Be Prepared for Any Water Heater Service Call

Water heater installs can be made easier with these helpful tips

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A service plumber's dream come true is to repair and replace water heaters all day, right? Pretty straightforward work after you get the hang of it.

But what happens when things don’t go your way? What happens when the new one won’t fit in the spot or when the old unit won’t drain? What happens when the unit won’t drain and you’re on the second floor of a customer’s house? What happens when there’s no nearby floor drain to drain to?

Any service plumber will tell you that these scenarios are all too familiar. An easy job turns into a fistfight. Here are some tips to make your workday easier.

Water heater won't drain

Before you hook your garden hose up to the drain valve, first try to open the drain valve and see if you get a decent flow of water coming out of the unit.

If you get very little water coming out, first make sure you are breaking the vacuum by opening some hot water faucets upstairs and see if that helps. If it doesn’t help, use a coat hanger and try to stab it up into the drain valve a few times attempting to move the calcium buildup enough to get proper flow.

If the coat hanger trick isn’t working, it’s time to get some more serious tools. Keep a rig on your van that allows you to hook up an air compressor to a washing machine hose with a ball valve between the air compressor and the washing machine hose. You don’t need a giant compressor; any small compressor will do.

Let the compressor build up pressure with your ball valve in the closed position. Hook the garden hose up to the drain valve of the water heater. Make sure you have a hot water spigot on and blast a shot of compressed air into the drain valve to forcefully blow the calcium buildup further into the water heater, allowing the water a free path of exit.

If the air compressor trick doesn’t work, you can try hooking up a transfer pump to the drain valve. Sometimes a transfer pump has enough power to pull the debris that is lodged near the drain valve out of the water heater and establish flow. However, sometimes the debris may clog your pump, which is an expensive loss to your tool arsenal.

If none of the above work, there is one final reliable method of removal. This method requires you to keep a tool on your van that will be used to suck the water out of the water heater through the top using a field-made dip tube and a transfer pump. Keep a rig of 3/8-inch PEX tubing approximately 10 feet long and connect this PEX tubing to a washing machine hose. Connect the washing machine hose to your transfer pump. Remove the hot and cold piping from the top of the water heater and slide the PEX tubing down through the hot side outlet. Turn the pump on and pump the water out of the water heater through the top. Works every time. 

Installing a water heater pan

If you ever must install a water heater pan under a water heater there are a few tricks you can employ to get the job done faster. Pans can be annoying to place, especially if the water heater is old and couldn’t be fully drained.

You can keep a set of those furniture mover lifting straps on your van. Place them around the water heater and follow proper lifting techniques to pick the water heater up, kicking the pan under the unit and gently placing it back down. Most times you can do this by yourself because of the leverage of the lifting straps, but it is always better to have a helper for both the lifting as well as the pan placement. 

New water heater won't fit

Since the passing of the NAECA water heater standards, replacing tank-type water heaters has become more difficult. The new standard of adding 3 inches of insulation to both the top and around water heaters has made some replacements in tight spaces impossible.

While you can always upsell the customer on a tankless water heater in a situation like this, there needs to be an option on the table for customers who don’t want to spend that kind of money or don’t want a tankless water heater. 


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