Ugh! This past weekend was a kick in the gonads. Yep, that about sums it up.

What Wendy and I had hoped would be a super productive weekend turned into a bit of a bad situation that could've been an unmitigated disaster scenario. In the end we got very little of value accomplished but dodged a major bullet. But now we're left "showering" with a tupperware container and a bucket of tea kettle warmed water. Intrigued?

It all started late Friday night when I decided to finish up our last little bit of tiling in the shower. We had just five rows of tile left and a whole bunch of bullnose to install, and I received some verbal inspiration from Wendy (read, yelling) and a second wind for the day at about 10:00 pm.

After after a brief few hours of late night effort we had a finished master bathroom tile project and I was feeling good.

By this time Wendy was sound asleep, but my night owl ways coupled with a bunch of crazy Friday night tiling had me wired. I decided to clean up my supplies and then cap off the debauchery with a few episodes of Game of Thrones that I'm behind on, a little laundry, and some work (for the old day job) I had to get done.

At about 3:45 am I had far exceeded my expected bedtime and had finally wrapped my work, so I went down to the basement to check on the load of laundry still in the dryer. It wasn't quite dry yet, so I cursed the horrendous machine, restarted the dryer one more time, and headed upstairs to bed. But this last check of the basement is an important part of the story, so make note of the time, about 4:00 am.

As my head hit the pillow just after 4:00 am I was out like a light. I figured I'd sleep until about 9:00 or 10:00 to get a half way decent night's sleep, but those plans were derailed at about 8:15 am when Wendy gently (by yelling from the bathroom) woke me to ask, "Did you shut off the water last night?," a not too uncommon occurrence in our house as of late due to the work in the master bathroom.

My foggy brain began processing the typically simple but in the haze of four hours sleep, overwhelmingly complex question. Through my sleep depravation I thought to myself, "Water? Had I? I don't remember doing that? Why would the water be off? Sleep? I need more sleep. But the water...why is it off?...Oh shit!"

At that moment I realized what had possibly happened. I leapt from bed, ran down the stairs, and into the basement. On my way down the stairs my ears, likely in a heightened state since my eyes were still partially functional at best, began to pick up the telltale high pitched and sustained beep of the basement leak sensor. Sure enough, when I arrived on the scene of the crime there sat about three to four inches of standing water in the middle of our cruddy basement floor.


Not an actual photo of this event, but pretty much the same end result.

"Yes, this is why the water is off," I thought. "The WaterCop leak detector and automatic shutoff had been tripped, and miracle of all miracles, this little piece of insurance we installed a little over a year ago had possibly just paid off many times over!"

Given this whole production was occurring during a period when I'd have rather been sleeping, and the fact I was in my underwear, my phone was upstairs, and there was a crapload of water in the basement, we didn't get any good photos of the disaster, but trust me when I say it was marginally bad. I have to say that I'm quite sorry you missed out on this nugget due to my own lack of priority.

The water had pooled in the center of the floor near the basement drain, and it extended out towards the walls a good five feet in either direction. But the leak sensor was properly positioned closer to the middle of the floor, so the sensor tripped and the nearby shutoff valve on the main water line had completely shut, keeping the bad situation from becoming something truly catastrophic.

Not quite sure where the water was coming from, we pulled the plug to the drain in the middle of the floor and allowed the water to drain from the basement. At this point, our attention turned from the pool of water to the possible culprit. Though I wasn't sure, I suspected the hot water tank might have been behind this early morning disruption. My suspicions were validated when we turned the water back on and the malfunctioning water heater began pouring water out on the basement floor as quickly as it could fill.

As water gushed from the large fractured tank, we knew exactly why we had about 50 gallons of water sitting in the basement this fateful morning. But we also knew even better that the WaterCop had seriously saved our hides. While our basement flood was significant at about 50 gallons, had we not had our leak detector installed we'd have likely found several feet of water representing thousands of gallons of uncontrolled water flow.

Our tools, stored items, computers, laundry appliances, and even clawfoot tub, would have been completely submerged. It would have been a pure disaster. Here's some actual footage of the interior of our failure of a water heater.

So now we find ourselves faced with a home without hot water and a major decision to make. We knew our water heater would likely not last much longer, having been warned of its limited life expectancy during our home inspection more than 11 years ago, but we never expected it to let go so violently without even a trickle warning of a leak.

Since "the Great Gushing," we've been investigating, researching, and preparing for a replacement. But the big question is just what do we replace it with? Do we just swap in a new tank? What about a bigger tank, or a more efficient unit, perhaps with a direct vent? What about tankless? What about indirect paired with a boiler?

