December 22nd already — I can't wait till noon when we get off work!"
The long weekend leading to Christmas was an exciting time for Mike. Life had been racing by all year, or so it seemed. Married for just two years; wife due in three months; quit a dead-end job and landed a spot as a plumbing apprentice. They'd discussed his job switch late into the night.
One thing he'd quickly discovered — plumbing wasn't anything like he'd seen on TV. No Billy-buttcracks and no bumbling idiots. The work was hard, but made him feel good by day's end.
"You're with ‘Red' this morning." "C'mon kid, let's tackle a service call."
Mike had already decided he liked service calls more than the new construction side. The challenges, customer interaction and the fast pace required made the time fly by, and, there was a great deal of personal satisfaction gained by repairing customers' products.
The worksheet read, "Electric water heater: relief pops off and reset switch trips."
"That sounds like a thermostat and relief valve need replaced, right Red?"
Red was silent for a minute.
"OK, kid, we're a 30-minute ride away from ground-zero. That town rests in a valley and they recently hooked up to city water. That water is pumped up over a hill that's about 200-ft. higher than the town's streets. The water company they hooked up to requires each service line meter to incorporate a dual-check backflow preventer. Now, what should we take along to prevent a run for materials?" Red prompted.
"Elements and thermostats?" "OK, but why?"
"They're hitting the reset button, and the relief valve is popping off," Mike said. "We'll remove the covers, check for 220V and then test each thermostat to see if it's working. I'm betting one or both of them is overshooting its temperature setting. If the tank is more than five years old, we'll drain it, clean out the base and install new thermostats, new elements and replace the relief valve."
"Volts?" Red responded. "Thermostats' temperature setting? That's it? You'll need to figure out if the elements are working properly. Every element is stamped with a watts rating, probably 4,500W. Watts = Amps x Volts, so if we see 220V, you simply divide 4,500 by 220 to get 20.45 amps. Clamp an amp-probe over a single wire on an active element and you'll see if it's working properly. That's also why only one element at a time can be ‘on' at a time when connected to a 30A circuit. I remember that formula as ride the WAVe."
"Well, there's nothing on the worksheet about running out of hot water, so it's probably just a thermostat?" Mike asked.
"It always ‘looks' simple up front, but I've given you clues you're not using. Before you jump in with both feet, you need to analyze the problems. The first thing you'll need to do is check the static water pressure. Remember, they're on a new water system. For every 2.21-ft. of elevation above the relief valve, you'll see a 1-PSI pressure increase. That hill is about 200-ft. higher than the town, so I'm expecting we'll see about 130-PSI on my test gauge. Grab a 3/4-in. PRV (pressure reducing valve) and two copper-by-male adaptors. What else kid?"
"A thermal expansion tank," Mike blurted out.
Red smiled, "OK, why smart guy?" "Because water expands when heated and the backflow preventer traps it inside the house. And the water heater is overheating, which makes the relief valve pop-off."
"That's it?" Red nudged him further. "Think about that T&P relief valve, pal. Then think about the upper thermostat on that water heater. A relief valve opens for two reasons: it senses 210°F temperature and/or 150-PSI of pressure. The thermal snap-disc on the water heater's upper thermostat is supposed to trip at, or near, 160°F."
"OK, I think I have it," Mike answered. "We'll test incoming static water pressure, the delivery temperature, electric voltage and amp-draw for each element — before we make any changes. Then we can talk with the customer and make recommendations about what's needed to resolve the issues. We'll likely be installing a PRV, thermal expansion tank, and — if this is an older water heater — new thermostats, elements and new relief valve?"
"I'm going to have to quit calling you kid!" Red grinned. "You're getting close, Mike, but there's more. You'll need to make a judgment-call on the water heater repairs. Down and back is a one-hour drive. Callbacks cost money and kill our profits, which affects how much you can earn. We track all warranty calls by employee. If we sell the customer new parts for a 20-year-old water heater and it dies shortly afterwards, they'll expect a full refund. You'll need to decide if repairs are a good investment for the customer or if a new water heater makes sense. The office can't do that over the phone. The responsibility is ours whenever we're in a customer's home. That's also why we change-out both thermostats, elements and the relief valve as a package deal — a complete rebuild. While the tank is drained and with both elements removed, you can eyeball the dip-tube and anode rod too."
They arrived at the site and emerged from the truck as one well-oiled team. Mike looked like a well-seasoned veteran to the homeowners, who watched him like a hawk because he looked so young. Together, he and Red tackled the issues with each one knowing what to do without speaking.
Red had given Mike a gift that would last a career lifetime. Passing skills along to the next generation — as timeless a tradition as Christmas itself.
Merry Christmas, Kwanzaa, Hanukkah to you all!
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