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When housing developer John Coutinho and plumbing contractors George Romita and Robert Jermine talk to clients about the WAGS valve — an automatic shut-off valve for water heaters — they speak with the passion and conviction of true believers, which they are.
Coutinho, owner of Hopkinton, Mass.-based W.E. Development, discovered the device about 15 years ago when he was replacing a heater that had failed and flooded his finished basement. His wife’s uncle, a plumber who had worked in New York City, told him that the valves were a code requirement in multifamily buildings there. “He told me, ‘You’ve got to use this new device; you’ll never have another flood,” Coutinho recalls.
He liked the idea of no more floods, so Coutinho told his plumber to attach the valve to the replacement water heater he had purchased. Four years later, when his wife called to report that there was no hot water in the shower, Coutinho knew what that meant — another failed water heater.
Coutinho rushed home, expecting to find his basement flooded once again. “However, there was no ‘squish-squish,’” he recalls. “The WAGS valve had ‘popped.’ There was less than an inch of water in the drip pan under the heater, and the floor was completely dry.” Coutinho has since installed the valve in every home he’s built or renovated.
Not a Hard Sell
George Romita, who owns Darien, Ill.-based George & Sons HVAC, has a similar tale. Four years ago, he had begun renovating the home he was planning to sell. He had replaced the HVAC system and was planning to also replace two aging water heaters. However, Romita admits, “like the cobbler who has holes in his shoes, I hadn’t gotten around to it.”
The project was at the top of the to-do list Romita intended to tackle after returning from a family vacation, but — you know where this story is heading. One of the old heaters split while he was away, depositing more than six inches of water on his basement floor, destroying computers, documents and family heirlooms and wreaking havoc in the basement itself. “We had to tear it back to its studs” and rebuild it, he recalls, before the house could be sold.
Bob Jermine’s introduction to the WAGS valve also came courtesy of a failed water heater, though not his own. His plumbing firm, T. Jermine & Sons, which his dad started more than 50 years ago, works primarily with banks and supermarkets in the North Haven, Conn., market.
A water heater on the third floor of a client bank’s building began leaking over a weekend. The heater was small — only about five gallons — but by Monday morning, standing water had soaked the room in which the heater was located and seeped down into the floor below.
Jermine’s client asked him to install a WAGS valve on the replacement heater. “I’d never heard of it,” he says, but he recognized the value and has been recommending it to clients ever since. It’s not a hard sell, he says: “Most people get it right away.”
If there is a no-brainer in the plumbing world, a safety device that instantly shuts off the water when a water heater fails certainly qualifies. A relatively small amount of water can do a lot of damage, and a lot of water can leak quickly from a damaged tank.
Remediation experts say it can cost several thousand dollars to remove only one inch of water from a single floor of a small home. Replacing damaged drywall will cost $1,500 or more, depending on how much you are replacing, and refurbishing hardwood floors can cost upwards of $4,000. Remediating mold (an unpleasant and expensive byproduct of water damage) will add thousands of dollars to those costs.
Nonweather-related water damage ranks among the top categories of residential insurance claims, according to the Insurance Information Institute; the average claim is about $11,000.
It’s easy to understand why some insurance companies (Amica Mutual is one) offer premium discounts to property owners who install shut-off devices on their water heaters. Coutinho estimates that the discount he receives saves him $70 to $80 a year. “It’s half the cost of the valve,” he notes, and over 15 years, “the insurance savings will cover the cost of replacing the water heater.”
The insurance discount is a strong selling point, but it’s not the only one. Industry professionals who recommend the valve also note its durability, reliability and simplicity. “It’s easy to install and explain,” Jermine says.
A Simple Concept
There is nothing complicated about the valve’s design or its operation. A small amount of water in the drip pan under the water heater touches a sensor and the spring-driven valve pops, indicating that the water heater has been shut off.
Two other features professionals like: The valve can be equipped to shut off gas as well as water flow. And unlike many other shut-off valves, the WAGS isn’t electric, which means the valve will function if the power goes out.
Some owners incorrectly assume that only older water heaters need a shut-off valve. However, newer heaters can also fail, some of them “right out of the box,” Romita notes.
And even if the water heater never fails, “the valve gives owners peace of mind,” Coutinho adds. “They don’t have to worry that a failed water heater will flood their home.”
It’s a huge plus for snowbirds who spend several months away from their homes each year. “It is a watchdog for them, an added security measure,” Romita says.
The valve also has benefits for the professionals who recommend it. “We’re not a chop-and-swap operation,” Romita says. “We emphasize quality of service over quantity of sales. We want to build relationships with our clients.”
His is one of the only plumbing contracting firms offering the valve in his market, and Romita thinks it “sets us apart. It gives us credibility. We’re not only installing a water heater for our clients, but we’re also giving them peace of mind.”
Coutinho puts a sticker on the water heaters in homes he builds or renovates, noting that the heater comes equipped with a WAGS valve. And he makes sure to point it out to new owners when he’s walking them through the home. “I know they will appreciate the valve if they ever need it,” he says. And if the valve does pop one day, “they’re going to say, ‘our builder was great!’” l
Steven Fielding is Aquaguard’s president, a mechanical engineer and one of the WAGS valve inventors.