DIY Water Heater Maintenance and Custom Drain Upgrade

It's been a year and a half since we replaced our aging water heater. The old one had become filled with sediment, rusted, and its elements burned up, destroying the unit. A water heater is an expensive appliance to replace. I don't want to do it again anytime soon, so I decided I'd do annual maintenance on it.

I also wanted to upgrade the cheap, plastic drain valve from the factory. With all the experience with soldering I've gotten this year as a Bernzomatic Torchbearer, I figured I'd craft a custom valve assembly that would allow me to direct a drain hose in a gentle sweep towards the out-of-doors. More on that in a minute.

The project is easy in concept, disconnect the unit (power and water), drain it, check the sacrificial anode rod, and replace the valve. Piece of cake , in concept. Disconnecting electricity was the easiest. I'd installed a simple shut off switch a couple years ago. It was an easy project that keeps me from running outside to shut off the power at the circuit breaker. Flip the switch and the unit is dead.

The water was also easy to disengage. When I'd installed this unit, I'd added valves on both the hot and cold water lines. (Of course, I'd reversed the red and blue colors for some pea-witted reason). I also turned on the hot water to the laundry tub, to empty the line a little.

Moving merrily on to the next step to drain the water out, I attached a garden hose and opened the valve with a screwdriver to let the water flow freely.      

Yep -"flow freely". Dang it. It was completely jammed up with sediment. I couldn't get a drop through the hose. Even with the valve removed, only a dribble of water seeped out. This would not be the easy, piece-of-cake I'd imagined. 

I started poking a piece of electrical cable in through the drain hole and twisting it around. I got a little water and oatmeal-looking sediment to come out. 

After a healthy bit of poking, I got water and crud flowing a little faster. There wasn't enough pressure to push all the way through the hose, so I used a handy drill-powered pump to suck the water out of the broiler pan I was using to catch the gunk (shhhh...don't tell my wife). I started making a pretty nice mess, too. 


When I figured I had enough water out of the tank, I opened the pressure release valve to reduce the vacuum in the tank. It helped speed up the flow. 

After a while, I was able to hook the hose up with a 6" threaded nipple and empty the tank. I turned the cold water back on and off a few times to flush the rest of the sediment out of the tank.

Temporary loose valve.

Finally, I got to start building my new drain valve assembly. I wanted a threaded 90-degree bend that was close enough to the tank to prevent tripping over. It also needed to be removable, in case I had another sediment clog.

I clamped and cleaned a piece of 3/4" copper pipe and a threaded fitting, preparing them for soldering.


A little flux on both sides of the joint and the first piece was ready for the heat.

I laid down the heat on the fitting side of the union causing the flux to sizzle and bubble. The TS8000 High Intensity Torch is the sweetest, smoothest torch in the Bernzomatic line. I love its one-handed operation and the ability to upgrade from propane to hotter MAP-Pro gas.


The Bernzomatic TS8000 High Intensity Torch


This particular torch is good for larger pipe. On this 3/4" stuff, it was an absolute breeze. With the flux quickly bubbling under the ultra swirl, high intensity flame , I clicked the torch off and touched the seam with the solder which melted and was sucked into the gap. 


A quick quench from damp rag and the piece could be safely handled.

Since this is going to be an exposed piece, I touched it up with a quick dash of sandpaper. Beautiful.

I've really come to enjoy the satisfaction of making a nicely soldered piece. It's actually fun, when you get the hang of it.

I'm really sold on the MAP-Pro with the TS-8000. It gets the piece hotter faster, really speeding up how quickly the solder will liquify. I think I'm sticking with MAP-Pro for my future soldering projects.

 I repeated the same steps as I pieced together the new drain assembly.

Clean and Flux


Heat the fitting side until the flux bubbles and sizzles

Melt that solder!

The custom drain elbow was competed with a cleanup and a few wraps of teflon tape to the threaded fittings. This custom piece is quite a bit longer on one end due to the extra thick insulation of our water heater. 

Back at my now soaked and spattered worksite, I threaded the new piece carefully into the drain hole of the heater. When I measured for the elbow, I'd marked the pieces to ensure that it would be parallel to floor when the piece was full threaded in place. 

I'd chosen to install a threaded faucet rather than a soldered-on model so that I could remove it and spin the whole assembly off later. If I'd permanently attached it, the assembly would be too large to spin off in the event of another clog.

