December 10th, 2013


Mr. Fix-it

Over the past few days, my tenants (in two different units) have reported a furnace that was cycling on and off frequently, but occasionally, and that the water heater was putting out only enough hot water for one shower.

Google (and friends) to the rescue!

Initially, the furnace was operating properly in my presence.  I replaced the filter, and the batteries in the thermostat, and that kept the furnace operating properly for one night.  But the next day I got a call that it was cycling again. snailstichr reminded me that we had a friend who worked for an HVAC company, and a few minutes of phone conversation, and a few more minutes with sandpaper on the flame sensor solved the issue.  I saw the tenant this afternoon and he confirmed that the furnace had behaved properly throughout the very cold night.

The water heater, according to internet research, was suffering the loss of the "dip tube", the internal extension of the cold water inlet, which while galvanized pipe on the outside, is flimsy PVC on the inside.  Furthermore, apparently the years of 1996-98 were the dark days of dip-tube technology, when instead of strong, sturdy schedule 40, the standard was more akin to reconstituted eggshells.  Guess when my water heater was made.

A new dip-tube was acquired, from the plumbing supply store, which meant that it cost three times what the internet suggested.  The water line feeding the heater was turned off, probably for the first time in 17 years, and I started working on removing the old dip tube stub, the galvanized pipe on the outside.  It would not budge.  I borrowed a big pipe wrench.  No luck.  I realized I needed a torch.  This was, after all, a handyman project, which comes the Anglo-Saxon: excuse to buy tools.  I worked the pipe to break the corrosion that started about the same time the blue dress was stained.  No luck.  I added a long pipe to the end of the pipe wrench as a cheater bar, extending my leverage.  What was it that Archimedes said?  "Give me a solid place to stand, and I will move the world."

Yeah, that solid place bit... The water heather was not attached to anything,  so I could only use one arm on the wrench, while giving the water heater a bear hug with my other arm.  Nothing.   Luckily, my neighbor allowed himself to be wrangled into helping.  I held the heater while he finally managed to unscrew the pipe.  The dip tube was replaced and all seemed well, until we turned the water back on and found leaks in the supply line, no doubt due the stresses recently placed upon it after so many sedentary years.  Yet another trip to the hardware store, another $50 in parts, and replacing my big burly neighbor with the petite snailstichr, I faced a pipe back behind the heater, with far too much wobble to attack directly with the wrench.  I wedged snailstichr around the side of the heater, where she could get one hand on the pipe, I got my left hand across the top of the heater to grab it as well, and then went to work.  It took about half an hour to loosen the pipe, and from there it was gravy.  Three furlongs of teflon tape on the pipe threads of the various fittings, and it all was reassembled without leaks.

The last thing to do was turn the main water supply back on.  Did I mention that I was required to put my arm almost to the shoulder into icy water, with a wrench, in the muddy darkness to accomplish that?

I earned my hot chocolate tonight.

I expect that had I called for professional help on these two issues, it would have cost about $300, unless I was told to get a new water heater, which would have doubled that amount.  My time is worth that and more...  My father and grandfather taught me a level of self reliance and an unwillingness to pay to replace something that could be repaired, particularly if I could do it myself.  I think they would approve of the results I managed.