This Just In: 64-Year-Old Master Plumber Replaces Water Heater Himself!

When I first entered the plumbing trade in 1981, the standard natural gas water heaters in a majority of residential homes were 30 gallons and natural draft, meaning the hot flue gases rose naturally through metal vent piping and into a masonry chimney where they safely exited the building. When he replaced the 30s, my father-in-law gave his customers the option of upgrading to a 40. The 40s became so popular that the 30s were actually a few dollars more. The nice thing about natural draft water heaters is they don't require electricity and during power outages, hot showers are still available.

The 40s ruled the roost for a while, then after the 40s were the standard, 50s became the upgrade and a lot of people wanted more hot water. In some cases, it took a little bit of work to raise the vent, but those who demanded hot showers were willing to go the distance, even if it meant spending more money on the installation.

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Some like it hot… 

Then came the extravagance of the 80s and a lot of wealthy people building custom homes had at least 2.5 bathrooms and some had whirlpool tubs installed in their master baths. Even a standard 50 had a difficult time filling larger tubs like Kohler's Infinity whirlpool tub, which was very popular. There were also 50s with increased BTUs (50-60,000) that had quicker recovery rates, but although they made showering in large households doable, they still struggled a bit on larger whirlpool tubs.

In houses with larger whirlpool tubs (two-person or larger) plumbers began installing 75-gallon tanks and in some cases, two 40s either in parallel or in series.  At about that time, in an attempt to cut costs, builders chose to forgo masonry chimneys and a new category of gas water heaters became very popular, Power Vent. These gas water heaters have a fan with a motor, require electricity, and the vent outlets have specific termination requirements, but the vent piping has some travel distance, so the location of the tanks is very flexible. Similar to Power Vents there are Direct Vent water heaters. They don't need electricity, but the venting is limited, and they have to be installed next to an outside wall so the venting and air inlet, which are combined into one large pipe, don't exceed their included vent kit requirements. Both Power and Direct Vent water heaters are very expensive

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Hot water, drink in hand…

Water heating has continued to evolve and now there are even more options for homeowners who have natural gas. Indirect tanks have no ability to heat water on their own and can be used in conjunction with gas boilers, and have become popular because of the unlimited amounts of hot water they produce due to their quick recovery. Presently, Instantaneous gas water heaters are all the rage. They're tankless, on-demand units that mount on a wall, and utilize increased BTUs to get the job done quicker. If they're sized properly, you'll never run out of hot water. Since Indirect tanks and Instantaneous tankless options both need electricity to operate, they're best suited in houses that have backup generators.

I'm old school, I prefer the basic natural draft to all the others, maybe because I cut my plumbing teeth installing them. I worked for one plumber who had both the Gas Company and Sears contracts for water heater installations. When I worked there we installed a lot of water heaters, gas, and electric. Sometimes my boss would send two guys on runners, replacements that were an hour or more away, and two guys could replace a 40-gallon natural draft gas water heater in an hour and be back in time to install 2 or three more that day.

One day I installed three natural draft water heaters myself and when I got back to the shop at the end of the day my boss told me I had one more to do. The shop was in Avon and the water heater was in an older multi-family in Brockton less than 10 minutes away. I took a tank over to the address where I was told one of the tenants functioned as the Building Super and she would show me where the tank was. I rang her buzzer and she buzzed me in and met me out in the hallway outside her apartment. She said "Go downstairs, take a right and it's the second door on the left. I asked her if she could show me, but she looked away from me impatiently and repeated in an angry tone, "Go downstairs, take a right and it's the second door on the left". Then she abruptly shut her apartment door. Yeah, she was a miserable person, but I followed her instructions.

