Don't Ever Get Rid Of This Water Heater
Posted in 1990, Pittsburg Post Gazette
If you're lucky, your old house comes with instructions. Not written ones. Just a few words of advice, a gently warning, and a suggestion or two from the old owner to the new one.
I got very lucky in 1990. When my wife and I bought our 1929 brick Colonial, Len Sogoloff detailed for me every bit of routine maintenance and any improvements he had made. Even better, he gave me each contractor's card.
But what I remember best was the one thing he told me not to do: "Never get rid of the water heater."
Against one wall of the basement, linked to it's own personal chimney, was a 4-foot-high, black-and-gold iron cylinder on three legs. Looking like a coal stove gone Art Nouveau, it had the word "RUUD" stamped on it, along with curlicues, swirls, and styled leaves, some highlighted with gold paint. It proudly wore two brass badges with stars upon its doors and a little plaque that said "Ruud Instantaneous Automatic Water Heater, Pittsburg, PA."
This was the home's original water heater, still working after 60 years.
It certainly looked it's age, although it had some newer-looking valves, pumps, and other parts. Sogoloff had also given me the card for a plumber, E.A. Bibley Co., "the only one who will work on it," he said.
Curious to see the heater in action, I turned on the water heater tap on the old laundry tub nearby. Immediately, I heard a "whoosh" like a big gas grill firing up. I opened one of the spring-loaded doors to find a foot-high blue flames surrounding a set of thick metal coils. When I turned off the tap, the flames abruptly died.
It heated the water as you used it, as long as you used it, it never ran out.
What an invention!
Turns out Edwin Ruud wasn't the inventor of the instant water heater. Someone else came uo with that in the 1870's. But this Norwegian mechanical engineer did invent the automatic storage water heater in 1889 and, after immigrating to Pittsburgh, pioneered instantaneous water heaters in this country.
The company, which was acquired by Rheem in 1959, was once based at 29th and Smallman streets in the Strip District, according to the installation and operating instructions printed on a piece of tin and mounted on the chimney above my heater.
The instructions are brief, polite and matter of fact.
"If Possible, avoid installing in a furnace room on account of ashes and dust," they say.
"If water temperature is low, turn regulating screw J a trifle clockwise," the manufacture suggests, but then cautions: "Be careful in turning regulating screw J as a trifle of a turn greatly alters the temperature."
Plumbing terminology also seems to have changed a bit in almost a century. A "stop-and-waste- cock" goes on the cold-water line, the burners rest upon "spuds" and the "gauzes" need to be cleaned occasionally.
To check on the gauzes and the rest of the heater's innards, we have called on Jerry Komaromi, owner of E,A,Bibey, three times in 16 years. Komaromi, who bought the 72-year-old company in 1984, estimates there are between 1,000 and 1,500 old instantaneous heaters still working in the area. He makes the coils and some parts, and salvages others from heaters that he has replaced.
We've called Bibey when the water was too hot, and during one particularly cold winter when it couldn't manage more than a trickling shower. Each time, we thought our heater might be done for, But $100 or $200 later, we were back to endless hot water.
I also know that it's nowhere near as energy efficient as a new tank heater or the new tankless heaters made by Rheem or the others. In fact, the old dinosaurs' 60-65 percent efficiency, compared to the nearly 90 percent in new heaters, is the main reason people scrap them, Komaromi says.
It doesn't really matter, though, because I'm never going to replace my instantaneous heater. And when I sell the house, I will show the new owner this treasure and the tin instruction sheet, the one that has been left faithfully by half-dozen owners before me.
"Don't ever get rid of this water heater," I'll say. "But keep an eye on that stop-and-waste cock."