There is a level of anxiousness that comes when you suddenly lose access to hot water. I wrote this piece of writing in February of 2015, after our hot water heater gave out without a warning.
I read “The Saga of the Hot Water Heater” in episode 4 of my Words of Jen Podcast.
“It’s a time bomb”, said the plumber as he stepped away from the hot water heater. My husband and I hired him to take a look at the mobile home we were buying. We had the feeling it needed some work, but had no idea the extent of it. The sheer amount of bizarre, inexplicable, haphazard home repair “solutions” the previous owners came up with was something I viewed as a tragedy of expensive proportions or a comedy of errors (depending on my mood that day).
There was no denying that the plumber was correct in his assessment. The hot water heater had been hidden behind some drywall in what vaguely resembled a closet in an add-on bedroom and half-bath that probably wasn’t up to code (in any sense of the word). I no longer felt guilty about insisting to my husband that he should not try and remove the hot water heater on his own. Even the plumber, a professional who had been doing this line of work for decades, hesitated to stand too close to it.
Usually, hot water heaters are located in a cubbyhole on the outside of a mobile home. A door opens up to allow a person to maintain, or replace, the hot water heater as needed. The add-on bedroom swallowed up that space and turned the “outside cat” hot water heater into the “house cat” that sits in the middle of your freshly made bed. Whoever was using this bedroom before we bought the place truly did have a monster in the closet that was biding its time, waiting for the worst possible moment to cause mass destruction.
The plumber, at first, had difficulty locating the hot water heater. As I said, it was supposed to be outside in its own private cubby. There is no way to know, for certain, when someone got the idea that they should take some drywall and use it to board up the hot water heater. Was this done in the hopes that the new owners wouldn’t discover how dangerous the hot water heater was until after they signed the papers? Was it a supreme act of denial, literally hiding a growing problem away – out of sight, out of mind?
The main problem with the hot water heater had to do with the gas it was connected to. Or, rather, the gas line it was improperly connected to. I didn’t need to fully understand all the details to realize it was incredibly unsafe and had to be replaced. Thankfully, our plumber agreed to do the job. We would be paying for the cost of labor, the new replacement for the old hot water heater, and a mini-shed that would go outside and form a new hot water heater cubby. At this point, I was willing to agree to almost anything so long is it resulted in making the mobile home safer and more functional.
This was yet another repair in a long line of unfortunate discoveries that we found shortly after we bought the mobile home. A light fixture in the kitchen was placed so close to the cabinets that you couldn’t open the doors on two of them. The kitchen sink wasn’t actually connected to the pipes underneath it after all. Turning on the faucet resulted in a flood under the sink. Whoever put in the faucet almost fit the pipes together. A nearly invisible gap towards the top remained.
I cannot recall if this discovery came before, or after, the plumber (who had crawled underneath the mobile home to do his inspection) informed us that all of the plumbing pipes had been removed and replaced with plastic PVC pipes. There is a big difference between plastic PVC pipes and the copper pipes that are intended to be used for plumbing. Copper pipes won’t melt if hot water runs through them. The entire labyrinth of pipes needed to be removed and replaced.
When the plumber was done, we had a brand new hot water heater in a metal mini-shed, and both of them worked safely and efficiently. The mini-shed was located outside the mobile home next to one of the windows of the room that was originally intended to be a bedroom in a single-wide home. It was right next to the back of the rickety, dangerous, staircase that led to the back door. We hardly ever used the back door for fear of falling through the gap between it and the landing at the top of those stairs. Yet another thing that needed fixing.
The rain, on the rare occasions we got any, played a staccato beat on the mini-shed. It blended with the drip…drip…drip sounds that the gutter made, on the opposite side of the back bedroom, as the rain water spilled over the top of it. Everything fit together. Inside, we were dry, happy, and able to easily access as much hot water as we desired.
