Adventures in Plumbing (Without A Fiduciary)

Today’s post is going to be a little different… and not my usual flavor of different either!  Instead of writing my typical Saturday post on money or investing, I’ve ask Paul from AssetBasedLife to pen today’s little nugget of personal finance gold.

That’s right, a guest post!  And there’s gold involved!

I’ve been chasing after Paul to write a guest post for Mr. Tako Escapes for months now, and after a significant bribe he finally agreed!  (This is where all my gold went)

Paul has been one of my favorite money bloggers for years because we have very similar investing philosophies.  He’s also an incredibly skilled storyteller.  While bloggers like myself struggle to put two words together, Paul can really tell a tale.

If you get the chance, I highly recommend checking out Paul’s site.  He’s a real hoot!

So, without further ado — Take it away Paul!


The Stain

Over the summer, I happened a glance at the ceiling and saw a new water stain. It was already about 5 feet by 2 feet, and it was growing.

I ran up to the attic above that bit of ceiling and had a look. Advanced detective skills were not required: the drain pan for the hot water heater was full of water, and through the luck of home ownership, the leak was also trickling out beyond the drain pan and through to the ceiling below.

hot water heater

Yikes.  I could see a steady drip inside the water heater in the little grated window. I was pretty sure that was a bad sign.

I turned off the gas and water, and the dripping stopped. As a precaution, I went ahead and drained the tank.

I’ve always been skittish of plumbing problems, because the smallest leak can lead to massive damage. If you catch it early, it’s no problem at all; if you catch it late, it can ruin half your house. While I was worried about what was wrong, I did feel lucky: we were only a week returned from a long vacation. We’d definitely dodged a bullet.

If you want instant pity, have your hot water heater go out. People will gasp in horror as they imagine you reverting back to near caveman-like conditions. Interestingly, that pity disappears, to be replaced by eye-rolling contempt, when you follow up with, “It’s OK. We have two of them.”

So with some redundancy on the hot water heater front, we weren’t facing a major crisis, but I still wanted to fix it fast. Normally, a battle would be waged between fear and greed as I weighed the “hire a plumber” and “DIY” routes, but that wasn’t needed here.


Problem Solved

I was all set, and it was only going to take a single phone call for all of my problems to disappear. Why, you ask?

Because my hot water heater was under warranty. Boom! My hot water heater was only 3 years old and had 6 more to run under warranty.

As I called the warranty hotline, I was a little worried. Would they push back? Would they try to find some way to deny my claim? Would I need to fight to get my promised relief?

Absolutely not. The woman was super nice. Through an amazing level of technical expertise, she was able to conclude over the phone that my little leak meant the hot water heater was a total loss and needing replacing. The new unit would of course – of course! – be covered by the warranty. Yeah!

I was a little surprised they’d write off my hot water heater so fast, but what do I care? I’m getting a brand new hot water heater for free.

The victory music came to a screeching halt with her next comment, though: “All you need to do is take the hot water heater to Home Depot, and we’ll have a new one for you there.”

Wait, what?

The warranty covered a new hot water heater, but labor was not included. I’d need to remove the old unit, take it to the store, collect the new one, and install it.

This bad boy was up in my attic. Even with help (I was quickly ranking my friends by both favors owed and physical strength), this was going to be tricky.

I had a great idea for her: When I had this hot water heater installed, the crew (contracted through Home Depot) took the old one away. Let’s use them – I’ll pay for the install and you’ll still get the old unit – you’ll just need to front me the new one first.

“I’m sorry sir, we need you to return the faulty unit before we can provide the warranty replacement.” In my head, I took that thought to its logical conclusion: “P.S. We’ve worked with our lawyers to figure out this is the best way to technically honor the warranty while ensuring we’ll never have to actually pay out a warranty claim.”

Could the problem be one of the parts? The temperature and pressure (T&P) valve, or the drain valve? “Well, based on your description, we’re prepared to provide you with a new unit. It could be one of those parts, but we’ll provide you with a new unit for free.” Because, you know, warranty.

I told her I might want to verify it wasn’t just a part. She continued her helpfulness by providing local plumbers who were in their super-approved contractor list. They could scope the problem without a service call fee.


