Troubleshooting a Hot Water Heater

The hot water heater is a very important component of your home’s plumbing system. Not only is it one of the most expensive components, but it is the first to be missed when it malfunctions. These are a few of the most common problems that can occur and some tips for preventing them by performing scheduled maintenance.

The most troublesome issue experienced when you have any water heater is when the water comes out cold. On a gas heater, the pilot may have blown out. If it is an electric heater, its circuit breaker may have tripped. Once you reignite the pilot or reset the breaker, look into the reason before assuming the issue is resolved.
If your water heater takes too long to heat up, it may be that deposits have formed in the tank. Sediments in the tank will insulate it from the flame. Drain and flush the tank occasionally to remove sedimentary deposits.

Reduce the rate of sediment buildup by lowering the water temperature and by softening household water. Set thermostat to 125°F. Temperatures below 120°F can allow the growth of unhealthy bacteria within the tank. Also, if sediment becomes too thick on the bottom of the tank, the tank bottom may overheat in a gas heater, causing the water at the bottom to boil. This may produce a funny popping or rumbling sound. Draining and flushing the tank occasionally will eliminate this issue.

If your tank is not big enough to provide enough hot water on demand, stagger showers throughout the day, or get a tank big enough to store 15 gallons for every member of the household. My 40-gallon tank only runs cold on the rare occasions when all four of us take baths or showers one after the other.

When an electric water heater supplies too little hot water, or water that is too hot, check the thermostat, heating elements and limit switches. Replace them if they are damaged or encrusted with sediment. The limits of a do-it-yourselfer in regard to electric heater components are to inspect them for loose or disconnected wires, and to tighten and reattach them. Never attempt to work on an electric water heater until you are sure the power has been disconnected at the panel.

If water from a gas heater smells rotten, replace the anode rod. The location of this rod is detailed in the owner’s manual. This rod, made of magnesium or aluminum, is in place because of the electrochemical reaction created when water is heated. The reaction will corrode the rod over time, so that the tank itself remains unaffected by it. For this reason the rod should be replaced periodically (every 2 to 5 years). Pull it out after 2 years (or if the heater is more than two years old and you never have before) and inspect it for wear. Charts are available to show how much service life remains in an anode rod.

If your heater is gas-fired, have the burners cleaned once a year. Take this opportunity to inspect flues and vents, or use a carbon monoxide detector to ensure no dangerous exhaust is escaping into the house.

The T&P valve (temperature and pressure relief valve) should be tested once per year. Test this by lifting the handle until pressurized water escapes through the drain tube attached to the valve. Release the handle, and the flow should stop completely. If it drips, there may be sediment which has lodged in the valve seat. Release a little more water a few times, until it stops completely. If you find water pooled under the heater, and it is not coming from the T&P valve, look above the tank nearby, to see if there is a drip from any of the other pipes in the area. If not, inspect the bottom of the tank, above the burner, for excess corrosion and wetness. If you find it is leaking through the tank, the heater will need to be replaced.
Water heaters are routinely ignored as long as hot water is delivered on demand. But setting a maintenance schedule and inspecting the tank on a periodic basis will prolong its trouble-free operation and performing these simple maintenance tasks will extend its life beyond the expected 10-15 years.

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