Done deal! The faucet I installed had a removable handle, so I could avoid having little hands messing around and spewing scalding hot water on themselves, flooding the garage. I hid the handle on top of the unit.

The last maintenance step was to check the anode rod. These are sacrificial shafts that stick into the tank from above and corrode over time. It's made from a material that is more susceptable to corrosion due to electrolytic action, so it gets eaten up before the lining of the tank. It greatly extends the life of the unit.

I'd picked up a rod when I was at the home center, so I was going to replace it regardless. It was a matter of popping a cap off the top of the unit, scratching some insulation out of the way and unscrewing it with a big 1 1/16 " socket, on a 1/2" drive ratchet.

It was a little chewed up, but would probably last another year or so. Still, I wanted to replace it anyway while I had the tank empty and the water off. Water heaters are expensive.

It was tough to get out because there was a low ceiling in that area due to a heating and air conditioning duct. I had to bend it.

The replacement anode rod was actually jointed, allowing it to flex in order to drop it into the tank. Handy, eh? Just a little teflon tape on the threads and screw it into place.

Note that this unit is an electrical model. I shut it down with the flick of a switch. If you have a gas model, you're going to want to turn off the heat before draining it. Check the manufacturer's instructions for a safe shutdown. Make extra sure there's no gas escaping while you work, especially if you are doing some flaming torch work in the area. 

I filled the tank back up, fired up the power, and cleaned up the tools. Maintenance done. Next time it will be easier if I don't wait for the thing to fill up with gross sediment. Plus, I have a nice metal valve to speed the process. I think I'll adjust up to a 6 month draining schedule, just to keep it ship shape. I'd 

autopsied our old one after I tore it out. I never want to see that absolute horror again. 

Maintain your heater and save serious money down the road. 

This is a sponsored post. I am a proud to be a Bernzomatic Torch Bearer, though all opinions expressed are 100% my own. I won't recommend products I don't believe in.

The Torch Bearers are a group of tradespeople, DIYers, culinarians, adventurers and artists brought together to create projects using Bernzomatic torches and share their knowledge and ideas with you. Check them out here and get inspired to create with fire.

Visit the other awesome Torchbearers and see what they are up to on the Bernzomatic Torch Bearer Site.

Loose ends - The Art of Incomplete

My mind is racing, planning the next big project; I'm positively drooling to get started. But, I simply must tie up a bunch of loose ends first. Not to brag, but I'm a fully-ordained Level Eight Grand Master of Getting Nearly Done. I get close to finish and immediately leap headlong into the next project. I figure 95% done is my sweet spot. My sweet, patient wife has the uncanny super power of noticing my talent and bringing it to my attention. 

Here's a quick tour of some of the loose ends now haunting me (just in time for Halloween), in no particular order. I'm not proud.

No plates: You've probably noticed my sweet, stainless-steel Wiremold 4000 power strip on my work bench in previous posts. It's my custom, Tim "The Tool Man" Taylor, over-engineered power strip, complete with individually switched receptacles with green and red indicator lights, partial GFCI protection, velcro mounted stereo speakers, a master kill switch, and a fake shurikin. Slick eh? But I never installed four cover plates,... in over four years.

Sweet over engineered power strip
Yes. That's an old throwing star back there. I don't know why.
The master electrician: The Great Family Room Remodel was a smashing success over a year ago. It looks absolutely great. Ridiculously great,...until you look behind the couch...

Proof that Frog Tape does have long term holding power.
... behind the corner table...

... and on the other side of the wall, in the office, hidden behind the printer.

I even crossed the wires so we have to turn on the
exterior lights to make the office light come on. Not fixed.
More and more Doors: I still have to finish the interior door replacement project, ... started 8 months ago. Ugghhh.... It's so stinkin' booooooring and repetitive at this point. Plane, prime, paint, paint, mortise, install hinges, hang, swear, adjust, drill, and install hardware. Repeat. Repeat again.

Full disclosure, the power tool part is actually fun. 
The Incredible Slow build: The master bedroom door is primed, ready for paint. You see that nifty painting stand / door holding bench under the blanket? That's another master-level, incomplete project. It's the famed hallway organizer project, as seen in most of my workshop photos. It's stalled, two and a half years in the making.