A Plumber to the Rescue

The plumber was out the next day. He was a really friendly and knowledgeable guy. We turned the water back on, and the drip resumed immediately. He shook his head, clearly upset at my troubles, but he brightened visibly to learn it was under warranty. He said that while it was less common, a breach of the tank could happen, even with newer units, and “to be safe”, I should replace it.

In my “I’m kinda dumb so please help me out, Mr. Expert” voice, I asked if there was a chance that the T&P valve or drain valve was to blame?

Well, it’s possible, he said. “But I wouldn’t even touch that if I were you.” If the manufacturer had concluded the unit was a loss, he would take that in a heartbeat. The risk of flooding my house was just too great.

He was happy to provide a quote. They would take care of everything.

For the small fee of $1,668.

I furrowed my brow and told him I thought I could buy and install a new unit and take the old one away for less than that. (Because I had a growing suspicion my warranty was worthless, I already had this quote – for $965.)

He didn’t miss a beat. His company, you see, did a much better job installing hot water heaters, and their work would be (wait for it…) under warranty for five years. Plus, I needed to remember that if I used them, I’d be getting the hot water heater itself for free. I couldn’t compete with that logic.

To recap:

  • I had a leak in my hot water heater
  • The manufacturer would give me a new one because it was a “total loss”
  • I could pay $1,668 and stick it to the Man by making a warranty claim; or
  • I could pay $965 to ignore the warranty and put this sad saga behind me

The wise among you already see my problem. My phantom warranty had clouded my common sense and anchored me with a huge problem and high prices.


DIY Desperation

I decided to go back to the beginning. Was the leak more likely to be around one of the holes drilled in the tank for the valves, or some catastrophic failure of the tank itself?

Removing the T&P and drain valves was not difficult. I looked at the T&P valve, nodded knowingly, and concluded it was probably OK.

I removed the drain valve, and I saw this:

plastic drain valve

This single piece of plastic sits at the bottom of the hot water heater. Under intense heat and pressure, it is the only thing blocking the city’s water tower from cascading into my house. And this thing looked less sturdy than a lot of my kids’ plastic toys.

How could this cheap plastic part be allowed by the plumbing code? I have a good rule of thumb for all plumbing parts: they should hurt if you throw them at someone. This drain valve failed that miserably.

While the leak wasn’t centered on this valve, there was insulation touching it that could channel the leak to where I saw it. I wasn’t sure this was the problem, but Occam’s Razor suddenly made it my top suspect.

A few minutes of internet research showed me the part I really wanted. I went to the hardware store and found a really tough looking brass drain valve, which would totally hurt if you threw it at someone.

$8 later, I was headed home. Per my internet advisors, I wrapped the valve’s threads in teflon tape and screwed it into the tank.

brass drain valve
The brass drain valve. Clearly a superior part because it would hurt if thrown at someone.

There was no way it was going to be that easy.

It actually was that easy. I turned the water back on and there wasn’t a drop. I lit the burner, and we were back in business. My son told me I was a DIY superstar. I couldn’t quite share his enthusiasm…


A Matter of Trust

Let’s take a look at everyone who has failed me, in order of their first offense:

  • Homebuilder
    What idiot thought it was a good idea to put the hot water heater in the attic in the first place? I’ll tell you: the guy who saved a little money on construction and couldn’t care less if my house floods.
  • Hot water heater company
    The warranty that isn’t really a warranty didn’t surprise me, but I’m still disappointed.
    My true ire comes from the piece of plastic garbage they call a drain valve. Some engineer may have saved them $3 per water heater by switching from brass. I hope he got a nice bonus that year.
  • Plumber
    Why didn’t the plumber offer to fix the most likely culprit? My son said it best: “Because he was a greedy little goblin.” He could have made a quick $100-200, but instead he tried to rob me and got nothing. Plus his comments suggest he thought I was really dumb, which hurts my feelings.

There is one fun fact about everyone on this list. Do you see it? They all know way more about plumbing than I do. But their perverse incentives and misaligned interests made their extra knowledge useless to me.


Whom Can You Trust?

There actually are good and honest people out there who won’t try to rip you off. Dozens, maybe.

I had a great plumber some time back. He valued my long-term business and referrals more than he valued a one-time shakedown for some extra money. However, that’s rare. There’s always a risk, when money’s involved, that interests start to diverge.

