Home & Garden Columns

About the House: On The Mortality of Water Heaters and Furnaces

By Matt Cantor
Friday May 19, 2006

Everything ages and everything dies. It’s sad but it’s certainly true and no less for water heaters than for people, cats and presidential administrations. The funny thing about water heaters and electrical panels is that we don’t tend to think of them as getting old in the same way that we think about Aunt Martha. We see her getting older and increasingly forgetful, despite her being so adorable, even as she searches for her car keys (should she still be driving?) 

Actually, water heaters and furnaces, garbage disposers and, yes, foundations have life cycles just like Aunt Martha and your dog, Mr. Buggles. I think we all need to see these things a bit more in this way since it seems so very widespread that people tend to express real surprise when I tell them that an item is getting old or is ready for the heap. “Well, it’s worked just fine, all these years” they sometimes say and sure as this may be true, it doesn’t take into account the fact that said item, the furnace for example, may have commenced to leak flue gases into the living space. 

Yes it still comes on and heats the house but there may be any number of unseen things that aren’t working as they should or may be nearing a point at which it is unlikely that they will function at all. 

Let’s start with the general issue of wear and function. When devices, such as the breakers in electrical panels, are new, we can eliminate from the equation most aberrant performance based on wear. 

As such devices age, they are subject to a range of natural forces. A spring loses it’s springiness from metal fatigue, corrosion forms on parts, which may play a critical role, things get dirty and fail to operate smoothly from the contamination of foreign particles, heat or cold may gradually wear upon parts and cause them to malfunction. 

There are too many natural forces to list here but you get the general idea. Even if you do nothing else to a breaker, a dishwasher or a phone jack, over time it’s going to be exposed to elements that will wear upon it and eventually prevent it from functioning properly. 

In the case of the electrical breaker, the spring metal inside is wearing from being sprung as well as from the heat created by electricity running through it. Over time, it will become less responsive and may eventually fail to work altogether. 

Another reason that things eventually want to be replaced is that they are failing to take advantage of innovations in science and technology that we come to consider either highly desirable or baseline essentials. Most of us would not drive a car that didn’t have a seat belt despite the fact that they were not present in cars 40 years ago. 

One might say, “Hey the car drives, what are you complaining about” and most would respond, “Well, my life is at risk without one and I don’t want to drive without it.” Increasingly, we have come to feel this way about air bags, tempered glass and ABS brakes as well, despite the fact that you don’t really have to have them to drive. 

The same is true in your house. I wouldn’t live in a house that didn’t have smoke detectors because they exist and can save my life, as well as the lives of my two girls and my wife. I also have a carbon monoxide tester running 24/7 in the hall. Same reason. It’s not essential but it’s available and it might save our lives. 

This logic extends to all the equipment in the house and to elements of the house itself, such as the roofing, the siding and the foundation. Some older systems simply lack the advantage that modern advances have to offer. Most houses around here weren’t built with enough bolts or enough inherent bracing to survive a large earthquake and most modern houses were. 

This is one example where an alteration can update us to a close equivalent of modern safety standards. This is true of some other systems as well. 

Single glazed window sashes can often be replaced with double glazed replacements providing better heat conservation and sound reduction but this isn’t really a safety issue. On the other hand, an old electrical breaker (I keep hitting that note) can, in my opinion become far less reliable over time and can usually be replaced, even within an existing panel to improve fire safety.  

An older heat exchanger in a furnace can also, often, be replaced when it has become worn or cracked although I would argue that the additional cost of an entirely new furnace is so well offset by the many advantages that come with a newer unit that a repair is rarely worthwhile. New furnaces are not only far more efficient than older ones (PG&E told us last October that energy prices were expected to rise by 71 percent in response to Katrina), but also offer a range of improved safety features as well as simplified flues that can eliminate costly and ugly installations. 

Many older features of houses are extremely desirable and I sorely wish that modern builders would more frequently take lessons that present themselves visibly in so many of our older houses and exploit them in what it built today. 

Nonetheless, old floor furnaces are dangerous, smelly, inefficient and best replaced by the myriad newer choices that modern technology has brought us. Similarly, a breaker panel in a convenient location has real advantages over a small fuse panel that’s buried at the back of a clothes closet. 

If we all tended to think of our houses the same way we think of our computers we might be a little better off. That ancient furnace in the basement is a hard drive that’s skipping and only has 20 megabytes of memory. With that old wiring of yours and one outlet per room, it take you 30 seconds to download a page off the internet and those old Windows of yours … Well, you know.