Lessons learned from yesterday’s excitement

Thanks to everyone who offered help after yesterday’s alarums and excursions.  I think we’re on top of the situation for now.  I’ve learned a few things, and re-learned others, so I thought I’d share them for the benefit of anyone who’s interested.

First, Miss D.’s and my emphasis on building up and keeping a cash reserve has paid off, yet again.  We’re facing bills of over $1,000 to buy and install a new water heater and associated bits and pieces, and also replace my cellphone (with ye olde basic economy model – I don’t waste money on high-end phones with features I don’t need).  Fortunately, because we’ve saved for a rainy day, we can spend the money without worries.  That’s a real blessing.

I went online and searched for information about a replacement water heater.  To my surprise, it emerged that the different warranty periods for those things – usually 6, 9 or 12 years – often (not always) apply to precisely and exactly the same heater.  The difference in price is usually to pay for an insurance policy for the manufacturer, which is betting its unit will last long enough that it can keep some extra profit on the deal.  Local plumbers confirmed online advice to buy a good-quality 6-year unit, and look after it.  Given due care and attention, it’s likely to last as long as a more expensive one.

Some readers recommended tankless water systems.  Those are useful, but they also cost more than a traditional heater, and have one drawback – there’s no water reservoir for use in emergencies.  If we lose our water supply for some reason, it’s comforting to know there’ll be 50 gallons in the water heater, in addition to my backup supplies.  That might come in handy in an emergency.

Three precautions and routine maintenance measures were recommended:

  1. Given the prevalence of sediment and algae in our water at certain times of the year, a whole-house water filter, installed in the line ahead of the water heater, is a very useful thing.  It traps most of the sediment that would otherwise build up inside the heater’s tank.  It’s a lot cheaper to replace the filter than the heater!
  2. Buy a heater with replaceable anodes.  We’re doing that;  in fact, I’ll buy the first set of replacement anodes, plus the wrench needed to install them, at the same time that I buy the heater.  That way, we’ll have them on hand when we need them, in case the store doesn’t have them in stock.  We’ll make sure to swap them out at recommended intervals.
  3. Don’t let the plumber supply the equipment from their stocks, because they’ll charge more.  This proved very true.  I reckon we’ll save between 20% and 30% on their price by buying the heater and filter ourselves, and having the plumber install them.

Miss D. also came up with a very useful idea.  She wants the plumber to install a water shut-off for the whole house as the very first thing in the line as it comes in, even ahead of the filter.  That way, if we have a leak anywhere and it’s sub-zero outside, we don’t have to go plodding around the garden at two in the morning, freezing our unmentionables off, looking for the hatch and trying to fiddle with the special key needed to close off the inflow.  We can simply walk into the garage and close a tap instead.  I think that’s a great idea, so we’ll add it to the list for the plumber’s attention.

So far, so good.  My new phone is set up and working, and we’ve got our ducks more or less in a row for the plumber.  Now, bearing in mind that problems seem to come in threes . . . what else is going to go wrong?



  1. I lived in a place for a few years where it used to get to sub zero (Minnesota). When I realized that one degree above zero felt "good" after 2 weeks of sub zero temps I moved to someplace where it didn't get to below zero 🙂

  2. (more) Pro Tips: The whole-house water shutoff is an excellent addition (I'm surprised your house didn't already have one), but it's still valuable to know where the outside shutoff is, and have the tool (commonly called a "curb key") for doing so. BTW, it's wise to use that internal valve to shut off all house water when gone for weekends or longer; be sure to power off water heaters and shut down the automatic icemaker in the fridge first.

    Same is true for gas, if you have it, for either type – NG is piped in from underground, and the shutoff will be on the above-ground meter, propane will have a shutoff on the top of the tank. See Amazon for tools; for about $4 you can get a stamped steel tool for gas, about $16 buys a cast aluminum version that will also fit your underground water meter (you'll find the 3 ft long curb key easier to use); the $16 tool will have a hammer-style blade head useful for prying up the lid of the water meter box to gain access, the handle of the curb key will need grinding to a screwdriver-like blade on one end for that. Why curb keys aren't manufactured like that, I don't know.

