Many homeowners who purchased Whirlpool's Flame Lock gas water heaters are taking a lot of cold showers these days, not to relieve frustration but because they have no hot water.

The heater, which is sold only at Lowe's, requires frequent maintenance and, according to almost 100 reader complaints, breaks down frequently.

"This thing's just such a headache," said Rick Carlton of Orange, Calif. "You've got to jump through hoops and meanwhile the family has no hot water."

The guilty party is the device's thermocouple. Tom Babicky, a water heater serviceman for George Morlan Plumbing, "The Water Heater King" of Portland, Ore., said the thermocouple is a standard part in water heaters that helps regulate water temperature.

When the thermocouple breaks, the water heater completely stops working. "Normally a thermocouple will last 10-12 years or more," Babicky said.

However, many readers said their Whirlpool Flame Lock water heater worked less than six months before the thermocouple broke, followed by repeated malfunctions even after a service repairman replaced the part.

"I purchased a new 50-gallon Flame Lock water heater with a 12-year warranty. Seven weeks later, I had no hot water and was told that the thermocouple had gone bad," Carlton said.

Whirlpool water heaters are actually made by the American Water Heater Company (AWHC), one of four such manufacturers in the United States. Companies like Whirlpool, GE and Kenmore slap their stickers on the side of the tank and distribute the product to stores such as Lowe's and Sears.

Ron Herber, communications director for AWHC, did not return repeated telephone calls to his office seeking comment on this story.

Babicky said there is little difference between the four manufacturers and he said they are all reliable. In fact, many of the parts, including the thermocouple, are universal and can be used in any gas water heater.

An Unusual Design

However, in the case of Whirlpool's version of AWHC's water heater, the thermocouple uses left-handed threading, which means it's not universal -- the customer must either get a replacement part by mail or try to find one at Lowe's.

The reverse thread is unusual. Jeff Adler, also from George Morlan Plumbing, said, "Left-handed threads are generally only used for propane."

Although the part is covered in the warranty, the shipping cost to deliver the thermocouple and the labor charges to install it are not. Whirlpool customers who would rather not pay about $10 in shipping while waiting without hot water for the part to arrive, can go to Lowe's to purchase the replacement thermocouple for about $15.

Adding to consumers' annoyance, the warranty only covers parts the first time they break.

Jerry Johnston of Flower Mound, Texas, said his Whirlpool water heater left him taking cold showers for seven days. "When I called Whirlpool the part was on back order so I had to go to Lowe's to get it," he said.

Safety Standards

Whirlpool spokeswoman Jody Lau said the thermocouples are malfunctioning due to new safety standards in gas water heater ventilation systems.

As of July 2005, all new water heaters manufactured in the U.S. are to include Flammable Vapor Ignition Resistant (FVIR) technology. The Gas Manufacturer's Association in conjunction with the Consumer Product Safety Commission voluntarily implemented this new safety standard in 2003.

Babicky said all water heaters have been updated to include FVIR but he has not noticed an increase in complaints about broken thermocouples, even from non-Whirlpool AWHC water heaters that use the standard thermocouple.

Lau said homeowners can prevent the thermocouple from malfunctioning by cleaning the flame-trap and combustion chamber every three months. The Flame Lock water heater manual, however, specifies that this 18-step process needs to be done only once yearly.

Lau said cleaning the flame-trap and combustion chamber should take 5-10 minutes.

Maybe so, but Johnston said he is mechanically inclined and it took him more than an hour -- and that was after watching closely as a repairman did it days before.

According to the manual, cleaning the flame trap and combustion chamber also requires the owner to turn off and then turn back on the gas line to the water heater -- a process Johnston felt was unsafe for most homeowners.

"We would not recommend that," said Tony Burnworth, contractor for Mann's Inc., a plumbing company in Huntington, Ind.

What To Do

Customers looking to be reimbursed should follow Carlton's example. After having to purchase his thermocouple at Lowe's rather than wait for it to be delivered, he hired a plumber to replace the part.

After numerous e-mails and phone calls to Whirlpool went unanswered, he decided to mail copies of his receipts for the part and service to Whirlpool. Although he hasn't seen a check in almost two weeks, Whirlpool did promise to reimburse him the $132 for the service and part.

Customers who have purchased the Flame Lock water heater have 30 days to return it to Lowe's with a receipt. After that their next option is to try and get Whirlpool to take it back.

Burnworth said it is best to have a plumber select and install a residential water heater for three reasons:

• The plumber is trained to determine the proper gallon size and recovery rate based on family size.

• Plumbers are more aware of safety and ventilation requirements than most homeowners.

• Most plumbers will handle all warranty matters for the homeowner if repairs become necessary.

The Flame Lock experience has left customers feeling chilly towards Whirlpool.

"I think their tag line is 'Whirlpool makes life easier.' Obviously they never had to use one of their own hot water heaters," sniffed Lisa of Carrollton, Texas, who said she has had to replace two thermocouples in 18 months.