup.

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how often should the anode rod be replaced?
Probably every 4-8 years, depending on the water quality. I had one disappear in less than 10 years, but it was the rod that came with the heater and I'm not sure that it was full size. Its 50-inch replacement is still going strong after three years.

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I like the "torque amplifier" as shown on the old house video. Says a lot for the wrench handle.
It's a lot simpler when the tank is full of water, but I only got the courage after I saw those guys use their torquers. This morning spouse was hugging the replacement (empty) heater while I was slugging the anode rod with the socket wrench and the three-foot persuader. We put the rod back in with a couple wraps of Teflon tape, which will make it a much quicker check a few years later.

It's also easier these days to find the segmented (wire) anode rods, which don't need five feet of overhead to swap out.

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Re: replacing your anode rod. Unless you are an anal retentive, tool proficient ex-sub officer with a lack of busy work i suggest not replacing the anode rod. In fact, in almost all things plumbing related, if it ain't leaking don't mess with it! This from someone who has 44 water heaters under his direct care. I also suggest not draining the sediment on a regular basis - those plastic valves suck rocks. Resign yourself to tank replacement every now and again. Thermostats, elements now and again, yes, but leave water connections alone unless you like problems that grow..... Just my opinion.
I hope Murphy didn't hear that gauntlet hit the ground! And who are you calling "tool proficient"?!?

The old water heater lasted 10 years, and at that rate you'd be replacing 4-5 of yours every year... assuming a heterogenous age distribution. (Good luck with that!) We spent $100 for a Craigslist water heater (three years old) and $25 worth of pipe/connectors. It also took four hours of labor and a couple hours of driving. When I checked the anode rod in our tenant's house a couple weeks ago, it took 20 minutes. I don't know what a licensed plumber charges these days, but you could spreadsheet that out and decide if your time is better spent managing or laboring.

From our experience around here I know I'd be a lot faster at laboring than at managing to find a plumber, let alone get one out to the house in a timely manner for a quality job, but you may have the volume to keep a plumber attentive to your needs.

Drain valves are a monument to "cheap"; I try not to touch them unless absolutely necessary. And I'd never mess with a relief valve.

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Originally Posted by Koolau View Post
Nords, thanks for the narrative on water heaters. Currently (oops, I mean presently) enjoying plenty of electric hot water at the turn of a tap. Sounds like they just don't make 'em like they used to. Never had one replaced in parents' home as long as I lived there - 20 years? Well, it WAS gas, not electric. But water was much harder there so I'm sure the anode rod was shot. Do they have anode rods in gas WH? Think they have something to 'soak' up the hardness instead of plating it out. Thought that was what anode rod was for but I'm pretty clueless about these things.
Anyway thanks for the story and the tip. Will try to "barter" for my next anode check/change. Did I mention I do windows!?
Coincidentally the Craigslist seller was in Kanehoe up by Heeia State Park. He'd scavenged it from a Hickam AFB housing demolition when it was just a year old, so it was more dusty than "used". We saw Lowes prices from $300-$500 so I didn't mind the drive.

Our rental home has a gas water heater, and it has an anode rod. Rods sacrifice themselves by corroding first (before the rest of the tank and its connections) but I don't know of any rods that are designed to reduce water hardness. For that you'd need a water conditioner or a reverse-osmosis filter.

I don't know what your weather is like, but have you looked at HECO's solar deals? You pay ~$5000, they rebate $1000, another ~$2500 comes back in tax credits, and payback is 3-5 years. We have more hot water than we can possibly use over 360 days/year. You could consult John at Grand Solar, and I'd be happy to give you a plumbing tour next time you're in my neighborhood.

If you don't already have it, HECO's load-shedding black box is another good deal. If the program's still in effect then they pay you $3/month for the privilege of being able to shut off your electric water heater when their load is maxed out, and it's maybe an hour or two every couple years. They use a pager signal to cut the power and another signal to reset it.
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Old 03-29-2009, 04:39 AM   #14
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I don't know what your weather is like, but have you looked at HECO's solar deals? You pay ~$5000, they rebate $1000, another ~$2500 comes back in tax credits, and payback is 3-5 years. We have more hot water than we can possibly use over 360 days/year. You could consult John at Grand Solar, and I'd be happy to give you a plumbing tour next time you're in my neighborhood.

If you don't already have it, HECO's load-shedding black box is another good deal. If the program's still in effect then they pay you $3/month for the privilege of being able to shut off your electric water heater when their load is maxed out, and it's maybe an hour or two every couple years. They use a pager signal to cut the power and another signal to reset it.
We do have the load shedding box. Nice deal and have never noticed it - if they've even activated it.

