Help, my water heater is a lemon!

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Andre Klass’s water heater is plagued by constant failures. Who’s responsible for this malfunctioning appliance, and can it be fixed?

Question: I bought a house in 2011, and it came with a water heater made by AO Smith. It had a two-year labor warranty and a six-year part warranty.

The unit had never provided the full amount of water at its stated capacity and constantly ran out of hot water during a shower. Over time, the unit had occurrences when it would stop producing hot water, and it needed four or five replacements of the same part, the either upper or lower thermostat controller, and had been constantly repaired by AO Smith’s approved contractor under warranty.

Considering the constant failures the unit has had, I know it is only inevitable that it would fail again.

I contacted AO Smith via email, asking it to extend the labor coverage on the unit, considering the continuous failures. The person who responded first tried to blame “environmental” issues, then stated that they can’t extend the labor coverage but call tech support if another issue happens.

I asked for her to consult with a supervisor and she said she was the supervisor. When asking why this issue would be happening and insisting that they should cover the diagnostic testing, she began ignoring my emails or responding by evading my questions and telling me to call tech support, which of course does not have the authority to help me.

After the course of a month in email conversation, she then responded that the company’s position remains unchanged and they will no longer answer to me via email.

When consulting other technicians from other companies, it seems like there were indeed more serious issues with this unit which had been undetected or overlooked by the contractor who did the warranty repair. I did obtain documentation from the contractor regarding the work they did on it, but they are unable to provide me the original service records.

I have considered a BBB complaint, but the same person from the company that is stonewalling me is also apparently the person that answers their BBB complaints. At this point I just want this lemon water heater replaced with a different unit. Where should I turn? — Andre Klass, Sanford, Fla.

Answer: Maybe our water heaters were installed by the same contractor. When I moved into my house in Winter Springs, Fla., 10 years ago, the home inspector discovered that my heater had been incorrectly installed. Fortunately for me, I contacted the manufacturer, who ensured the unit was installed correctly.

An improperly installed water heater isn’t just inconvenient, giving you insufficient water for showers and dishwashing. It can also be dangerous. Cue the Mythbusters clip.

You did the right thing by contacting AO Smith in writing and then appealing to a manager. Emails at AO Smith are firstinitial+lastname@aosmith.com (not “@hotwater.com” which is the domain it is now using. You also should — and did — ask the technicians who installed your heater to address the problem.

What happened next really shows why brief emails, and not phone calls, are often far more effective. A member of my resolutions team contacted AO Smith in writing, with no luck. I followed up and received a quick promise of a resolution, but the company did not resolve anything, at least not initially.

It’s unclear if our messages prompted AO Smith to investigate your case, or if the BBB finally helped you fix this — either way, I’m happy to give the Better Business Bureau the credit.

AO Smith reimbursed you $22 for one of the defective parts, which covered part of your expenses. You’re still trying to recover some money from the plumbing company that installed your water heater, and I’m trying to help you with that, too.

But that’s another story.

Who's responsible for the water heater in Andree Klass's house?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at . Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • FQTVLR

    Based on the information it seems to be a combination of a faulty water heater installed improperly. Both AO Smith and the installer appear to be at fault—though I am not sure who is most responsible for this.

  • John Baker

    I couldn’t answer the poll. For me, seems like a poor installation of a cheap water heater and a poor pre-purchase home inspection all combined for the perfect storm. Unfortunately, I think the OP is out of luck. He just needs to hire someone else to install a different brand the next time it fails.

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    Regarding the poll: One of the choices was “The previous homeowner”. I’m confused. I had the impression that when the OP bought the house in 2011, that the water heater was new to the house – perhaps a new house? Or was a new water heater installed as part of the sale of an existing house?

    If a new house, perhaps the builder could be of assistance, although the normal 1-year callback period has long passed. Within 2 years of my having built my current house, my water heater went bottoms-up. My builder pressured the plumber into replacing the heater for a nominal fee. And yes, it was an A.O. Smith water heater.

    As re the plumbing company that did the installation: if they installed the water heater for you (as part of building the house or right after a sale to you), perhaps you got a copy of their Certificate of Insurance when they did the work for you? Call the insurance agency to file a claim of deficient workmanship. Normally the company will settle the matter long before insurance gets involved. Florida’s Attorney General may also be of help. They may send you to the correct department that handles licensing for the plumbing company. Licensing departments don’t like to hear that they’ve issued a license to someone who won’t stand behind their work. Last resort, replace the water heater (they’re not expensive). File a claim in Small Claims Court against the plumbing company for installing a faulty product.

