Paying it forward: What you need to know about your water heater

DaigleBy Chris Daigle, Contributing Editor

I’m in this amazing new world, being a single guy living on my own in a fancy condo now. What comes with that, though, is I’ve got to think about everything and do everything right, or it doesn’t get done. I have to think of things like: Does the car have oil and gas? Did I leave the oven on while I’m at work? What do I bring to the meeting tonight?

With all that to keep up with in my life, the one thing I left out was, “I wonder how the water heater is doing?”

It was enabling me to have a warm bath every day. It was helping me cook and clean. It was my friend, a silent partner doing it’s job behind closed doors. It never complained, and it never called me at work when it was sick or bored.

Unfortunately, I found out the hard way that it was sick. Water was running down the side and overflowing the pan underneath the water heater. There’s only one thing you can do when that happens: Turn it off and drain it. There’s this twist knob on top to turn off the water. Just turn it, and the water stops, right? In a perfect world, yes. But with a shutoff valve attached to a plastic water pipe, with too much twist, the plastic pipe will break, as I discovered.

Do you remember the old movies where a submarine is under attack in the war, spewing water everywhere? That was me as a torrent sprayed the room. Now the disaster has to be stopped at ground level. At 9 PM in the darkness, it’s a guessing game as to which valve controls which condo. The valve wouldn’t turn. What do I do now? Call 911? No time for that. Call the maintenance man? I don’t have three days for that. Slap myself to see if this is a bad dream? That became clear as I rushed upstairs for a wrench to close the valve. Back down, and the valve is shut. That did the trick, right?

I had just shut off my neighbor’s water.

After one more panicked trip down the stairs to shut the correct valve, I got it closed, but the damage was done. What should have taken 30 seconds to a minute took about six minutes in all the panic and confusion. And a lot of water had already spewed from the high pressure pipe. And now it’s all going down to the neighbor below me for a nice visit to say, “LUUUUUCY! I’M HOOOOOME!”

Rod Serling could not have written a more bizarre scenario than I’m now in, but that’s exactly where I am right now. Several miracles did happen, though. The electric water heater somehow did not electrocute me while I was standing in all that water, and it was confined to a small room. As to my downstairs neighbor, I’m not so sure yet. 

This disaster turned my head around as to what should and should not be correct in a home water system. I never paid any thought to the condition of the pipes, the drains, or how to cut the water in an emergency. It never occurred to me that a drain pan must have a drain line going out of the house to give leaking water a place to go. It never occurred to me to test the shutoffs in the system to see if they work properly.

Now I am Paul Revere, telling anyone who will listen how not to be like me:

  • Know where your main water shutoff is, and how to use it properly. There is a big handle at the bottom that shuts off the water supply, then a smaller handle has to be opened to release pressure from the lines. The water is really shut off only when these two steps happen together;
  • Look at the condition of the pan under the water heater. It must have a pipe draining water to the outside. This is as essential as an exhaust pipe on a car. Apparently mine never had one since 1973, or it would’ve been there. If the pan is wet, the heater is leaking somewhere. Unfortunately, you have to replace it;
  • If your water pipes have the old style turn handles that have to be cranked 25 times to shut off, insist on replacing them with ball valves. You simply turn the lever 90 degrees to open or close it. It takes two seconds to operate. Saving time is critical in an emergency;
  • If you have to close the valve on the water heater, put one hand on the pipe to brace it before turning the valve with the other hand. This reduces the chance the pipe will snap from all the twisting. Turn the valve slowly. If it will not turn, don’t force it. Turn off the main water supply before you force any valve.

I speak from experience here. I didn’t know any safety practices, and no one told me. A water heater is out of sight, out of mind. We’d rather be cheering on a baseball team to the World Series, or attending the fern society annual conference downtown than figuring out why our water heater is leaking and what to do about it.

Don’t just cross your fingers and hope the problem will go away. Care about your appliances and they will care about you!


Chris Daigle is a Houston historian and regular contributor to The Grapevine Source. To email him, click HERE.


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