    The emergency tools need to be located in the same place all the time, and it's beneficial to add white or yellow reflective tape in case they get set down in the dark.

    It'a also useful to have a "facilities map" adjacent to the emergency tools showing where all the controls are in relation to the house: inside water shutoff, inside electric shutoff, outside shutoffs, etc. It may be a house guest or visitor, rather than a resident, who has to shut things off.

    It's also useful to have home emergency info on the map: the address, homeowners' cell phone numbers, emergency contact info for fire, police and utilities, etc. Make several copies, put two – one permanently installed, one temporarily – with the emergency tools. That way a guest or visitor can take it with them for reference if they ever have to use it. A small copy on the guest bathroom mirror when guests visit provides them the info; would aged Aunt Matilda know, or be able to remember, your address if she had to call 911?

    Then, when you're equipped with the emergency tools, every adult or near-adult resident should practice the emergency procedures. NOTE: DO NOT SHUT OFF THE GAS – of either type – during this practice. Doing so will extinguish pilot lights, and on some gas appliances cause the appliance to reset, requiring professional assistance to restore operation.

  3. Check your local plumbing supply houses for scratch and dent models. Big box stores not the best place try but worth a shot. Craigslist also an option for an UNUSED model. If you buy new make sure to register with manufacturer for warranty….receipt may or may not help…mine didnt. Main valve on incoming potable water line a must….


  4. read that installing a sewerage valve on the sewer line will keep sewerage from backing up into your house in a flood.
    of course, the plumbing cannot be used in the house during such an event.

  5. "Now, bearing in mind that problems seem to come in threes . . . what else is going to go wrong?"

    You know Murphy is going to take this statement as a personal challenge.

  6. File this under "funny you should mention…"

    Just last night we had a minor incident. We recently had our bathrooms re-modeled, and our contractor introduced us to these—


    You can put them anywhere, and the one under the master bath sink went off an 4:00 a.m. this morning. Turned out that the new washer that seals between the sink and drain had compressed slightly, causing it to leak, and the compression ring just to needed to be tightened a bit.

    The little alarm worked as advertised. Recommended.

  7. House water shutoff is a brilliant idea. Reminds me that in case of a similar event we'd have to excavate the front yard looking for a curb shutoff that was installed some 65 years ago. Maybe ought to do something about that…

  8. If you're serious about replacing the anodes (and it sounds like you are since you've already put down the money for new ones) make sure to turn off the heater and unscrew them every so often. Otherwise, by the time they've corroded enough to need new ones you'll have no hope of actually removing the damn things.

  9. You mention a whole house filter which is a good thing, but something else to consider, a water softener. Depending on the hardness of your water, it can make a real difference in the life of your pipes & appliances. It also leaves your clothes & dishes a lot cleaner.

  10. Having a separate valves for shutting off the house and outside water is good. This way you can work on a sprinkler and have water in the house.

    Ball valves last longer than needle valves.

    Setting up your next water heater so you don’t need brazing to replace may save $ and time.

    It’s recimnended to flush / empty your water once a year. Gets rid of sediment. Whole house filter sounds great!

  11. The easiest method for removing corroded anode rods is to use an air powered (or cordless if heavy duty enough) impact driver. If the anode rod is also a water inlet, you might need a deep socket for the impact driver instead of normal length.

    Regarding the shutoff, do not use a gate-valve; opt for a ball-valve style shutoff. Ball valves do not have the leaking issues inherent in gate valves, and are more positive in their function.

    Also, insist upon braided stainless connector lines with individual shutoffs and shark bite connectors for the water heater installation. https://www.amazon.com/SharkBite-U3088FLEX18BVLF-Flexible-Connectors-18-Inch/dp/B005O19OTS/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1513448735&sr=8-3&keywords=braided+water+heater+connector

    These enable you to isolate the water supply of the heater without shutting down the water system.

  12. Something that can prolong the life of that new heater, as well as anything else in your system that has a large internal volume is a Water Hammer Arrestor valve. If you hear a clunk or bang in your pipes when you shut off the kitchen sink quickly, that is a water hammer pressure spike going into your system.