Until, one day… we weren’t. “There’s no hot water,” I informed Shawn one night. I’d intended to go take a shower and discovered I could not. The water coming through the shower head felt so cold that it would make it painful to drink, much less try to shower in. My assumption was that we had somehow used up all the hot water, that the hot water heater would refill itself overnight, and the problem would be resolved by the time I woke up.
I couldn’t remember that ever happening before, though. The hot water heater had always provided us with what we needed. In the back of my mind, I knew the hot water heater had died, but didn’t want to consciously recognize this fact. I mean, we just bought it like….. no, could it really be about eight years ago? Or had it been longer than that?
There was no hot water to be had after I woke up. Shawn tried taking a shower, but it was a quick one, because the water was incredibly cold. When he went outside to take a look at the hot water heater he discovered that it had sprung a leak. Water was dripping out of the top and sliding down the side directly over the input were the gas was connected. This could not be ignored.
Shawn asked a very knowledgable friend of his, a man that seems to know how to fix almost anything, to take a look at the hot water heater. The friend could confirm that the hot water heater was now unusable, but didn’t feel that he had the skills to fix this himself. We understood, of course, haunted by the ghost of the “time bomb” water heater past.
Access to hot water is something that most people, myself included, take for granted while they have it. The moment it is gone, things change. Suddenly, everything that requires hot water becomes difficult, if not impossible, to accomplish. One can only hold off on bathing for two, maybe three days, before becoming uncomfortable enough to decide to brave the ice water for the sake of hygiene.
On the second day of having no hot water, I found a way to stick my head in the shower, while standing outside it, and using the shower curtain to protect the rest of me from the freezing water. The goal was to wash my hair, and I nearly accomplished it, except I couldn’t stand the cold water long enough to wash out all the shampoo. I’d gotten water all over the floor. When I looked into the mirror to comb my wet hair, I discovered my ears were as red as they would be if I walked outside during the worst part of a midwestern winter without wearing a hat.
Shawn figured out a way to obtain just enough hot water so he could do the dishes. He put a clean pot on the stove that was filled with water and heated it up until the water was hot. Next, he covered his hands with potholders so he could pour the hot water into the empty, and plugged, side of the kitchen sink. This process needed to be repeated several times before he got enough hot water to do dishes in.
Meanwhile, several people came over to view the broken hot water heater. They trickled in and out like pilgrims visiting a shrine. They came to find the answer to a question that was on their minds and left after having obtained it.
A local plumbing company came out to assess the water heater, determined that it was unfixable, and wanted around $1,000 to fix it for us. A few weeks before the hot water heater died, Shawn and I went to court to complete our bankruptcy case. It went well, but left us with no credit cards and a terrible credit rating. We simply didn’t have the financial ability to have the hot water heater replaced.
Shawn called more plumbers, including the original one, looking for quotes. He called nearby chain hardware stores that sold hot water heaters and asked how much they would charge to replace ours. Eventually, he posted our problem on a crowdfunding website in the hopes that we could gather just enough money to get a new hot water heater. At the time, Shawn was unemployed (and had been for over a year). I was, and am, working part-time as a freelance writer. Without help, there was no way we could afford to replace the water heater until I got paid sometime in the middle of the next month.
Fortunately, our friends, and Ohana, started pitching in to help us out. I was so thankful for that. There is something about losing access to hot water, for more than a few days in a row, that makes a person feel desperate and hopeless. I learned that there was a big difference between having not quite enough hot water and having none at all. On paper it sounds like the same thing. On skin it is two dramatically different situations.
Meanwhile, Shawn got in touch with a local group whose purpose is to assist low-income people with problems like the one we were having. A man from the gas company came over to view the hot water heater and declare it officially dead. If I remember correctly, he shut off the gas input (before anything bad happened) and taught Shawn how to turn off the water that was going into the broken hot water heater. All it was doing was tricking out the crack at the top. We were in a drought, and there was no good reason to waste water.
