Tonight, I want to tell you how to vote. I am not going to tell you for whom to vote, but rather how to vote. And by that I do not mean that I am giving instructions on Alexandria's new electronic voting tablets. I mean how to vote.
And to get there, I must tell you about my new water heater.
There are some appliances and fixtures in my house that I have been keeping a wary eye on for the last six months or so. A light fixture in the kitchen seems to be going through bulbs at a rapid rate. My home computer is running Windows 98, which makes it six years old or more, and that is 142 in dog years. We have a big chest freezer that we inherited with the house that is at least 20 years old. I speak to these items encouragingly and promise that I will attend to them in the hopes that they will creak out a little more effort to avoid landing in the trash.
What I have paid no attention to is my hot water heater. It was replaced a dozen years ago, a year or two after we moved in, and has functioned without drawing attention to itself, except for a peculiar gurgling when it fills, for all that time. I assumed that the gurgling was air in the pipes or just the sounds that metal sometimes makes when it is heated and cooled.
But I was wrong. The gurgling was caused by 12 years of sediment that had collected in the bottom of the tank. When the heating element kicked on – generally as the tank filled – the heat caused the sediment to bubble up like the thick part of the soup when you put it on the stove right out of the refrigerator. And that sediment, along with the trapped heat, would have eventually corroded the bottom of the tank and flooded my basement
I only discovered this information because last weekend the pilot light went out on the hot water heater, and I had to manual reignite it, which left us without hot water on Shabbat afternoon. So the plumber came on Monday and repaired the gas coupler, which he suspected was the culprit. Though the pilot initially ignited itself, it would still not stay lit, so he diagnosed the problem as a faulty thermostat or gas valve. To replace just that apparatus, he said, would cost about $300 more. He suggested replacing the whole hot water heater, which his company was willing to do for $750.
I asked how much of that $750 was for installation. He said about $200. I said I thought I could do better buying a hot water heater than $500 or more, so I made an appointment for the next day and went down to Home Depot to buy a hot water heater.
Now, I don't know if you know that I have attention deficit disorder. Big busy places send my brain spinning. Home Depot is just such a place, especially since they use an electronic chime that has the same qualities as nails on a chalkboard to page their employees. And this being Home Depot, where the motto seems to be, "We Dare You to Find Someone Who Can Help You," that chime went off about every eight seconds. The plumbing supply person was at lunch, a peculiar place to be at 4:45 in the evening, but I was assured he would return in no longer than 15 minutes. At 5:15, I corralled a manager to help me. Getting a 50-gallon hot water tank into a shopping cart is a story for another occasion. Let's just say the reason I came – to save a couple hundred dollars on a hot water heater – was the only real success of the evening.
Tuesday morning at 10:30, two very nice plumbers showed up for the two-hour installation. At 2:15, they presented me with a bill for $585. When I questioned the disparity, they explained two things.
First of all, yesterday's plumber didn't know what he was talking about. And secondly, I had bought a top-of-the-line water heater, one with a 12-year warranty that was not the same brand as the one it replaced, which made it a non-standard installation. The package deal they offered was for standard installation of a six-year tank.
But now I have a brand-new clean and quiet 50-gallon hot water heater. If I drain it every year as I am supposed to do, the sediment will not collect in the bottom as rapidly and I will have neither gurgling nor unduly rapid corrosion.
My new hot water heater cost me an unexpected $875, six hours of lost time, a splitting headache from noise and aggravation and the discovery, as always happens, of other unexpected matters demanding my attention, like the stuff I tried to hide behind the old water heater so I wouldn't have to deal with it.
If we had invested in a better water heater 12 years ago and maintained it as we should have, this problem would not have presented it self so suddenly or definitively. But because I chose to leave what was apparently well enough alone and ignore the noises that indicated trouble by pretending I knew what they were, I had no choice but to invest in a solution to the avoidable – or at least postponable – crisis.
Mind you, my other problems are still there. My computer still cannot walk and chew gum at the same time. I am still getting about twenty per cent of the light I should from my hungry fixture. And the freezer hums ominously at me, ending with a funny little noise like a hollow coconut whenever the condenser kicks off. I cannot ignore them for long, even if the hot water crisis commanded my attention and my available short-term cash. And the solution is not to make myself feel better by going out to dinner and a show because I still have a couple of hundred bucks in my pocket that I saved on the water heater.
Educating our young, affordable health care, the ravages of unemployment and poverty, affordable housing, compromises of our environment, protecting retirement income, the AIDS pandemic in Africa and Asia, genocide in Sudan, trade deficits and small-country indebtedness are all appliances and fixtures that need our attention and will not last long if our strategy is to talk to them and ask them to just be patient with what they have.
And the fact that our attention and our wallet has been grabbed by the crisis of terrorism and the war on terrorism – and for us as Jews, the concerns about Israel – does not mean those other issues have gone away.
Here's how to vote: wisely, with an eye to the long term. Don't believe the short-term answers you get from the candidates who want only your vote, any more than that first plumber.
And once a year, drain your water heater tank.