    If the plumbing company installed the water heater for a previous owner, you’re on much shakier ground, as the contract wasn’t between them and you. You’re also probably past any home inspection warranty by now, but you can ask them for ideas on where to turn.

  • Joe_D_Messina

    I’m guessing the water heater was replaced right before the sale. Sometimes people will ask the owner to do that knowing the unit was old, sometimes the owner will take that step to make the house more desirable. Either way, that sort of begs for problems: The owner wants the absolute cheapest solution so he’s likely to go with a cheapo brand and not really care what the installer does.

  • Joe_D_Messina

    Agreed. The OP must have plenty of patience, as I would have already went that route.

    I’m a bit confused about the part of the letter where the OP talks about consulting other technicians. Even a full install of a water heater isn’t all that expensive so if I were already paying somebody to come look at it, I’d certainly have any install issues fixed at that same time.

    And it is amazing that the same part has failed that many times. Water heaters in my experience are pretty darn reliable. They tend to work without fail right up until they’re dead and need to be totally replaced. After this much effort to try and make it work, it’s likely time to decide this one is a goner.

  • TonyA_says

    It this a made in China problem?

  • TonyA_says

    This must be extremely frustrating for the LW. So many experts but none are accountable.
    This is quite similar to the travel industry. Everyone is happy to take your money but disappear when you have a problem.
    The LW cannot even get a simple question answered – why does the thermostat keep on failing?
    Ever wonder why people DIY things?

  • emanon256

    This is a tough one for me to vote on. If the contractor who installed it did it incorrectly leading to the problems, then they are responsible. If its just a bad unit then AO Smith is responsible. Clearly AO Smith has horrible customer service and doesn’t stand by their products if it was installed correctly. Not knowing if it was AO Smith bad product, or a bad installation, I can’t vote. I blame one of those two. But I will be sure to never buy an AO Smith water heater after hearing how they treat their customers. While I don’t think AO Smith should have to extent the warranty just because it had problems, I do think that the fact that they won’t address it shows bad faith on their part.

    PS: Before reading, by the title alone, I immediately thought of Myth Busters.

  • bodega3

    We have replace several water heaters over the year. One thing we have found is that the warranty that many have are useless. The last one we bought, when we read the fine print (it came from Home Depot) when trying to use the warranty, would cost us about the same money as buying a new water heat. We did some checking and not all hot water heater warranties are the same. We ended up buying a new water heater from a local, nonchain, hardware store that has their own warranty that is so much better. Fortunately, up to that point, we were allowed to install it ourselves, no permit needed, as is now the law in our county. One thing to note about warranties. Many require you to be the purchasing owner. No transfer of the warranty at selling the house.

  • emanon256

    “Ever wonder why people DIY things?”

    I have a water heater that suddenly kept turning off. I determined it was the thermocouple by looking at the manual. Unfortunately it was just out of warranty. The wife insisted we call a plumber to come repair it. We called a plumber who advertised “Free Estimates”. He diagnosed the same thing, and wanted $350 to install a new one. I told him that the water heater it self, now 6 years old, was only $450 new, why would I pay $350 for a small part? he said it costs $1,000 to install a new water heater which also seemed ridiculous. Mind you, the only water heater I ever had installed, I installed with my neighbors help replacing an existing one, and it was quite easy. So I bought a thermocouple for $12, replaced it, and haven’t had an issue since. The worst part was after I told the plumber “No Thank you” he demanded a $120 diagnostic fee. I reminded him that I told him that I thought it was the thermocouple first, and his ad says “Free Estimates”. He insisted the estimate is only free, if I get the work done. This was never disclosed in his ad. This fight dragged on for weeks and we finally agreed he woudl leave me alone if I paid him $75. So Chris, here is another example of when “Free” really isn’t free, and Tony, this is why I DIY!

  • TonyA_says

    I bet you will find the same horror stories for lousy travel agencies :-)
    Here’s another point I want to raise. This site is for exasperated people. Those in the end of the line. I wonder if the LW knows about some of the DIY forums for appliance repair. I find many of them very helpful and empowering.

  • emanon256

    i found a You Tube video showing how to replace the thermocouple and how to check for leaks. $350 for a 20 minute job? I should become a plumber.

  • bodega3

    Many areas now won’t let homeowners install their own water heaters or if they do, they have to get a permit.

