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Bum water heaters make for poor showering

By Walter Jowers

AUGUST 9, 1999:  The quality of my showers has been poor lately. The flow from the showerhead would be good, then bad. The water would be nice and hot, then cold. I might expect this if I had one of those water-saving eco-friendly showerheads. But I've got a reservoir-emptying, damn-the-ecology model, which came with a warning: Caution--the force of the water from this showerhead could remove your moles.

At first, I blamed my loved ones for my shower troubles. I'd come stomping down from the shower wanting to know who had been washing dishes or watering the lawn during my critical 8:30-8:45 a.m. shower period. Wife Brenda and daughter Jess would deny all water use. Then I'd start to wonder if they were messing with me, turning faucets on and off while they had me helpless, stuck in the shower with my hair full of shampoo lather.

"I think it's your showerhead," Brenda offered. "I'm pretty sure it's all clogged up."

"What makes you think that?" I asked.

"Well, it's 15 years old," she explained, "and I think the same thing's happening to the dishwasher." She opened the dishwasher door and showed me an impressive deposit of crud on and around the spray arms.

I must admit, I get a little behind on maintenance at my own house. After I spend all day thinking about other people's house problems, I'm ready for some Barcalounger time. Any given day around 5 o'clock, if the air conditioner, the refrigerator, and the cable TV are working, that's all I need to know.

In the mornings, over breakfast, I speed-read a few trade magazines. Last week, I finally opened up my July issue of the ever useful Journal of Light Construction and came across the headline, "Water Heater Failures."

It seems that there are more than 20 million faulty water heaters installed across America. These water heaters have faulty plastic dip tubes, which disintegrate into a sludge that clogs things like showerheads and dishwashers.

What's a dip tube? Well, it's a tube that delivers incoming cold water to the bottom of the water heater tank. Until the early 1990s, manufacturers made them out of copper or steel. But sometime around 1993, they switched to plastic, because plastic is cheaper than metal. Now that the plastic tubes are disintegrating, industry sources estimate that 90 percent of residential water heaters made between 1993 and 1995 have the problem.

Another symptom of the disintegrating plastic dip tube: weird swings in the water temperature. This is because the dip tube is supposed to take water to the bottom of the tank, where it's heated before it rises to the top of the tank. If the dip tube falls apart, cold water mixes with hot water at the top of the tank and does evil stuff like dumping alternating hot and cold water on a showering man's head. There is some good news: The American Water Works Association (AWWA) says that the plastic crud is non-toxic.

Energy Design Update reports dip tube failures in water heaters made by A.O. Smith, Bradford-White, Jackson, Reliance, Rheem, and State. I know you're wondering: What might be the make and model of my personal water heater? Well, don't you know it's a State, manufactured in 1994. Which means I'm hosed. Or tubed. Either way, I've got to call my plumber.

According to the JLC, the fix for these defective water heaters involves either replacing the water heater or putting in a new copper dip tube. Either way, the whole hot water system has to be flushed out, and every aerator and strainer in the house has to be cleaned.

AWWA says the faulty dip tubes (ironically, manufactured by Perfection Corporation) typically carried a five-year warranty. They also say that many water heater manufacturers are paying replacement costs, which range from $170 to $300 just for replacing the dip tube.

I think just replacing the tube is a lame idea. I've seen pictures of these hot water tanks. They're coated with plastic crud--just like the inside of my showerhead and my dishwasher. Common sense tells me these funky water heaters will continue to shed plastic. I say that's no good. I say I need a new water heater, and so do the other unwitting victims of these cheap-ass plastic dip tubes.

Last week, Brenda made me go to the hardware store and pick out a new showerhead. I found one that promised 12 different spray and massage settings. Later that day, as I was toiling away in my office, Brenda snuck up to my bathroom and installed the new showerhead all by herself.

I don't know what a man has to do to deserve a showerhead-installing wife, and I'm pretty sure I haven't done it. Still, I'm grateful beyond measure.

I gave the thing a test-drive. It works. No more low flow. One problem: I can only get three of the 12 settings going. Either that, or there's no appreciable difference between most of the settings. I don't much care. My shower life is much improved, and I'm happy about it.


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