I wish I could start over on this one, but I've put too much cash into it.
No Fence Bench: I'd like to also point your attention to  the "Economical but Beefy Miter Saw Bench" in the background of the photo above. Still no fence after 9 months,... but it works fine,... honest.

Bunch O Chunks: Of course, I have many more garbage days worth of smuggling dried cactus chunks out in the weekly trash bin. I'm only a few weeks in, but I'm being realistic; I'll still be dealing with it after Christmas.

Chunk Chuck-er
Leaky "Leaks A Lot" McLeakerton: I've been patching the leaking dip irrigation system for 10 months now. I simply have to redo the whole back yard and I know it. It hits us in the water bill and we've lost a priceless cactus.

Looooooooser. Enough. I'm embarrassed. As soon as I finish this post and spel chek it, I'm going right out to the garage and

The Great Debate: Hiring a Pro vs DIY (Replacing Swimming Pool Equipment Edition)

My whole concept is Do IT Yourself . I write this blog hoping to empower others to do the same by sharing my experiences, triumphs and challenges. Truly, I believe homeowners can do nearly anything themselves with the right tools, materials, and knowledge. I enjoy doing it myself, have saved tons of money, and  have a lot of experience being dissatisfied with the results from people I've hired in the past. I guess I expect absolute perfection for my hard earned money.

However, there are times were the time spent muddling through a project is just not worth possible savings, fun, bragging rights, or the experience gained. Sometimes there are expensive, specialized tools required, that I'd never use again. A mistake I make can cost me, where the mistake a contractor makes, should have to be corrected on their dime. There may be product warranties to consider as well. True craftsmen, can get results even the most gifted DIY'er can hardly hope to obtain. 

So, can I follow instructions, tear out and replace all this mess? Yes, I think so. It's mostly a PVC pipe and glue project. Can I get it done in a few hours and be confident? No. It would probably take me all weekend and infinite trips to the hardware store to do it. 

So, today it happens. I had already cleaned out the dirt around the horror-show above and repaired some of the electrical last weekend (check it out here). We have an experienced professional from one of our local pool stores coming with brand spanking new equipment. 

Here's the scope: 
  1. A new cartridge filter to replace the aging DE filter (the big R2-D2 looking thing) so back-washing and dealing with that messy white powder is a thing of the past. Old leaky here has been a maintenance nightmare. It would need hundreds of dollars in replacement parts if we wanted to save it. A cartridge filter will reduce my maintenance time greatly.
  2. Replace the pool pump. The existing motor is doing fine, since the it was replaced a year ago (home warranty!!!) but, we expect to save about $700 annually in power consumption by upgrading to a modern, variable speed pump. Plus, the unit is tired and has air and water leaks. 
  3. Adding a salt water cell. This is actually exciting. We are going to nearly eliminate our chemical dependency (and cost!!!!) by converting salt water to chlorine. Everyone I talk to who's made this conversion has loved it.
This is coming to us at a heart-stopping cost of nearly $4,000. No, we cannot afford it. But, we also cannot afford to let this beast nickle and dime us to death, while we spawn water creatures in it's foul depths. We are still in swim season here and cannot take advantage of it.  I've spent untold hours and about $1,000 this year alone in chemicals and parts trying to keep this priceless awesomeness... 

No swamp.
...fom reverting again to Dagobah, in the blink of an eye.

The total cost of this renovation includes about $380 in labor (and that's on special this month). Still steep, but I think it's worth it. I don't think I need to surrender my DIY Guy credentials on this one. 

Hire or DIY? The great debate. I nearly always choose DIY. I've hired out for roofing and plan to hire out for window replacement (if we can ever afford it after this pool debacle). I only do so much electrical myself because I have been trained, but suggest most people bring in a pro for anything major. How about you; what's on your hire vs. DIY list?

Homework: There's a neat article Marcie Geffner wrote last year for, titled Remodeling Yeilds Rewards, Vexations where she compares my successful family room remodel experience to cautionary advice from the authors of Home Improvement For Dummies. I do their cautionary, contrasting point of view vs. my gung-ho, I-can-do-anything approach. Doing research, I found their website, which provides lots of info on DIY vs. hire. It's a very good site. I just get a vibe that it's pushing the hire direction a bit hard, especially with an apparent choice of advertisers directed towards for hiring contractors. Maybe I'm a bit sensitive because I love the do it yourself approach. Heck, I have ads for tools and materials on my site. - John

UPDATE: I after re-doing some electrical myself and digging up the pavers in advance of the new install, the work is done. The technician arrived early and lugged in a bunch of new parts and pieces.

