The House Strikes Back

Our Homeownership Saga

Water Heater

It all started when I was in the basement and I decided to get a better look at the water heater, so in the future if anything went wrong I would have a better idea of what to do.  I started by reading through all of the warning and procedures and then took off the cover for the burner.  I looked inside to see no pilot light.  This seemed odd since I thought we had hot water, I figured it must have just gone out.  I follow all of the steps for lighting the pilot light and it went right away and worked.  I figured it must have been some sort of fluke and thought nothing of it.

A few days after I went to check on the pilot light to make sure it was still going.  And it was out again.  Again thought nothing of it, maybe something had changed in the house since we moved in.  (We did install a cap on the chimney and put in a dryer, maybe there was air being forced down the chimney putting out the pilot light)  So I lit it once again and figured I’ll watch it more closely.

The next day Bonnie took a shower and afterwards told me the water was not very hot.  Maybe we just needed to turn up the thermostat.  So I figured this would be a great time to show her how to light the pilot incase it were to happen again while I was at work.  And what do you know, the pilot light it out, hence the lack of hot water.  Well this makes it a perfect time to show Bonnie how to light it and I can have her do it herself too.  We try and try, but every attempt failed and it just would not stay lit.

Perfect time to find out exactly how a water heater works and what makes it tick.  Everything I find on the internet shows them to be an extremely simple system.  You light the pilot light, the pilot light heats a thermocouple.  The thermocouple produces a small amount of power from the heat and that it used to hold open the gas valve with a small electromagnet.  Pilot light goes out, thermocouple cools, and gas valve closes to make sure you do not have gas leaking into your house.

Simple!  Everyone says the problem has to be the thermocouple.   They get old (even tho the water heater says it is only about 4 years old) and just can not produce enough power to hold the gas valve open.  After a few more searches I find a matching thermocouple at Lowes and some descriptions of how to take apart a sealed combustion chamber and install it.  Off to Lowes we went.  Found a box of thermocouples waiting for us in the water heater section, $7.00 later and we were ready to fix our water heater.

The removed burner unit from the water heater

Water heater in all of its non working glory

I very carefully started to disassemble the sealed burner compartment of the water heater, making sure everything was coming apart like it should.  I finally got it all apart, figured out how the thermocouple was to be put in, and in no time had the new part installed.  From there it was just a matter of doing everything I just did, to take it apart, in reverse order.  All went as well as one could expect for having never taken apart a water heater before.  Turned the gas back on and did not get any leaks. (going good so far)  Turn the switch to pilot, hit the button a few times and it lit. After a minute of holding the button down, the pilot lit stayed list. So I turned up the temperature and the main burner fired right up. Awesome, it works again. I left it to do its thing heating the water and come back later to check on it.

The old thermocouple to soon be replaced

The new thermocouple in packaging

I came back an hour later or so to check if everything was going well. And to my dismay, the pilot light was out again. So I went about lighting it all over and over again

and it just would not stay lit. It could not be the thermocouple, since it is brand new. And everywhere I look online say it is extremely rarely the thermostat. So I have to go for the next idea of it having to be that the thermocouple is not getting hot enough to make enough power to keep the safety valve open. I spend the next few hours taking apart the combustion chamber a dozen times or so trying to move the thermocouple into the flame more. I try adjusting the angle at which the pilot light comes out of its housing to better shower the thermocouple in fire. Still it will just not stay lit. We have to get desperate here. It cannot be anything to do with the thermocouple at this point. The next plan..the thermostat.

Unscrewing the thermostat with some extra leverage

New water heater thermostat

Now that we have been without hot water for a good portion of the week, we wanted to make finding a thermostat a quick process.  Thankfully we were able to find a matching thermostat on Lowe’s web site so we went to check in store.  $60 later and we were the proud owners of a new water heater thermostat.  Later that night, after dinner, I took apart the water heater once again.  Turned the gas off and found out we have a lack of gas shut off valves, but we can always fix that later.  I also started to drain the water from the tank since the thermostat sticks in the water at the bottom of the tank.  Using a short piece of hose, drained the water into a bucket, and then took the bucket to the sink to empty it.  It took over an hour to fully drain our 40 gallon tank, a lot longer then I thought it would.  During this time I took two pipe wrenches and piece by piece took apart all of the gas pipe running to the thermostat.  Once the water had been drained and the pipe removed, it was time to try unscrewing the thermostat.  I put a short piece of gas pipe into the input of the thermostat, like the instructions said, and proceeded to put all of my weight into it.  Nothing budged.  It has to get fixed somehow.  So the largest wrench I had was put on the pipe as extra leverage.  It began to budge, along with the now empty and lighter water heater.  It came unscrewed the rest of the way without a problem and we were halfway done now.  We matched up the new thermostat with the old one to make sure they matched and went about putting the whole thing back together again.  With everything back together I carefully turned the gas back on and began to check from leaks.  No leaks, awesome!  Used the procedure to light the pilot light once again and it stayed lit, success!

The new thermostat installed in the water heater

Completed installation of the new thermostat

The water heater has worked flawlessly after replacing the thermostat.  With the exception of one day when it went out, but we believe that was from an extended shower that used up all of the hot water, and it is thought that condensation from the inside of the tank may have put the pilot light out.  But other then that one time it has been working and we have probably saved a decent amount of money from just attempting this somewhat simple repair by ourselves.

The pretty flames from our (once again) working water heater

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  1. Donna Bulgerin

     /  July 19, 2010

    I’m really impressed with this one! Most people would have given up when the pilot went off the second time and called a repair person. You now know more probably than most people about your hot water heater and your house. Good Job!

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