Julius Ballanco: Preventing scalding during water heater replacement
Replacing a water heater is easy enough — you drain the old one, disconnect it, remove it, and replace it with a new water heater. But when doing so, how liable do you become in case there is a scalding incident?
That is a good question that you may be asking yourself after someone files a lawsuit against you. But by that time, it is too late, and it is going to cost you time and money.
You would have to be blind to miss all of the warning labels on new water heaters. The potential hazard of scalding is clearly identified. There are even statements listing 125° F as the maximum temperature setting to prevent scalding.
If you ever read the details in the manufacturer’s installation instructions, you will find a recommendation for installing a thermostatic mixing valve on the outlet of the water heater to reduce the possibility of scalding. That is a pretty good recommendation that is often ignored or missed. Some contractors think the manufacturers are throwing them under the bus by adding suggestions for a thermostatic mixing valve. However, you are the ones installing the water heater, not them.
I would venture to guess that the number of water heaters replaced with an added thermostatic mixing valve would account for less than one-tenth of 1% of the water heaters installed. That translates to one thermostatic mixing valve for every 1,000 water heaters replaced. Perhaps I am way too high with my numbers. It may be more like one thermostatic mixing valve for every 100,000 water heaters replaced.
Proposed code changes
Within the past few years, there have been a number of code changes proposed to the plumbing codes regarding replacement water heaters. Various proposals would require a thermostatic mixing valve to be installed when the water heater is replaced if the shower valves in the building are not balanced-pressure or thermostatic mixing.
I’ve actually liked a number of these proposed code changes. However, I knew they would never be accepted. When a thermostatic mixing valve is installed at the water heater, you do reduce the possibility of scalding. Call it “scald prevention.” It is not perfect, but it greatly reduces the possibility of a scald.
The reason none of these code changes have been approved is because it is always easy to shoot holes in the proposal. “What about the scald possibility in a bathtub or whirlpool tub?” “What about the kitchen sink or lavatory? There have been scald incidents with these fixtures!” “Isn’t a thermostatic mixing valve expensive?”
All are valid questions, but they really deflect from the problem of scalding. New homes, buildings, apartments, condominiums, hotels, and motels have many scald-prevention measures required. Old buildings and homes do not. Wouldn’t some form of protection added when a water heater is replaced make sense?
It does, but it costs money.
Let’s assume the cost of the piping material and thermostatic mixing valve for a residential water heater adds up to $300. The additional labor and overhead to install the valve comes to $200. Throw in some profit at another $200 and, all of a sudden, we are talking about adding $700 more for the cost of installing a water heater.
That may sound like a lot of money, but compare that to the medical costs a baby will go through for the next 18 years if they survive a scalding incident. The medical procedures for third-degree burns suffered by children or babies runs into the millions of dollars. If the child or baby doesn’t survive, think of the pain and suffering of the family.
Here is your dilemma: You cannot charge your customer $700 more than Joe down the street to replace a water heater. The code doesn’t require a thermostatic mixing valve, so you cannot insist that they install the valve.
It is time for you to be creative. Develop a brochure or safety warning sheet that explains to your customer why a thermostatic mixing valve should be installed. Explain the dangers of hot water. Explain what temperatures cause scalding. Then start upselling.
I don’t know of a contractor that is not good at upselling a plumbing system, component or part. It is in our blood. We know what is best and we try to convince our customers to buy what is best.
Add to that list of “what is best” the installation of a thermostatic mixing valve when you replace a water heater. If you install a thermostatic mixing valve, you can set the water heater at any temperature you like. Then you set the thermostatic mixing valve at 117° F.
The reason for this temperature is that 118° F is the pain threshold temperature. Remember, you are only taking showers and baths at temperatures ranging from 102° F to 105° F. So, a temperature setting of 117° F is fine.
I am sure that a number of your customers will balk at paying a higher price for the installation of a thermostatic mixing valve when they replace the water heater. Just be sure to document that you recommended the installation of a thermostatic mixing valve.
Remember the question I asked, “How liable do you become in case there is a scalding incident?” If you try to upsell your customer and document that you highly recommended the installation of a thermostatic mixing valve for scald prevention, you reduce your liability. You never eliminate your liability since a lawyer can still always sue you. But you increase your odds of winning.
While we have to discuss the legal profession, I tend to look at it in a slightly different manner. We all know that the “Plumber Protects the Health of the Nation.” Most think this relates to clean water and good sanitation. It also relates to scald prevention and safe use of hot water.
It is part of our profession to protect our customers. A thermostatic mixing valve installation when a water heater is replaced goes a long way in accomplishing that protection. Help your customers and provide them the protection they deserve.