A woman came over and had her own viewing of the water heater. She then came inside, asked a bunch of questions, assessed the state of the other appliances (and light fixtures) in the mobile home and filled out a lot of paperwork. We qualified for help from this quasi-governmental organization. She assured us that someone would come over to replace our water heater next week (and to call if that didn’t happen). The paperwork had to go through another part of the organization, and Shawn and I felt that although the woman believed we qualified for help, that didn’t necessarily mean her superiors would agree.
One more week of heating up water on the stove until enough was gathered to wash dishes with. One more week of not really being able to cook food at home because the dishes needed to be washed first and the last clean pot had to be set aside for the purpose of obtaining hot water. One more week of hesitating to clean the house beyond dusting or wiping off surfaces, for fear of getting covered in dust and requiring long, frightfully cold, showers.
We purchased a camping shower from a local sporting goods store. It is basically a plastic bag with a solar panel on it. There is a hose and spigot attached to it. Fill the bag with cold water and leave it outside in the sun all day. The goal was to hang it off the shower in the main bathroom and use it instead of the actual shower. Few things are more depressing than having to use a camping shower in your home because you don’t have hot water anymore.
Shawn discovered that it was necessary to take the camping shower inside at a certain point in the day before the water inside it would start to cool down. We learned there was enough water in it for one person to use it to take a shower (if they moved quickly). The bathtub below that shower is tiny, and we decided that he should try and work with the camping shower because I was small enough to get some use out of the little bathtub.
Here’s what we came up with in order for me to be able to take a “bath”. Shawn heated up water on the stove, like he would for doing dishes. Using potholders to protect his hands, he brought the pot of hot water into the bathroom and poured it into the tub. This process was repeated many times, and some cold water was also added to the tub. Eventually, there would be about two inches of not-freezing water in the tub that I could use to wash with.
I learned that it is possible to wash with that small amount of water. It involves pouring the water over individual parts of the body, struggling to get the smallest useful amount of soap on those parts, and then pouring water over it again. To make this work, I had to move around a lot more than one would in a shower (or even in a much fuller bathtub).
My health issues make me have low energy – so low that taking a shower makes me need to sit down afterwards (often before I can get fully dressed). The amount of physical labor required to take a bath in two inches of water was incredibly exhausting. It was also too labor intensive to pour a bath that contained two inches of water, much of which had been hauled from the kitchen, every day.
I learned that I could wash my hair in the bathroom sink and that it was easier to get the shampoo out of it than it was when I attempted to stick my head in the shower. It felt like I was doing my own version of the “ice bucket challenge”. The tips of my fingers would get numb, my scalp would ache from the coldness of the water. My ears turned red before I was done. Combing out my hair, as usual, did not result in having it dry the way it usually would. Conditioner was out of the question. I learned I had enough energy to either take a “bath”, or to wash my hair – but not enough to do both in the same day.
In the back of my mind, I started wondering how much it would cost to go to a hotel for a few days so we could take hot showers, or enjoy warm baths. The problem was that we didn’t actually have the money to do that. It also didn’t make much sense to spend money on a hotel room when we needed to save every penny for a new hot water heater. This didn’t put me into a very positive state of mind.
Fortunately, the quasi-governmental organization was able to help us. Two men came over and viewed the dead hot water heater together. They removed it, replaced it, and provided changes inside our mobile home that would make it more energy efficient. Shawn updated the crowdfunding website and stopped taking donations.
We went 12 days with absolutely no access to hot water. It felt like a month. The experience changed me in ways I did not expect. I take much shorter showers now than I did before the hot water heater died. Before, I would stand under the hot water for a long time because it felt good on my stiff joints and the steam was beneficial on days when the pollen was high and my sinuses hurt like hell. That isn’t something I do anymore – I’m in and out of the shower as fast as possible and have somehow gotten more efficient while I’m in there.
About a week or so after we got a new hot water heater, I woke up to discover that we had no water at all. Long story short, this was due to something happening in the mobile home park that required the water to be temporarily shut off. They turned it back on about two hours later, but in those two hours, I became anxious and concerned that we’d have to go back to trying to wash in a minimal amount of water again. The new hot water heater should last for years before we run into this same problem all over again.