Saturday, January 25, 2014

Reflections on Experiencing a Failed Water Heater

One reason to wash the dinner dishes early in the evening is that, in the odd chance that the water heater has failed, one will learn that fact earlier than, say, midnight, after everyone else has already gone to bed.

If, when beginning to wash dishes late at night, the hot water isn’t hot enough, it is not prudent to stand there while the water runs and runs and gets colder and colder, thinking, WTF?

Neither is it prudent to test the hot water at a different faucet, during which time the water heater is trying to make hot water.

It is prudent, however, to know when to stop testing the hot water faucets.

Likewise is it prudent to know where the water main enters one’s house, and to know how to turn it off, and to know that when a water heater has failed, that turning off the water main is the very first thing that must be done. Not testing of faucets.


It’s surprising how energetic and focused two tired 50-somethings can be between midnight and 4 am when they confront water flooding from a failed water heater into thirty years’ worth of stuff.

It is not surprising to see how energetic and focused two 20-somethings can be between midnight and 4 am when they are asked to help clean up water flooding from a failed water heater into thirty years’ worth of stuff.


A useful aspect of having researched and written a comprehensive technical paper on the prevention of failure in water heaters is that one becomes knowledgeable on the warning signs of imminent failure in an aging water heater.

It can be a challenge not to say “I told you so” when one had been saying, for nearly a year, “That water heater is about to fail; don’t you think we should replace it before it does?”

It can be gratifying, when one has restrained oneself from saying “I told you so,” that the other person acknowledges that “I guess we should have replaced that water heater a couple of years ago.”

Still, there’s a certain irony in having researched and written a comprehensive technical paper on the prevention of failure in water heaters and later to have experienced the failure of a water heater.


A problematic situation can provide new opportunities. For example, when one’s basement floods, one has the opportunity to sort through thirty years’ worth of stuff, even if one absolutely does not have time to do it and the sorting causes all sorts of new problems… or opportunities.

The first hours after a water heater fails feel chaotic, as one responds to the immediate need to stop the water and move stuff out of the way of the advancing wetness.

It is prudent to respond methodically and with an eye to what must be done over the next few days. As one moves stuff out of the path of the advancing wetness, one must store it in an organized fashion, and label it (D S K) because you will need to deal with it all again in a few days.

With the exception of making immediate decisions to keep or discard water-damaged items, one must resist the temptation to sort through boxes of stuff and make decisions about retaining or discarding anything. There isn’t time.

Once the immediate crisis is past, then one must confront what remains to be sorted, cleaned, restored.

Sorting through old possessions can be fun, sad, embarrassing, surprising, nostalgic, infuriating, revealing, funny, inspiring, exhausting, and energizing.

It can be surprising when possessions that were once deemed essential to our lives can now be gladly consigned to the recycle bin or trash barrel.

It can be puzzling, and even baffling, to discover items that seem to have no history, that no one in the household can remember purchasing or receiving as a gift. Where did they come from?

Coming across items that were given as gifts, and are so ugly, tacky, or inappropriate that they were immediately hidden away in the dark basement, can cause feelings of annoyance and anger to well up again. Why do people give such terrible, thoughtless, worthless gifts?

It can be a profound relief to find that the ugly and inappropriate gifts and other stuff forced on one over the years are now sodden, or broken, or much-visited by mice, or so outmoded or degraded by time that we now can, without guilt, throw them away.

Discarding the possessions of a lifetime together can feel disconcerting and even disloyal, until one remembers that most of what is in the basement is unused, old, dusty, dirty, broken, and superfluous. The possessions we care most about, that we most enjoy, are upstairs in our warm, bright rooms, where we live together.


When one moves furniture that has been in place for 10, 15, and 20 years, little depressions are left in the sodden carpet, indelible marks of how we had ordered this little corner of our lives.

When one takes down posters, framed art, bulletin boards, etc., there remain on the walls ghostly outlines and traceries.

When all the furniture is removed, all the walls cleared, all the window treatments removed, the wear and tear of twenty years’ residence becomes apparent.

There are stories in the wear and tear. Here is the mark on the wall of the stairway made when we renovated our kitchen and moved the old refrigerator downstairs. Here is the iron-shaped burn on the carpet, made when the iron fell off the ironing board during a late-late-late-night sewing session (that was for the gold and blue French Renaissance dress, made for K and later worn by me). Here is the little hole at the bottom of the wallboard in the closet, where the little mouse comes through to help himself to cat food. Here on the wall above the French door are faint traces of the philodendron plant that had twined itself into and around the window hardware and up on to the wall. Here on the ceiling are the dark shadows made when the furnace failed some winters ago, sending soot throughout the house. Here are little finger prints on the wall.


When a little cat is dying, she will find many places to hide in the basement, and leave copious amounts of soft grey hair in all those places.

It’s surprising that the soft grey hair left behind by a little cat can still retain her sweet scent, months after she has left us.

One can think oneself recovered from a loss, yet be surprised that the tears will come again so easily, swift and sharp and stinging.

The sight of little paw prints on a window can be devastatingly sad.

Cleaning away all traces of a beloved little animal, necessary during a big clean-up operation, is heartbreaking.


Dealing with the aftermath of a failed water heater can be, simultaneously, a tremendous burden and a tremendous relief.

Dealing with a difficult situation, especially one that comes unexpectedly, can be a test for any couple.

It can be a pleasure to work side by side with one’s life partner, responding together to a difficult situation and finding opportunities in the problem.


Though a failed water heater and the subsequent, unavoidable work required to clean up and restore the basement is a huge inconvenience, it is just that: an inconvenience, not a disaster. We are lucky to have hot water. We are lucky to have water. We are lucky to have a house with a basement. We are lucky to have a house.

1 comment:

  1. Oh so sad to read the impact of findng reminders of a former beloved pet. But you are lucky to have a basement. Those that live farther out west don't have that luxury. So when their water heaters blow, well, that water goes all over the "good stuff". Though you couldn't say it, tell D for me... "I Told You So!!"


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