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Should I Repair or Replace My Water Heater?

A King plumber uses a wrench to make adjustments and maintain a local home's water heater here in Chicago.

When a water heater malfunctions, it is an enormous inconvenience to everyone in the household. These essential appliances are responsible for keeping your showers hot and your dishes clean. Most families reap the benefits of a hot water heater on a daily basis, and when it malfunctions, a rapid solution is crucial.
Typical signs that the unit is going bad are a failure to heat water, loud noises, water leaking, and rusty or cloudy water. Some of these issues are fairly inexpensive to solve while others require a full replacement. Whether you should opt for water heater repair or a replacement water heater, there are many factors to consider.

Age of Water Heater

While the maximum lifespan of a water heater depends mainly on the type of unit, typical gas-powered or electric-powered water heaters generally last between 6 to 12 years. Tankless and solar water heaters can last up to 20 if properly maintained.
If you are unsure about the age of your water heater, the manufacturing date, and serial number should be located on the back of the unit. You can go online and enter the serial number to find out more information if the date isn’t evident.
Water heater units that are under 5 years old are usually less expensive to repair, and may still be covered by a warranty. For units over 10 years old, it is probably more economical to replace them instead of wasting money on expensive repairs. Also, there is less risk of a major leak happening and causing damage to your home and belongings.

Water Not Heating Up

One of the most common water heater complaints is that the water never heats up or starts warm but quickly turns cold. The loss of heat may be due to a couple of inexpensive problems that can be easily repaired: a misadjusted thermostat or a broken heating element.
Before getting too worried about having to spend thousands of dollars on a new water heater, take a look at your unit’s thermostat settings. If the water heater thermostat wasn’t originally set correctly or accidentally got changed, the water from your faucets will not be able to reach adequate levels of heat. Ideally, the thermostat should be set between 120 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit.
The heating element of your electric water tank is a metal tube or coil that conducts the energy to create a temperature increase. Heating elements usually last around 6 to 10 years, at which point the electric connections can go bad. Gas-powered water heaters use a burner to heat the water, which can also decline with age. Replacing a heating element is a relatively quick and cheap fix to water heater problems.

Source of Water Leak

Water should always remain in the tank and if you see water on or around it, there may be a leak. Finding the source of the water leak will do a great deal in determining if the water heater needs to be replaced or repaired.
A pool of water around the bottom of your water tank is a bad sign and should be addressed immediately. This usually means the interior lining has been worn down by a buildup of sediment. Another cause of leaks is the expansion of the tank itself. Over time, as the tank is exposed to thousands of heating cycles, stress fractures may start to form.
There could be a loose fitting or connection to the water tank that is creating a water leak. Sometimes the solution is as simple as tightening components like the temperature/pressure overflow pipe or relief valve. It is best to have a professional examine the parts to determine if they need to be adjusted or replaced.

Loud or Strange Noises

A working water heater should make very little noise or no sounds at all. Loud or strange noises coming from your tank are a definite sign of concern. The most common reason for clanging, rumbling, or knocking sounds is the accumulation of sediment at the bottom of the unit.
Sediment is the buildup of impurities in hard water in the form of small rocks that bang around inside your tank while the water is heating up. Abnormally hard water can cause this issue to appear more rapidly than normal.
Sediment buildup causes an aging water heater to work harder which takes longer and raises your energy bill. It can also cause strain on the unit, wear down the metal encasement, and cause devastating leaks. Homeowners should have their hot water tanks flushed once per year to drain sediment and keep the unit working efficiently.

Rusty or Cloudy Water

Water discoloration or a metallic odor is a sure sign that your water heater needs to be inspected for repair or replacement. If the water in your faucets comes out rusty or cloudy, there is likely corrosion in or around the tank. Rust is an indication that your unit will probably need to be replaced as it is a warning sign for oncoming leaks.
It is possible that your pipes are getting rusty, not your water tank. A way to check this is by running at least three buckets full of hot water from one of your faucets. If the rust fades away as you run the water, it is most likely your pipes are getting rusty. The only way to know for sure is to consult a professional.

Size of Water Heater Tank

As you grow and experience life changes, your household water needs can also change. The amount of hot water in a small tank may be suitable for a single or two-person household, but you made need to upgrade as your family grows. If your family members regularly run out of hot water after using multiple appliances or taking numerous showers, your hot water supply is depleting and you should consider installing a larger tank.

Consult a Professional for the Best Option

Regardless of the specific problem, you should have your water heater inspected by a professional as soon as possible to prevent even more costly damage. When hot water tank issues are ignored, the results can lead to significant property damage and the likelihood of invasive mold. Calling in an expert is the best way to ensure your water heater is well-maintained and thoroughly inspected. They can give you the pros and cons of repairing or replacing your water heater.