Luckily we were able to shut off the cold water valve to the water heater, so we at least have cold water running in the house. Life is a lot easier with cold water than it is with no water, as I'm sure you can guess. (We also shut off the gas and pilot light on the tank for good measure.)

We have a whole lot of research to do, but we'd love to hear your opinions on the matter if you have any. As you know, we like to be slow and deliberate about our plans and make a carefully calculated decision. So this quick decision stuff is for the birds in our book. Nonetheless, we need to make a choice, otherwise our approach to showering with a bucket and tea kettle will become less temporary then either of us would prefer.

At this point we wake up, fill a large bucket, heat a pot of water, mix it all together, and then proceed to take what resembles the ALS challenge in the privacy of our bathroom. While we still have cold water, our pressure balanced shower valve won't function without equal pressure from both sides. It prevents the situation where you burn your partner with a toilet flush, but it makes it impossible to shower without a functional hot water heater.

So while Wendy dreams of having an indoor swimming pool one day, this isn't exactly what she had in mind. If you have any recommendations on hot water heaters or personal experiences good or bad, we're all ears.

Comments 31

Comments

Kelly
9/23/2014 at 11:54 AM

I think the life expectancy of a hot water is 10ish years, so you're probably long over due. We looked into the tankless, but we didn't really have the wall space to make it work. It also was about 3 times the price of what a regular one would be.

Alex
9/26/2014

We felt like the water heater was on its last leg when we bought the house, so I'd say we made it last.

Anne
9/23/2014 at 12:54 PM

No experience to share, but we have been thinking of getting a tankless when we replace ours in the next year or so; i'll be interested to see where you all end up.

Alex
9/26/2014

Great! Can't wait to share our experience and results.

Monica
9/23/2014 at 1:47 PM

we have an Eternal hybrid water heater. Initially there were some calibration issues, so they sent people out with a new part. The support was excellent, and the thing's run great ever since (going on 3 years). Plus, our plumber loves it. I think he got one for his house too!

Alex
9/26/2014

It's always a plus when your plumber likes it enough to have it in their house.

Paige
9/23/2014 at 1:58 PM

We have a tankless and will never go back! It is also connected to our HVAC so it provides our heat source in the winter. So economical, convenient and i just love it. Our mount is on the outside of the house and we have had no issues.

Good luck on the search.

Alex
9/26/2014

Great to know. I've looked into the combination boiler/tankless and am intrigued to say the least.

9/23/2014 at 2:20 PM

LOVE our tankless hot water heaters too. One is 8 years old and one is 5 years old. Just had them serviced and flushed for the first time and they are still going strong with no signs of serious corrosion. We used Tankless Concepts for the service and I would recommend them highly.

Alex
9/26/2014

Excellent! We're working with Tankless Concepts too, so very glad to hear you liked them. They seem like a great company so far. Alt smile

Melissa @ HOUSEography
9/26/2014 at 8:59 PM

Glad it worked out! They seem like the best in the tankless game around here!

9/23/2014 at 2:38 PM

We rent ours (a common place thing to do here). It means they cover any issues (i.e. swimming pools) and you get a new energy efficient one if yours kicks the bucket. It doesn't cost us much, about $10/month, and it came with a free install & carting away of the old one.

Alex
9/26/2014

That's very cool that you rent it. I mentioned it to someone this week and they were surprised but think it sounds like a great setup. I think this is another thing we need to copy from Canada.

Nikki
9/23/2014 at 4:24 PM

So sorry this happened to you guys! My hot water heater just stopped working suddenly about six months ago, so I was in a similar situation. Consumer reports has a decent analysis about whether to go tankless versus replacing the tank and they concluded that replacing the tank with a higher efficieny traditional unit (I believe it was one with a 6-9 year warranty) was the way to go. The added benefit is that you could have that installed quickly because you already have the setup for it (versus reconfiguring). I think all told my replacement cost $1200 with parts and labor. Good luck and hope you get back to warm showers soon!

Alex
9/26/2014

Thanks for the tip. We'll check out the Consumer Reports stuff. I always forget to look into their stuff.

Thad
9/23/2014 at 5:20 PM

When we have to replace ours, which shouldn't be for years (knock on wood), I will probably go tankless. We had them in the UK and I really liked them, even the cheaper ones that took a few minutes to get up to temperature! In our first apartment after Jill and I were married, the boiler was on the kitchen wall (a common location in the UK) and you could hear the click-click-whoosh when it kicked on after you turned the tap (or the heat turned on).

