Consumers with Whirlpool water heaters sold at Lowe's have about two months to file claims in the settlement of a class action lawsuit that alleged the water heaters were defective.
More than 1,000 consumers have filed reports with ConsumerAffairs.com saying the thermocouple in their Flame Lock or Flame Guard Whirlpool water heaters continuously breaks down leaving them without hot water -- sometimes for days.
"Less than two years ago I purchased a Whirlpool Flame Lock water heater at Lowe's, paid to have it installed and thought my problems were solved," Chris of Hammond, Ind. wrote "However, I have had to change the thermocouple at least six times, on average about once every three to four months.
"Whirlpool reimbursed me for the part the first time, but that is it," Chris continued. "While I am not a professional mechanic or technician, I am mechanically inclined and replacing this thing is a real hassle. The part is only about $14 but the labor and repeated inconvenience is really aggravating."
The thermocouple is a safety device that cuts off the flow of gas should the pilot light go out thereby preventing gas from leaking out, said Richard Doherty, one of the lawyers who defended consumers in the class action lawsuit.
These water heaters, which Whirlpool started selling in 2000, incorporated a new safety standard, the flammable vapors-ignition-resistance standard, which gas water heater manufacturers voluntarily implemented in conjunction with the Consumer Product Safety Commission February 2000.
"This was a new technology," Doherty said. "The old style with the open flame at the bottom has been done away with because there was the possibility of gas leaks. Now you have a sealed combustion chamber."
But the combustion chamber in these Whirlpool-branded water heaters, which were actually manufactured by the American Water Heater Company, collected a considerable amount of dust and lint which eventually restricted oxygen to the flame.
"Things would get clogged underneath the hot water heater and fire needs oxygen and the flame is reaching to get oxygen basically away from where the flame is designed to be because it's not getting enough oxygen," Doherty said. "As it gets over toward the thermocouple it trips it."
ConsumerAffairs.com first reported on this apparent defect almost two years ago and soon after, Whirlpool and the American Water Heater Company updated their design, Doherty said.
They "upgraded the manifold door assembly with a resettable thermal cutoff switch," Doherty said. "The original ones were called single-use so if that thing went you had to get a new one. The new one is resettable like a fuse in a fusebox."
While consumers who have purchased Flame Lock and Flame Guards since 2007 have not shared the frustrations of older customers, anyone who purchased one of the models between 2000 and 2006 is eligible for the upgraded parts, according to the settlement's website, www.waterheatersettlement.com.
Those consumers are entitled to the upgraded manifold door assembly shipped free to them or receive reimbursement for any previously upgraded manifold door assembly and shipping costs previously incurred.
The settlement does not cover installation costs.
Consumers who paid for replacement thermocouples can be reimbursed up to $15 per thermocouple up to $30. Consumers who experienced more than three thermocouple failures and then replaced their water heater are eligible for $150.
Class members must postmark their claims by June 28, 2008. Claim forms can be downloaded at www.waterheatersettlement.com.
The defendants in the case, Whirlpool, Lowe's and A.O. Smith, which purchased American Water Heater Company, have never admitted the water heaters were defective, Doherty said.
The defendants did not return multiple calls for comment.