Replacing a Water Heater - New Energy Saving Features

Ye Ole' GE Water Heater - DOA
After several hours of yard work, I came inside to get cleaned up, hot, filthy, and tired. After cooling down in the shower, I turned up the temp. Nothing.  The water stayed cold. Admittedly, I can't call it "ice-cold" because we are in Arizona and hitting the triple digits already. It was probably more "cool". However, I'm no longer the icy-veined Midwesterner, with cold-tolerance tempered by the frigid horror of Michigan winters. I'm a wimp now, my blood thinned by the blast furnace of the Desert Southwest. I was freezing.

Long story short, we decided to replace the water heater. It was tripping the breaker and showing signs of corrosion and rust. I found a receipt that says it's 13 years into it's 12 year life life. It wasn't worth saving. It would be a matter of time before we came home to a flooded garage.

I'm plan to perform a forensic autopsy on the old unit later, for several reasons:

  1. Don't you want to know what it looks like in there? I do! I do!
  2. I want to verify why it failed. I think it's the heating elements (and more)
  3. I need to break this tall piece of waste down into bite-size pieces for disposal / recycling 
  4. My reciprocating saw hasn't been fed in a while. It's time to sink its hungry teeth into some raw demolition.

Have Truck, will Haul!

There's nothing better than your own truck when it comes to this homeowner DIY stuff. I was able to pick up a new unit off the shelf at Lowe's, load it, and take it home that evening. We suffered no delivery delay and no truck or trailer rental.

The Honda Ridgeline, Water Heater Hauler Edition.
Unlock and load.
Go time!

The next morning, I slept in a bit and climbed out of bed at 5:30. With fresh coffee in hand, I crept out to the garage while the family slept, dreaming of warm water.

I laid out my surgical instruments and prepared for a speed install. I wanted to be done before anyone woke up.

A cornucopia of plumbing tools (c) AZ DIY Guy
"Nurse, hand me the scalpel please. Nurse?... Nurse?... anyone?

BONUS CONTENT! - Replacing a plumbing valve, the easy way 

As you may recall from back when I installed the electrical shut off for this unit, the inbound water valve was seized in the open position. It was so corroded that I couldn't turn it at all.  It was on the to-do list so I could perform annual maintenance, but alas, we are too late.

Corroded Plumbing Valve - (c) AZ DIY Guy
I've seen less crust on an apple pie.
The water needed to be shut off to the house anyway, so it would be stupid not to replace the valve at the same time. I'm not stupid, most of the time, With the water off, I grabbed my trusty hack saw,... and hacked.

Cutting plumbing pipe with a hacksaw
The ancient art of hacking.
Dear reader, please forgive me for a failure in my photo-journalistic ability. I was simply not nimble enough to capture the moment when the saw penetrated the pipe. Although I had a bucket ready to capture the dribble, it didn't matter. The resulting spew of high-pressure water went everywhere, but into the bucket. I thoroughly doused the area, yet luckily managed to miss my camera by a narrow margin.
QUICK TIP: Before you cut into plumbing, even with the water turned off, turn on a nearby sink to drain the pressure a bit. Otherwise, you run the risk of being an idiot,... like me.
The little gem, shown clearly in the blurry photo below, is a Conduit Reaming Screwdriver, used by electricians to clean burs off conduit ends, preventing wire damage. I'd used a hacksaw, instead of a tubing cutter (to leave as much pipe as possible sticking out of the wall). Hacksaws leave burs of metal, not clean cuts, thus the reamer. 

Conduit Reamer!
I guess the auto focus was set on face detection, not reamer detection.
I jammed the reamer / Klingon ceremonial weapon into the pipe and spun it around a few times. One of the blades quickly smoothed out the burs. 

Conduit Reamer!

The pipe got a quick clean with a Pipe Cleaning Tool to ensure a nice, tight connection.

Look at that gleaming beauty. It's like a brand new penny!

Freshly cleaned plumbing pipe ready to go!
I think that clamp and wire are for grounding a doorbell transformer (?)

I'd discovered push-on plumbing fittings when I repaired our recent leak. This time, I was pleased to find a new valve that had the same, easy connection. Following advice from some of my readers, I chose a lever style, rather than replacing the knob.

Gator Bite push on Plumbing Fitting
I bet they had one of these on Apollo 13
Here's where it gets tricky, so pay attention. Rather than firing up a torch and grabbing the flux and solder, you walk over to the install location with the new valve in hand. Are you still with me? Next, push the valve onto the pipe until it stops. That's it.

Gator Bite push on Plumbing Fitting
"Push it real good"
- Salt N Pepa

Because, I slipped into scientific, techno-jargon babble there, I'm going to try to simplify this complex installation operation:
Push. On. Done.

I love these things. They are more expensive, but are unbelievably quick, easy and 100% fire and molten metal free.

I turned the water back on aaaaaaaaaand.... it started flowing backwards, from the water heater, of course. I guess it pushes through the hot water side too. I turned the house water supply back off. At least the push on valve held.


Removing the old water heater!

Now on to the main event. First, with the power off at the breaker and my handy, local shut-off switch, I disconnected the wiring. 

Wiring a hot water heater

Oh yeah, refer to AZ DIY Guy's Scary Warning - Electrical Edition
before attempting any electrical work on your own.

Next, I took the hot water line off with a crescent wrench. This time, there was only a little dripping. 

Installing a water heater

Since the old heater was still full of water and thus weighed 10 ka-jillion pounds, it needed to be drained. The operation is truly a piece of cake (mmmmmmm,... cake...), I simply threaded a standard garden hose onto the bottom valve, ran it out to the street, and opened the valve with a screwdriver. I figured let it drain while I made another cup of coffee.

