The House Detective by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector
Dear Barry: When we purchased our house, our home inspector said the water heater was an old model but was in useable condition. After moving in, we called the gas company to light the burner pilot, and the gasman red-tagged the unit, refusing to light it. According to the gas company, the water heater is unsafe and should not be used. Do we have recourse against the home inspector? Frank
Dear Frank: The defining question in this situation is “What exactly is wrong with the water heater?” Without that information, it is not possible to fairly judge between the home inspector and the gasman.
A home inspector should disclose conditions that are visible at the time of the inspection, and with water heaters, the possibilities are numerous. For example, there could be rust damage in the burner compartment, a defective flue pipe, a detached flue baffle, a faulty gas connection, improper gas piping, an unstable platform, lack of a temperature pressure relief valve, flue contact with combustible materials, soot in the burner compartment or in the flue, a damaged or missing draft diverter, back-drafting of combustion exhaust, and so on. Some of these conditions would necessitate replacement of the water heater, while others would be repairable.
One possibility is that the water heater is so old (mid-1960s or earlier) that it does not have an orifice for installing a relief valve. Most water heaters of that age have long since found passage to the nearest landfill, but a few of these antiques are still in service and are in need of replacement. A defect of that nature would call for replacement of the fixture.
In most cases, the gas company specifies the nature of defects when they issue a “red tag” on any gas-burning fixture. If you check the tag, you’ll probably discover what they found. In any event, the home inspector should be contacted regarding reinspection and reconsideration of the water heater. If he missed a visible defect, he may be liable for repairs.