Pilot (sometimes) won't light in gas water heater


Last week, my water heater stopped heating. My wife and I both tried to light the pilot according to the instructions, but it wouldn't start. We called Whirlpool's hot-line. Some Indians told us to check the gas line and so forth. No luck. (The furnace is running fine and there's only a few feet of pipe between the furnace and the water heater, so there's not a lot possible points of failure.)
I then called a plumber. He came out and the lit the thing with no trouble. (I'm sure he thought we were ignorant, and he might be right.) He suggested that it might have gone out because of failing thermocouple. He checked for leaks, charged me $60, and left.
I got one tank of hot water and then the pilot went out again. I couldn't restart it. I'm not seeing a spark, but I don't really know if I should expect that behind the window.
It seems to me that I should get gas in the pilot position with the override button pressed even with a defective thermocouple. Is that right? I felt pretty good about that idea until I read this:
http://www.hometips.com/home_probsolver/hps03/11_waterheat/hps_waterheat01.html
6) *** If the pilot won't light, the thermocouple may be defective;*** either call your gas utility to check the appliance (a free service in many areas) or call an appliance repair person.
Should I perhaps be looking for gas or air restrictions or replacing a thermocouple?
Any advice or information is appreciated.
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He didn't offer to proactively replace the $8 thermocouple while he was there?

I'd definitely start with the thermocouple. If you're not comfortable with gas, $60 for a plumber visit is awfully cheap.
-- Todd H. http://toddh.net /
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Todd H. wrote:

He would do that, but he quoted $300 for the installation, which we judged to be excessive, my wife having replaced one herself.
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Holy shit....
LMAO. Wow. Please post the name of this criminal's company so all can benefit. $300 for a thermocouple?
Good call on sending them on their way with $60. BEjebus. Thermocouples should be a $15 adder to a service call tops.
-- Todd H. http://toddh.net /
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Todd H. wrote:

I have some good experience with them in the past, so I don't feel that harsh about them.
http://www.metzlerplumbing.com /
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When lighting a pilot light, one has to wait holding the button down for at least a minute. This can seem a long time when down on your knees in a cramped place. Sometimes there is a click when the valve opens, but, as with my heater there is no sound, you have to guess. Once you let go of the button it will shut down if the valve has not opened making it appear to be defective. So it pays to err on the long timeframe before releasing the button.

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EXT wrote:

Thanks for the reply.
It's not lighting and then going out, so I don't think that's my problem.
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David:
You said: "I'm not seeing a spark, but I don't really know if I should expect that behind the window.". Are you expecting the button to create a spark to light your pilot light. Most water heaters need to have the pilot light lit with a flame. The button bypasses the safety of the cold thermocouple so that gas will pass through the pilot light so it can be lit. Most water heaters have detailed instructions on how to light, some including mine fails to mention that a flame needs to be applied to the pilot to light it.

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EXT wrote:

My heater is similar to this one: http://www.lowes.com/lowes/lkn?action=productDetail&productId!1377-135-BFG1F4040S3NOV&lpage=none
I believe the large red button on the left overrides the thermocouple and allows gas to flow even when the device is cold.
There's a button on the right (black in this picture) that goes into an enclosed area. I lit the pilot on my old water heater with a flame, but I believe this black button is the right method on this water heater.
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How is it vented? Mine has a pipe within a pipe and when the inner pipe fails flame goes out.

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Art wrote:

It vents out my chimney. I don't recall what the connection between the chimney and water heater looks like. I'll take a look when I get home.
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wrote:

A thermal couple replacement might have only added about 30 bucks to your original visit. Just that the original person couldn't reproduce your problem(it lit and stayed lit). So a TC replacement might have been cheap enough to just get it done.
Just next time, have your plumber/apliance repair person, stick around to watch a full cycle. Turn on the hot water till you create a heat demand, and watch if the pilot light remains lit.
Just a guess, not a plumber, or applicance repair person. Just a frugal home owner. ;)
tom @ www.FreelancingProjects.com
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Just to close the loop on this:
The burner itself was broken into two pieces. I'm guessing the broken piece was partially obstructing the pilot (or our view of it).
Whirlpool sent us a replacement for pretty much all of the guts and now we have hot water.
I am really appreciating showers with warm water now. Thanks for the responses.
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