A tale of why I didn’t replace my 35-year-old hot water heater, or, why most corrosion mitigation procurement practices are hopelessly flawed.

“To me, the extraordinary aspect of martial arts lies in its simplicity. The easy way is also the right way…” -- Bruce Lee

Use What Works

I apologize to the long-time readers of my articles, but for those of you who are new, I’ll be brief.

I’m an avid martial artist. I teach traditional, combat Japanese Jujitsu at a club at Northwestern University and over the past six months have taken up studying Brazilian Jujitsu three to six times per week.

I model much of my life and certainly my vendor-neutral corrosion mitigation consultancy directly upon many of the precepts found in combat martial arts.

Why?

Because in a fight, you only use what works. I study, and teach, the same skills (as best as can be determined) that the Samurai practiced. And if something didn’t work in battle it simply didn’t survive to be taught from generation to generation – kind of like a survival-of-the-fittest thing.

“Use only that which works, and take it from any place you can find it.” -- Bruce Lee

That quote, in fact, is exactly what I do in my business. Clients come to us with corrosion and other issues, and we identify the singular, optimal solution. Just as there is an optimal technique to defend against a certain knife attack, there is an optimal solution to corrosion issues; which brings us to my hot water heater. (For further discussion on best practices, see Corrosion Knowledge Management versus Corrosion Management: An Essential Tool for Assets Integrity Management.)

Plans to Replace a Hot Water Heater, Gas Furnace and Air Conditioner

It was last September, and I had budgeted replacement of my gas furnace, gas hot water heater and air conditioner. They were all around 35 years old and I didn’t want to have the furnace conk out in the dead of a Chicago winter. And I thought it would make sense to replace them all at the same time.

Lessons from a 35-Year-Old Water Heater

So, not knowing anything about these appliances or issues, I started doing what everyone does – gathering proposals.

Now when most individuals or large organizations (and we work with some of the largest in the world) start this process, they look for two or three quotes that are similar in nature – “apples to apples.” The problem, however, in all cases is the nature of this process. You can’t trust these individuals to provide you with optimal solutions. They may not know how, or they may not be incentivized to do so, but, fundamentally, that’s not their job!

Their job, like all of us, is to feed our families and make a living. Their job is to sell various products and services. And whether we’re talking about my hot water heater or a US$500,000,000 painting project, every single vendor is incentivized to do what’s in his or her best interest and not the client’s. That is, the more money the owner spends, the more money goes into their pockets.

Is it any surprise that all three companies I spoke with recommended I replace all three appliances, and offered extended warranties and extra this and that and the other thing?

Of course not. That’s their job – and woe unto the owners who are not vigilant. The Romans had a phrase for this, “caveat emptor,” meaning buyer beware.

But I was patient and asked many, many questions. After all, the hot water heater was working fine except for the pilot light going off a few times a year. And the air conditioner was working fine, just oversized.

One of my favorite quotes (and as you can tell I have many) is from Gandhi – and it has critical importance to corrosion mitigation procurement:

“Truth is by nature self-evident. As soon as you remove the cobwebs of ignorance surrounding it, it shines clear.” -- Gandhi

Rethinking the Replacement Decision in the Absence of Corrosion Damage

And then I talked to Craig.

Craig is first and foremost a great guy. He’s kind, fair and helpful. He’s also a kindred spirit and can’t help himself but to tell the truth. He’s also one of the most knowledgeable HVAC guys I know.

I told him I had gathered price quotes and that all four contractors said I needed to replace all three items at the same time.

He agreed that the furnace needed replacing (old, inefficient, replacement parts are unavailable, corrosion, etc.) but when I told him I wanted to replace the hot water heater, he looked at me quizzically.

He asked, “Why?”

I said, “Well, it’s old, and people told me I should replace it. It’s near the end of its life expectancy.”

Like a father putting his hand on the shoulder of his 14-year-old son who just failed a final exam, Craig shook his head patiently.

