First Person: Repairing Vs. Replacing Appliances

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Moving from my apartment to an as-in home was an exercise in frugality. Upon viewing the home, I knew the carpet needed steam cleaned and possibly replaced. There were no appliances in the kitchen, and I needed second subfloors and floors in three of the eight rooms. What I was not prepared for was a furnace that failed to turn on and a hot water heater that produced summer-time cold water.

My first thought was to replace them both. I didn't know how old they were, and I didn't have a personal history with the appliances. Unfortunately, a quick search told me that a new furnace would cost me $995 without installation, and a new hot water heater would run me $222 without delivery. It was $1,217 that I could not afford.

Furnace

The first task was the furnace. The pilot light lit. Turning on the original thermostat triggered the call for heat, but the blower motor never activated, causing the machine to overheat and shut off. My immediate thought was that the blower motor and fan were too clogged with dirt to spin. With the help of my sister-in-law and brother, we completely disassembled the blower and the blower motor and vacuumed the dirt, dust and pet hair from both.

We tested all the wires on the furnace and blower motor with an electric meter and determined they were old but good. We also decided to replace the original thermostat for $20, and we tested the motor by splicing it into an extension cord and plugging it into the wall. The motor worked. Then, we reassembled the unit and turned the thermostat to fan instead of heat. All we needed to know was if the fan and motor worked. The fan never activated.

Every part of the furnace worked from the pilot light to the motor and fan, but it would not operate as one unit. I finally called one of my HVAC friends to take a look at it. We'd spent $20 and a week on the furnace and still could not get it to work.

Upon his arrival, he retested every wire and the two sensors in the middle of the furnace. The overheat sensor was bad. We replaced it for $16. This did not fix the problem. We were left with one problem: the wiring.

My HVAC friend spent four hours creating a mental wiring diagram of the furnace and finally determined that it used to have an air conditioner, and when they ripped out the A/C unit, they also ripped out the common wire for the furnace. From there, it was simply a small wiring adjustment. The total cost of fixing my furnace was $36; a savings of $959 over the cost of purchasing a new unit.

Hot Water Heater

Once the furnace worked, I turned on the hot water heater and left it on overnight. The water never got hot, and the unit tripped the circuit breaker. I wanted to replace the entire unit, but at $222 for another 40 gallon water heater, it was not feasible. I turned off the circuit breaker to the unit, got a garden hose from my brother and drained the hot water heater. I figured it was an electrical component problem since there was no visible rust or water damage around the heater.

Testing the control panels and thermostats with an electric meter yielded no useful information, so I pulled out the heating elements. The top heating element was covered in corrosion. The bottom heating element was covered in corrosion, sand and limestone. In fact, when the bottom element was removed, sand and limestone fell out of the water heater.

It took four hours to scrape all the sediment and sand out of the bottom of the water heater with a wire coat hanger, and the contaminants filled four plastic shopping bags. From there, I bought a hot water heater repair kit for $30 and installed all new electrical components. This fixed the hot water heater. It was a cost savings of $192 over the purchase of a new hot water heater.

By repairing my furnace and hot water heater instead of replacing them, I saved $1,151.

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