From all the reading I’ve done it sounds like removing the anode rods is a big hassle for everyone. We manage a small apartment complex and we have started replacing anode rods as each apartment goes vacant as part of our maintenance program. We are three down and a few more to go. Here are a few things we learned that I hope will be helpful:
1- Water heaters are usually inside small enclosed spaces that provide little, if any, elbow room. This makes it more difficult to loosen the anode rod in the confined space. We’ve found the extra ten or fifteen minutes that are needed to disconnect all the lines (water and gas) to take the heater out of the enclosure are well worth the additional working room so our practice is to disconnect and after draining some water moving the heater to a wider space
2- We worry about using the cold and hot nipples for any sort of leverage. A tank that may have started to corrode might easily break a nipple turning a maintenance issue into a replacement issue with added costs.
3- Since we are taking the tank out we have free access to it. If the anode is as stuck as the majority seem to be, one problem is that the smooth cylindrical shape of the heaters does not provide any hand-holds. When using a breaker bar with an extension you can apply a lot of torque but the tank turns in place. Our solution is to take two, one-inch tie down straps (typically used to tie cargo down) and tighten then around the heater with the ratchet ends on opposite sides of the tank. This provides a solid hand-hold that may be enough to keep the tank in place while using the breaker bar (we use the handle from a pipe bender for added leverage).
4- The tie-down straps tend to scratch the surface. This is cosmetic and we don’t worry much about it but next time we are going to use a small square of carpet under the buckle to minimize this type of damage.
5- On particularly difficult tanks we use four straps so two people can hold the tank while a third turns the socket wrench.
6- We avoid using the on/off pilot control housing for leverage. Again, if there is corrosion it is likely you’ll damage the attachment points and may have to replace the entire heater.
I hope this helps. These things are a bear to deal with but an anode replacement costs under $75 and a new heater is $400+ in our area so if we can extend the life by five years it is well worth the effort.