I do intend a Cottage Life post soon that’s not about maintenance, but this isn’t it. I thought I was trying to fix the water heater, but in fact it became a four-way semantic mapping conundrum.

Well, if I’m going to take your time with sordid basement maintenance tale, I should at least salute nature visually first. When a big tree falls in the forest and eventually becomes fertile ground for other shrubs and trees as it rots, they call it a “nurse log”. I wonder if that term still applies if it ’s been through a spell as driftwood?

Drift-log becoming nurse log on a Howe Sound beach

Back to the basement. The symptom was simple: no hot water. The technology was simple: there’s not much to an electric water heater. I bought a basic multimeter for the cottage and broke out the trusty Readers’ Digest Do-It-Yourself Guide.

First, figure out the multimeter. Unfortunately, its documentation had no pictures, and the text referred to the controls using terms other than those painted on them. Fortunately, the Readers’ Digest had a discussion about multimeters. Unfortunately the terms it used corresponded neither to the device nor its documentation.

I spent literally half an hour sticking the leads in an electrical socket and twiddling the dial before I figured out that you put it here for ohms, there for AC volts, and so on.

OK then, I stripped down the hot water tank. Fortunately, its insides looked just like the picture in the book. Unfortunately, the instructions referred to multimeter measurements in terms that did not correspond to those painted on the device, nor to those in its documentation, nor (especially pleasing) to those in its own how-to-use-a-multimeter instructions.

At this point I had to go outside to walk and breathe a bit. Ah, cottage life.

Eventually it became obvious that they were trying to say that there should be no resistance through either the thermostat or the override, and something less than infinity through the heating element. At which point it became obvious what to do and then, what to replace.

Next week, a relatively cheerful piece about snake bite.


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From: len (Jun 30 2008, at 06:27)

Household Repairs for White Collar Droids: Water Heaters

A water heater is a simple device and easy to repair. Like many simple household devices that are easy to repair, it can kill you dead.

1. Find main junction box. Check power is off. If you don't know which switch is which, tell Lauren to keep children away from fridge, turn off computers and read a book, then turn off mains. See below.

2. Drain tank. Takes longer than you think. Also significant crud. Drain with hose someplace you don't care about grass.

3. Disconnect heating element. There may be more than one.

4. Inspect heating element for corrosion and continuity (usually easy to see it is burned). If corroded, skip continuity check. Replace it.

5. Take heating element to nearest parts store (oh, you're on an island?)

6. Replace heating element. Check seals.

7. Refill tank. Takes longer than you think.

8. Turn back on power. If no sparks, wait 45 minutes. Check water.

9. If this doesn't work and you have replaced all elements, drain tank.

10. Go to Lowes (wherever they sell appliances on your island) and buy water heater.

11. Much bigger job. Pay a professional. That is why you are a degreed white collar worker: to ensure the employment of the blue collar worker for whom this is just practice and not a zero sum.

True story: My Dad came over and asked where the power switches were at. I pointed to the closet. He asked, "Are you sure?" I said, "Of course." He flipped the switch then went to the water heater with a screwdriver and touched the element lead. One big arc later and he showed me the tip of the screwdriver burned away and said, "That would be your hand." and went off to find the power switch. Lesson: Some houses have multiple junction boxes. Never be sure.


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