  • TonyA_says

    In my city you will need a permit regardless of who installs the water heater. I don’t believe I need a permit to repair it.
    In the LW’s case, there’s some mention of improper installation. I suppose the water heater was installed by a licensed or qualified plumber or technician. Replacing a thermocouple is a repair job. You can DIY it.

  • TonyA_says

    I remember calling a “licensed” repairman to fix my freezer. He came over and replaced the defrost timer. After a few days I noticed the freezer was not working well. I checked the part he replaced. Guess what, he put an incorrect timer. I went to the manufacturer’s part list and ordered a new one. I popped it in and I haven’t had a problem for years.

    You begin to wonder who is doing the CREDENTIALING of so-called experts. There must be a lot of fakes.

  • Judy Serie Nagy

    This kind of a run-around is EXACTLY what you were born to solve, Chris! Did she finally get a working water heater?

  • TonyA_says

    I would never buy a cheap water heater. First they are unreliable. Second, and worse, they rust easily. If the bottom of your water heater rusts and gives up, you will have a flooded basement (or room).

  • bodega3

    It depends on the part needing to be replaced as to if you need a permit. Sadly, not many are handy and cause more issues than they solve with DIY projects.

  • emanon256

    We have had similar issues with so many repair people. Two years ago we hired a “licensed” electrician to install a new breaker box and it failed inspection twice in a row due to the mast not begin installed properly, the third time the electrician asked if he could meet the inspector in person to see what he needs to do to fix it. That time it passed with no re-work. Three weeks ago in a storm the mast fell off of the house. Our neighbor, a roofer, fixed it for free, but said it was never installed to code the first time. It required two roof braces and only had 1, and the wall brace was never attached to the house. My theory is that the electrician paid off the inspector.

  • TonyA_says

    The unit had never provided the full amount of water at its stated
    capacity and constantly ran out of hot water during a shower. Over time,
    the unit had occurrences when it would stop producing hot water, and it
    needed four or five replacements of the same part, the either upper or
    lower thermostat controller, and had been constantly repaired by AO
    Smith’s approved contractor under warranty.

    To me this is a sign that the water heater was never sized properly for the home’s total peak hour demand.

  • bodega3

    Our experience had nothing to do with the water heater being a cheap one. We don’t buy bottom of the line on anything. It is the warranty that was crappy and in doing research for the next one, I got online, did my homework and found most warranties for water heaters are useless. The one we went with, is backed up with the local hardware stores warranty so a much better deal and actually cost less on the purchase that the big box stores in the area.

  • bodega3

    Not necessarily. If you have water issues in your area, that can cause problems that doesn’t allow for adequate filling, or a rod that has corroded. Draining a tank often does not get the sediment out. We just had a plumber here for an estimate on some new work and we were talking about water heaters. They are a huge issue for those of us on wells.

  • emanon256

    In regards to plumbing, my city doesn’t require a permit to replace like with like. It does require one to upgrade or change the type of device, and I have to take a test before I can get a permit as a DIYer.

  • TonyA_says

    If your anode rod gets eaten up too fast, you need to fix your water. It might be too hard. The rod is sacrificial and is there to protect the actual heating element. If the actual capacity to heat is diminished then by all means it is UNDERSIZED.

    Sanford FL has about 7 and 10 grains per gallon hardness. That’s pretty hard. So, unless you soften the water, over the years it will takes its toll on the water heater, the copper pipes, and plumbing fixtures.

    It is clear from the LW that the technicians blamed the thermostat and NOT the deterioration of the water heater based on hard water.
    So either the thermostat does not kick in on time or kicks out too early. My bet is it is really undersized because they have changed it several times. Otherwise, sometime is terribly wrong with that part’s manufacturing (maybe China).

  • TonyA_says

    A thermostat, really? Your city must be have a strong HVAC or plumbing union.

  • TonyA_says

    I think many people RESORT to DIY because of frustration.
    In the LW’s case, if the water heater was installed properly and the part fixed timely, then what is the reason to DIY?

  • TonyA_says

    Considering the LW is in warm Sanford, FL and not in the midwest of northeast, his water heater must be a real lemon. I can’t believe that it is that hard to heat water in Florida.
    If I had a problem with mine (here in Connecticut), I would be running to my bank and getting money to have it PERMANENTLY fixed regardless of who broke it (warranty or no warranty) We need a good oil-fired water heater here 365 days a year. The water coming out from our deep well is freezing cold.

