What you’ll find on this page: As with many things, work goes more smoothly if you have the right tool for the job. Here are the tools we think work best for servicing water heaters. Some are mundane, others more esoteric.
For years, we’ve been telling people to use a pipe wrench to do this or a basin wrench to do that, forgetting that, once upon a time, such terms would have been so much Greek to us. So we decided it was past time to have a tools page where you could see what the tools we name look like, with an explanation of how to use them.
Happily, the set of tools needed for residential water heater maintenance is a small set, so if you don’t have something, it probably won’t bankrupt you to get it and you’ll likely find it useful for other things. There is a rather larger set for commercial applications, so if you’re a plumber, feel free to ask what they are at firstname.lastname@example.org. Even there, if you’re a well-stocked plumber, you’ll probably already have many of them.
Ratchet Wrench and Sockets
This is all about removing hex-head anodes. Most water heaters come with those. What is required is a ratchet and a 1 and 1/16-inch socket, and maybe a cheater bar. What’s that, you might ask. It’s not shown, for a reason. It is anything you can stick onto the end of the ratchet handle to increase your leverage. Copper pipe, steel pipe…usually pipe of some sort. So, (1) the actual ratchet, in this case a 1/2-inch-drive; (2) a 3/4-inch-drive, 12-point socket, which is easier to get onto a hex nut, but doesn’t provide as much bite; (3) a 3/4-inch-drive, six-point socket, the opposite: hard to get onto the hex nut, but is less likely to round off the points of the hex nut; (4) a torque-multiplier anode extractor (don’t expect to find that at the hardware store).
Just a plain ol’ pipe wrench, but very useful for removing or tightening pipe nipples or tightening up a curved dip tube or combo anode. If the pipe nipple you’re removing is unlined galvanized steel, beware. Those have a sad tendency to rust on the inside and lose their structural integrity. And snap off.
Basin Wrench and Crescent Wrench
This combination is uncommonly useful for taking out standard plastic drain valves, which have a lamentable tendency to twist and break if they’ve been in a water heater for a long time. The basin wrench is the tool with the square shaft and jaws. The jaws lock onto the plastic drain valve as close to the tank as you can get them. Then you turn the basin wrench with the crescent wrench. There is still a chance the drain valve will snap, which takes us to the next tools:
Hammer and Flat-Bladed Screwdriver
If a plastic drain valve snaps, having a hammer, a flat-bladed screwdriver and a towel can get you out of hot water. The towel is to absorb the hot water coming from the heater. You can use the screwdriver and hammer to gently tap the broken plastic piece out of the threads, then install a ball valve drain assembly with pipe-seal tape.
This kind of tool has some device (1) to let you open or close the jaws to accommodate different diameters of objects. What we mainly use them for is tightening drain assemblies and tightening and loosening flex-line nuts. But the back side of the jaws offers just the thing for tapping on a temperature/pressure relief valve that wants to run or drip after being tested. Such a tap often resolves the problem. The rubberized handles can also be used to remove standard dip tubes when replacing them with a curved dip tube.
7/8-Inch Hole-Saw Bit and Drill
We presume everybody knows what a drill looks like, so we’re leaving that out. But a hole-saw bit is something else, so here one is. It goes on any drill and, well, cuts holes. Or in this case, it cuts steel rings, such as those occasionally found in the cold-water-inlet ports of water heaters. Sometimes a factory dip tube will sit on that ring and impede the installation of a curved dip tube that comes with integral nipple.
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