michelel72 (michelel72) wrote,

The Blonde vs. The Plumber: Water Heater Challenge!

I'm not the handiest person in the world. I have very few manual or "trade" skills. I could probably learn a few, but really, I don't retain what I don't use. It seems far more cost-effective, in both time and money, to hire the professionals. They know what to do and how to do it.

In theory.

The other day we had a power outage. This isn't normally a big deal. The vent system for the boiler and water heater, though, is electric. Each device is rigged with a wiring loop; if too much heat kicks back from the vent, the device is forced off. So if the heating system tries to kick on for more than about a minute, or if the water heater has to kick on, the system can fail. This usually requires the water heater pilot to be relit.

Except, once the power was back, it wouldn't stay lit.

This has happened before, with the boiler. The previous owner of the house told me that the wire-loop overrides can be flaky, and he advocated the "bang on it awhile" approach. That actually worked that time, but it didn't this time. I knew the vent system itself was okay, because the boiler side of the split still worked and allowed the boiler to run. But the water heater still wouldn't stay lit, which meant it wasn't venting properly.

I fiddled with it off and on for the rest of the day before I finally gave in and called a plumber. They agreed to send someone out the next morning. I wasn't thrilled, since that would likely make me late for work, but I didn't have much choice. I really can't stand cold showers!

So the guy shows up and I explain the situation. He's never seen anything like the override loop on a water heater. He fiddles and futzes and tries replacing normal parts of the water heater. After about half an hour, he takes a bit of wire that had been a cat toy and uses it to short circuit the override loop ... and the vent kicks on.

That isolated the problem to either the loop or its connection in the water heater's control box. He figures one of the two needs to be replaced; he thinks I won't be able to find the loop at a hardware store myself; he calls in to the office for help tracking down parts information. He thinks the trips aren't actually tripped, so he can't see what the problem is, and he keeps fiddling and poking and looking lost.

Now I've never pretended to be any good with electrical systems, but the system seemed obvious to me. A wire ran from the control to the first trip; a second wire linked the two trips; a third wire ran from the second trip back to the control box. "You know," I say finally, "there's this electrician's tool, I don't know the name for it, but it tests whether a line is any good. That seems like it would be handy."

He fixes me with a look. "You're smart, aren't you?" he says finally. He goes out to his truck and fetches what he calls a continuity tester. He disconnects all the parts and tries each; they all work fine. I mention that the final connection to the control box had been a bit loose and resistant, so he tightens that up as he puts the system back together. Then, because he doesn't seem to be planning it, I suggest that maybe, now that he's verified the loop and reseated all the connections, maybe he could try the pilot again.

And it stays on.

He at least charged me only for an hour, though he had been here longer than that; he at least knew he couldn't really charge me for labor. He did charge me for "diagnostics", though. I had to pay him for coming out and providing the tools, but ... really, I basically diagnosed it and fixed it! With one tool and knowledge of how the override loop ran, I could have fixed it alone for free.

I'm trying to view it as an investment in self-education; now I know how to fix it the next time it happens. But I'm left rather discontented -- and unsettled. I've been realizing ever since I started college that I'm no prodigy, no genius, no world-changer ... but for some reason I've had numerous suggestions over the past several months that I'm a lot smarter (for at least some measurements) than I had really started to think I was. That will eventually be a different long-winded posting, but for now, it's a very strange feeling.

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