The TL;DR today is: I fixed my water heater and I feel very good about it.
Now for the longer story…
The last couple of weeks have been pretty rough for me. It seemed like I broke everything I touched, and I just couldn’t fix anything. The video card was the biggest blow. My soldering iron died recently, and I purchased it less than a month ago. Projects at work suffered, but nearly as much as have suffered in my house the last 2 weeks while the water heater refused to work.
PG&E is in our neighborhood, replacing gas lines probably, and the day they showed up was the day our shower only produced cold water. It seemed like a remarkable coincidence, and I had PG&E come out to the house to look into it. We had gas, but the water heater wouldn’t keep its pilot light lit. The tech from PG&E couldn’t do anything about it, and recommended I call a plumber and have them take a stab.
I called a plumber and gave them our information, and they said, “Your water heater is 10 years old. We are not repairing it.”
“Ballpark, how much would it be to replace it?”
“Staying with the same size tank, around $3600.”
I told them I might call them later, but I knew I didn’t want to pay nearly 4 grand to get this work done. The tank wasn’t leaking. We could see the pilot light catching flame. The sensor in the gas valve just wouldn’t keep it lit. The problem had to be with the gas valve.
The internet gave me the information I needed to order a replacement valve. YouTube showed me a video of how easy it is perform the repair. I could do this. I didn’t even need to buy new tools. I just needed to wait for the part to arrive and then the Buhl house would be rich with hot water again. Easy.
We spent nearly two weeks doing what we could to stay clean. Bryanna went ahead and took cold showers. I tried that once but didn’t last more than 30 seconds. I am not Harry Dresden, apparently. Melissa filled the tub with boiling water, because baths work for her. I need a shower to feel clean. I wound up getting a bucket of hot water and scrubbing with a washcloth and a cup in the shower. It worked well enough, but it meant I couldn’t shave.
The part arrived yesterday. After finishing up work, I set to it. I tried to drain the tank. When water stopped dribbling out the hose, I started loosening and remove plumbing so that I could remove the valve.
At this point, you already have a pretty good idea what happened. No part of this repair was as easy as the video made it out to be. The pipe going from the valve to the thermocouple was stainless steel. In the video, the tech bent that out of the way. Impossible in my situation. In the video, they were able to easily rotate the valve off the tank to unscrew it. It popped right off, then the new one went on in its place in hurry, because they knew they didn’t need to empty the tank first. I had no plans of being in a hurry or messing up. That’s why I drained the tank.
This is foreshadowing.
I couldn’t just unscrew the part from the tank. The release valve was in the way. In order to get clearance, I had to remove all of the plumbing surrounding the valve. These are old pipes crusty with age. They defied me. They laughed at my pitiful efforts to loosen them. In the end, I persevered, but it left my hands bruised and raw, and it burned a lot of time.
With the intricate gas plumbing out of the way, I unscrewed the gas valve from the tank. It resisted, but after what I went through with the plumbing, it was easy. It didn’t stand a chance. I defeated the next part of this challenge, and it popped off.
Water gushed from the release valve. It sprayed out the hole in the tank where there once had been a water valve. I was not prepared for this.
This is all taking place in my garage, not far from where I have my office setup. The only silver lining of destroying my graphics card is that had it been in working order, it would have been drenched in that moment. If I hadn’t destroyed my computer before, the water from the tank would have taken it out.
I grabbed a chunk of rusty plumbing and jammed it into the hole in the side of the tank. Then I scrambled for a flathead screwdriver to stop the release valve. This took an uncomfortably long time. My garage began to smell of southern Louisiana.
The next step was to put everything back together. I screwed in the new gas valve, took a trip to Home Depot to buy more sensible gas tubing, and hooked everything up. Before turning on the gas, I noticed a hissing sound coming from the gas valve. It made me very concerned.
Gas flowed into the system. I could smell it a little, but that’s normal before the pilot light is lit. I pushed the buttons to give it the spark, checked the window in front of the thermocouple, and I saw a flame! A few seconds later, the ready light flashed on the valve. It was working! I fixed my water heater!
That hissing sound never stopped, and after running it for a few minutes, Melissa and I could both smell gas. Very faint, but present enough to get us to shut the whole thing down. I had confirmation that I replaced the right part, but when I went to bed, I didn’t know if it was going to be dry or wet.
This morning, it was wet. Water continued to seep down the side of the tank all night. I had more work to do.
I knew what I had to do. I drained the tank, properly this time. It took about 5 hours. Then I took everything apart again, applied more plumber’s tape than before, used more force tightening things down than before, and tried again. When I turned on the gas, I couldn’t smell it at all. I waited several minutes before sparking the pilot light.
No more leaks. No more strange noises. No smell of gas.
A few minutes ago, I had my first hot shower in 2 weeks. I shaved and washed my hair. I stood in the hot water, just letting it soak into my muscles, luxuriating in the bounty of my labor.
It felt good to save a bunch of money on this. Including the cost of the gas tubing, this repair cost about a tenth what the plumber quoted for a new system. That feels good, but something else feels better.
I fixed something. I used my hands and my mind to solve a problem. My confidence is bolstered. I didn’t just repair a 10 year old water heater in my garage. I fixed some of my self-esteem, even if it’s only for a short while.
The next time we have a problem with our water heater, though, we’re going to upgrade to tankless.