Before I bought this house, I was talking to my real estate agent and my inspector about water heaters, since the house's current one was an antique and I'd need to get a new one. Both of them strongly recommended getting the older model. They said that the new model, in order to comply with new regulations, has a non-serviceable part for the sensor shut-off. Once it's had to shut itself off, the whole water heater needs to be replaced.
I couldn't get one of the old models when it came time to replace mine, but I figured I wouldn't worry about it. How often would the problem come up? Besides, it had a six-year warranty.
In between the tasks of a not-so-lovely day at work yesterday, as I tried to get the jump on the anticipated worse-than-usual beginining-of-month rush (I normally have between five and ten days to prepare board reports; this month I have three), I called my plumber, Gary, and described the problem to him in detail, particularly my "it's as if the fire uses up all the air in the pilot chamber and then snuffs itself out." He suggests I try vaccuuming out any water that might be inside it with the shop vac, through the filter, and tells me he'll contact the manufacturer and call Lut back at home.
On the walk home from work, I managed to trip over some gravel at the side of the road, and splatted hands-and-knees-first into more gravel, which is every bit as much fun when you're 33 as it was when you were 3. I pick myself up and limp the rest of the way home.
Gary hasn't called yet. I go downstairs to vaccuum water out of the heater. There's just a little bit inside the base, and I don't see that this is going to make any difference, but I give lighting it a try anyway. Pilot lights. Turn burner on. Watch blue glow spread for five seconds, then snuff out. Sigh.
Around 5:30PM (my plumber is no ordinary plumber; he knows no office hours), Gary calls me back and explains that he's just gotten off the phone with the manufacturer. He starts to explain about the problem. My mind is instantly transported back to the conversation with my realtor and inspector. I am hosed. "Wait a minute. Isn't it still under warranty?"
"No, it's not warrantied against flooding."
I am so hosed.
Despite this, Gary has an idea. "The chamber has a one-way vent system, so air can get in but not out. What you should try is hooking up your shop vac on "blower" mode. Feed the nozzle in through the filter, then duct-tape the rest of it closed so that the air will be forced through the vent. Leave it for a while -- an hour ot two -- and then try re-lighting it."
I am not reassured. In fact, I'm wigging out at the poor guy, though I'm apologizing even as I'm doing so because I know it's not his fault. It's not even entirely the water heater's fault -- it just hasn't been a good day all around. "But my basement always floods when the power goes out! I can't be buying a new water heater every time the power goes out!" (Bear in mind this is the third, though highest, flood I've had due to a power outage, in nine months of living here.)
Gary goes on to explain that there's a hydro-powered sump pump he could install as a backup. It uses city water pressure to pump out the basement. Not very efficient, but it means that both the power and the water would have to go out simultaneously to get a critical failure. I feel a little bit better, though the the hydro-pump isn't cheap, either.
In any case, I still have a dead water heater now. I go down to the basement and follow his instructions.
Then I go back upstairs. I'd scheduled "Game of October" session for tonight, but one of my players can't make it, and it was a two-person session. I feel bad about cancelling but I'm not feeling very GMly at the moment, either. After I waffle a bit, the player who could make it gives me an idea for another session. I grab a few people who happen to be around, and wind up with two October games going at once. As short-term plans go, this was somewhat subpar, as I had to idle out too much to deal with stuff, and my brain was not up to quality GM work. However, for long-term purposes, it was great, because at least now I could feel good about running something, instead of terrible for cancelling a session.
A few hours later, Gary calls back (after taking his wife out for their 30th anniversary dinner! Did I mention he is no ordinary plumber?) to see how it's going. I tell him I haven't tried it yet because I'm in the middle of something. He says "no problem, give it another hour. Won't hurt." He also suggests I could try a hair dryer, but that would require careful monitoring, since they can overheat fairly easily.
An hour or so later, I go downstairs, peel back the layers of duct tape, remove the shop vac hose, reassemble everything, and light the pilot. It lights on the first click, faster than it had previously. I don't get my hopes up. I turn the dial slowly. The main burner clicks on at the third tick mark. A warm blue glow fills the chamber, just like it has five times before. I wait for it to go out.
And, just like it hasn't five times before, it doesn't go out. Giddily, I watch it continue to burn for a few minutes, then decide -- hallelujah! -- it's actually fixed! I can't believe it.
I go back upstairs to call Gary. He explains the mechanics involved to me again, and this time I actually follow the explanation. Here's what happens:
The vent to the pilot chamber is a piece of porous ceramic with extremely fine pores. This is what's desinged to let air go into the chamber but not out of it, which should give you an idea of how fine those pores are.
When this ceramic gets wet, the pores suck up water like a sponge. Because they're so fine, they don't dry out on their own. There's not much water in them because there's not much space to hold the water, but what they have, they don't let go. The pressure of so much air into the heater, however, was enough to clear the tiny amounts of water that were blocking air from going through it.
This was all my plumber's idea. The first rep he spoke with at the manufacturer had told him, "It's dead. Replace it." He'd insisted on talking to an actual engineer to find out what was going on inside these new-model water heaters, since this wasn't a problem he'd ever had before. After hearing the engineer's explanation, Gary suggested the "blower" fix, and the engineer agreed that (a) it might work and (b) it was not dangerous and wouldn't hurt anything. The engineer further said, "Let me know if it works, because right now we have no way of dealing with this other than replacing the whole unit. We hate the new design too, but regulations required it." Apparently, at least some of the manufacturer's employees were aware of the irony of making a water heater that could be destroyed by water and wasn't warrantied against that problem. ;)
Anyway, I am delighted to be in hot water again! And I didn't even have to pay for it, though I really should buy my plumber an anniversary present or something, after all that. And now all of you know what to do if you buy a post-2003 water heater (this is a federal regulation, apparently) and it gets flooded.