Saturday, July 16, 2016

A plumbing puzzle (or, water heater anode 1, would-be DIYers 0)

When Brian and I had our new boiler put in two years ago, we also signed up for a service contract: we pay 7 bucks a month to the company that did the installation, and they in turn give us a free checkup every year and a discount on any other repairs. This is a good deal for the company because it means we'll always call them first when we need plumbing help, and it's a good deal for us because it costs no more than we'd pay for that annual checkup anyway.

The only catch is that, because this company now feels sure of our business, they occasionally try to sell us on repairs that we may or may not actually need. Last month, for instance, they offered to come over and do a free plumbing and water heater check and let us know if there were any "issues" that needed fixing (with an eye toward getting the job if there were). I figured I might as well accept, because it would save us the work of bleeding our water heater as we normally do each year to remove sediment, and if there were any other problems, it couldn't hurt to know about them.

Unfortunately, as it turned out, the repairman didn't actually bleed the water heater. All he did was look at the label on it and tell me it was time to replace it, because "it's ten years old, and that's as long as this type of heater will last." By this time, he assured me, the tank was sure to be completely rusted out on the inside; in fact, he didn't even consider it safe to do the the routine job of draining off water, because "the rust is probably all that's holding that tank together at this point."

Now, this news came as quite a surprise to me, for three reasons:
  • The water heater isn't ten years old. We bought the house in 2007, only nine years ago, and had the heater installed a few months later. So it's actually eight and a half years old, not ten years old (and our repair guy clearly knew this, because it said so right on the heater).
  • The previous water heater appeared to be the original one that was installed when the house was built in 1970, and it was still working. In need of replacement, certainly, but not on the verge of collapse. So clearly, it's possible for a water tank to last longer than ten years.
  • We have, as I said before, been bleeding the tank regularly each year ever since we got it, and the water always comes out crystal clear, with no signs of rust whatsoever.
So naturally, I was highly skeptical of his claim that we needed to replace the water heater immediately if we didn't want it crumbling to bits without warning. But I decided I'd pass the information along to Brian when he got home and see what he thought.

As luck would have it, not that long after he left I happened across an article from Popular Mechanics entitled "Double the Lifespan of Your Water Heater for Less than $50." It explained that every water heater contains a rod called the "sacrificial anode" that exists solely for the purpose of attracting corrosion before the steel tank itself does. The idea is, water attacks the highly reactive rod instead of the tank, so the tank stays rust-free. And the nice thing about the rod is, when it does corrode fully, you can just pull it out and replace it for much less than you'd pay to replace the whole water heater.

This article made the repair guy's recommendation sound even more suspicious, since he'd counseled us to replace the tank without even mentioning the possibility of replacing the anode rod instead (let alone actually pulling it out to check on its condition). However, the article also suggested that, even if it wasn't necessarily time to replace the tank itself yet, it was probably time to replace the anode, or at least check it for corrosion. It said the lifespan of an anode rod varies, but five to ten years was typical, and our water heater was right in that range.

Of course, there was a good chance the anode would still be in good condition even now, since the article said five to ten years was normal "with fairly soft water, which attacks steel more aggressively than hard water does," and our local water is so hard you can practically eat it rather than drink it. (That sentence also raised yet another red flag about the repair guy's advice: he had told me the tank was certain to be rusted out because "hard water, like you have here, is much harder on steel than soft water," and here was Popular Mechanics saying just the opposite.) But certainly, with the water heater coming up on its ninth birthday, it would be a good idea at least to check the anode.

Unfortunately, that proved to be much easier said than done. We had no trouble at all locating the nut that holds the anode rod in place; it's clearly visible right on top of the water heater, rather than hidden under a cap as it is on some tanks. But the tool Popular Mechanics recommended to remove it was a "1-1/16 inch socket and breaker bar," which we didn't own—and when we went to Home Depot to look for one, we couldn't find a single 1-1/6 inch socket in the place, nor any socket set that included one. This seemed like a rather odd omission, since this size is apparently standard for this particular type of nut, but there was no question about it: Home Depot just couldn't sell us a socket this size.

So we hunted around the aisles looking for something else that might do, and we settled on this double-ended wrench. It wasn't the ideal tool for the job, but it was the right size, at least, and it was only $6, so we figured it was worth a try.

However, when Brian mentioned to his dad, an experienced DIYer, that we were planning to attempt this job, he was met with skepticism. Apparently, his dad had attempted before to remove an anode rod—no doubt with the proper tool, since he has everything—and the problem was that he just couldn't apply enough torque via the wrench without yanking the entire water heater off its moorings. So he was forced to give it up as a bad job. And sure enough, when we attempted it, exactly the same thing happened to us. The bolt was on there so tight that if Brian applied enough force to have an effect on it, the whole tank started to shift—even with me pushing against it from the opposite direction. We did a little searching online and found a list of suggestions for loosening a stuck anode, but the only one we could attempt on the spot was to hit the end of the wrench repeatedly with a mallet, and that had no effect either.

Needless to say, this was very frustrating, particularly for me. Replacing a $20 anode rod, rather than an $850 water tank, seemed like such an obviously ecofrugal solution that I couldn't understand why everyone seemed to be going out of their way to stop us from doing it. Why would the manufacturer include a rod in the first place if they were going to make it impossible to replace? (If they just wanted us to be forced to replace the tank sooner, why not leave the rod out completely?) And if home centers like Home Depot sell replacement anode rods, why don't they sell the tool needed for replacing them?

So at this point, we've concluded that we have only three options left to us:
  1. We can follow the repair guy's advice and replace the tank right away. But this is almost certainly a waste of money, since we have no reason to believe it's actually rusted.
  2. We can just forget about it completely and wait until the tank shows signs of rust (like flakes in the water) before taking any action. But the thing is, once the rust starts to attack the tank, replacing it becomes the only option—it's too late to replace the rod at that point. And it seems like a terrible waste to sit back and wait for the water heater to die when a new anode could keep it going for years more.
  3. Finally, we can try calling in a professional. I can call up a bunch of plumbers and ask them how much they'd want to replace the anode rod on our water heater (or just check it to see if it needs replacing). It will almost certainly be more than the $20 or so we'd pay to buy a new rod and install it ourselves, but it should still be significantly less than the cost of a new water heater.
So it seems like the only option that really makes any sense is #3. Normally, of course, the plumbing company we'd call first would be the one we have the service contract with—but given that it was one of their guys who told us we needed to replace the tank completely, never mentioning that replacing the anode rod was even a possibility, it seems like we'd most likely be wasting our time talking to them. They'd probably insist that replacing the rod never works and replacing the tank is the only reasonable option. But on the other hand, maybe that's just the line they take with customers who don't know any better, and if someone calls them up who actually knows what an anode is and wants it replaced, they'll agree to do it rather than lose out on the business.

Anyway, I know one thing for sure; if I call them up and they do try to talk me into replacing the whole water heater instead of just the anode, they can kiss my service contract goodbye.
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