How to Replace a Hot Water Heater

During the past few months, our electric hot water heater showed signs that it was approaching the end of its life. Once before…three decades ago…I had a water heater die. Worse, it was in a closet between my kitchen and my dining room. The bottom of the tank rusted and cracked, flooding the entire space. My homeowner insurance took care of the water damage. Per my policy terms, however, the adjuster would not replace the nasty thing that caused the flood. If I wanted a new one, I was on my own.

At the time, I was a single mother with young children, and we were short on funds. For two weeks, our hot water came from a big canning kettle that simmered on my kitchen stove. Finally, I scraped up enough cash to order another water heater. But when it was delivered, I found that the deal did not include installation. For that, I would have to call a plumber. Or install it myself.

Back then, I didn’t have a “do-it-yourself” proclivity to my name. Frantic, I placed a long distance call. Over the phone, my darling dad gave me a step-by-step course in water heater hookup. His instructions worked like a charm, and I vowed never again to suffer such angst over a household appliance.

Therefore, when my current beastie began to limp, I decided to replace it before it died. Since it was in place when I arrived, and I have lived in this house for 13 years, the heater had served honorably and deserved retirement. Unfortunately, getting a jump on the problem did little to reduce my frustration.

This time I had some money in the bank. Naturally, I wanted to get the most bang for my bucks. I cruised the Internet, looking for advice on replacement and comparing prices. I found several fine Internet articles, including comprehensive pieces from This Old House, the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, and Consumer Reports.

With great interest, I took time to study standard “storage” water heaters versus the new tankless variety. Costing a thousand dollars more, however, an electric tankless water heater was beyond my means. Also, in comparing estimated operating costs, I realized that for the amount of hot water my family uses, and the way we use it, a tankless heater would drive my electric bill through the ceiling. Certainly the idea of a tankless heater is lovely, and many people will benefit from them, but they aren’t practical for us.

It seemed to me that the major name brand water heaters were Kenmore, General Electric and Whirlpool. The articles indicated, however, that among the major name brands there is little difference in quality. The important thing is to buy the right size water heater for one’s needs. Plus, it is smart to buy an energy efficient model with an extended warranty, preferably 12 years.

My research then led me to some major retailers. To avoid lawsuits, I will call them #1, #2, and #3. For a 50 gallon tank, their water heaters ranged in price from $188 (on sale) to $496. I aimed for the middle price range. Retailer #1 had exactly what I wanted for $300. Also, I could order it on the telephone or over the Internet, and they would deliver it to my home within four hours. Wow!

But my euphoria was short lived. When I called to place my order, the operator tacked on a $60 delivery charge and a bill for installation services, jacking the price up to a minimum of $576. Horrified, I hung up. But, believe it or not, I soon learned that was nearly the best deal in town.

I called Retailer #2. They could sell me a water heater for $256, but they wanted $60 for delivery and $399 for the installation. Retailer #3 was having a sale, and they could offer me a water heater for $188, but their delivery and installation charges were about the same.

Worse, all three of the retailers emphasized, “Those are the fees providing we don’t encounter any special problems.” That scared the hell out of me.

My water heater is in my garage, in the open, on a concrete floor, with easy access to water sources and power. What kind of special problems could they encounter? The sales reps were reluctant to explain that angle. But they insisted it was quite common for installers to encounter problems which could raise installation costs. When I compared notes with a friend who recently had a water heater replaced, I learned that her installation fees came to $900. Neither she nor her husband could understand why, and their request for explanations led them in circles. They were simply stuck with the bill.

I’m not stupid. I did this job once. And I have since become an avid “do it yourself” person. I know replacement for my water heater should consist of removing the old tank, situating the new one, and attaching the water sources and power. The task is an intermediate level project for do-it-yourself types. One can even find step-by-step instructions on Internet web sites such as Lowes.

“Well, yes,” the sales rep pointed out, “but when we do the job, the law says it must be up to code, so we have to hire a licensed plumber. Plumbers charge $100 an hour.”

“Okay,” I replied. “But we’re talking about twenty minutes of labor. I understand that a plumber gets paid for an hour, even if he only works twenty minutes. But still, that’s only $100. You’re charging me $399. What are you guys doing to earn the other $299?”

“Well, you know, the laws are strict in our state. The plumber has to go and get a permit.”

“What does that cost?”

“Twenty dollars.”

“Okay. What are you doing to earn the other $279?”

“Then we have to charge you for things like earthquake straps. They cost $37, and the installation fee for them is $50.”

“I have earthquake straps,” I replied. “I bought them at your store for $25, and I installed them myself. Took maybe five minutes. That was just a couple of months ago, so we won’t need to worry about replacing them. Right?”

There was an odd silence at the other end of the line.

At this point, I became disgusted and hung up. A $60 delivery fee is high, but at least it includes removal and disposal of the old water heater. When a retailer’s fees are padded to the point that installation costs more than the appliance, it’s time for a buyer to say no.

I looked at my heater again, thinking I might handle the installation myself. But a closer look made me realize there were copper pipes that might be damaged by the switch and require replacement. I had no experience soldering, and I didn’t think this was a time to start.

Instead, I contacted an acquaintance of mine who is a contractor. He doesn’t work on private residences, so I knew he wouldn’t do the job for me. But I asked him to recommend a reliable plumber. He gave me names of two local companies. I called them and asked for an estimate. They gave me quotes of $135 and $150 respectively. They agreed that we could reuse my existing earthquake straps, as long as the straps fit the new tank and were in good condition. No extra charge. We discussed possible complications. They were puzzled. The job seemed pretty simple to them, and they could not imagine why anyone would charge $399 to do it.

Of the retailers that I contacted, #1 came the closest to my plumber’s estimate. But I was scared off by their warning that “complications” could drive the price higher. Under our state law, I knew the plumbing company could not exceed their estimate by more than 10%, so I knew they could not pad their bill by tacking on arbitrary additional charges.

All in all, my final price, including delivery and installation, came to $495. As luck would have it, the company from whom I bought my new water heater had a special deal. A purchase of $299 or more rated a rebate on delivery charges. Ultimately, therefore, I paid a total of $435, and I saved myself $141.

Hiring my own plumber did require some coordination. At the crack of dawn on the day the new water heater was to arrive, we had to turn off the old water heater, draining and disconnecting it. The delivery crew did put the new one into place, but then we had to wait until my plumber arrived a few hours later. It meant going part of a day without hot water, but we prepared by taking showers and running the dishwasher the night before. In the end, the switch was virtually painless.

The moral of the story is, when buying something that may require installation charges, do your homework. Shop around. Scour the Internet. Ask questions. Require explanations. Above all, get everything that you can in writing. You may find that you can get a better deal for less money.

Not to mention a lot less worry.

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