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?


24 thoughts on “Karma and the Art of Home Maintenance: My Hot Water Heater Adventure

    • Hi Jay,

      As things go, that worked out pretty well. A relatively easy, inexpensive repair; although it was cold in the “crawlspace!” Grins! Hopefully, the water heater will last a lot longer!

      As a guy I used to work with would say: “We don’t have problems in life, we have things that make life more interesting!” That may be overly optimistic! (Knock on Wood!)

      Have a Happy Valentine’s Day!

      Thanks for the comment,

      Jon J.

  1. So glad that you were home to address the problem when it occurred. I had a couple of things happen. I had just returned from work and suddenly heard the sound of a river from upstairs. Ran to the upstairs toilet and noticed that the tube feeding water into the toilet tank had cracked right at the connection. I was able to shut off the water and contain the damage. I had to tear the carpet and replace it. I also had to poke holes on the downstairs ceiling to drain the water from the sheet rock to prevent water damage.

    Recently, due a sudden overnight freeze, the sprinkler back flow preventer value popped and I wasn’t home when it happened. My good neighbor came and turned the water supply off and left a note.

    I am thankful for both the times when the damage was minimized.
    Michael recently posted…Drinking WaterMy Profile

    • Hi Michael,

      Always good when we can minimize the damage! Hopefully, we can keep “Murphy’s Law” under control. Grins! But, I guess “indoor plumbing” is here to stay!

      Have a Happy Valentine’s Day!

      Thanks for the comment,

      Jon J.

  2. Plumbing issues are never fun. Glad this worked out for you Jon. We have a cold water line to a toilet that froze and burst a few years back. Lucky we caught it in time with no real damage. We replaced it, including a shut off value just to that line and some more insulation to prevent it from happening again.
    Brian @ Debt Discipline recently posted…Interview Series: From Cents to RetirementMy Profile

    • Hi Brian,

      Yeah, I was concerned that we would probably “lose” the upper heating element in that tank since it got so hot, but “so far so good!” (Knock on Wood!)

      The new “Armored” water lines are great, the ones that have a flexible steel cover on the outside of the hose. I have used those for all replacements, and also for washing machine hose replacements. They are expensive, about $30 for a set, but well worth the price!

      Have a Happy Valentine’s Day!

      Thanks for the comment,

      Jon J.

    • Hi Revanche,

      Some hot water heaters will last a long time! (Knock on Wood!) Grins! And there are definitely some replaceable parts, heating elements “burnout” occasionally, but are harder to replace than thermostats since you have to “drain the tank” first! The heating elements in old tanks will tend to rust in place, and can be an “absolute bear”
      to take loose! I was trying to convince our family that we could give up using hot water as an economy move, but the idea of cold baths and cold showers was met with “some resistance!” Grins!

      Have a Happy Valentine’s Day!

      Thanks for the comment,

      Jon J.

  3. SOOO glad you were home – what a mess it could have been. My husband is working on a plumbing plan for our rental property right now to stop the water if there is a leak. That way tenants would HAVE TO call because they wouldn’t have water. We wouldn’t want to have water leaking everywhere – especially if they were all at work. Great work!
    Vicki@MakeSmarterDecisions recently posted…Make Smarter Decisions – Saturday Share Day 2017, Week #6My Profile

    • Hi Vicki,

      Yes, that was really “fortunate” to hear the release valve when it first opened!
      Our “well pump system” will pump about 250 gallons of water per hour! So if you do the math….the basement would have been a swimming pool! Grins!

      Definitely want to turn off the hot water heater when we go out of town!

      Have a Happy Valentine’s Day!

      Thanks for the comment,

      Jon J.

    • Hi FullTime,

      I am considering plumbing the High Pressure Release valve to the outside of the house.
      There was a long piece of copper pipe around the house when we bought it? Where did we put it? Grins! Using “compression fittings” is easier than “soldering” the copper together, but WOW! copper compression fittings have gotten to be expensive!