  • PolishKnightUSA

    I’m surprised you caved in on the “free” inspection fee. A “free” diagnosis requiring a repair is a ripoff as evidenced by a $350 repair fee for a $12 part.

    About shady mechanics: My landlord hired an electrician to come in and look at the breakers which were kicking off after my wife used the blow dryer in the bathroom. He claimed the wiring was old and bad. I had used a similar unit made around the same time and never had an issue. He did replace a breaker (and charged my landlord) and after that, I had lights intermittently going on and off and dimming. This was REAL bad for my electronics. Fortunately, I had them on a UPS. The electrician gave another song and dance about “bad wiring” and I complained to the landlord and he came in, replaced or did something with the breakers, and no more problems. Apparently, he replaced all the wiring in that visit. :-)

    What a bunch of scammers.

    My furnace was having problems lighting up. I googled the model and they suggested cleaning the pilot light senor with sandpaper. It started right up. Find a good mechanic is more difficult than finding a good lawyer…

  • bodega3

    Yes, our water is very, very hard. We have various filters for the water because of it. It still eats away our water heaters. Price we pay for living in paradise!

  • emanon256

    The company was big enough to have a collection agency. I decided I would rather part with my money than get a lien on my house. I sure as heck won’t fall for “Free Estimates” again.

    I wonder what the electrician did in your case to makes the lights dim, sounds very shady.

    We do have a good roofer at least. He gives us a free inspection yearly. We called him 5 years ago after a hail storm when several roofers put notes on our door stating they inspected our roof and it needs to be replaced. A friend recommended this guy and and so far for 5 years he has told us we don’t need a new roof yet and to call him back in a year to look again. Our roof is currency 1.5 year over it’s estimated maximum life and he just told us we have about a year left. This is the first time he told us any estimated time frame. He did a small repair once and waived the fee becuase “He was already up there and it was easy.” Maybe he is playing the long game.

  • Annie M

    When I run into brick walls like this, I complain to the Attorney General in the States where the manufacturer is located. I’d also do the same where the contractor is located and perhaps contact the County Offices where the contractor is licensed.

    Glad to see an story that actually needed your help Chris.

  • emanon256

    I had the same problem at a former house. We had very hard well water. We got a high end water softener and I still had to flush the tank every 3 months. The first time I flushed it I had to keep filling and flushing for a few hours to get all of the sediment out. After that it wasn’t so bad, heated up much faster, and lasted for many more years. It’s probably still working. I wish I remembered the brand. It was electric and would heat all 50 gallons in an hour after the flush and fill. We have a gas one at our current place and it takes about 4 hours to heat all 50 gallons. I miss the old electric one.

  • PolishKnightUSA

    That sounds like extortion but I can understand you falling for it for only 75 bucks. I’d contact consumer affairs in my state. Did you sign a work order by any chance? If not, I can’t see any legal right they’d have to file a lien on the property. In addition, I’d have seen about getting their license revoked and contacting the licensing agency. Another option would be to contact whatever method they used for advertising and get their listing yanked.

    Anyhoo, in answer to your question about the lights dimming, I think they didn’t put in the circuit breaker right OR they put in a bad breaker (one they had perhaps recovered from another house.) The breakers go in with clips so if the clips are not secure, they will probably move around due to humidity, etc. “Bad wiring” won’t cause lights dimming. It will cause a FIRE and at that point, an inspector would be required to determine if the walls should be opened up and new wires put in. So I smelled something fishy from the start.

  • bodega3

    We go through well pumps every few years. The iron in the water out here has gotten worst with the vineyards using so much of the ground water. The hardware store that we brought our last water heater from, knows what our area needs vs the box stores that have to carry what corporate tells them to carry. So far, this last water heater has done extremely well. Water heaters are not expensive, but the paying the labor to have them installed is.

  • TonyA_says

    You get what you pay for :-)

    I have a bock 51e with a Carlin burner. This baby is expensive but it is worth every penny. I have a 24×7 full service and annual maintenance contract on it from my oil company. My oil company also sold and installed it for me. Very happy.

    Just like anyone with a well, we have water issues. I fired Culligan and did my own research. Settled for a Clack WS-1 and had my well/pump company sell it to me and install it. Very happy, again.

    Note that I buy only from the companies who will maintain and install related equipment in my house. That way there is NO finger pointing and I talk only to a few people. I know they are making a bigger markup compared to me buying these things from a local distributor.
    I figure that is not worth it to squeeze every penny and suffer in overall service. When you allow your vendor to make decent money, you are first on the service list. That’s what counts for me.

