DIY: The 4 most important questions to answer before fixing the broken water heater

  1. How many engineers does it take to fix a hot water heater? 2
  2. How much will it cost? $10 plus lunch and gas
  3. What tools are needed? 1 butter knife, 1 voltmeter
  4. How long will it take? 9 hours

Note: the following answers were gleaned from data from one isolated incident.

Error bars on consideration number 1 are small, especially if one has the translated-from-somewhere-else and so very helpful manual (sincere) and a reasonable link to the internet as back up. In our case we needed 2 people because neither of us would do the 5 hour round trip drive alone, and company was coming in a week who expected a hot shower. I believe if only 1 of us went (him), the water heater would have been dismantled down to the nubs, or if only I went, a new water heater would have been purchased and a perfectly good one discarded. Here is a classic example where 1+1 equaled 2 million.

On cost, we hit the jackpot. The potential cost balloons up to almost a grand in the worst case (replacement and hiring a real plumber), and beyond if there’s damage due to water leakage (there was not).

To address question 3, we brought bags of tools for the 2.5 hour ride to the broken heater. The voltmeter diagnosed the problem. The butter knife was all we needed to fix it, although my MacGyver vehemently prefers the Phillips screwdriver.

But the time? Indulge me as I try to break down and justify 9 hours as the valid answer to question 4.

  • Drive 2.5 hours each way. (The same 2.5 hour route I had driven 14 hours before just to get home.)
  • Stop at Lowes to buy all potentially broken parts like replacement thermostats and heating elements.
  • Diagnose the problem. Here is what must be done to start the fixing: Take voltmeter out of bag. Turn off power to water heater by flipping the breaker. This also cut the lights in the whole basement and the closet where the electrical box is hidden. Figure out how to turn on flashlight on phone. Discuss whether either of us brought a phone charger. Take the panel off the top of the water heater. Get ready to test. Run back to electrical box and turn on power. Turn dial on voltmeter. Touch electrodes. Reading = 0 V. No power to water heater. (Question 1 of diagnosis answered.) Walk back to panel. Check breakers including the one labeled “water heater” and find it is dead. (Diagnosis almost complete.) Turn off power. Go get phone in dark for flashlight. Decide to take off breaker and another working one. But that means removal of the front metal cover of the big gray electrical box. The cover is stuck behind the closet shelves which are screwed to the wall and to four rods holding 20 pounds of clothes. Move the clothes. Remove two of the rods and hope that is enough and try not to lose the screws. Empty the shelves. Lift and grunt and pull on them to slide the shelves 2 centimeters away from the wall. Remove 6 screws from panel and remove cover–10 minutes of pulling and twisting because the top cover was wedged behind a shelf and we didn’t want to remove any more screws. Remove broken and neighboring breakers. Switch them. Turn on power. Go back to heater and voltmeter. Full voltage. (Diagnosis done.)
  • Walk around and see where we stole the breaker from. Realize it was for the air conditioning. Note, this was in September and it was 95F and muggy outside. Discuss the merits of a week without either hot water or AC. Discuss switching the breakers as needed until we can replace the broken one. Recall visitors coming in 5 days. Search online for advice on replacement breakers because the broken brand isn’t available anymore.
  • Take a break to order, pick up and eat lunch: ~25 minutes.
  • Decide to take broken breaker with us to the store and visually inspect what they have in stock. Drive about 1 hour (round trip) to Home Depot. Find a reasonable replacement. Pull out a new electrical panel from its generously taped and secured box and make sure both the broken and the replacement breaker can click onto it. Win. Pay. Ride back in hot car. (Something about not cooling off because we’re going to be hot in the house anyway. I don’t get it either.)
  • Switch breakers. Turn on AC. It works.
  • Put the closet shelves back together (find all the screws!) and replace the clothes.
  • Pack the car while waiting to see if we get hot water. We do. Leave.
  • Go to original Lowes to return all of the potential but unnecessary replacement parts.
  • Drive home but stop at the stupid market because that was number 2 on the actual To Do list for this lovely Saturday.
  • Get home 9 hours later. Unload car. Watch football and make dinner. Work for 3 hours. Fall into bed in the wee hours of the morning. Wake up early to write the first draft of this post to get it out of my head and start the second half of the weekend.


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