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Water heater care guide

Maintaining a water heater is as critical as taking care of any other essential home appliances. This article holds significant relevance for homeowners living in regions that experience harsh winter conditions, which can notably impact the performance and longevity of their water heaters.


Importance of water heater care for homeowners

  • Water heater maintenance can help prevent untimely breakdowns during the bitter cold winters, when hot water is most needed.
  • Regular maintenance can extend the life of your water heater, saving you the cost of premature replacement.
  • Proper care and maintenance ensure your water heater operates at peak efficiency, reducing energy costs and environmental impact.
  • Regular inspections can detect issues like leaks or corrosion early, preventing potential water damage to your property.

Overview of water heater types

There are two primary types of water heaters: tankless water heaters and storage tank water heaters. Each type has unique characteristics and maintenance needs.


Tankless water heaters

Tankless water heaters, also known as on-demand or instant water heaters, heat water directly without the use of a storage tank. When a hot water tap is turned on, cold water travels through a pipe into the unit, where it’s heated.

  • They are energy efficient as they only heat the water when needed, but they might require more regular maintenance due to the potential for mineral build-up.
  • These systems often last longer than their storage tank counterparts, up to 20 years if well-maintained.

Storage tank water heaters

A storage tank water heater is the most common type of water heater in the US. It consists of a large tank that holds and heats water.

  • They can hold anywhere from 20 to 80 gallons of water and maintain it at a set temperature.
  • These types of heaters can accumulate sediment over time, which can reduce efficiency and lifespan if not regularly flushed.

Regular water heater maintenance

Maintaining your water heater should be a regular part of your home care routine. Doing so will help extend the life of your appliance, maintain its efficiency, and prevent costly repairs or replacements.

How often should you maintenance you water heater?

  • Tankless water heaters generally require maintenance once a year, especially in areas with hard water. However, if your water is soft, maintenance every 2-3 years might suffice.
  • Storage tank water heaters should be inspected at least once a year, with the tank being drained and flushed to remove sediment every six months to a year, depending on water hardness.

DIY maintenance tasks

Certain aspects of water heater maintenance can be performed by homeowners themselves:

  • Checking the pressure relief valve: This safety device releases pressure if the tank pressure becomes too high. To check it, carefully lift the valve halfway, then let go. It should snap back into place, releasing a burst of water into the overflow drainpipe. If it doesn’t, it should be replaced.
  • Inspecting for leaks: Regularly check around the base of the unit and the connections for signs of leaks. Even a small leak can lead to significant water damage over time.
  • Testing the thermostat: Ensure the thermostat is set to a safe and energy-efficient temperature, typically around 120°F. You can test the accuracy of the thermostat by comparing its setting to the actual water temperature from a faucet.

Professional maintenance services

While there are some maintenance tasks you can perform yourself, certain aspects should definitely be left to professionals. A licensed plumber or HVAC professional can provide comprehensive services that ensure the safe, efficient operation of your water heater. These services include:

Full system inspection: A professional can carry out a thorough system check, including looking for leaks, inspecting valves, and evaluating the condition of the heating element or burner assembly. They can also assess the quality of your water supply and its effect on your heater, something homeowners might overlook.

Flushing the system: Although flushing can be a DIY task for storage tank systems, it’s best to have a professional do it for tankless systems. Professionals use special equipment and solutions to thoroughly remove scale build-up, which can significantly improve your system’s efficiency and lifespan.

Replacing anodes: The anode rod in a storage tank system is a critical component that prevents corrosion of the tank. When significantly corroded, it should be replaced – a task best carried out by a professional. They can also determine if a different type of anode rod, such as aluminum or magnesium, might be more suitable for your water conditions.

Inspecting and replacing the dip tube: The dip tube directs incoming cold water to the bottom of the tank for heating. A worn or damaged dip tube can lead to cold water mixing with the hot, reducing your heater’s effectiveness. A professional can check the condition of the dip tube and replace it if necessary.

Checking and adjusting the thermostat: Professionals can test the thermostat’s accuracy and adjust its settings for optimal performance and energy efficiency.

Checking the expansion tank: If your system includes an expansion tank, a professional can check it for proper air pressure and signs of failure, which could affect your main water heater.

By implementing a regular maintenance schedule and knowing when to call in professional help, you can ensure your water heater remains efficient and functional for many years to come. Remember, professional maintenance not only addresses current issues but can also preemptively identify potential problems, saving you from inconvenient breakdowns and costly repairs.

