Saturday, September 22, 2012

In Hot Water

We've been pretty lucky since purchasing Sea Gem last August.  For the most part, boats needs constant repairs, and Sea Gem has had no major failures over the past year.  Sure, we've had to make a few minor (inexpensive) repairs along the lines of replacing light bulbs, fans, etc., and we've been keeping up with required maintenance, such as changing the engine oil, but we haven't had any major components break.  Part of our lucky streak is not attributable to luck at all, but rather the wisdom of Sea Gem's prior owners, who, through trial and error, fitted Sea Gem out with the most reliable components.  In any case, whether due to luck or wisdom, we've been fortunate enough not to have to make any expensive repairs.

Unfortunately, our lucky streak came to an end this past week.  On Friday morning, we woke up at about 3:30 am to the sound of our freshwater pumps grinding away at nothing but air.  We knew that we had at least 100 gallons or so of water in the tank when we went to bed, and so we knew pretty quickly that there was a problem.  And so I went out on deck to begin refilling the water tank in order to find and fix the leak.  I remembered that the previous owners once had a problem with the emergency pressure valve on the hot water heater, and that caused the water tanks to empty into the boat, and so that was the first place I looked.

Sure enough, the water heater was the culprit.  It was gushing water.  The valve that the previous owners replaced costs $25, so I was really hoping that would be problem again--but we were not that lucky.  The emergency pressure valve had, in fact, opened, but the tank itself was leaking.  We don't keep a spare water heater on the boat (it isn't quite as big as the hot water heater in your house, but it is close), and so the best I could do before going to work Friday morning was cap off the water hose to the water heater so we would at least have a functional--albeit cold--freshwater system until we could replace the water heater.

Friday morning, by the way, was as miserable as you'd imagine.  Awake at 3:30 am, crawling around in the engine room for two hours, a cold shower, and then off to work without time for either breakfast or coffee.  Awful start to the day.

This morning, I began removing the old tank and think I figured out the problem.  For our particular water heater, a 20-gallon Raritan, the emergency pressure valve is supposed to open if, for some reason, the water temperature reaches 210 degrees or the pressure in the rank hits 75 psi.  The valve on the tank, however, had been replaced with a valve for an ordinary hot water heater than opens at 150 psi.  Since that valve opened, my guess is that the thermostat failed and the pressure in the tank became so high that it not only tripped the 150-psi valve, but also cracked the tank, which was extremely rusty and probably structurally compromised to begin with.  In any case, we needed a brand-new water heater--Sea Gem's first major (expensive) repair.

Although our lucky streak came to an end, in many ways, we were still pretty lucky.  Raritan still makes virtually the exact same water heater, and the connections on the new model are in the exact same place.  That is crucial because we have two custom heat-exchanger systems, one for each engine, that connect to the hot water heater with copper pipes that are sized and bent for our precise installation.  If we needed to switch to a completely different model, we'd also need to rebuild our heat exchanger system, and I don't even want to think about how much that would cost.  And so we dodged one bullet.

In addition, our local West Marine had the replacement water heater in stock.  I had feared that we would need to mail order a replacement water heater and be without hot water for several days.  And so we dodged another bullet.

Third, West Marine had a price-match guarantee and will match the price of their competitors.  It just so happens that one of their mail-order competitors has the hot water heater on sale right now for $450 off retail.  The water heater was right on the shelf, West Marine matched the (much) lower price without a fuss, and so 5 minutes and $672 dollars later, we were on our way back to the boat with the replacement water heater.  Overall, were were pretty fortunate.

Out with the old (left), in with the new (right)
But there's more.  I usually estimate the time required for boat projects by coming up with my most conservative, educated estimate, then doubling it, then adding four hours.  I figured I'd be working well into the night in order to install the new water heater.  But, for perhaps the first time ever, there was no doubling, and there was no adding four hours.  The water heater went in with little fanfare in around three hours, and we now have hot water and no leaks.

Lowering the heater into the engine room through the (open) floor
Total cost of our water-heater failure?  Two cold showers, one miserable morning, 36 hours without hot water, 5 hours of labor (removing the old heater and installing the new one), and $672.  As far as major repairs go, we we were pretty lucky.  In fact, I'm not even certain that our lucky streak has come to an end yet...


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