  • emanon256

    We were lucky, I didn’t have to deal with Iron in my well, but I hear that many people do.

  • TonyA_says

    You are really lucky. Your white clothes turn rusty. So does all your dishes and the inside of your dishwasher. And it also discolors your sink, tub, shower and toilet. It is a pain in the *ss to deal with.

  • emanon256

    We used a Kenetico and I loved it, it was dual chamber, so you can use water while its cycling. It is also water powered and cycles on demand so it saves salt. Not sure if it would work for you, but if you are ever in the market again its worth a look.

  • TonyA_says

    Kenticos are very expensive. I did look at them but decided to save the money. Dual tank solutions are great if you use water during the regeneration cycle. I could have bought the Fleck Twin Alternating Tank to get a similar effect. But since we are asleep after 1AM to 4AM, then doing regeneration at that time works fine for me. By the way, no matter what I do, I still drink bottled water. So really all these water treatment is for washing clothes, taking baths, and being nice to your plumbing system.

    All the new valves measure (metered) water usage (as required by California law) so as not to waste salt and water. I like the software interface of the Clack and I do the programming myself. You can buy a Hach chemical Kit to monitor hardness or iron, etc. Then you can adjust how much softening you really need. Best of all you can optimize brine efficiency by changing the parameters. I am now using a salt does of only 4 lbs per cuft of resin and regenerating more often. The old school dose is 15lbs per cuft. Imagine how much salt I save (my pocket and the environment).

    Like anything in life, if you study and do the research to understanding what you are doing, you probably will be better off.
    Usually I look for bang for the buck in my purchases :-)

  • bodega3

    We have an iron filter, so we don’t have the rust issues. But when they work on the well, we have chunks of it we have to dispose of. Very disgusting and it is getting worst all around here, yet we are in the better zone than many others. I remember my grandmothers water being so thick with rust you couldn’t see your hand in the tub.

  • bodega3

    We don’t have a soft water softener. I can’t stand soft water. When we travel and stay in a place that has it, it drives me nuts. We travel with our own water, too, as we can’t stand to drink city water due to the chlorine. Worst water is Sacramento. We are considering an Osmosis system as our next step.

  • William_Leeper

    Had the same experience with an automobile garage once. Need an estimate so I can send in the request, go to pick the van up, here’s a bill for the $75 estimate because you are not having the work done right now.

  • William_Leeper

    Here in Arkansas, if I own a house AND live in it, I can do plumbing myself with no inspections, and it does not have to comply with the plumbing code. If either of the two conditions are not met, I must have a licensed plumber do the work to code, and a final inspection it required from the health department.

  • bodega3

    Are you complaining or informing? That seems fairly reasonable in the fee.

  • William_Leeper

    Neither complaining nor informing. Just saying it is a fairly common among all businesses, not only plumbers.

  • bodega3

    Thanks for the clarification. Yes, most businesses do a minimum 1/2 hour fee. We do it in both our businesses.

  • emanon256

    Oh wow, they sound a lot more advanced now. There were very few programmable options when we got ours, and they cost more than the Kinetico back then. The old one we had regenerated nightly and we were going through a bag of salt a week, we were promised much less salt use with the Kinetico and I was down to a bag every 3 months or so. Also we liked that it was water powered, our previous one died from power issues. We bought the smallest Kinetico model and it just cycled when needed, since it was 2 tank it didn’t matter if it was mid day. They were much cheaper back then, but I think they were new to the market, so it was only $200 or so more that other models.
    I ran a separate water line to our kitchen sink that didn’t get softened and put a big filter unit under the sync and added a third tap for filtered water.

  • TonyA_says

    That separate unsoftened line is a very smart thing.
    Our bodies need the minerals. Not more salt.
    Unsoftened tastes a lot better than softened.
    All you need is a pur or brita pitcher filter.
    I wish I had that separate line but my kitchen is too far.
    Maybe pex tubing might work but I’m too lazy to do the work :-)

  • TonyA_says

    When we lived in Sacratomato our toilet bowls had rust stains and needed oxalic acid with elbow grease. I hate soft water also but the plumbers told me I need to soften my water or lots of things would break sooner. I understand California is going through some very serious water problems now. Maybe its good in Colorado.

  • emanon256

    I used pex. It was so easy.