Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Being Frugal Sometimes Means Spending A Little To Avoid Spending A Lot
If I am going to spend a lot of money on something, I want to make sure it lasts and that I get my money's worth. I'll pay more for a higher quality product because buying a more expensive product once every ten years is cheaper in the long run than buying a new cheaper one every two or three years. Given this, it's no surprise that I'm also a big fan of preventative maintenance.

I'm one of those people that always reads the owners manual. (Yeah, I know. I'm one of those people.) I do it partly to make sure I know about all the features a product has, but also to find out what kind of maintenance the manufacturer recommends. That's just the engineer in me coming out. I figure the folks who made the product know best how to make sure it keeps working, so I might as well follow their advice.

By keeping products well maintained, I can extend their life, sometimes by many years. I may spend a bit each year on maintenance, but it's cheaper than plunking down a big chunk of money on a replacement frequently. Here are some of the common maintenance tasks I do with the big ticket items in my house.

Water Heater

Although I recently put in a tankless water heater, it only serves our master bathroom. The rest of the house is supplied by a 50 gallon tank water heater. About 7 years ago, we came back from an out of state trip to see water running under our garage door and down our driveway. This sight falls into the "things you don't want to see" category. Turns out, our water heater had rusted through and was leaking. Getting it replaced was expensive and inconvenient, as we were without hot water for a couple of days. My long term plan is to eventually replace this with a tankless model that will serve the whole house, but I was in an emergency situation, so I had to go with a new tank model just to get hot water quickly.

Turns out, there is a simple thing you can do to extend the life of your water heater. Tanks rust out due to a electro-chemical reaction between the water and any metal in the tank. To extend the life of tanks, most water heaters include one or two rods that are meant to corrode. These are called sacrificial anodes. They are made of a metal that is more electrically conductive than the metal the tank is made out of, so they corrode instead of the tank.

The problem is they will eventually completely corrode away and, once they are gone, your tank starts corroding instead. The maintenance is simply to sacrifice another virgin put in a new sacrificial anode. It's an extremely simple thing to do. On the top of most tanks, you'll see a 1-1/16 inch hex nut. That's the sacrificial anode. Turn off the water to the tank and release the pressure. Then, unscrew this, pull out the old rod, and put a new one in. There are all kinds of videos on YouTube on how to do this. You just need to make sure you get the right type and size rod for your particular brand of water heater.

A new anode for my water heater costs about $30. I replace it every two years, but you may need to change the anode more often based on the properties of the water in your area. I set a recurring reminder in my computer to change the anode so now I never forget to do it. Here is a picture of an old rod I took out of my tank (top) and the replacement rod (bottom). You can see how much corrosion took place in two years.

For comparison, my new water heater cost me $975. Paying $30 every two years is cheap insurance. Before I was doing this, my old water heater lasted five years. My new water heater has lasted 7 years so far and I've replaced the anode twice. Note that most water heaters have a warranty on the tank against leaking. However, if you read the fine print, you'll see that warranty requires you to perform regular maintenance, which includes replacing the anode rod.

Cost: $30

Another part of water heater maintenance is flushing the tank to remove any debris from the bottom of the tank. Small rocks, mineral deposits, and pieces of the anode rod that may break off, all fall to the bottom of the tank. If they stay there, they can cause problems during the heating process by creating hot spots in the tank. It's best to flush the tank periodically to get these particles out. I do this at the same time I replace the anode rod.

Cost: 50 gallons of water - about 8 cents.

My goal is to get 15 years out of the water heater.

Air Conditioner

I live in Arizona and air conditioning is a requirement here. Twelve years ago, the AC went out in my house during the summer and, let me tell you, it was not fun. My wife was pregnant at the time and the temperature inside the house quickly got to 90 degrees. And it doesn't cool down at night. Needless to say, my wife was not pleased with the situation. Not surprisingly, AC repair companies are swamped during the summer and we were not able to get our unit fixed for a day or two. We ended up having to stay in a hotel until it was fixed.

