INSTALLED PROPERLY by a professional contractor, water heaters are a safe product. They have been for years.
Unfortunately, some of the safety-related incidents that have engulfed water heaters have taken place long after the equipment has been manufactured and installed in a home or business. Even so, this gap of time between installation and a fire or explosion caused by careless handling of flammable liquids has not prevented water heater owners from suing manufacturers and contractors.
Water heater manufacturers now have taken the next step in protecting some consumers from themselves. At the same time, they are reducing the risk to themselves and their contractor partners of lawsuits brought by people who don’t know enough not to store gasoline or other flammable liquids near water heaters.
These manufacturers have invested millions of dollars to develop a new generation of water heaters that will not explode when gasoline is spilled nearby. These units are designed to shut themselves down before a fire breaks out and burns any bystander.
Working in a consortium, each manufacturer has developed its own water heater models with a different technology to arrive at the same safety objective. The message to the industry — and to consumers — is that every company’s design is expected to work and to work well, as one manufacturer put it.
Most of the new equipment uses an arrestor plate that allows combustion air to pass through so that vapors from spilled gasoline or other flammable liquids would burn on the surface of the plate rather than outside the water heater. These units are designed to prevent the flame from passing backward through the plate and out of the unit to start a fire inside a basement, garage, utility room or wherever the water heater is installed.
Manufacturers have taken the time necessary to make sure the new models that they produce will work as well in real-life situations as they have in testing laboratories. The water heaters have undergone conditions that are far more extreme than they will encounter in almost any imaginable residential setting.
Installation of the new models should be virtually the same as the units that they will replace, manufacturers tell us. The size of the water heaters will remain the same so as not to complicate retrofits.
What will change is the price of the water heaters. The new models will cost you $60 to $100 more to buy at the wholesale level.
Rather than being a negative, the higher price could provide you with a new opportunity to educate your customers. For homeowners who even notice that the price of a water heater has gone up, they should appreciate knowing about the added safety features of their new equipment.
The flammable vapor ignition-resistant design is definitely a value-added upgrade that will protect members of your customer’s family. Sadly, some of the most tragic incidents involving water heater fires in the past have involved children as the victims of the thoughtless storage of gasoline and other flammable liquids.
We must emphasize, however, that the new technology does not bring an end to the need for consumer education on water heater safety. Your customers still will have to be told about the dangers inherent in storing gasoline and other flammable liquids near water heaters. If nothing else, spilling gasoline in such a setting could result in the purchase of another water heater — after one of the new models has done its job of containing the fire.
For years, manufacturers have relied on contractors to educate consumers through the Gas Appliance Manufacturers Association’s Safe Guards program and other initiatives. Contractors have the advantage of direct access to the home and face-to-face time with the customer.
Despite your frustration in trying to teach some customers who are totally lacking in common sense, you still have the best chance to talk to them about safety or spot potential hazards in the home.
The new generation of water heaters will achieve a higher level of safety but only with continuing education that the entire industry can provide.