    Many new appliances use spool type solenoid valves that shift from closed to open or open to closed very quickly. This fast shaft can generate pressure spikes in your system, aka water hammer. Things like a water heater with a large internal surface area exposed to pressure spikes take a HUGE impact for even a tiny 5 PSI spike.

    A 50 gallon vessel that has a 16" diameter has an internal surface area of just under 3200 square inches. (5 PSI) x (3166 square inches) = 15,830 total pounds of force hammering on the inside of that tank every time a valve shifts, even at only a tiny 5 PSI spike.

    Arrestors are a good addition on the lines that connect clothes washers and dish washers, it may also be simpler/easier to install a set at both of the lines that connect to the heater since you are going to have all of those disconnected anyway.

    These are a maintenance item, depending on how much use they get and how hard your water is you will need to replace them from time to time.

  13. another draw back to tankless heaters is the electrical work needed to install units.
    Heavier wire higher amp breakers serious installation cost just for electrican.
    Stick with tank
    Paul in Texas

  14. Before you install your anode coat the threads with anti-seize and it will come out much easier. I found buying a segmented replacement rod necessary, a solid one would have required I drill a hole in the ceiling to give me room to install it, check before you order yours.

    We installed a ball shut off on the tank inlet so we don't have to go without cold water for tank problems or maintenance. We also used copper flex pipe to connect the heater fittings to the stubs coming out of the wall. Our next tank replacement will be draining the old tank and sliding it out and a new one in. I'll need a buddy to help lift but no plumber or electrician saving a pretty penny.

    Plan your first anode replacement for a year, check the anode and depending on how it looks adjust your replacement date. Depending on your local water it could last six months or a couple years.

    Get a ball valve installed as the tank drain, one with a hose thread, that will make draining the tank much easier and the ball is much less likely to block bigger chunks from flushing than other types.

    Drain the tank at six months, use a 5/8 or 3/4 hose as short as possible. Turn off the heating power but leave the cold water supply open so you can get a pressure flush to start with, once you have stopped getting crud turn off the inlet and open the pressure bypass and let the tank drain. Put the end of the hose in a 5 gallon bucket to collect whatever flushes out of the heater. You may need someone to hold the end at an angle so it doesn't blow the crud out of the bucket. An alternative is a nylon sock on the hose end or something else that you can easily see the crud in. If you got less than a cup of crud schedule your next flush for a year, never go longer than that.

    Refill the tank until you get water out of the pressure relief valve BEFORE you turn the power back on.

    The whole house large body filter is a good idea, a wrapped thread sediment filter will do wonders for keeping chunks out of the system. If it is not exposed to sunlight a clear housing is very nice, if it does get sun it may grow stuff so go with an opaque one. If you want a bit of flavor improvement a block carbon one is good but will need more frequent replacement and will usually flow less water. I avoid carbon granule filters, too many of them have failed to filter well after a month or two. I'd avoid the smaller diameter filters too, just not enough flow for a whole house and multiple users.

    The knock stoppers are excellent ideas, we have one on each toilet and both the washing machine lines, the dish washer we have doesn't knock so we skipped it. Aside from reducing stress on your plumbing the reduction in banging will be appreciated.

  15. Very much in agreement on ball valves. I think the only gate valves left in my house are the frost free sillcocks for outside. I also have a valve directly where the water line penetrates the basement wall. A quick 90 degree throw and water in the house is off.

    Living in the sticks we actually have to go traipsing down the lane to our rural water meter every 1st of the month, remove the cover, peer down the hole which may or may not be filled with groundwater and read the tiny numbers on the meter to see how much we used last month. We're supposed to do this every month, fill out and figure our own bill and send it in. Well, I just happened to have a water meter I got in plumbing parts at an auction and put that directly downstream of the main shut off in the basement. Hope the numbers jibe with the one outside because I haven't looked at the company meter in about 8 years.

