More than what you want to know about Home Water Heaters

Has the water heater in your home stopped working? If yes, trust me, “I feel your pain”. Read on, this can be useful to you. If not, read on anyway, your water heater bust might just be around the corner.

The water heater at home simply stopped working one fine morning. I didn’t quite realize that this had happened until I was half way through my shower and noticed that there was no sign of hot water. I grew up in Madras (now Chennai in India) where it is hot and humid all through the year. One of the positives of this awful climate, is that you never had to care for hot water. Growing up there I had become so used to having cold showers that I continued not using hot water even in winter after I had moved up to Kharagpur (in the eastern part of India). So when the water heater stopped working it wasn’t exactly too difficult for me to continue my normal life without hot water. Besides, my wife and kids are travelling in India and as long as I got the water heater fixed or replaced by the time they return, I was in good shape. So I decided that I was going to research the “water heater vertical” and explore the market a little. I also sought the help of my lab partner from college to see if he still had his magic touch. No luck, unfortunately. My wife who was terrified at the thought of not having access to hot water on her return that she sent me daily emails to check on the status.

My first step was to visit the water heater which by the way, is installed in the garage in most houses in the SF bay area. Its a cyclindrical piece about 4-5 feet in height, installed on raised platform. On my first visit, I merely looked at it carefully and turned a few knobs hoping that I might miraculously get it to work again. No luck. There were a few notes on it about how to “light” it etc. I decided not to take a chance. There was a flyer right next to it from a company named Water Heaters Only. After close examination, I noticed that the water heater brand said “State Industries”. So I now had two sources to call for help. Being a web-addict, I promptly “googled” water heaters and gathered a couple more leads on possible sources of help. My wife shot an email to the local home owners blast email list and got a couple more pieces of advices. (Off the 50+ registrants on the list only two responded. One neighbor provided some tricks on how to get it to start working again, another referred us to Water Heaters Only. In any casr, here is the scoop (while it is still fresh in memory)on what I eventually ended up doing.

  • Water Heaters Only: This company is a contractor who resells Rheem, a particular brand of water heaters. They quoted me $920 for parts, labor, installation etc. They never mentioned anything about requiring an approval from the city. (the city inspectors are supposed to pay a visit and ensure that the installation was good to meet standards/codes etc.)
  • Allied Plumbing: Similar to Water Heaters Only, except that they deal with Bradford-White brand of Water Heaters. They quoted me $820 all inclusive after visiting our garage. They were honest enough to inform me that city permits/clearance is required and if they took care of it, it would cost an additional $100. (In short, I knew after these two discussions that I am looking at $800+ on this endeavor!).
  • State Industries: Given that they are the incumbent, I decided before hand that I had some leverage to negotiate a deal. Unfortunately, they didn’t quite seem to care. (In fact, the guy from Water Heaters Only told me that they used to install State Industries Water Heaters at one time, and that they actually went bankrupt and they had too many support problems!). They gave me a quote of $875 without a visit. I had to mentally add a margin for some additional $$ because these folks had not visited
  • Home Depot: Another friend of mine had informed me about Home Depot as an option. On visiting the website I noticed that they had a “Free Inspection“. I promptly signed up for one since they promised a response within 24 hours. 48 hours went by and I didn’t even receive an email acknowledgement! Given that I had three other options and my time was running out (family will be back soon!), I called up the 800 number listed on Home Depot’s website. I was promptly informed that the website was incorrect and that they don’t provide any free inspection!! They howver offered to pass me on to a “sales specialist” who could potentially give me a quote! After some interrogation, my lucky number was $739.08. I figured this was my lowest quote, the heater brand was GE, plus maybe another $100 suprise additional charges since they had not visited my garage as yet. So I went ahead and ordered the purchase and installation. On the scheduled time the expert appeared, took at look at it and said there would be additional charges of $280!! I had taken half a day off of work, I had mentally prepared my self for a $800 to $900 hit, so I figured I had to go ahead anyway. I called Home Depot and they feigned innocence pointing to the contracting company that was delivering the service. Understandably, the contractor in turn pointed fingers at Home Depot. After negotiations, the contractor agreed to bring it down from $280 to $200. Totally frustrated, I agreed.

The water heater at home, thankfully has been replaced now. It cost me $900. (I downgraded from a 12 year warranty to 9 year warranty 50G GE Water heater). Its working well so far.

Some Additional Tips:

Your serial number on the water heater should read something like A90**** (the 90 refers to the year when it was first installed. In short if this is over 10 years, you need to replace the heater (or atleast that was the pat response from all the vendors/contractors). Most of the folks who visited my garage site, didn’t even bother to see if they could fix the existing heater. It was blanket “this needs to be replaced. Tough luck” feedback.

If you find water at the base, ie., around the water heater. It means there has been a leak due and it is probably one more reason to replace the existing heater with a new one.

Water heater salesman suck or there is simply way too much sales of water heaters. In other words, I got the feeling that they don’t really care if you buy or not. I never got a follow on call from any of the folks I approached. So its a sellers market.

In summary, my advice: Get the best deal you can and move on, don’t sweat, you need the hot water.

Author: Pran Kurup

Pran Kurup is founder and CEO of Vitalect, Inc.

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