Repairing Today’s Water Heaters

The Evolution of Water Heaters

If you are having problems with your water heater, join the crowd.  Water heaters have quickly evolved over the last 10-12 years due to increased government regulation for fuel efficiency and safety.  In “the old days” when your water heater stopped working, (barring a cracked tank) there were only a few things it could be – the thermocouple or the gas control valve (or thermostat). The thermocouple was easy to access by removing the snap in outer cover to the burner assembly, sliding the inner door over and voila—you could pull the whole darn assembly out.

During the evolution several things happened.  Our wonderful rulers gave the water heater manufacturers a very short window in which to insure the residential water heater be unable to ignite flammable vapors (like gasoline) poured directly in front of, on, around or under the heater. There were many different designs attempted and many of these proved to create a lot of problems.

For example, one manufacturer decided they would utilize a thermocouple with a fusible link built into it so that if a flammable vapor entered the burner chamber, it would cause an immediate overheat of the link and shut the burner and gas off while containing any small ignition within the burner chamber.  To insure that somebody could not just replace that special thermocouple with a regular one, they made the gas valve and thermocouple with left hand threads (the regular ones have right hand threads) so nobody could use a regular thermocouple. Unfortunately, that thermocouple proved to be too sensitive and the fusible link would create a shutdown just from the normal heat of operation.  Nightmare. Then they quit making the left-hand thermocouple. Nightmare. Then that company started replacing entire burner assemblies when this occurred until the last 6 year warranty ran out. After that the solution was a new water heater because they didn’t provide burner assemblies any more. Nightmare.

Today’s Water Heaters

Fast forward to today.  The manufacturers have pretty much worked out all the kinks, but like we said, this ain’t your mother’s water heater.  Now the gas control has not only the mechanical safety features of yore, but it is digitally controlled and has the logic capable of giving you a hint about what might be the cause of a malfunction.  We say “hint” because it only tells you the first possibility of the cause of the problem in what could be a multitude of problems.

That gas valve is connected to a resettable overheat sensor which can fail and shut your heater off.  It’s also connected to an electronic pilot and flame sensor which can also fail and cause the heater to shut down.  It also might control an ignitor which is a red hot glowing piece of metal that causes the pilot to light or in the case of higher efficiency units causes the burner to actually ignite.  The spark ignitor is integral to the gas control now on most heaters instead of being a separate item. And no heaters manufactured in the last several years can be lit with a match or open flame.

The burner chamber is no longer open to the atmosphere but is hermetically sealed, requiring the disassembly of this system in order to access the burner chamber and the various parts within. Troubleshooting now requires the use of a millivolt meter and specialized tools.

The combustion air no longer enters the heater through gaping holes in the bottom and front but through special filters which keep any flammable vapor “explosions” contained within the unit inside the combustion area so they do not ignite the external spill of gasoline, paint thinner, etc.  An adverse side effect to this safety feature is that the filters collect dust and lint over time. If not cleaned regularly they become clogged and the water heater safety switches will shut the heater off due to overheating. The repairs are costly and complex once this occurs so it is important that the filters are cleaned on a regular basis.  At Yes! Plumbing, we perform this service free for our Yes! Maintenance Club members once every year during our free 68 point yearly home plumbing maintenance service.

What it Takes to Repair a Water Heater

In the “old days” just about anybody with a little mechanical inclination could repair a water heater.  Today it takes a pretty high degree of technical training, some special tools to make it easier and regular maintenance of the appliance to keep it in top operating condition.

Can you fix a broken water heater yourself?  Some can if they are patient, have good mechanical and electrical aptitude, and the ability to do diligent research to get the answers.  Each individual needs to make that decision based on their own abilities.

If you would like to learn more about our maintenance club benefits, or have questions about water heaters, give us a call at anytime!

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