Flushing the water heater

Why it’s important

Flushing the water heater is a vital aspect of its maintenance. Over time, minerals and sediments from the water can build up at the bottom of the heater tank. This sediment layer can insulate the water from the burner, forcing it to work harder and thus use more energy. Additionally, the sediment can clog the drain valve and potentially shorten the life of your water heater. By flushing the water heater, you can ensure it operates efficiently, saving on energy costs and prolonging the heater’s lifespan.

How ofter should you flush your water heater?

The frequency of flushing your water heater depends on several factors, such as the hardness of your water and the manufacturer’s guidelines. However, as a general rule, it’s recommended to flush your water heater at least once a year. If your water is particularly hard, or if your water heater gets a lot of use, you might need to flush it more often.

Steps to flush a water heater

Before you begin, ensure you have a garden hose, a pair of gloves, and safety glasses. Always remember safety comes first, and if you’re not comfortable doing this yourself, consider hiring a professional. Here’s a simple step-by-step guide:

1. First, turn off the water heater. If it’s electric, unplug it or turn off the circuit breaker. If it’s gas, turn the thermostat to the “pilot” setting.

2. Connect a garden hose to the drain valve located near the bottom of the water heater. Make sure the other end of the hose is in a suitable location to handle warm water and sediment, such as a driveway or garden.

3. Shut off the cold water supply to the water heater.

4. Open the drain valve and allow the water to flow out through the garden hose. Caution: The water will be hot, so ensure the hose is pointing away from you and others.

5. After the water has drained, turn the cold water supply on and off in short bursts to help stir up the remaining sediment and flush it out. Repeat this process until the water runs clear.

6. Once the water runs clear, close the drain valve and remove the garden hose. Turn the cold water supply back on and allow the tank to fill.

7. When the tank is full, turn the water heater back on. If it’s gas, switch the thermostat back to your desired setting. If it’s electric, plug it back in or turn the circuit breaker back on.

Remember, routine flushing is an excellent way to maintain your water heater’s efficiency and longevity. However, if you notice anything unusual during the process, such as a leaky valve or discolored water that doesn’t clear, it’s time to call a professional.

Checking and replacing the anode rod

Function of the anode rod

The anode rod, often called a “sacrificial” anode rod, plays a critical role in preventing your water heater tank from rusting. The rod, typically made of magnesium or aluminum with a steel core, is designed to corrode instead of the steel in your tank. By doing so, it “sacrifices” itself to protect the tank, hence its name.

Signs of a worn-out anode rod

Over time, the anode rod will corrode and become less effective at protecting your tank, which is why it’s essential to check and replace it periodically. There are a few signs that your anode rod may need replacing:

Rusty or brown water: If you notice rust color in your hot water, it may indicate that the anode rod is no longer effectively preventing rust in the tank.

Bad smell: A rotten egg smell can occur when bacteria reacts with the anode rod. If your water smells, it’s worth checking the anode rod.

Checking the rod directly: The most definitive way to determine if your anode rod needs replacing is to check it directly. If more than 6 inches of the core steel wire is visible, or the rod is less than 1/2 inch thick, it’s time to replace it.


Steps to replace the anode rod

Replacing the anode rod is a more complex task than some other maintenance jobs, but it can be done with the right tools and some patience. Here are the steps:

1. Turn off the water heater and the cold water supply valve: If your heater is gas, set the thermostat to “pilot”. If it’s electric, turn off the power at the breaker.

2. Drain a few gallons of water from the tank: Connect a hose to the drain valve and let a few gallons of water out to reduce the chance of getting scalded.

3. Locate the anode rod: It’s usually on the top of the heater. You may need to remove a cover or insulation to access it.

4. Loosen the anode rod: Use a ratchet with a 1 1/16″ socket to loosen the rod. You may need a helper to hold the tank steady as you do this.

5. Remove the old rod: Be careful as you pull it out, as it may be coated in sediment.

6. Insert the new rod: Carefully lower the new rod into the tank, making sure not to damage the threads.

7. Tighten the new rod: Once it’s in place, tighten it with your ratchet.

8. Refill the tank: Close the drain valve, open the cold water supply, and turn the heater back on once the tank is full.