He said, “Let me explain to you how corrosion works.”

I laughed to myself and almost stopped him. I thought to myself, “Craig’s a great guy, but what is he going to tell me about corrosion?”

I started to say I knew all about corrosion and that I was a NACE this and a SSPC that, and blah, blah, blah… but I didn’t. From my decades of studying martial arts, coatings and everything else - I’ve learned far more by keeping my mouth shut and ears open. And I’ve learned the most from those with blue collars, dirty fingernails and paint-splattered boots, the black belts of the corrosion world.

Lessons from a 35-Year-Old Water Heater

He explained to me that a glass-lined tank really could last forever, as long as the glass didn’t crack or become damaged. He then explained that should the glass become damaged, the internal sacrificial anode inside the tank is designed to protect any exposed steel fittings and anything else metallic in the tank.

He explained how the corrosion mechanism is an electrochemical process, requiring an anode, cathode, metallic pathway and electrolyte, and that the glass was protecting the steel of the tank by keeping the water (electrolyte) from the steel. And that the anode would wear out (sacrifice itself) in place of any carbon steel because it was a less noble metal, like magnesium. (Learn more about evaluating corrosion in the article Corrosion Assessment: 8 Corrosion Tests That Help Engineers Mitigate Corrosion.)

Lessons from a 35-Year-Old Water Heater

Craig said, “Let’s replace the burner and the sacrificial anode. It should cost around US$350.00.”

He was having the same conversation with me that I have with my clients. He was advising me on the optimal course to take, based on the data at hand. And he was completely unbiased, even when he told me to replace the burner and anode. He said, “I can do it, or you can do it yourself.”As a side note, he said the same thing about the air conditioner. If it’s not broke, leave it alone. So as I write this, the air conditioner is purring along nicely, keeping us cool while it’s 87°F (30.5°C) outside.

The Vendor’s Best Interest Isn’t Always Your Best Interest When Getting Price Quotes

So what’s the connection between my antique hot water heater and corrosion mitigation procurement in general?

I preach, constantly, about the risk of taking advice, and price quotes, from those individuals and firms who are self-interested. That is, if you’re coating a tank, painting a bridge, rebuilding a structural column or installing passive fire proofing, every vendor (contractor, materials supplier, engineer, etc.) is incentivized to sell their own services. And these vendors are not incentivized to provide owners with optimal solutions.

What vendor in any given circumstance will tell an owner, “You know what, there’s another company out there that has better material.” or, “You know, I could charge you US$350,000 to repaint these columns, but it would be best to just conduct spot repair for US$50,000.” And ask yourself, what vendor would advise an owner to do nothing?

We received a call late last year from a major oil company in England that was emptying a concrete wastewater tank that was 14 years old. It had leaked over the years, which they had anticipated and planned for. They crack injected it over time until all the leaks stopped.

They had contacted a variety of contractors and material suppliers, who all recommended a variety of fancy elastomers and other materials, all in the tony neighborhood of around US$500,000.

I asked the owner if the material in the tanks were erosive to the concrete. No. Was there any rust staining on the outside of the tank? No. Any bulging concrete? No. They even had inserted a submarine into the tank and the concrete looked fine. (Discover more about protecting tanks and similar equipment in Introduction to Managing Internal Corrosion in Process Vessels.)

My recommendation? Leave it alone. Don’t do anything. There was no technical justification to recommend otherwise. And, after substantial internal review of my recommendation, that’s just what they did.

Conclusion

So, regarding my water heater, for now the water flows freely and hot, a necessity to avoid the wrath of my wife and three daughters. And there are a bunch of vendors in Germany who are cussing me out for telling my client with the concrete water tank to do nothing.

In both cases, the truth prevailed and the optimal technique was chosen, satisfying both my checkbook and my intrinsic search for the optimal. I like to think that Bruce Lee would be proud.