The Water Heater Forensic Autopsy - Not for the Squeamish!

As promised in the water heater replacement post, I'm performing an autopsy on the failed unit to see if it could have been repaired. Haven't you wondered what they look like inside? We'd decided to replace the old one during an emergency outage because of the age of the unit and early signs of rust. We rolled a $500 die, believing it was toast. Other than electrical connections, I'd never worked on a water heater before, but it was pretty easy, like replacing a faucet.

You may recall, the bottom drain valve was clogged and the tank was still full of water. I started the operation by popping it on the hand truck and whisking it out side.

The whole "popping it on the hand truck" thing isn't entire accurate. I put every ounce of my 200 lbs into tipping this heavy bastard back.

Good God this thing is heavy! Water Heater full of water
Maybe I should have put weights in my back pockets.
I'm kicking myself for not shooting video of this battle. Looking at the photos reminded me of one I saw a while back where Kit from DIY Diva struggled to load a sheet of drywall onto a jack in a small space. She's a diminutive lady, but she fought that sucker into place with raw determination and a refusal to accept help. Check out her post here.

I started rocking, throwing my weight back while standing on the tires. I was trying to keep the weight even between both wheels to avoid another blow-out, since I'd just fixed the tire.

I can't believe I didn't break the hand truck.
After an eternity, as my strength ebbed, one last desperate lunge - yank - lean combo did the trick. It left terra-firma and became weightless,... for a brief second...

... before it hit me. It wasn't so heavy that it could knock me over. Of course, that's because it smashed me into the shelves which stopped my reverse trajectory quite nicely. Otherwise it would have knocked me over. Crap from the shelves rained down on me for a moment as I got the unwieldy beast under control. 

Heavy, heav·y (hev-ee) adjective, heav·i·er, heav·i·est.
1. of great weight; hard to lift or carry: a heavy load.
2. see photo of idiot above
Holding the weight and slowly turning to avoid blowing the straining tires, I finally realized my camera was sitting on its tripod, smack-dab in the middle of the only access path out of the garage. It took a few moments of yelling for help before Sweetie came out and rescued it for me. I wheeled the hernia-inducing sucker straight out towards the curb. It's bulk trash pickup week, a perfect time to dispose of the autopsied carcass of a water heater.

You may recall from my post about installing an electrical shut off switch, the heating element connections are behind this access panel. I can test them for continuity to see if they are the reason for the failure.

access panel
Pop out some insulation and the plastic, electrical safety shield to reveal...

...rust. It's corroded around the butt end of the element. I don't think this thing would screw out easily.

The bottom was much worse. When I pulled the insulation, it was charred and melted to the element.

The wiring was crispy and brittle.

Electrically speaking, that's "bad". There's a plastic sheet liner that's cooked too; maybe there was an actual fire in there.  I reached in and plucked the charred wires off the terminal block, no screwdriver needed. It crumbled like charcoal.

Maybe I can put this piece on Craigslist
Obviously, I made the right choice in replacing the unit; this one is shot. Of course, it could have gone the other way and only needed a new $20 element when we decided to shell out $500. In the end, I'm just glad the circuit breaker did its job and cut the power before this train wreck burned the house down. 

I thought I could remove the lower element to drain the tank. I cut the outer sheet metal back with a reciprocating saw so I could get a pair of channel locks or a pipe wrench on it.

No dice. That element was corroded in there for good. I chucked a Bi-Metal Hole Saw
into the Cordless Drill to make my own drain hole.

In hindsight, I should have thought about what 80 gallons of water would want to do when the saw punched through. I'm not wild about the dousing I gave my expensive drill, but it seems to be OK.

For some reason, this seemed to be a good stopping point. I had the sudden urge for a rest room break .

Guys, you know what I'm talking about.
While the tank was taking a leak, I drilled another hole near the top.