Remember, if you’re not comfortable performing this task, or if your water heater is located in a tight spot, it might be best to hire a professional. Regularly replacing the anode rod can add years to the life of your water heater.

Insulating your water heater

Benefits of insulation

Insulating your water heater, especially if it’s located in an unheated space, can significantly increase its efficiency and reduce energy costs. Insulation helps reduce heat loss through the tank walls and pipes by up to 45%, which can translate to a 7-16% reduction in annual heating costs. In addition, insulation can help maintain the water temperature for longer periods, meaning your water heater won’t have to work as hard to provide hot water when needed.

Types of insulation for water heaters

There are different types of insulation that can be used for water heaters, and the choice often depends on the specific needs of your system:

Blanket insulation: This is a popular option for insulating storage tank water heaters. It’s essentially a blanket—made of fiberglass or another insulating material—that wraps around the exterior of the tank to reduce heat loss. It’s worth noting that newer water heaters may already be sufficiently insulated, but older models can often benefit from this extra layer of insulation.

Pipe insulation: This involves insulating the hot and cold water pipes connected to the water heater. Pipe insulation can minimize heat loss as the hot water travels from the heater to your faucet, while insulating the cold water pipes can reduce condensation during humid months.

Installation tips and guidelines

While insulation can be a DIY job, it’s important to follow safety guidelines and manufacturer instructions to ensure the insulation is effective and safe:

For blanket insulation: Before installation, make sure to turn off the water heater. Cut the blanket to fit around controls and the top of the heater if it’s a gas model (the top shouldn’t be insulated in gas models due to the vent). Secure the blanket in place with the tape provided, then turn the heater back on. If the blanket covers the thermostat, cut that area out. It’s critical to ensure that the airflow to the burner (for gas models) is not obstructed.

For pipe insulation: Measure the pipes and cut the insulation tubes to fit. For hot water pipes, insulate the entire pipe from the water heater to where it goes into the wall. For cold water pipes, insulate at least 3 feet nearest to the water heater. Make sure to use quality tape to secure the insulation.

Remember, always consult your water heater’s manual or contact the manufacturer if you’re unsure about the insulation requirements for your model. If the task seems too challenging, don’t hesitate to hire a professional. Proper insulation not only saves energy and money, but also extends the lifespan of your water heater.

Upgrading or replacing your water heater

Signs your water heater needs replacement

Water heaters typically last 10 to 15 years, but eventually, they all need replacing. Here are some signs that your water heater might be nearing the end of its life:

  • Age: If your water heater is over ten years old, it might be time to consider a replacement, especially if you’ve noticed a decline in performance.
  • Rusty water: If you’re noticing rusty water coming from your hot water pipes, it could be a sign that your water heater is rusting on the inside, and it may begin to leak soon.
  • Frequent repairs: If you find yourself frequently calling for repairs, it might be more cost-effective to replace the water heater.
  • Noisy tank: Rumbling or banging noises coming from your water heater are signs of sediment hardening in the tank. This not only means less efficiency but could also lead to more serious damage.
  • Leaks: If you notice water pooling around your water heater, it could indicate a leak in the tank. Leaks are typically a clear sign that it’s time for a new water heater.

Energy-efficient water heater options

If you’re considering replacing your water heater, it’s worth looking into energy-efficient water heaters. They can be more expensive upfront, but the energy savings over time often make them a wise investment.

Tankless water heaters
These heaters heat water directly without the use of a storage tank, so they avoid the standby heat losses associated with storage water heaters. They can be more energy-efficient, especially for homes that use a lot of hot water.

Heat pump water heaters
Also known as hybrid electric water heaters, these models capture heat from the air or ground and transfer it to the water. They can be two to three times more energy-efficient than conventional electric water heaters.

Solar water heaters
Using the power of the sun, solar water heaters can be a cost-effective way to generate hot water for your home. They’re especially effective in sunny regions.

Professional water heater installation services

Installing a water heater involves managing both water and gas or electricity, which can be risky if you’re not experienced. Therefore, it’s recommended to have your water heater installed by a professional. They can ensure the installation meets local code, is safe, and is set up for optimal operation. Plus, professional installation often comes with a warranty, giving you peace of mind.

Remember, investing in a new, energy-efficient water heater can not only bring you consistent hot water but also significant energy savings over time. With professional installation, you can rest easy knowing your water heater will serve you reliably for years to come.