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How to Properly Maintain a Water Heater

Updated on October 1, 2017

Water heaters are an essential part of the plumbing system in a home, yet they are often mostly forgotten by home owners. While they do not require frequent maintenance, they do require attention. It is important to be knowledgeable on both how it works, signs that something is wrong and when to complete routine maintenance, both individually or through a plumber. Moreover, it is important to know these things now rather than waiting until the unit fails.

How It Works

There are currently two popular types of water heaters used by homeowners. Both types of water heaters have two use options: gas and electric. The standard electric version runs a current through electrical-resistant heating elements, usually at the middle and bottom of the tank. The standard gas types utilizes a burner situated under the tank and heats the water through the tank itself, which is worth noting that can cause more wear and tear than the electric version. Both heat and store the water for use in their respective tanks.

Most tanks are made of steel and glass-lined on the inside to prevent corrosion. A magnesium anode rod also helps this by corroding in it's place. The tanks maintain their temperature using insulation and a thermostat that powers each device as needed. When hot water is used, cold water enters through what is called the dip tube to replace it and triggers the thermostat with the change of temperature.

Tankless water heaters are much smaller fixtures with the removal of the tank. For these, when a hot water tap is turned on, cold water travels into the unit and is heated with either a gas burner or electrical elements. The hot water is generally created at a rate of 2 to 5 gallons per minute with these units.

Maintenance Required

The first time looking over a water heater, there are a few things that should to be checked. Beyond finding the unit and identifying the type, the first thing to check is the temperature, which is suggested to be set at 120°F. While this is less about the actual maintenance, it will reduce the cost of energy and the risk of scalding. This is done by measuring the temperature of the water and adjusting the thermostat on the water heater itself. Additionally, two feet of clearance around the water heater should be maintained at all times unless otherwise stated by the manual.

A few times a year, the water heater should be looked over and standard versions should be drained by at least a quarter of the tank. This is done to remove sediment and debris in the water. To do this, use either a bucket directly under the drain valve or a hose hook to it to direct the water into a container and run the water until it is clear. If it does not clear or there is a noticeably large amount of debris or sediments, a full flush might be advisable.

Annually, a full inspection should be done on the water heater. Start at the top and check for any leaks or heavy corrosion on the pipes and valves. For gas water heaters, check the draft hood and make sure it is placed properly with a few inches between the tank and where it connects to the vent. Look for any corrosion or wear on the gas line and on the piping. Check the thermostat and the area below the thermostat, where the gas chamber is located.

On top of all that, the temperature-pressure relief valve should be tested by quickly discharging it multiple times. If the unit is more than two or three years old, the anode rod should also be inspected annually. This can be done by loosening the hex head screw and removing it. If the rod has more than six inches of core steel wire exposed, the rod is less than a half inch thick or it is coated with calcium, it will need to be replaced.

If any black residue, soot or charred metal, is noticed at any time, this is a sign that there may be having combustion issues and should have the unit serviced by a professional. If there is ever the smell of gas, turn off the gas supply and contact a professional as well. For electric water heaters, look for any signs of leaking such as rust streaks or residue around the upper and lower panels covering the electrical components on the tank.

Replacing The Unit

Most professionals agree that even though the average lifespan of a water heater is between ten and fifteen years, a water heater does not need to be replaced if it is still operating. An exception to this may be upgrading for efficiency or an increased usage need. It also may be beneficial to replace the water heater if the cost of repairs is close to the cost of replacing, which usually falls between $900 and upwards of $3000.

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