But what about when money isn’t involved? What happens when your interests don’t overlap at all? That’s when the magic happens, and it’s becoming more common nowadays.

The greatest plumbing advice I’ve gotten is from random internet strangers. The same holds true across almost any fields – I’ve gotten priceless medical, legal, and financial knowledge for free. When you remove someone’s ability and incentive to rip you off and provide a free forum for knowledge exchange, you suddenly find good people and sound counsel almost everywhere you look. But there is one catch. Someone has to sort through all of that excellent advice (and perhaps filter a bad bit here and there) and act on it. They need not be an expert, but they have to always have your best interests in mind.

My plumber nowadays leaves a lot to be desired. He’s doesn’t know much about plumbing, is woefully short of experience, and isn’t even licensed by the state. However, he is one of the hardest workers I know. When he hits a pocket of ignorance (and there are many) he taps an army of experts to figure things out. When I need help, he’ll stay up at night worried about my family and me. If there’s ever a job beyond his ability, he’ll watch like a hawk to keep the contractor honest. He’s even available 24 / 7!

Whether it’s a small matter like plumbing or our most critical affairs like our finances, the idea of a true fiduciary – someone who will always act in our best interests – holds enormous appeal. I would love to hide my head under the covers while a faithful fiduciary discharged my affairs (or fixed my hot water heater). The good news is that almost all of us have someone whom we trust absolutely and who can and should fill that fiduciary role.

I think you already know the bad news! 🙂


[Image Credit: Flickr]

19 thoughts on “Adventures in Plumbing (Without A Fiduciary)

  • September 15, 2018 at 4:54 AM

    Home and car repair are two areas where the public is at a great knowledge gap disadvantage and more likely to be exploited. You certainly had no fiduciary here. Congrats to Paul for ignoring the easy (and expensive) way and becoming a DIY superhero to your son!

    • September 15, 2018 at 6:51 AM

      Many thanks Financial Verdict. The knowledge gap is huge, but I am amazed at the endless inventory of youtube videos that help close that gap. I’m not sure why it makes sense for so many people to put out professional-quality instructions (somehow I doubt the “replace drain valve” video earns a lot of $$$), but I’ll take it! Thanks again

  • September 15, 2018 at 4:57 AM

    Wow, awesome job! I have never heard of having a water heater in the attic, that seems ill advised. I wish I were a better DIY person. I try, and I do have a success here and there, but more often than not I fail miserably.

    • September 15, 2018 at 7:02 AM

      Yeah, a water heater in the attic is one of the dumbest things ever.

      So said the city inspector when he was out to check this install 3 years ago. (He’s part of the army of advisors who have no reason to screw you so therefore are fountains of wisdom.)

      Most cities (including most of DFW) with a firm grasp of gravity prohibit hot water heaters in the attic in their building code. My inspector said he and others had pushed to do the same, but the homebuilders fought hard (and apparently have the right relationships) to continue to allow it. Lucky me.

      I can understand how they’d save a little on construction, but it sets up future disasters. While on vacation, my neighbor had the entire bottom of his heater (which was over their master bedroom!) fail which overwhelmed the drain pan. I noticed something was wrong when I saw water streaming out from under his garage door…

      I’ve investigated retrofitting to have them in the garage, but it’s way too expensive. The market clearly failed because of perverse incentives!

      Thanks for the note!

  • September 15, 2018 at 6:50 AM

    Jeez, you can’t trust anyone these days.
    We have a hot water heater in the attic too. It’s a duplex and there is one in the attic and one in the basement. I just replaced the one in the attic last year. It lasted 15 years so I’m good with that.
    Nice job with the drain valve.

    • September 15, 2018 at 7:09 AM

      Thanks Joe!

      Having one in the attic makes life a little more exciting, right? I’ve put a little battery powered leak detector in my drain pans as a feeble attempt to mitigate – they may melt (my attic reaches 130° in the summer), but it might improve my odds just a little.

  • September 15, 2018 at 12:23 PM

    That was an awesome read and kudos for you to not trying to take advantage of the warranty and actually have to spend more out of pocket (sort of a sunk cost fallacy).

