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Diary of a Fixer Upper: Handling the Unexpected

The flooding from last week’s entry was a real bummer, but it could have been prevented with a little vigilance on my part. My real fear is the unexpected: The tree that falls on my roof, the fire sparked from a loose electrical connection, the den of cit

A corroded heating element on Heather’s hot water heater was causing all kinds of problems.

During the week between the flooding and my move-in day, I came back to the house a few times to make sure the floors were drying properly and to fix the toilet. After a friend helped me tighten all the screws, we tested everything and gave the green light to turn the water back on. While I was there, I turned the hot water on to make sure it was working properly. Check.

But after everyone left on move-in day, I hopped into the shower . . . to find it freezing cold. I let it run, but the water was still frigid. I checked the fuse box to find the breaker still switched on. Clearly this was going to require a little investigating.

After slogging to the gym with bed-head and a bag of toiletries the next morning, I Googled water heaters.  They’re surprisingly simple appliances, and that night I flipped off the breaker, unscrewed the heater’s faceplate, and found the reset button popped out. I pushed it back in and had gloriously hot water the next morning.

By Thursday, the cold water was back with a vengeance, and the reset button offered no help. My brief Internet research taught me I had one of three problems: 1) the thermostat was broken, 2) one of the heating elements was broken, or 3) the electrical circuits were not working properly.

Brand-new water heaters cost about $300. I’d been too busy to troubleshoot and, I won’t lie, after five showers at work and two in my neighbor’s tiny basement apartment, I seriously considered ordering a new one online.

Instead, I bought a $15 multimeter to check the electrical current. Although I got a decent grade in my Electronics and Instrumentation class in college, I called in a friend with more recent experience. All the circuits were good, which meant we had to drain the water heater to check the heating elements for damage.
Heating elements are u-shaped metal bars about a foot-and-a-half long at the top and bottom of a heater. They heat water by convection as it cycles through the appliance. We attached a 30-foot hose to the faucet on the bottom heater and ran it through the house to the backyard.  

Once it was empty, we pulled out the heating elements—and saw the problem. The top element had corroded so badly that it had broken off. Luckily those pieces run about $10, so we stuck a new one in and refilled the heater. You have to run a faucet while it’s refilling, so the air in the heater has somewhere to go. We used the kitchen faucet as our escape valve.

The hot water returned, and all was right with the world. Until I went to wash the dishes the next day and found my kitchen faucet drip-drip-dripping even when I turned it on full blast. Remember all that corrosive crud that destroyed the heating element?  It got ejected out of the heater and into my faucet.  Yum.

I turned to a book some homeowners refer to as the Bible: The Black & Decker Complete Guide to Home Repair.  I diligently read through the plumbing section to figure out if I had a compression, cartridge, disc, or ball faucet, then got a screwdriver and followed the directions to take it apart and rinse out the gunk clogging the filter. I managed to keep track of the tiny rubber gaskets and pieced it back together. The water ran dirty brown, but briskly, for about ten seconds before clogging up again. I took it apart, cleaned it, and put it back together three times to flush out all the dirt.

It was kind of fun—even when I ran the water without the faucet attached and soaked half my kitchen (and me).  The water still ran brown, so I bought gallons of water from the store for the next two weeks. Eventually it cleared out enough to trust my Brita—as much as you can trust DC water.

It turned out to be a good lesson. Before this experience, I had never thought about my hot water running through the bowels of a corroded appliance. I never cook with or drink hot water anymore.

It was fantastic to have the water finally working properly. But even better, I now knew I could manage an unexpected problem: Rather than replacing an otherwise good appliance at the first sign of trouble, a little bit of effort—and $25—did the trick.

To read Heather's home adventures from the beginning, click here.