We live in a different house now and we actually have two air conditioning units, so if one goes out, we could probably survive until it was repaired by going to the part of the house serviced by the working unit. If both went out at once though, we'd be toast.

We still had an issue with one of the condensation drainage lines getting plugged in our new house. Condensation at the heat exchanger in the attic backed up and spilled out of the capture pan. We ended up with water damage on the ceiling in our kitchen and had to have the ceiling repaired and repainted.

So I have purchased a yearly maintenance contract with a local AC company. They come out twice a year - once in the summer and once in the winter - and perform maintenance on our AC and heater units. If something is broken or needs to be fixed, we get a discount on the service. They can catch any problems while they are still small and prevent them from growing into much more expensive problems later on.

Cost: $200 per unit per year / $400 total per year

Another maintenance task is to replace the air filters regularly. I have programmable thermostats that track how long each unit runs and I have set them up to display a reminder to change the filters after they have had 3 weeks of continuous use. That usually works out to about 3 months in "real time", about 2 in the summer.

Cost: $23 for 4 filters per change.

My goal is to get 20 years out of the AC units.

Washer and Dryer

Washer and dryers get a ton of use. We probably average a load a day each week. I consider these machines to be close to indispensable, so I want to make sure they stay in working order. I plan on replacing these every 10 years and actually have a line in my budget to save for that expense, but I want to minimize any repairs during those ten years. If fact, I just replaced my units a couple months ago because our old dryer died. Total cost: $2,600. (Recall what I said earlier about paying for quality products. I could have purchased cheaper units, but I opted for ones recommended by Consumer Reports for quality and reliability.)

Reading the manuals told me regular maintenance on the washer involves running a self-cleaning cycle every 20 loads and cleaning the dryer lint trap after each load. I'm not going to count loads of laundry, so I cheated a bit here and I just run the washer self-cleaning cycle on the first of every month. (That probably works out to once every 30 to 40 loads, but that's close enough in my book.) Again, I use a recurring reminder on my computer so I don't forget. Cleaning the dryer lint trap is just something I do after each load. (In fact, when my old dryer needed to be repaired, the technician commented on how clean my dryer was!)

Cost: Negligible.

My goal is to get 10 years out of the units.


Cars definitely need regular maintenance! I drive a Prius and it has a computer that tracks mileage. I can set thresholds for alerts for about 15 different maintenance tasks - oil changes, tire rotations and balancing, air filter changes, spark plug changes, etc. I love the computer, because it tracks the mileage for me and it takes zero effort on my part. When it's time for something to be done, a notification pops up on my display. I get the work done, then reset the alert.

I've had no major problems with the car so far. I crossed the 100,000 mile mark a couple months ago and had to spend about $1,000 on some major (routine) maintenance, as a lot of systems are due for checkups at that point. I've got a line item in my budget for auto maintenance though, so that was planned for. My goal is to get 175,000 to 200,000 miles out of the car. Of course, my overall goal is to replace the car with a Tesla :-) Those need even less maintenance!

Cost: Varies, depending on service. Averages about $75/month.

By spending a little bit periodically on preventative maintenance, you can keep your appliances in good working order, extend their lifespan, and put off the need for expensive replacements!


  1. Hello, I also live in Arizona and I'm curious to know who you use for the AC maintenance contract and what your experience has been with them.

    Thanks for the tip about the water heater anode, I'm definitely checking on that tomorrow!

  2. I have used Chas Roberts for at least the last 5 years. I'm pretty happy with them, although they did upsell me on some surge protectors I probably didn't need. Other than that, no complaints. And the same guy has done the service for the last couple of years, so he knows my system.

  3. I should mention I plan to purchase a home warranty in October. At that point, I'll stop buying the Chas Roberts maintenance because the home warranty offers the same service for slightly cheaper. I'm just waiting until October because that is my last pre-paid service from Chas Roberts.