      Have a Happy Valentive’s Day!

      Thanks for the comment,

      Jon J.

  4. LOL, I read almost the whole article thinking that Emily had done the repair. When I got past the towels, I was really impressed. A few seconds later I realized that Jon occasionally writes in Emily’s place. I was sure he was quite capable of doing the repairs. Of course, I scrolled back to the top to be sure and there was Jon’s name. Michael’s reply reminded me of our mini disaster. I got up one morning and heard water running. As I hit the carpet near the kitchen, it was floating. Sure enough, one of the guest rooms had a small Niagara Falls coming from under the door. A quick check found the en suite bathroom was the source. I ran in the room, and the toilet was spewing water (from a split plastic cylinder in the tank). I turned off the water and screamed for my husband. All the carpet and the formica clad cabinets were water logged except the master bedroom and bath. When we bought the house the year before, I hated the Berber carpet, the formica cabinets, and the ugly peel and stick tile in the kitchen over the original floor. We ended up will all new carpet and cabinets, and a beautiful tile kitchen floor. Sometimes I guess you better watch out what you wish for. Cement floors for months. We had great insurance and only had to add a couple of thousand. The good news – the appraised value of the house went up almost $25,000.

    • Hey Aunt Jayne,

      Yeah, occasionally I write an article! Grins! Emily is “handy”, but she still lets me work on stuff! Grins!

      Wow! That was quite the flood, almost of “Biblical Proportions!” Some of these water systems will flow a lot of water. My old house in Florida had 1 inch line coming in from the street and in a “big tract community” we had some serious water pressure!
      But that is the prelude to “another story!”

      Happy Valentine’s Day!

      Thanks for the comment,

      Jon J.

  5. Wow, talk about a disaster averted! Kudos to you on the quick and decisive action, very impressive. And the DIY fix on top of it all, again, you’re my idle.

    Do electric water heaters really last that long! I have a natural gas water heater I thought those only last 10 years or so. Mine is actually on its last leg and I’m just waiting to have to replace it. It is in the garage and for some reason there is a leak from the overflow valve, but only in the winters, and it is a very small leak. It basically fills up a 1 gallon ice cream jug every week that I then go and dump outside. I had some look at it a year ago and he said that’s perfectly fine and the parts to fix it aren’t worth the expense at this point. Maybe someday I need to be prepared to handle an exploding water heater too…yikes!
    The Green Swan recently posted…Stepping Out of My Comfort ZoneMy Profile

  6. Wow that sounds like it could have been really bad. Glad you were home and that it was a straight-forward repair. Our last big plumbing problem was when our old hot water heater tank rusted and started leaking all over the laundry room and hallway. Apparently the tank had been installed incorrectly by the contractor. Unfortunately that one was a replacement rather than a repair.
    Gary @ Super Saving Tips recently posted…Grocery Savings: Is Aldi Supermarket the Store for You?My Profile

  7. Man, you were lucky. I’m glad you were able to fix the issue yourself. Water problems are awful. I hate that our hot water heater is in that attic. We probably should get one of those alarms that alerts you when it detects water. Have you ever used one?

  8. WOW. I have to say, as someone who has never owned a home, my husband and I joke that there is a part of our adult development that is totally stunted because we are so ignorant about these things. And when I reference my complete lack of understanding of how to care for a home, the hot water heater is always the example I use. It is like my total encapsulation of everything I imagine myself completely ill-equipped to ever be able to handle or understand. So I really don’t think I could have more admiration for a woman who can replace her own hot water thermostat!
    Linda at Brooklyn Bread recently posted…Family Skiing Near NYC That Won’t Bankrupt YouMy Profile

  9. Thanks for providing this helpful guide! You’re very lucky that you acted so quickly and were able to prevent any major damage to your home.

  10. Wow thank you for your experiences and tips of how can i maintain my water heaters. Thank you for sharing and have a great day!

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