Karma and the Art of Home Maintenance: My Hot Water Heater Adventure

Some days, you just get lucky. Let me tell you about my hot water heater adventure last month.

Who Says I’m Clueless?

I check our electrical meter every few days and write down how much power we use. I’d noticed that we were using a lot of electricity…about 28 kwh in a couple of hours. Not too unusual for a cold winter morning running the washer, dryer, heat pump, dishwasher etc.

This was clue #1.

In the laundry room, I noticed the hot water in the faucet was extremely hot. But I’m only 2 feet from the hot water tank, I thought. The water should be hotter, shouldn’t it?

Clue #2. Something wasn’t quite right.

In the upstairs bathroom, the faucets didn’t close properly and the knobs showed some extra resistance. 

Clue #3. Unfortunately, I didn’t put them all together.

I Hear Water

It was midafternoon. I was walking down the hall and heard water flowing.

It sounded like the solenoid on a washing machine valve opening to fill with water. Except it was way too loud.

I bounded down the stairs into the laundry room to investigate. The washing machine wasn’t on. Uh oh.

Moving quickly, I opened the basement crawlspace door, only to be hit with a wall of steam and loud high-pressure hissing sound. Double uh oh!

The hot water heater pressure release valve had opened and was releasing hot water and steam into the basement. Yikes!

Emergency Plumber

The main breaker box was back upstairs, so I turned on the laundry room faucets full blast as I went past. Once upstairs, I turned on the bathroom and kitchen faucets as i went past and then switched off the power to the hot water heater and well pump.

By the time I got back downstairs, the steam was no longer jetting from the pressure release valve. I was able to see well enough to turn on the crawl space light and throw the hot water heater breaker next to the tank (a secondary precaution.)

I grabbed a towel from the laundry room so I could flip the high-pressure release valve lever back to the closed position. (Needless to say, it was too hot to handle bare-handed.)

I tossed a couple of towels on the floor of the basement next to the door, where some of the hot water and mud was leaking. After that, I backtracked to all the faucets I’d opened and turned them off.

We Were Lucky

What had happened?

The standard set up for an electric hot water heater has 2 heating elements and 2 thermostats.

The primary thermostat is the top thermostat and it heats the water in the top part of the tank. When the water in the top of the tank reaches the set temperature, it’s supposed to switch off and electric power flows to the secondary thermostat and bottom heater element.

This time, though, the primary hot water heater thermostat had stuck. With the thermostat stuck, the unit had heated water in the tank to 212 degrees, at which point water turns to steam. 

Luckily the high-pressure release valve did its job…If it hadn’t, the water tank would have exploded. 

If the release valve had popped when we were not at home, it would have been a colossal mess.

Really, I feel very lucky that we were at home and only needed a couple of towels on the floor to clean up.


Karma and the Art of Home Maintenance: My Hot Water Heater Adventure

The Fix

I replaced both thermostats myself, and this was a reasonably easy repair to do.

First, turn off the hot water heater breaker at the circuit breaker box. I always check the voltage at the hot water heater with a VOM (Volt-Ohm-Meter) just to be safe. When switched off, it should read zero voltage at the hot water heater thermostat connectors.

Our water heater is an old 50 gallon “RUUD” brand. When I removed the old thermostats, they had date stamp on the back: 7-63. As in July 1963, which is when the house was built. We have a good old hot water heater.

Our local Home Depot had the replacement thermostats in stock for about $25 for a 2 pack.

This is an easy replacement. Turn off the hot water heater breaker and remove the cover panels by unscrewing a couple of Phillips head screws per panel. Then check the voltage to make sure the power is off.

I always take pictures of the wiring pattern to make sure I have a reference when I’m ready to put things back together.

Just a couple of screws attach the wires to the thermostats. The thermostats are attached to the water heater with spring clips, so they just pop out. Then you can pop the new ones into place and reattach the wires with the screws.

(You can find some good videos on the internet showing you how to do this.)

Standard Disclaimer

This is an easy replacement for an experienced DIYer, and $25 is a lot better than paying for a new water heater or for a professional plumber to come in.

But if you are not comfortable working with electrical circuits, have an experienced friend or neighbor help you, or hire a professional.

If you do a similar repair, please use extreme caution. Electric hot water heaters are generally wired with a 40 amp, 240 volt circuit. That’s almost 10,000 watts of electricity, which is a potentially lethal amount of electricity if you make a mistake.

Hot Water Heater Adventure

So that’s my hot water heater adventure.

I was home and able to act quickly and decisively to turn a potential household disaster (explosions!) into a minor mess and a couple of days inconvenience, all fixed for a small amount of money.

I musta done something right sometime, because Karma sure smiled on me that day.

When did you last realize that you’d escaped a big problem with a little luck?


26 Responses to “Karma and the Art of Home Maintenance: My Hot Water Heater Adventure”
  1. Jay 02/13/2017
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  3. Fulltimefinance 02/13/2017
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