I opened the second plywood door on the left to what was really a water heater stall, and there was a 40-gallon tank with water all over the floor under it. I was young, probably just turned 30, but I was tired and I just wanted to get it done. I wasted no time shutting it down and getting my pump hooked up. By the time it was drained I had it cut loose, gas line, water piping, and vent all removed. I pulled it out and pushed it aside and brought the new one in. I unboxed it, positioned it, and installed it. Just before I lugged the old one outside I notice there was more water on the floor and I was curious where it was coming from. The new heater was fine…

Next to the one I had just replaced was another plywood door and behind it, another 40-gallon gas water heater. This had been the one that was leaking! That miserable, lazy b--ch hadn't looked into it. She saw water under the water heater in the second stall and assumed that was the one and called to have it replaced. She had me replace the wrong tank…

It was late, I was tired, and now I was fucking pissed! All I could do was drain the one that was actually leaking, cut it out, and reinstall the one I had just removed. By the time I was done it was after 9:30 and I've never forgotten the day I replaced 5 water heaters myself, though I've wanted to… 

I have now had four natural draft gas water heaters in my house over the last 34 years. When I bought the house there was a Ruud 40 gallon that challenged two people. Since 80% of a tank's volume is useable, there are only 32 gallons of hot water available for back-to-back showers. With an approved 2.5 gallons per minute (GPM) showerhead and a single lever shower valve that cannot deliver straight hot for safety purposes, someone showering uses approximately 2 GPM. If you do the math, a 16-minute shower will deplete a 40-gallon tank. 

I'm a quick shower, but my wife is not. She is what I call a "hot water hog" and that's okay, I just needed to upgrade. We elected to replace it with a 50. At the time Ruud offered a 40,000 BTU "Tri-Power" tank that featured three separate flues and in the literature, they claimed an increase in efficiency and recovery. The term "Tri-Power" made me think of the Pontiac GTOs that had trip deuces (three two-barrel carburetors) on an Edelbrock manifold, a hot setup. I had to have a "Tri-Power" water heater! 

Along with a pressure reducing valve on the incoming water main taking the pressure in my house from 93 PSI to 60, a thermal expansion tank to take the expanding pressure off the water heater, and a sediment filter, my heater was well protected. I elected to replace it after its sixteenth birthday, figuring it owed me nothing and I didn't want to come home to a mess one day when it decided to leak. I'd been in many flooded basements after water heater failures, it ain't pretty.

I had a customer who had a ten-year warranty heater fail in the last 30 days and when I told her the replacement would only have a month left on the warranty, but she still had to pay labor to install it and the permit fee, she opted for a new tank with a new warranty. I asked her what she wanted to do with the replacement sticker for the tank and she told me to keep it for myself. I turned it in and grabbed the new tank, which sat in a box in my basement for years. I couldn't sell it because it had no warranty. I figured a landlord might go for it because I was willing to sell it cheap, but no one wanted it, so it stayed in my basement. 

I removed the Tri-Power tank and I installed the warranty tank. It was standard 50, but with all the additional stuff on my system (Reducing valve, expansion tank, filter) it lasted. I make a habit of walking into my utility area on a regular basis and I always recommended my customers do the same. Just a few weeks ago I was eyeballing the tank, looking for water under it, when I saw the installation date I put on it using a Sharpie, "July '05". In July it would be 16 years old, the same age as its predecessor when I opted to replace it even though it wasn't leaking. With snow on the ground, I figured I'd wait and replace this one in July after I celebrated its Sweet 16… 

There's the wet spot, just to the left of the tank. I had to move quickly…

Well, the other day, I was doing my utility room walkthrough and low and behold, there was a good-sized wet spot under it. Uh-oh, no sweet sixteen for this one. Although it was a free tank and it owed me less than nothing, I was still disappointed it hadn't met the 16-year deadline I set for it. Time for a new tank!

