Sacrificial jam: Heater trapped under stairs

"If you think I'll be buying another Whirlpool appliance," Marlene Condon says, "you're crazy." Perhaps when she's recovered from fatigue, she'll change her mind. Or maybe not.

Condon bought a Whirlpool water heater from Lowe's last December 30 that was advertised as self-cleaning and guaranteed for life. After Lowe's installed it under her basement stairs, in the same spot as the old one, she read the manual– and got a surprise.

Turns out the unit has an "anode rod" that needs to be checked periodically and, at some point, may need to be replaced. According to a website devoted to such contingencies,, "Nearly all modern water heaters" have at least one magnesium or aluminum anode rod whose job is "to protect exposed steel within [the water heater] through a slow electrochemical reaction" similar to that of a battery.

The anode rod is slowly corroded– or "sacrificed," as water-heater lingo terms it– to save the steel inside the tank from being corroded by the water. Another website,, explains that "Anode rods generally last about five years, but it really depends mostly on the quality of your water and how much water travels through your water heater. When salt is added to the water (such as when water softener is used), anode rods can corrode more quickly."

"The anode rod is about a yard long," Condon explains, "and I cannot possibly check it, let alone replace it, because there is not enough clearance above the unit" in its spot beneath the stairs. "If you don't replace the anode rod as needed," she noted, "your lifetime warranty is voided."

Alarmed, Condon set out to get the problem fixed. One of the documents that came with the water heater said to call the manufacturer, the American Water Heater Company– and not the installer– in case of problems. But when she called, Condon claims, "They refused to take responsibility for not informing anyone that the unit needs a minimum amount of clearance." Condon further alleges that this fact isn't mentioned in any of the literature that came with the water heater.

"After arguing with [American Water Heater] for months," Condon continues, she called the office of Whirlpool's CEO to complain. After that, a Whirlpool rep called and said she'd contact American Water Heater. When the woman called back, however, it was to deliver even more bad news: Neither American Water Heater nor Whirlpool, Condon claims, would take responsibility for the problem.

"I spent yet more months calling and calling Whirlpool," Condon says, "and they simply stopped responding." Finally, last month, she went back to Lowe's. "Surely," she reasoned, "it's their responsibility to know what clearance is needed for an appliance and not to place [it] where it cannot be serviced." Condon claims she was twice told that a serviceman would call. When no one did, she contacted me.

I spoke with Jennifer Smith in Lowe's public relations department, who turned the problem over to the head of customer service. That same day a customer-service employee called to assure Condon that a Lowe's installer really would call this time. The next day, sure enough, one did. According to Condon, the man promised to come out on Tuesday, December 14, and said that he would add piping and move the water heater out from under the stairs.

As we go to press, that's the plan. If Condon continues to have problems with the unit, I'll let you know. Meanwhile, she warns, "There are lots of older homes that have water heaters under the stairs. All of those homeowners may suffer through this same hassle if [manufacturers and dealers] are allowed to continue selling units that need clearance" and the homeowner isn't told the old location may not work.

Do you have an anode rod? Better find out: As warns, if the rod corrodes to the point that it breaks and falls to the bottom of the tank, it can crack the glass lining– and that will shorten the water heater's lifetime for sure.

Do you have a consumer problem or question? Email the Fearless Consumer or write her at Box 4553, Charlottesville 22905.