The blog of Chicago-based freelance writer David Johnsen.
Tuesday, September 25, 2007
Trials and Tribulations of the New Water Heater, Part I
Our water heater started leaking around 3 AM Friday while I was doing laundry. Since the heater was date-stamped 1994, I had figured this day would come soon, especially since it wasn't a high-quality heater to begin with. In retrospect, I should have planned ahead for this, but hey, who does?

I spent the next few hours researching water heaters online. Although I thought I wanted a tankless water heater, reading a few cost-benefit analyses talked me out of it. Basically, it would be a great choice for a new home but a poor investment for an old house that would require expensive installation modifications. The break-even point would be around 20 years, and I doubt we'll still be living here by then (heck, I might be dead by then). Then I wondered whether I should buy a 40- or 50-gallon tank. My wife and I could easily get by with a 40, but most sources claim the difference in energy costs is negligible (the main cost is heating the water, not keeping it warm). I decided to stick with 50 like we had, which would simplify installation (I had read horror stories of jacked-up installation costs). I looked at Home Depot, Lowes, and Sears. By the time the sun came up, I had decided to get a brand new model Kenmore so efficient, it was below the "Energy Guide" range (230 therms on a scale from 242 to 272). For comparison, our old water heater rated 278 therms on the Energy Guide, which even 13 years ago was poor.

The Sears Web site was unclear about many things. For instance, nowhere did it say I could call a phone number to purchase a water heater along with installation in one transaction. Consequently, I thought I was responsible for procuring the water heater myself. I purchased it online and picked it up an hour later at the local Sears (this part of the process was very efficient). The box just barely fit in the Focus with the hatchback partly open, but it was only a 1.5-mile drive.Then I called the Sears home services phone number to get it installed. First they told me I had to call a special "water heater hotline." But the hotline person said they only handled installation for water heaters that they sold through that number, so I had to call the store. After speaking to several people at the store, I finally scheduled installation for Saturday morning. Perfect. One day without hot water was no big deal.

By the way, the city of Chicago charges $40 for a permit to replace a water heater. it's one thing to pay for a permit for $10,000 worth of electrical work (as we did in 2000), but $40 for a $299 installation? It's enough to make me wonder whether the city and the water department would conspire to put something in the water to make water heaters fail more often! (Of course, I know that's not true since our old water heater lasted much longer than its warranty.)

The guys came out around 11 AM Saturday and put in the new water heater. But there was trouble. The pilot light wouldn't stay lit, which meant I was screwed. At least the leaking, old heater was still giving me hot water, but now I had nothing. They said they were only installers, so I'd have to call Sears to get it fixed. At this point, I was still fairly calm. With this 88-year-old house, I've come to expect everything to be difficult, complicated, or expensive, even though this project should have been straightforward -- the defective water heater certainly wasn't my house's fault. Shortly after the installers left, someone from their office called with a Sears phone number for me to call.

Thus began my descent into telephonic Hell. I called the first number, navigated a voice menu, and was given the number of the "water heater hotline." Of course, that was wrong, and they gave me another number. That one didn't work out, either, but I got another number to call. Government bureaucracy is more efficient than Sears. The woman at the next number tried to help me. When I gave her my phone number, she had a listing under my wife's sister's ex-boyfriend's name from a dozen years ago. When I gave her my name, she had my work number from nine years ago (when we purchased our washer and dryer). Either way, she had no record of my water heater purchase and therefore could not send anyone to our house without charging me. She gave me another phone number. Keep in mind that by this time I had explained my problem roughly 10 times. I called the new number and explained it once again. This time the woman asked for the model and serial number. This seemed like progress until she transferred me to another woman who asked me to repeat all my information. After 20-30 minutes of being jerked around, I finally had the right person. She said they didn't show any openings until Thursday, and I started to lose it. "I have a brand new water heater and no hot water, and I have to wait until Thursday?" She said she would send a message to "routing" so maybe they could stop by that afternoon. She said I should expect a call within 30 minutes.

After waiting two hours, I called the phone number I found in the instruction manual. The woman told me I was scheduled for Friday. "Friday?!" I exclaimed and repeated my spiel about having a brand new water heater. She called routing and managed to get me bumped up to Tuesday morning. That still meant a few days without hot water, but I felt like I scored at least a tiny victory.

On a linguistic note, I am pleased to report that not once did anyone from Sears call it a "hot water heater" (a grating tautology).


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