Saturday, January 31, 2015

Water, water, everywhere

Yesterday our water heater tank failed, leaking water onto our basement floor. The water and mold damage nearby suggests that some leaking started over a week ago.

Step 1: Turn off the incoming water supply. And eventually turn the water heater control knob to off as well, though we should have done that sooner.

Step 2: Get the water heater replaced. A direct replacement would be a 50 gallon gas water heater with chimney venting. A potentially better replacement for us would be a power-vent (aka direct-vent) version, but that would require adding some PVC vent pipes.

The water heater was still under warranty with Sears, so they were my first phone call. After an hour on the phone, I learned the following: Sears was grudgingly willing to admit that I had a warranty, but I would have to pay Sears $79 to have a technician come out in five days to look at the water heater and deem it in need of replacement. At that point, I would have to pay Sears $280 for installation of the replacement, plus $75 for a permit fee, plus unknown other amounts for other unspecified charges, and then Sears would decide when to install a replacement. Which could be weeks later. Total cost: $434 plus. Total time to new water heater: minimum of 1 week, probably 2-4 weeks.

Our furnace maintenance company was here yesterday morning, so their office told their salesman Jason to give me a call about having them replace the water heater. Jason told the office that he would call immediately, but did not actually call until 25 hours later. He had no pricing. That was ok, because I had told their office late yesterday afternoon to have another salesman actually get in touch with me. That salesman did call yesterday, and quoted me $2300 for a direct replacement or $3100 for a power-vent replacement. They could install next Monday or Tuesday, maybe, but definitely sometime next week.

Home Depot could do same-day installation, according to their web site. They actually could not install until next Tuesday at the earliest. Could not do a power-vent replacement, and would cost about $1400 to install a direct replacement. Since the water heater is only $600 in the store, that’s $800 for installation by their poorly-rated local contractor.

Independent top-rated plumber #1 required photos and time before quoting a price. He estimated $3200 for a power-vent replacement. Getting a quote on a direct replacement took until after 5 pm. The quote was $1325 with a 6-year warranty, with installation on Saturday. It would have been another $250 to bring that to a 10-year warranty, but the plumber said he would not recommend that since he thinks it’s the same water heater with a different label. Fastest turn-around time, and a reasonable price.

Independent top-rated plumber #2 did not answer his phone and never called back.

Lowes could do next-day installation, but their phone rep was fuzzy on numbers and dates and recommended going to the store. So we went to the local Lowes in the late afternoon and ordered an $1100 direct replacement, including the $600 water heater and installation. They’re installing the replacement on Monday morning. It would have been another $250 to do it on the weekend.

Warranties are weird on tank water heaters, especially since they’re all made by a couple of companies and then rebranded to lots of different name brands. From a plumber, you get either a 6-year or 10-year warranty. In a big box store, you get 6, 9, or 12 years. Some places claim the primary difference is in the tank lining or insulation or construction, others claim it’s entirely about the anode rod. One guy said there actually was no difference. But there’s no labor warranty on any of them after the first year, and labor is a huge cost component. We paid an extra $115 to Lowes to get a 12-year labor warranty, so hopefully this is the last expense we have from the water heater for a while. I’m guessing there’s a greater than 25% chance that the water heater will need to be replaced in less than 12 years, in which case the warranty was statistically a good deal for us. And as a purely labor warranty, it’s one of the few cases where the insurance math can work out well for both parties, since I pay retail for labor without the warranty but they pay wholesale for labor with the warranty.

A direct replacement, just for the tank itself, would be $400 to $600. The installed quotes ranged from $1100 to $2300. A power-vent replacement, just for the tank itself, would be $900, and would require about an hour or two of additional labor and $50 of PVC. The installed quotes were $3100 to $3200.

And now we can go back to throwing out the ruined lumber that was stored too close to the water heater.

Update a few days later: Lowes showed up with a water heater that needs a power outlet for no apparent reason. Shouldn’t be a problem since there’s an available outlet right there, except for the installers claiming that it also needs a dedicated circuit. So they left without replacing the water heater.

Meanwhile the condensate pump on our furnace’s humidifier leaked water all over the floor last night, just like the water heater had previously. Hmm. Maybe it was the condensate pump all along. We had asked Central Cooling to check the condensate pump last week, and they had told us that the pump was fine and that the water heater was to blame. But now there’s a new condensate pump in place, this time with a wet switch so it should turn off the humidifier if it overflows, and our old water heater is back in service while we keep an eye on everything and our wet vac at the ready.

I can’t believe that just one malfunctioning device, or possibly two, could make Central Cooling, Sears, and Lowes all look bad. But none of them did what they should have done. Central Cooling didn’t adequately check the condensate pump, and even told us today that they could have changed things around last week really easily so that we wouldn’t have had today’s mess. Sears showed me that their warranty is useless. And Lowes either sold me a water heater that they couldn’t install (and they knew that our previous one didn’t plug in) or sent installers who refused to install a water heater for no good reason. And I’m still throwing out lumber. And carpeting. And a power tool. And some furniture.

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