Thought about solar, but we're pretty close to the mountains so get a lot of cloudy/rainy days as well as early "sun down". Our electric is only about $60/mo with all the various charges, so our savings wouldn't add up as quickly as some folks with several people in the household. Also, we have thought about finding a sunnier place (nearer the bay) so don't want to do too much until we decide if this is our final place.

Thanks for the info on the anode rod. I get it now.

I'm happy for you that your replacement job went relatively smoothly. Mine was a snap. Just pay da man! No busted knuckles, no swearing (well, maybe at the hourly charge, heh, heh).
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Old 03-29-2009, 06:07 AM   #15
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I remember a recall for these rods about 6 or 7 years ago when we lived in Florida. Someone came out, pulled the old one, put new one in, I signed form, they departed. Learned something that day.

DD has her HWH replaced about a year ago. I was there to let the plumber in and observe. Everything went fine UNTIL it came time to move the old one out of the BASEMENT. It was so full of sediment we could not even drain it. We had a heck of a time carting that thing up stairs with a hand truck. When we got it out on the drive way the plumber had to remove the drain valve completely and it still took about an hour for the thing to drain enough to get it onto his panel truck. It was a 80 gallon tank that he estimated was working like a 30 gallon one. It was Gas and 13 years old - maintenance; whats that?
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Old 03-29-2009, 08:16 AM   #16
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Originally Posted by Nords View Post
(Another episode in the endless epic saga of "Whaddya DO all day?!?")
The tenants, oddly enough yet another military couple, are good people but largely clueless on home maintenance.
Whats their last name, they may be relatives?

Quote:
The water heater is 10 years old and I doubt it's ever had its anode rod replaced. I guess the rod corroded away as designed, but with nothing else to stop the galvanic process then the water inlets corroded next (along with the relief connection and both heater elements) and the corrosion finally worked its way into the electrical components.

So… how's your anode rod?
How to Change a Water Heater Anode Rod | Video | Water Heaters | This Old House
I didn't even know water heaters had "anode rods." What about cathodes? Are they trying to produce oxygen and hydrogen or something?
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Old 03-29-2009, 09:53 AM   #17
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Much like the hose connections on your washing machine, these things can corrode beyond removal, even with the "torgue multiplier". Best to give 'em a tweak now and again, to prevent the aforementioned chemical welding...
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Old 03-29-2009, 10:41 AM   #18
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[quote=Nords;801353]...
The old water heater lasted 10 years, and at that rate you'd be replacing 4-5 of yours every year... assuming a heterogenous age distribution. (Good luck with that!) We spent $100 for a Craigslist water heater (three years old) and $25 worth of pipe/connectors. It also took four hours of labor and a couple hours of driving. When I checked the anode rod in our tenant's house a couple weeks ago, it took 20 minutes. I don't know what a licensed plumber charges these days, but you could spreadsheet that out and decide if your time is better spent managing or laboring.

From our experience around here I know I'd be a lot faster at laboring than at managing to find a plumber, let alone get one out to the house in a timely manner for a quality job, but you may have the volume to keep a plumber attentive to your needs.

Drain valves are a monument to "cheap"; I try not to touch them unless absolutely necessary. And I'd never mess with a relief valve.
...quote]

We replace about 3/year and fix maybe another 3. I do the ones i feel like doing and pay the plumbers $300 or so each to do the others - when i don't care for the tenant or are out of town or it's an ugly job. Used to be that i did a lot of element replacement - cut power and water pressure and do them without draining. Now, though i always check first, it seems that the thermostats are the most common failure item. While the complaint, if accurate and detailed, often pointed out the failed upper or lower thermostat, now i just do what the plumbers do - swap them both.
Water heater tanks are lined with some sort of coating - failure occurs when the lining breaks down (demonstarted by the flaky debris filling your washing machine hot water inlet screen) - at that point an anode rod might forestall a leak for a while, but the tank is at it's end of days. Before that time a functional anode may protect a few threaded areas, but those are pretty heavy compared to the rest of the tank - guess i figure the original anode will last about the life of a normal tank and any extra life gained in replacement is not worth the two man job to replace.
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Old 03-29-2009, 11:13 AM   #19
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Old 03-29-2009, 11:27 AM   #20
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We put the rod back in with a couple wraps of Teflon tape, which will make it a much quicker check a few years later.
Uh, Nords, I don't think this is going to have the desired effect.

In order for a sacrificial anode to work properly, it must be in electrical contact with the protected material. Otherwise, both materials corrode away. Electrons must be able to flow from one to the other.

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