You could install a water heater in your sleep, right? Well, you've probably had to deal with installations that look like that's what someone did, and they're not a pretty sight. But competition is bottom-line tough. So what's a self-respecting water heater installer to do? Instead of competing for work on the basis of price alone, why not give your clients the option of superior work, which will save them money, generate steady work for you, and prevent all those headaches that come with misbehaving water heaters. Try the following:
Energy efficiency: Start with a tank insulated to R-16 or better. You won't need to add a blanket, and the manufacturer will be pleased that you're not hiding tank information and safety stickers. Use extra-long flex lines to connect the tank to existing plumbing. This will allow you to make heat traps in the lines. Make an upside-down "U", at least six inches deep, to stop heated water from floating up and losing heat through the plumbing. Insulate both hot and cold lines. Wrap all of the accessible hot line and at least three feet of the cold line back from the heater (leave unions uncovered for access and early leak detection).
Easy maintenance: Don't buy any tank that does not give you easy access to the sacrificial anode. If you don't see its hex head on top of the tank or if it's not incorporated into the hot outlet, look for a different heater.
Set up the tank for easy flushing. Remove the plastic drain valve and replace it with a threaded brass ball valve. Use a plastic-lined steel nipple between the valve and the tank; add a brass hose adapter at the other end. Then remove the standard straight dip tube from the cold water inlet and install one that is curved at the lower end. Aim this curve toward the back of the tank. When you open the drain (with the water supply kept on), the swirling action created by the dip tube/ball valve combination sweeps sediment up and out the drain.
When you hook up the T&P drain line, use a flex-connection or union at the T&P. This will make it easy to replace the valve should it fail during inspection. Run the T&P line so it ends in a visible spot. If it leaks, you want to know it. Be sure to run the T&P line separately, not into the drain pan where collected water could ruin heater feet.
Replace crumbling gate valves with ball valves. On multi-story buildings add valves to the hot side to make future heater work much simpler. Try sweating male adaptors on both hot and cold lines and then installing a threaded ball valve or flex-connector, as needed. When you return to work on it in 10 years, it will be "no sweat!"
Corrosion protection: Go ahead and get a five-year warranty tank. You can make it as long-lived as a 10-year tank (for fewer dollars) by adding a second full-length magnesium anode in the hot outlet. By installing this combination anode rod, which has the magnesium suspended below a plastic-lined steel nipple, you can give your client a very well protected tank at a competitive price.
If you're dealing with galvanized pipe, you can build in corrosion protection by using plastic-lined steel nipples between the steel and brass valves or copper flex-connectors. Putting distance between different metals helps eliminate rusty problems. With rare exception, NEVER use anything but lined steel nipples in the tank.
Safety always: T&P relief valves need testing once or twice a year. They can and do get clogged with debris. While testing something results in annoying leaks, more important6ly it can show the valve no longer has the ability to function in an emergency situation. If the valve does not allow full flow or it doesn't reseat, replace it.
If the tank leakage could possibly cause damage, put in a nice bit drip pan - one with a bottom drain, so there is less chance of standing water, which will rust away a heater's feet. If you can't run a bottom drain, put a water alarm in the pan.
After securely assembling the vent pipe and draft diverter, consider a carbon monoxide detector. If you saw evidence of back-drafting on the old heater or suspect poor draft for any other reason, you could be doing your client an enormous favor.
Be concerned about earthquakes. Toppled heaters cause more water damage, of course. More worrisome are broken gas lines or the potentially lethal mix of electricity and water. Good earthquake bracing is cheap insurance, but don't rely on plumber's tape. Use one of the approved commercially available systems. Call your local Building Department for information on how to provide effective bracing.
There are no clear boundaries between safety, serviceability, efficiency, and long service life. Scrimping in one category adversely affects the others. Likewise, upgraded work in one area pays off all around. Make time to let clients know why you're doing these "extra" things; they'll appreciate your thoroughness. Part of a really good installation is building in the periodic maintenance that much follow. Take a hint from your dentist and mail out service reminder postcards. Satisfied clients will welcome you back and refer their friends - and you'll escape from that low-bidder treadmill
Like to learn more?
Get a copy of Larry and Suzanne Weingarten's Water Heater Workbook in the Store. It's about the best I've ever seen on the subject. And it's a joy to read!