He installed the equipment in the existing footprint, using a bunch of the existing plumbing. You can see the salt cell standing vertically in the center and its new computer on the wall.

I did the honors and dumped seven huge bags of special swimming pool salt in the pool. They say it was special salt, but I think its the same stuff they put on those big salt pretzels at the mall. Shhhhhh....

When it was wrapped up, we had a completely new mechanical system,.... and some exciting new financing payments. We're really happy we did it. This winter I hope to drain and re-coat the pool, maybe the decking. Who knows, I may even do some cool new landscaping and a screen to hide the equipment. Next summer should be a great swim season!

Installing a water heater shut-off switch

Last time, I mentioned I couldn't quite get to a water heater maintenance program without doing some repairs first. I figure step number one is to bring the electrical up to snuff. I decided to install a disconnect switch by the unit, so I don't have to trudge to the outdoor electrical panel every time I want to shut the unit off.

Before I could get going on this part, I had to replace the breaker. My predecessors had installed two, single pole breakers, rather than one double-pole 30 amp breaker. Not cool my friends.
AZ DIY Guy's Scary Warning - Electrical Edition: Don't mess with electrical, unless you know what you are doing. 120 volts of household current can kill you just as dead as much higher voltages, it just lets you suffer longer, and folks can still recognize you in your casket. Plus, electrical issues can do a heck of a job burning your house right to the ground. When in doubt, get a professional electrician. If you do the This project is a snap for someone who's trained; it shouldn't cost too much. Even if you know what you are doing, I recommend you work it like it's live, even if it's not. Research legal requirements in your area before making changes to your electrical system. Finally, don't take my word for this stuff, I might be some random idiot on the internet. 

No. Not cool at all. Those are separate breakers.
I picked up a breaker at Home Depot for about 13 bucks. It was an easy swap; just a matter of turning off the main breaker for a minute while I slipped the two originals, popped the new one in, and re landed the wires.

Of course it couldn't go perfectly. I noticed, for the first time that this particular circuit's wiring was aluminum. I hate that I have aluminum wiring. More on that later.

Cool. Very cool indeed. 
I turned off the new 2 pole circuit breaker and moved inside to open up the junction box to find,... a gob of black electrical tape, discolored wire and nicked insulation (clockwise below). Not good signs.

Since I don't trust ANYTHING in this place, I like to do a quick check to see if the circuit is still live. Especially if there's some sketchy looking wiring where I'm about to stick my fingers. Idiots could have easily landed one of the hot wires to the wrong breaker; it could light me up. No thanks. It's time to reach to the Bat Belt for my trusty non-contact voltage tester.
Apparently, It's pretty serious.
Ahhhhh,... sweet silence. The circuit is dead.

This is scary. The wire nut inside the tape glob is completely destroyed. Worse yet, where is the rest of it? There were no fragments or pieces of more than half of it, not in the tape, not in the junction box. To me, this means some mental giant actually knew this was busted and wrapped it in electrical tape, rather than simply installing a new wire nut. This could burn a house down to save the effort of installing a cheap wire nut. Jackassery! I think it's especially unsafe in that it's an aluminum to copper wire junction.

That's an identical, complete wire nut on the right. 
Back over to the workbench, I set up to prefabricate the switch assembly. Here's the stuff:

  1. Diet Coke Lime  The lime is important. I can't find the reference exactly, but it's in the National Electrical code somewhere,...promise.
  2. Square Box Extension Ring. This will extend the in-wall box allowing for more room to fit the switch and wiring.
  3. 4 In. Exposed Work 1 Toggle Switch Cover 
  4. 30 Amp, 2 pole switch I chose Leviton's extra heavy-duty spec-grade.
  5. Anti-Oxidant Compound This gunk is required when you tie copper to aluminum wiring.
  6. Screws: 8/32's to screw the window box, and one ground screw to ground it. (... to rule them all!)
  7. Wire Nuts know, nut wire.
I clipped the ears off the switch, so it would fit nicely behind the plate.