    Re: Curb Keys. As little pre-teen rascals we discovered how these things worked one summer by casual observation of water company personnel and promptly decided we absolutely must have some for our own amusement. Some scrap steel, a few worn out hacksaw blades and files later and we had several marvelous toys which provided no end of entertainment. Doesn't take as long as you would think to shut the water off to an entire block at 3am if you know where all the valves are. Makes for quite an interesting Monday summer morning especially the cursing coming from open windows and screen doors. Now kids just sit inside playing video games, sexting or whatever and never experience the finer things of childhood.

  16. Over the years I have seen many types of water/sewer failures. We built a new house in rural WI 10 years ago. We installed a shut off valve right where the water comes in from the pump. If we are gone overnight, I close that valve. I have seen three homes ruined by broken pipes. One was in an upstairs Jacuzzi where the valve broke open due to corrosion. No one was home for 5 days. Water ran all that time and flooded the upstairs, downstairs and basement. A former boss was gone to Mexico on vacation when the copper pipe which supplies the ice maker in the fridge broke. Ranch house, again completely flooded. Another important valve is an anti-backflow valve on the sewer line. This is a one-way valve which allows sewer water to flow out of the house but does not let it flow back towards the house. I have seen many houses damaged by failures of municipal sewer systems, causing sewage to back up into basements. We had a water softener installed when we built the house. We have a significant amount of sulphur and iron in our well water, so we just installed an iron filter. It gets rid of the bad taste and rotten eggs smell. We also installed two sump pumpsin different parts of the basement. If one should fail the other can still do the job. After 10 years one of the sump pumps did fail, so I just replaced that. Endless worries with houses.

  17. Thumbs up to the comments about anode replacement.

    When I did ours, I used a 5' breaker bar, and felt like I was turning the PLANET before the damn things came out.

    Anti-seize on the threads, and be sure that you can get the new ones IN before you take the old ones OUT.

  18. +1 on shutting off the water to the house when going out of town.
    Years ago, we were in the driveway heading out for a weekend and I remembered an item I forgotten to pack.
    When I stepped back into the house I was greeted with the sound of running water in the kitchen.
    A water supply line under the sink had given way.
    It had only been running for a few seconds when I heard it.
    A ball valve is now on the line coming into the house and we shut it off if leaving town.

    Thanks for reminding me that God does love me, after all.

  19. I'm amazed that your building regulations don't require a water shutoff valve at the point of entry! Here in Merrie Olde Englande ™ new builds and any major reworking are required to have them – in fact I also have the recommended but not compulsory shutoff valves on every water pipe inside the house as well, so that the whole system doesn't have to be shut down for a simple leak at one tap. I've also got a shutoff valve on the heating gas supply, and a master circuit breaker on the electricity supply that cuts off all power. Those are standard fittings.

  20. I'll second the recommendation for the Home Depot water leak alarm (h/t RHT447). We had a dishwasher fitting break last year, and it managed to destroy the flooring and several cabinets in the kitchen. After all that got fixed (FTW, Belfor did a great job at getting things back together), we decided to swap out the 16 year old hot water heater. The old one didn't have a catch plate, and we had one put in. Also got one of the water alarms.

    This summer, the new dishwasher fitting broke again (I installed the first one, a pro did the second…), but I caught it after it broke overnight. It was a pinhole leak like the first, but catching it soon was sheer luck. To remove the luck factor, we got another leak alarm.

    As it turns out, new brass fittings are made without lead. This makes for some really brittle fittings. I think European and California standards can be thanked for this fiasco.

  21. When you go to get the in-line filter system, have a talk with the plumber and figure out whether you can and will swap filters.

    The house we live in came with a system. Putting it back together after swapping filters is a finicky business that involves standing on a step stool with one's arms above shoulder hight for medium-long periods. It also involves an rubber 'o' ring that has to be seated juuuust right, and tends to break in the threads if you don't GET it right.

    So, I tend to pay somebody else to do it, get a crick in HIS back, get soaked up to HIS armpits, and use up HIS supply of 'o' rings.

    Your milage may vary. Maybe you can find a system that ISN'T built to annoy.

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