Water heaters are one of the mainstays of most service and repair plumbing firms. How do successful plumbers compete against utilities, home centers and the increasing hordes of handymen? PM recently surveyed 1,000 of its readers on servicing/installing techniques associated with the water heater market. A hefty 23 percent responded with useful and sometimes unexpected information. Because we make our living maintaining water heaters, we were very interested in their responses.

The survey’s final question resulted in one of the most interesting answers. Plumbers were asked how long they’ve been in the industry. Twenty–five years was the average, with 10 percent of the respondents having more than 40 years worth of experience. Only 2 percent of the responses came from people who have worked in the industry less than 10 years. Also, almost three–quarters of these plumbers work on both residential and commercial equipment. So the information and opinions resulting from the survey came from people with considerable experience under their belts. And their responses show they know a good deal about water heaters.

Servicing, Replacing, Installing: We asked contractors what they do during servicing. The 88 percent who never check for earthquake strapping jumped out at us. Of course, we’re Californians. However, since 38 states have land in active seismic zones, we encourage plumbers to give strapping a second look.

Next, since water heater explosions still do occur, we were encouraged to see relief valves are nearly always checked and replaced if need be. That’s an essential safety measure no one can afford to overlook.

It was disappointing to learn that many of the plumbers are not checking sacrificial anodes, since water heaters fail far more often than need be. All glass-lined steel tanks have this consumable and replaceable part that needs regular inspection. Attending to anodes is one of the best ways a plumber can save his clients trouble and money.

What criteria do plumbers use to replace a water heater? Of course, 100 percent specified an obvious tank leak. Eighty–one percent are prompted by a heater in need of repair but not cost-effective to fix. Sixty–five percent suggest replacement when the existing heater does not supply enough hot water for current demand. Thirty–three percent consider replacement of heaters aged 10 years or more. (However, don’t let age alone be a deciding factor. With maintenance, a heater can serve dramatically longer than what we’ve come to expect. Prolonging tank life is cost-effective, and it can be a plumber’s ally. In our experience, maintenance is steady business, it doesn’t call you out at night or on weekends, and it builds an appreciative clientele.) Lastly, 23 percent are motivated by heaters that use energy inefficiently.

It was reassuring to see that most plumbers do not simply replace a heater with the same size. Nor do they arbitrarily suggest a larger heater. Instead, a substantial 85 percent talk with customers about their water use to determine correct replacement size.

During new heater installations, a majority of the responding plumbers make sure the relief valve is piped to a safe drain. (However, at least half the relief valves we encounter do not have a proper drain. This suggests plumbers are losing quite a lot of business to unqualified installers.) Also, many do install tanks insulated to R-16 or better. Unfortunately, they rarely add a second anode to a new heater to prolong tank life. Finally, we were pleased to see that 39 percent of the plumbers use plastic-lined steel nipples for their installations, because these nipples avoid the corrosion caused by contact between dissimilar metals.

One more thing of interest in this section — more than half of the plumbers have completely read the water heater instruction manual within the last year. (How will that affect the stereotype? Plumbers not only reading, but reading instructions!)

Safety And Liability: Plumbers encounter quite a variety of safety problems. Two of the most common are combustibles stored too close to the heater and excessively hot water. Just 5 percent said they never saw combustibles stored near a water heater.

Among answers to an open-ended survey question asking about other safety concerns, more comments related to problems with the temperature and pressure relief valve and its discharge line than to any other topic. Plumbers find T&P valves missing or non-operational. They find T&P lines incorrectly and incompletely piped, with some lines restricted or even plugged.

Other problems mentioned several times include gas heaters not safely raised above the floor and incorrect venting. The wording of their concerns suggests professional contractors believe DIY or other unprofessional installations are a major cause of safety problems.

Liability is a growing issue, and plumbers are taking action to protect themselves from lawsuits. Ninety–four percent, for example, carry liability insurance. Eighty percent set heater temperature at 120 degree F. Sixty–eight percent get a permit when required. Sixty–six percent discuss safety issues with clients. Sixty–four percent make sure they’re informed about the best installation practices (via seminars, etc.). Forty–three percent inform clients in writing of improvement needed. Thirty–three percent use GAMA safety labels where appropriate. Only 8 percent get a signed liability waiver. One plumber mentioned listing code violations. Another refuses to work on a job if the owner is unwilling to have things brought up to code.

It was gratifying to learn these industry long-timers are getting the vast majority of their work from repeat clients and word-of-mouth referrals. That suggests they are satisfying their clients. They must be doing things right. Yellow Pages advertising accounts for a trailing third source of work. Some of the other sources mentioned were referrals by home centers and other suppliers, new owner finding plumber’s decal on heater, truck signage, real estate agents and HVAC clients.

Despite the competitive pressure, 26 percent of the plumbers say their water heater business has increased over the past two years. Another 60 percent said their business has stayed the same. Considering the growth of the competition, staying the same may be considered an accomplishment.

Raise The Standards: Many comments described heater installations ranging from sloppy to downright dangerous. Just as we do, these plumbers constantly see heaters that have been improperly installed. What can be done to prevent so many unsafe installations?

First, training within the industry can be improved. Unfortunately, it’s not just outsiders who are doing things wrong. Higher educational standards within the industry will generate more professional installations of water heaters.

Next, acknowledge there are some homeowners and handymen who know enough to do the job correctly. How can they be accommodated while ensuring safety? Perhaps water heaters should be sold not only to licensed professional plumbers, but also to others who come to the store with a permit in hand to install a heater. If the cities and counties are doing their jobs, the permit means the heater installation will be checked by someone who can guarantee its safety. Licensed contractors would be allowed to install without a permit.

The survey showed widespread discontent with the quality of water heater components. Plumbers also expressed concern over the frequency of safety problems. What’s heartening to see is the extent of their knowledge and their good suggestions for making things better. Solutions to the various problems are pretty well known. What’s needed now is their promotional support by far-sighted members of our industry.