The Why's and How's of Water Heater Maintenance

Example of a tank style water heater

For many people, the only time they think of their water heater is when their warm shower turns cold. A water heater is one of those things people typically install, then do not give a second thought about, until it stops functioning properly. However, a little water heater maintenance can go a long way toward reducing the number and frequency of repairs, and actually helps to extend the life of your water heater, avoiding early replacement. Learn how maintaining your water heater can affect its lifespan and give you fewer shocking moments of cold water.

A Healthy Water Heater

While no one can determine exactly how long a water heater should last, a properly maintained, quality water heater can last 8 to 10 years. Of course, many factors will affect the lifespan, including electricity irregularities, the quality of the water heater, and the mineral density in the water. Regular water heater maintenance can also reduce electric bills by helping it function more efficiently.

One of the quickest killers of water heaters is mineral deposits. A lot of money is spent replacing heating elements and entire tanks, when a little maintenance along the way would help to avoid this expense. A healthy water heater is one that is insulated, clean, and without wiring faults. See the tips below for ideas on how your traditional, tank water heater can be properly maintained.

Water Heater Maintenance Tips

Maintaining a water heater does not have to be done by a professional. Most homeowners can perform the maintenance themselves. However, it is important to remember that water heaters are often run off of electricity. Water and electricity are not a good mix! Be sure to disconnect the power supply from the water heater before servicing. This is often done by flipping the appropriate breaker in the breaker box. If you are unsure of the wiring of your water heater, consult with a qualified electrician in order to avoid electrocution.

For All Water Heaters

  • Check the Anode Rod - sacrificial anode rods are typically constructed of aluminum or magnesium formed around a steel wire. They help prevent your hot water tank from rusting and should be changed when the steel wire is showing. If you have two anode rods, be sure to check both of them regularly. If you have aggressive water, you'll need to check your anode rod more frequently, but you should definitely check your anode rods on a yearly or semi-yearly basis.

  • Check the Dip Tube - dip tubes direct incoming cold water to the base of the water heater for warming. Not all water heaters have them, but if you do, be sure to check your dip tube for corrosion or failure every six months. You'll want to remove the dip tube entirely and compare its length to the height of the water heater. It should be approximately 6" to 8" shorter than the tank. If it's shorter than that, or shows signs of breakage or crumbling, replace it. If a water heater has a top cold inlet and a top hot outlet and there is no dip tube, when water is used the water from the cold inlet will flow directly into the hot outlet and you will not get very hot water to their faucet. This will even lead a person to think there electricity is out or off, or the elements or thermostats are burned out or broken. If it's a gas water heater then they may think their gas valve is broken or the pilot light or the thermocouple quit working.

  • Flush - every year or so, you should flush the water in your water heater. This helps to wash out sediment build up in the tank, preserving the life both of the tank and the heating element.

  • Drain - if you shut down your water heater during the winter, you should drain the tank entirely to prevent flooding while you're away. Don't forget to refill it before turning the water heater back on!

  • Check the Pipes - take a few minutes when performing other maintenance and also inspect the water piping for leaks or damage. Leaks can damage more than just your water heater, so repair pipe leaks and replace compromised pipes right away.

  • Illustration of man inspecting a water heater
  • Check the T&P Valve - every couple of years, make sure your temperature and pressure relief valve is still good. This valve protects your water heater from excess pressures and temperatures by discharging water and is required by law to be installed on all tank style water heaters. You'll want to carefully test your T&P valve after making sure the water it releases has a drain to follow to keep water from getting everywhere. Please note the water from your T&P valve will be extremely hot, so take appropriate precautions. If your T&P valve drips constantly, even after testing, or if your T&P valve is older than your water heater's warranty, you should simply replace it.

Specifically For Electric Water Heaters

  • Insulate - wrapping your water heater with insulation helps to reduce your energy bills, because it maintains the temperature of the water longer. In turn, this can help extend the life of the heating element, as it does not have to cycle on and off as frequently.

  • Check the Heating Element - doing periodic inspection of the element can help to prevent unexpected interruption of hot water. These elements will need to be replaced occasionally, so a quick visual check can help you decide if it should be changed, rather than wait for an emergency.

Specifically For Gas Water Heaters

  • Check the Venting System - at least every three months, take a good look at your gas water heater's venting and air supply system. Check for obstructions and damage to the vent piping. Make sure anything flammable or corrosive is well away from the exhaust venting to help prevent fires. Replace any damaged or corroded sections of venting and fix what caused it so it doesn't happen again.

  • Check the Pilot Light - your pilot light acts as an ignition for the gas burner that heats your water. A clean burning and correctly adjusted pilot light is necessary for your water heater to function at peak efficiency. Your pilot light should be blue (natural gas) or blue/green (propane) with just a bit of yellow at the tip. A weak flame, a yellow flame, or a flame with more than one tip (split flame) means your pilot light needs to be repaired or adjusted.

Choose Quality

The best maintenance in the world will not help poorly crafted water heaters. Choosing a quality product is the first step to ensuring longevity. Once you have purchased a good water heater, maintenance is the best way to protect the life of your investment.

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