Draining a water heater
I like to hum a tune during this easy step.

Easy, right? 

Wrong. No coffee break.

Bone dry.
No problem, that's why Henry Ford invented the wheel, right? I'd apply leverage and a good dose of AZ DIY Guy muscle and sinew to the problem to yank that heavy bastard out with a hand truck and the indomitable force of willpower and finely controlled Hulk rage.

"Hulk move"
- Hulk, The Incredible
Easy right?

Wrong. This was going to take a lot more Hulk rage.

Tip: This is not a healthy wheel.
The good thing about being in a fit of Hulk rage while under the strain of moving a 10-kajillion pound water heater at 6:00 am on a Sunday morning, is that when you launch an uninterrupted stream of filthy curse words through the open garage door into the neighborhood, it pretty much sounds like the jibberish speak of Jabba the Hut.

Manhandling a water heater
"Tah keeng sa leeng ah pak mugglah, peeska chatah: may now kung bantha poodoo!"
- AZ DIY Guy
After that hernia inducing experience, it was nothing to manhandle the new (empty!)water heater into place and start making the connections. A bit of Teflon tape neatly wrapped around the threads,...

Teflon tape on threads
Yo! I'm a Rapper!
... and the new hot water line gets attached. I've started paying extra to use the braided, reinforced style water lines everywhere in the house. A Biblical-scale house flood, caused by a ruptured, cheap toilet line makes you think favorably about forking over a few extra bucks, trust me.

Deploy the Channel Locks!
Mixing it up, with a little Channel Lock action.
The cold line went on next and the water got turned on. IMPORTANT: turn the closest sink on so all the air in the top of the tank has somewhere to go. Otherwise the tank won't fill. Our laundry sink got a hurricane blast of air for a few minutes while the tank filled.

Opening the plumbing valve
The moment of truth, or leaks.
Next step, electrical! After connecting the existing flex line to the attached junction box, I landed the ground wire under the green screw and tied the two hots to their corresponding connections. This particular heater had extra, smaller wires that needed to be attached as well; there were three wires under each wire nut when I was done. These extra wires have to do with the electronic, energy management features.

wiring a water heater
I prefer these cherry flavor wire nuts
I closed it up, turned on the breaker, flipped my shut off switch and the new heater came to life. Unlike most heaters, I could tell by electronic touch screen lighting up, and showing an icon that the element was heating.

IMPORTANT: It's imperative that the tank is full of water before power is applied. It can break the heating elements inside otherwise. (This particular unit has a safety that prevents dry fire)

Here's a quick tour of the unit we purchased:

Whirlpool 50 Gallon 12-Year Electric Water Heater 

Model #: ES50R123-45D   $538 (in May 2014)
  • Electronic Touch-Screen Controls
  • 3 operating modes : Energy Smart, vacation, normal
  • "Energy Smart" mode intelligently reacts to hot water use patterns to reduce standby heat loss
  • Electronic Self-diagnostic Controls
  • Self-cleaning
  • 3" insulation (instead of 2" on the 9 year model)
  • Space Ship styling

Whirlpool 50 Gallon 12-Year Electric Water Heater - control panel
Preparing for Hyperspace
The unit had good reviews and some nice energy features. I really like vacation  and the energy smart modes. Hopefully this should save us some bucks. It even has another mode to connect it to future power grid features that may be offered by electrical utilities or home automation systems. 

Whirlpool 50 Gallon 12-Year Electric Water Heater
Money I'd rather have spent on something fun.
The Bottom Line

It's a nice looking appliance, but not exactly a sexy home improvement purchase. It's certainly not the way I wanted to spend $600 over the weekend.

Bottom line, as far as the install goes, even though it's a big job with plumbing electrical, it's actually not difficult at all. I have confidence that this is something that a low to mid experienced DIY'er can do. Hopefully, said low to mid experienced DIY'er won't have to call upon Hulk rage to move an old unit, likely plugged up by sediment from years without proper maintenance. 

This is an electric unit of course. There are some other important steps to be taken with gas fired units. But a handy DIY'er can handle it. 

The Speed Install? 

Even with the extra valve replacement step and the draining problems, it was quick work. I was done in an hour and a half, while the family still slept. The only thing I did later was add an insulation wrap to the hot water line.

Insulating a water heater line
"Keep the hot side hot and the cool side cool"
- "George Costanza" on the McD.L.T.
I'm still going to pipe the pressure relief valve over to the laundry sink and I'm considering a pressure relief tank. I'm thinking some of our plumbing disasters may have to do with too much pressure in the system.

Enjoy your long weekend!!! Celebrate with a new water heater!


  1. Oh, this is something I need to do this Summer, I've already gotten a few cold showers and yeah, they're not fun! I'm going to need some help bringing that beast out of my basement, I suspect it's also clogged, we haven't done any maintenance to it :/ Thanks for all the info, it is really helpful and fun :)

    1. Cristina - Hopefully you can drain it somehow. There is an opening on top where the sacrificial anode rod goes. Maybe some sort of pump though there? I sure wouldn't want to trust stairs to hold that sort of weight. Best of luck with the project and thanks for visiting! - John

  2. Good job well done John, looking to replace something myself over the summer, though seeing what's involved above, will call the pro's in on the basis I don't posses the skills you have or the want of a hernia !!

    1. Good call Will. Although I think this project is easier than it seems, there's always the unknown issues that pop up. When in doubt, call in the pro's. There are lots of great guys in the trades that can do this work in half the time. The hernia thing though,.. are you sure you don't want to try it at least? :)