Since installing the last tank, FVIR  (Flammable Vapor Ignition-Resistant) tanks became the standard requirement and they're a little bit taller. Also, anything natural draft heater over 38,000 BTUs requires a 4" vent and a lot of Inspectors want them on all gas water heaters. I carefully measured and looked into several different tank options. I could've gotten a short tank and not a tall one, but my tank is sandwiched between a boiler and a gas line, and shorts are wider and it would've been a tight fit. Ruud talls are taller than the existing tank and because of the venting, it wasn't really an option. I've used lots of different tank manufacturers over the years, Ruud/Rheem, State, Morflo, Bradford White, A.O. Smith and I was always more concerned with fit, BTUs, and availability. In the end, A.O. Smith had what I needed and Bill Davis, my good friend and Salesman at Supply New England who could be Yankee outfielder Brett Gardner's body double, had no problem locating the model I wanted and having it shipped to the Attleboro store.

Like any good Plumber worth his salt, I stripped all the copper and brass from the old tank before leaving it on the curb…

Yesterday I removed the old one and lugged it up the bulkhead myself, which at 64 years of age is much more challenging than it was in my 30s, 40s, and 50s… I got it out, wheeled it through some snow, and set it on the end of the driveway near the street. My rubbish company no longer picks up large items (COVID), so I anticipated getting rid of it might be a problem. A few years ago, when they were still picking up large items, one of my customers insisted I take her old tank away. After a lengthy discussion I agreed to take it and me and my son Dylan, loaded the old tank into my truck and it was still spitting up rusty slime all over my van, even after it had been completely drained. I made the call and set up the pickup ($35) and then placed it at the end of the driveway by the road. By the next afternoon, it was gone. Yesterday, I put my old tank in the same spot and within an hour it was gone! And I hadn't left any of the brass fittings on it either.

Now for the installation…

The new tank arrived 2 hours after the old one was removed. I took it through the front door & slid it down the stairs. 

The last tank had a top mount relief valve and it needed an 8" extension (MA code) and some piping across the tank before heading downwards and to within 12" of the floor (MA Code). This one came with a  side-mounted 4" relief valve already installed and all I had to do was screw in a relief tube which I made using parts of the old one.  Once that was completed, I moved onto the vent. I was fortunate that my existing venting included a 6" x 5" x 4" WYE that I had originally bushed down the branch from 4" to 3", so it didn't have to be changed, which would have been a little more involving. I removed the 3"- 4" increaser and it allowed me to bring my installation up to code. I wanted to simplify the venting so I got one full length (24") of 4" 26 gauge galvanized smoke pipe knowing that I wouldn't have to cut or add to it and it would be perfect for my installation. Once I had that installed into the branch of the WYE I fitted the rest of the venting to get the exact tank location secured.

Nice shiny Type L copper!

Next, I soldered up the hot water outlet and then the cold water inlet complete with a new Vacuum Relief Valve. Once that was complete, I fully opened up my tub to remove the air in the tank while the tank filled. After it was full I fitted the gas using the nipples I had on hand. Flexible connectors on water heaters and boilers/furnaces may be a time-saver, but I think they look cheesy, so I always do the final connection with black nipples and malleable fittings. To me, flexible connectors are great for stoves, dryers, outdoor grills, and gas logs. 

"Commercial Grade", not too shabby!

* I started using Teflon tape and pipe dope on gas piping several years ago when no matter what I did the imported pipe and fittings leaked. Teflon tape is now legal for use on gas piping and a lot of plumbers I know have started using it.

Once it was done, lighting it was a breeze with the push-button pilot. The heater has 40,000 BTUs and recovers 41 gallons per hour, which is a little bit more than the last one. The sticker that says "Commercial Grade" is encouraging. Looking forward to celebrating another "Sweet Sixteen" in 2037!

So there you have it, one natural gas, natural draft  A. O. Smith water heater installed by a 64-year-old Plumber, who at the end of the day, was just as exhausted as when he installed 5 in one very long day more than 30 years ago. When I told Billy D how difficult it was pulling the tank out of the basement he told me to "stick to blogging"…

I got the first shower and at the end of the day, there was nobody who needed one more than me, just ask my wife…