This one was to stick a reciprocating saw blade into the tank. A Bi-Metal Reciprocating Saw Blade chewed through the steel tank like a can opener. It was louder than heck, so I slipped into some hearing protection before circumnavigating the tank. Protect your ears! (and eyes and hands)

"Round and Round
What comes around goes around
I'll tell you why"

- Ratt

Pop the top and great secrets are revealed.

As you enjoy the following photo tour through the guts of the tank, remember that this is where the hot water for bathing and dish washing comes from. Remember, if you have a weak stomach, I warned you in the post title. Uuughhhhhht!!!

If you haven't drained your tank in a few years, you might want to think about it. 

The sacrificial anode rod is gone. Just this crumbly calcified stuff remains.
The bottom: It's full of oatmeal-ish sludge and the lower heating element.
It's like crushed seashells,... and dirt.
Easy to crush these hunks of chalky stuff
The top: I think there were originally two anode rods. Ugh, more rust.
That's that. Cause of death? My opinion is that the anode was completely gone and corrosion and calcium  (?) attacked the weak spots. Maybe the lower element got too hot in all the goop. Eventually overheating a short, or moisture did the electrical in. 

Whatever the cause, I made the right choice replacing it. I couldn't have repaired this guy if I wanted to. I wheeled it out to the curb for bulk trash pick-up. It was remarkably light without 80 gallons of water in it. I stuck it next to the old television, which I know won't last long with the pickers circling the neighborhood like sharks.

Just for grins, I thought I'd let the pickers know the TV still works and clue them in that there's a small issue with the water heater:

TV: "Fee! Works!"  Heater: "Free! Does not work!"
45 minutes later...

Seriously? You literally cannot give a tube-style television (with remote and batteries!) away these days, but someone has a use for a nasty, corroded, water heater that's been sawed in two. I can't imagine how much work it takes to strip all the metal out to sell it for recycling.


  1. I would like to leave comments more frequently for you, but I often have difficulty. I see that the comments I made the other day on your last post never showed up. This is my second attempt on this post, but if they don't show up I am going to quit while behind.

    It is near impossible to get rid of those old sets without putting them in the landfill. Last year our school had a recycling drive where a company paid us by the pound for old electronics. Even though it was next to nothing, everyone was thrilled to get rid of those old sets.

    1. Jessica - Sorry you've had trouble. I love comments. I do moderate due to an avalance of spam, so sometimes there is a dely. Blogger just started filtering too; I'll look to see if its caught yours somewhere. Maybe its time I looked into a new comenting system.

      Isn't it something about those TVs? I saw about 30 of them at Goodwill for $0.49 each. Ours is still out in the dark, alone at the curb.

  2. Laughed out loud a couple of times at this post!

  3. Too funny! Can't wait to let my husband read this. We were told we needed to replace our water heaters due to "slow leaks". Ours are short boys (40 gallon) under our house, wedged in between the earth and joist. I think they built the house around the tanks! Can't even imagine how they'd be removed and new ones put in. Really nasty what was inside...I'm sure ours look like that so perhaps we should have them replaced by professionals. My husband would not be able to tackle this!

    1. That sounds dreadful Gina. I just installed a shorter 50 gallon tank, but it was an easy swap, in the garage. I wonder, this may be one of those cases where a tank-less heater might be a good replacement. Here's my post on replacement, but I think you are right, this may be a good job for the pros:

  4. Thanks for the effort and the post. I had a water heater we had to replace in the attic once. After the same kind of wrestling around to get the monster out of the way, I decided there was no way I would get it down the flimsy pull-down attic stairs. So, I put a pan under it and piped it outside and just left it up in the attic. At least if it ever leaks, it will just water the flower bed. :)

  5. Well I am scared! We have been in our home for 20 years and have never done anything with our hot water heater. We have only pumped our septic once in all that time. (Just so you know what kind of people we are.) My husband is very handy but this is our first and only home. We have been preparing to replace the hot water heater and furnace, but I now feel a little more urgency (ok, a lot!!)! Thank you for the inside look. I think we will leave ours closed.