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Friday February 6, 2015
This is the third time in as many years that we've experienced problems with our Atwood water heater. This one is a little strange. The first problem was in 2013 when the electric element burned out, and of course, the element isn't screwed in from the front of the unit for easy maintenance- no! it's in the very back, so the heater has to be at least partially removed. The second incident- last year- was a leaking fitting on the cold water supply which as you've already guessed, hooks up in the back of the unit. We replaced a plastic elbow with a brass one. This year we were getting a hot wiring smell and burning plastic, which we finally traced to the water heater. The heater is below the floor of the coach in an outside bay, however the smoky smell was getting into the coach through a return air duct which is adjacent to the water heater space.
Our water heater looks a little grubby and there are signs of corrosion on the lower surface of the heater box, due to the fact that when you pull the plug to drain or flush the tank the water spashes out onto this surface. The drain plug, as astute readers have already surmised, is buried back behind the burner assembly in the lower part of the picture above. (the great engineering continues to amaze)
A project of this magnitude requires every tool in the arsenal and all hands on deck. Joan was pressed into service as the mechanic's assistant.
We jacked up the bus in the rear to give me some crawl space, and then stacked a large chunk of concrete under the hitch crossmember as a safety. I removed the inspection port underneath the back of the water heater compartment and took off the wiring enclosure to see if I could spot the problem.
Sure enough, the wire to the heating element was crispy, and the top of the plastic cover on the element was melted. Houston, we have a problem. I removed the wires and got out the element socket wrench I purchased in Luddington, MI two years ago. Reaching up through the inspection port, I brought all the muscle I had to bear on the wrench- to no avail. It would not budge. I did not use any anti-seize on the threads when I installed the element and it was stuck! I used a micro torch to heat the aluminum around the threads, and tried a couple more times to get it to turn- not happening.
The whole heater had to come out, so I could get serious about extracting the element. The coach builder could have made the connections long enough to allow one to pull the heater without having to disconnect everything- but what fun is that? I had to disconnect the Motoraid lines coming from the engine coolant flow, the cold and hot domestic water lines, the 110 volt line, the 12volt wiring, and the propane line. By the time it was out I was bathed in Caterpillar coolant. My T-shirt was poka-dot pink. Even though I clamped off the coolant hoses there was still enough in each to get me good and wet. You have to pull the line off the heat exchanger and plug both the hose and the port on the heat exchanger before they leak out on you.
Here is what the element looked like after I finally got it out. The plastic cap was melting and that's a lot of what we were able to smell inside the coach. The hardware stores here in Ajo have a pretty decent supply of replacement elements, however ours wasn't one of them. Joan found the 110 volt 1400 watt element we need on Amazon and ordered it. The project would have to go on hold for a couple days, until it arrived.
While I had the heater out, I had a great opportunity to do a lot of good things. I was able to really clean out the tank, I was able to take the rusty iron plumbing off the over-pressure device and put on a nice brass Shark-Bite fitting and a custom bent piece of Pex. I took the last remaining plastic elbow out of the tank (the hot water outlet), and replaced it with brass. I also cleaned the bottom shelf and sprayed on some bed liner. Nice! Joan and I showered in the park restrooms for a couple more days. Finally, the element arrived and was installed. One last hurdle, as the sun was setting and the shadows grew long I began filling the tank, only to find that the nylon drain plug was leaking. I decided to tighten the plug one more turn- whoops! -the cap twisted off the stem of the plug and blew a stream of water clear over to the trailer next door- soaking me in the process. Thank goodness there is a hardware section in the local grocery that is open late. Joan found a brass plug to replace the broken nylon one. I had to cut the remnants of the old plastic plug out of the drain. Eureka! it holds water, without leaking.
After cleaning up all the tools and supplies, I went inside and took a long hot shower!
Mark and I continue to search for aircraft wreck sites in the areas around Ajo. The rains we had last week are a thing of the past and the water courses remain dry. The Suzuki is proving to be quite the desert transporter. We did some more work on the Samurai this week. Mark has ABS door panels, carpet, weatherstriping, and other stuff that we have been busy installing.
One of the interesting things I have seen in the desert are age old tracks like the ones above, that show up out of nowhere, and end as abruptly as they began. The desert really is a fragile place. I always get excited when I see tracks like this, and start looking around to see if there is possibly an old homestead (or wreck site)- but mostly nothing- the origin of the tracks remain a mystery.
Your Traveling Friends
Jeff and Joan