Alex
9/26/2014

They absolutely swear by them in Europe, that's for sure. I've seen a lot of houses on the eastern shore that use the electric ones.

JC
9/23/2014 at 6:18 PM

My house just has a simple (no frills) electric hot water tank, and I have no problems with it, or have any wishes of changing it to anything else in the future. I could get a gas one, but I really don't think it uses that much electricity (my bill is very low in general) and I know from experience that the water in it will stay warm for DAYS if I accidentally shut it off and forget to turn it back on. As Kristen above says, a lot of people in my city also rent theirs, but I own mine (it was paid for by one of the POs, and it's fairly new.

I'm also not sold on the tankless systems yet. From what I remember hearing/seeing/reading, they work well, take up nearly no space, but are very expensive. I also think it depends on your hot water usage requirements. It probably wouldn't be an issue for you guys, since you're only two people, plus the pets (I don't think they use the hot water either, haha), but for a large family home with 5 or more people, I don't think they have a big enough supply (I could be wrong though).

Gas heaters are supposed to be more energy efficient, but I really don't know. It may rely heavily on the price of local utilities (gas vs electric).

Aside from that, I can't possibly imagine waiting too long to fix this particular home appliance. I loathe sponge baths.

...and your tiled shower looks awesome!

Gaidig
9/25/2014 at 3:38 PM

Actually, it is the opposite with a large family, since with tankless, you never run out of hot water. The water is heated instantaneously as it flows through the pipe, not heated and stored in a limited quantity.

Also, gas water heater operating costs are typically about 35% less than electric. This is mainly due to cost differences between gas and electric energy, not efficiency differences. The efficiency difference is between tank and tankless.

Alex
9/26/2014

Thanks on the shower. It's getting close and we're getting excited.

In our area it's usually a tossup on whether it's gas or electric, but it's almost always about availability. If you need to replace your tank in the future, I'd definitely look into using gas, as I do believe it will be a bit less expensive.

kim
9/23/2014 at 6:46 PM

We have a tankless water heater, it is 20 years old and we've never had a problem. I really love it since we can never run out of hot water, a definitely possibility with three teenagers! The only downside is that ours take a few minutes for the hot water to make it up to the shower.

Alex
9/26/2014

Great! Thanks for sharing. That warmup period is one concern but I think we have a good solution.

Jan Hunyady
9/23/2014 at 8:18 PM

We have a tankless and love it. We saw a savings right away since no one is home for a good 10 hr period every day.

We hung the heater and ran the exhaust/intake. We had the plumber hook up the gas and water. The water hook up we could have done but we wanted hot water immediately. The install required going through cement block and then brick and was easier than we anticipated.

We love the added floor space along with the $$ savings.

Alex
9/26/2014

Awesome. Your experience is exactly why we've decided on tankless.

carolyn
9/23/2014 at 8:18 PM

We had two 45-gallon gas water heaters and one started to leak in May (installed in 2005). They were connected, so my husband reconfigured the good one so we'd still have use of it - which required him to learn how to solder copper! We figured this bought us some time, so we could look around at our options. We ended up buying one new 50-gallon tank and it sat in our basement for a few weeks. Well, as luck would have it, the second one began leaking soon after. We installed the new one ourselves (we're still contemplating adding a second one).
I hated that we didn't have much time between the first leak and the new install, but I think we made the right decision sticking with a tank. Tankless have their own issues, like cost and inconsistent water temps. Good luck!

Mara
9/23/2014 at 9:08 PM

I would recommend tankless! We are looking to convert over to natural gas and you can connect them to the gas line no problem! In fact, some companies don't even give you an option for gas tank. Lame! Tanks are super cheap and most are just as efficient as tankless.

Alex, I also wanted to say that I nearly died from laughter when you wrote that your showers resemble the ALS challenge!!!!!! My bf didn't understand that this is a 'blog' and you are not people I 'know' so how did I 'know' how you guys shower? Hahahahaha!!!!

9/24/2014 at 1:24 PM

We went through this earlier this year, and luckily Douglas just happened to go down in the basement as the water started to come out of hot water heater. Here is the post that I wrote about why we decided to go with a tankless despite the significantly higher cost.

http://www.capeofdreams.com/crying-over-house-issues/

Judith
9/25/2014 at 8:39 AM

Wow, you really dodged a bullet there. Good that you think so far ahead!