I pulled the existing 6/32 mounting screws out of the switch, since they're not needed here. Next, I stripped some new #10 copper wire and installed it behind all 4 termination screws, the line side (the "home run" to the breaker) on the black screws, load side (to the heater) on the brass.

No, the WD-40 and the big ol' bottle of blowin' bubbles are not necessary.
I like to put a wrap of electrical tape around the device, leaving a folded, courtesy tab for easy removal later.

Pop the cover on with the two short 6/32's (included with the cover) and we're ready to install. 

The extension ring installs on the wall, screwed to the back box in the wall.

The stripped, bare copper and aluminum wires got a good bit of the anti-oxidization goop. Man! I wish we didn't have that aluminum wiring. At least it's only on a few circuits in the house.

All wired up and sealed in place. I slipped on a 90 degree flex connector, pulled fresh new wire to the heater, terminated it, and sealed everything up.

Flip the breaker and power it up. We should be in business, just in time for the next laundry cycle. Now I can shut the whole thing off whenever I'm finally able to drain it for maintenance.

Look good?
To check the voltage, I popped off the front cover, peeled out a piece of insulation, and exposed the internal wiring terminations for the the heating element. Careful, careful,.. 120 volts from both of the hot conductors to ground and 240 between them. Done!

240,...243.7, whatever it takes.
Next time kiddies, it's on to plumbing. I have to repair or replace that corroded, seized shut-off valve. I'll have to do some research on that one. 

Before servicing the water heater...

A friend of mine told me about struggles with black water coming from all the taps in her house. It appears that it may be a water softener issue, but her heater is half-full of gross sediment. In discussing the water heater as a possibility, it really woke me up to my own lack of maintenance.

I found that water heaters should be drained and  flushed as much as  twice a year?!!!  and the sacrificial  anode rod replaced as much as annually?!!!  Lovely. We're on year 7 and I've never touched the thing; heck I've never even looked at the water heater, even though I pass it entering and leaving the garage. There was a receipt on top, showing that it was purchased at Home Depot 2001. I bet it's never been drained or had the anode replaced in all this time.

What a great opportunity for a blog post on water heater servicing right? Drain it and check the rod, piece of cake. Let's do it this weekend kiddies!!!

Nope. Because of this stuff I need to deal with first.

1) Electrical: As I understand it, code requires an electrical disconnect: 
A) within sight,... or
B) capable of being locked in the open position (power off) position.
Our electrical panel is outside, as is common here in Arizona. Technically, we may be ok, since the breaker can be locked out (if I buy a lockout kit). It's fuzzy, the locking means is supposed to be there even if it's not locked. Either way, I don't like it. Electrical code is minimum. I want better in my own home, so I'm going to install a switch.

Just to spice things up a bit, I just found another little Inheritance from my DIY Predecessors. Instead of the 2 pole, 30 amp breaker, they installed two 1 pole 30 amp breakers. Not cool, IMHO. The two pair in the yellow circle should look like the three in the blue below. It's not safe to turn off or trip half a 240 volt circuit, both should turn off together.

Alas, this fine, Shakespearean  penmanship is not mine to claim.
2) Water: To drain the water heater I need to turn off the cold water coming into the tank. It's handy that there is a valve here. Of course this particular valve isn't handy at all. It's completely frozen, crusty with corrosion. AWESOME!! I'm going to look into replacing the parts so I don't have to cut into the pipe and mess with soldering ect. I'll just have see if that's a possibility. (I checked Home Depot; they don't sell the kit, but they referred me to Ace Hardware).

Crust is good on apple pie, not on plumbing. - AZ DIY Guy
3) Dissimilar metal corrosion: This steel fitting tied to copper on the cold water feed is corroding. Eventually, I suspect we could suffer a breakdown here, probably timed for 5 minutes after we depart for a long vacation. There's nothing like spewing water left unchecked for a week.

I'm not quite sure what to do here yet. I'll start researching it.

I suppose I'll start with the electrical. Hopefully, I don't discover anything else shocking. Check in next time as I head towards eventually getting on a regular maintenance program.

PS - Do I at least get points for making it through the whole post without calling it a Hot water heater?

Update: I crossed step number one off the list and repaired the electrical portion. Yes, I found some scary stuff in the process. Check it out! Installing a Water Heater Shut-Off Switch