    It is sad if the plumber knew that it could be fixed for $8 and tried to sway you for the more expensive project to line his products. Exactly how front load commission financial advisors make their money

    • September 15, 2018 at 3:45 PM

      Seriously. It’s sad how people can give you outstanding advice just until money starts to get involved. Things would be a lot better if we could completely trust the folks who know more about a topic than we do, but we’ll always have to be our own advocate.

      Thanks a lot for the note!

  • September 15, 2018 at 6:50 PM

    What a good plumber you have right now! I love your writing, especially when it comes to the humor inside the story! Like how I read on the A Matter Of Trust subtopic.
    A fiduciary really is important in our lives,.. now I can understand. I guess the best way to look for the sincere workers is from our contacts’ contacts.

    • September 16, 2018 at 8:59 AM

      Many thanks Imdad! Yes, having a fiduciary is a wonderful thing in concept, but in reality it’s very hard to find one who will serve you faithfully and not let their own interests intrude.

      And yes, I love my plumber – he’s not a very good one, but I can trust him completely 🙂

  • September 17, 2018 at 9:40 AM

    Yes sadly we are of the opinion that tradespeople are generally not smarter than us but do have more experience. This extra experience helps but you can often get free internet advice from wonderful experienced people. We have had many tradespeople experiences where the job costs 2-3 times what we think it is worth and is pretty shoddy. We find if there are corners to cut or things to rush – rough enough is good enough for many tradespeople. Many of my friends report similar experiences. We are happy to spend the extra time and research involved and have gotten more and more brave with diy things. We fixed our beloved 20 year old good quality washing machine which they said wasn’t worth fixing (the labour costs of the repair person would be too high) with $25 worth of carbon bushes and about and 1 hours work. Thus saving $1000 on a new washing machine or at least deferring this cost a few more years. The only thing we are a little scared of is electrical. If you even change a lampshade and do not use a qualified electrician your insurance will be void if your house burns down from your faulty wiring.

    • September 17, 2018 at 11:59 AM

      Electrical isn’t too hard as long as you follow the rules. I’ve helped friends and family members with remodels, so I have some experience in this area. It’s also important to say that every state does things differently in regards to permits and inspections. If you’re doing a remodel or major electrical work then definitely look into proper procedures.

    • September 17, 2018 at 5:42 PM

      It is sad that you can’t trust tradespeople more. A relentless focus on price and (for many trades) low barriers to entry have made it hard for the master tradesperson to make a good living. I’d be happy to pay for a true expert whom I could trust (and I have in the past), but I’ve found it hard to find those people. If I need to choose between trust and expertise, I’ll go with trust (aka DIY) 🙂

      Glad you were able to save your washing machine. Repairing old appliances is only really economical if you go DIY, but when you do, the savings are incredible. Congrats!

  • September 17, 2018 at 6:52 PM

    Have you considered putting an electric shut off valve that closes upon water detection within the pan? At least having a secondary means of shutting off the supply versus the other warning of seeing the growing ceiling water patch could help.
    Just having a water heater in the attic is an inane decision.

    • September 18, 2018 at 8:50 AM

      Yes, inane is the right word.

      I have investigated having an automatic leak detector / shut-off valve, but I haven’t been able to find one that 1) is really highly rated and 2) claims a working temperature range that will survive a Texas summer (another reason that placing in the attic is inane). I’ve placed a low-tech audible leak detector alarm in the drain pan for when we’re home (it seems to have survived the summer), and I’m planning on shutting off the water main or the hot water heater supply line when we’re out of town. 40 gallons leaking I can handle – ∞ leaking is the problem.

      Thanks for the note and the idea!

  • September 18, 2018 at 11:19 AM

    Thanks, Mr. Tako, for introducing me to ABL/Paul. I’ve been reading dozens of FIRE(-related) blogs for a few years, yours being among my favorites. But, strangely, I seem to have completely missed or inadvertently overlooked his. I’m now binge-reading and loving ABL. Superior body of work, Paul.

    • September 18, 2018 at 5:25 PM

      Many thanks for the kind words Joe.

      It’s commonly acknowledged that Mr. Tako draws the most clever and discerning of readers, so to be deemed binge-worthy by one of their number is an honor indeed! Thank you!

  • September 18, 2018 at 9:55 PM

    Feels like you should name the water heater brand just to kinda hold them accountable.


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