Around here the tankless variety (continuous-flow heaters? literal translation from German is "run-through-heater", since the water gets heated while it runs through the heaterAlt smile – that's the German language for you) has become very popular in the last 10 or years, and was beginning to replace boilers for the ten before that. I'd very much recommend it, if you have the space for it. They are pretty small and you can use multiple ones so the water doesn't have to travel too far.

I'm at my parents' house right now, and they live in an older house they bought 13 years ago and have done major renovations on. I asked my dad just now, and they have two units, both using electricity, not gas.
One is in the basement and provides the water for kitchen and one bathroom on the floor above. It's been in since ten years ago and they've been very happy with it. They very recently turned the upstairs powder room into a full bath, and put a separate unit there, and he has a word of caution. The first unit they bought was with electric regulation, the newer one with hydraulic because it was a little cheaper. But the hydraulic apparently is only regulated in three increments, and they really dislike that, because it pretty much goes "almost no heat – still not really warm – super hot". Both units are from the same manufacturer (Siemens) and the same kind (Ufesa), and of the highest of the available heting capabilities. They come in 18kw, 21kw and 24kw, and the 24kw is what you need to be able to fill a tub with hot water.
They are the same model apart from the regulation, and my dad says he wishes he had paid the about 210€ instead of 170€ on the upstairs one, to get electrical regulation on that one, too. He might even switch it out again when he gets annoyed enough, he says. Those prices are including tax, btw. There's even smaller units that can go in the cupboard right under the kitchen sink for example, so the water gets heated right where it's needed.
I hope this helpful even if you might not be able to find the same models in the US, or if the names are changed. I couldn't find it on an English website, but this is the electrical one my parents have, on a German website:
https://www.otto.de/p/durchlauferhitzer-379019274/#variationId=348012036
If you click on "Details", you get the size in cm as well. It's 23,6/12,4/47,2 cm.

In my apartment, I have one that uses gas (different manufacturer), and I'm really not happy with it. It's not only a lot bigger than the kind running on electricity is, but frequently, something with the igniter (? not sure about the vocabulary here) doesn't work right, and you hear it clicking away and draining the battery while the starter flame doesn't manage to ignite the gas properly, while water keeps running down the drain. I've taken to letting the hot water run when it has finally ignited, even while I soap up in the shower or am washing dishes. Really bad from a conservation point. The landlord-company keeps sending people to try fix it instead of replacing it, and I get to take time off and wait for the guys who may turn up whenever to fix it. I envy the other two units in the house, they have the electrical kind.

To me, it's still preferable to having a boiler with a tank though. I wouldn't want to keep water warm the whole time, and also not transport warm water all the way up to second floor. The continuous-flow heaters have such a small footprint that it's often possible to find a place for it very close to where the water will be needed. You could probably find a spot for an upstairs unit right in your bathroom or a nearby closet. It's a bit unfortunate that you are just done with tiling, but at least you haven't grouted yet, so if you'd have to reroute or access some water lines you don't have to demo a wall but could get by with taking out single tiles.

Gaidig
9/25/2014 at 3:49 PM

I think the small European ones are not so available here in the US. You normally get a whole house water heater.

Judith
9/25/2014 at 5:40 PM

Wow, really? I did not expect that. I'd still prefer them over water-tanks, but for me, the small footprint and the ability to have them right where you want the hot water, and not having to transport already-heated water, are the big pluses. Not to mention that you still get hot water on a different tap/shower even when one of the units goes on the fritz.

Are the units also more expensive in the US? Because the first unit my parents had was absolutely enough for a kitchen and a full bath, it basically was a whole-house heater. Even if you go and buy one with 27kw (one step stronger than they have now) to allow for an extra bathroom with someone showering, you're only at 350€ pre-tax. And usually we pay more around here for most things than people in the US do, so if for that kind of tech it would suddenly be reversed it would be surprising.

So I'm curious, what are the typical upfront-costs? And do you need a building inspection after installing one? Because with the small units here, you don't. And that's a huge advantage too… Germany usually loves to inspect everything and wants permits out the wazoo if you try to build or change something in/on your house, it's a huge cost-increasing factor for building and renovating around here.

Gaidig
9/25/2014 at 3:32 PM

My fiancé is a mechanical engineer, and if we need to replace ours, we will be going tankless. The upfront cost is more than made up for by the efficiency savings, even if you are already using natural gas. Plus, there's the bonus of never running out of hot water. Some older models have inconsistent temp issues, but I don't expect you'll need to worry about that. The only potential issue is that some models require installation of a larger than standard gas line because it requires gas usage in higher volume bursts rather than more gas overall.

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