The average American household uses over 24,000 gallons of heated water per year, and your water heater is responsible for heating every drop of it. Over time, water heaters can become inefficient in their heating process, and an outdated or damaged water heater can cost you hundreds of dollars per year.
When Should You Call a Water Heater Professional?
Generally, there are 4 symptoms that indicate you should call a professional to service, repair, or replace your water heater:
1. Water is Cold or Not Hot Enough
If your water heater isn’t heating, you’ll likely notice it pretty quickly – but a cold shower is the worst way to find out that your water heater is acting up! Heated water is something most of us take for granted, but without it, you’ll have a harder time cleaning dishes, washing clothes, and making tea.
There’s a few things that could cause a lack of heat in your water, and some of them are easier to fix than others. Fortunately, you can often determine the source of the problem from a few telltale signs:
If your water is cold, and stays cold even after you let the hot water run for a minute or two, it’s likely that your water heater’s heating element is bad. In electric water heaters, the heating element (typically a coil) is inside the tank and can develop faulty electric connections that cause the problem. With gas water heaters, the water is heated with a burner that can also develop problems over time or due to a lack of maintenance. Fortunately, if your water heater hasn’t reached the end of its expected life yet, there may be no need to replace the entire unit. Your water heating professional can replace the heating element and restore your home’s hot water within an hour or two!
If your hot water is getting warm, but just doesn’t get hot enough, check to ensure that the thermostat is adjusted correctly. It’s possible that it was accidentally bumped or nudged to a lower temperature, or inadvertently put on a lower setting. Ideally, it should be set between 120 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit. After you have adjusted the thermostat, you’ll need to wait at least 30 to 60 minutes before checking the temperature of your hot water again.
If your water isn’t getting hot enough, the location of the tank and outside air temperatures could also be a factor. If your hot water tank is in an uninsulated part of your house, colder air outside will lead to colder water inside the tank. This problem can be remedied by adding some kind of insulation for your tank and pipes, but increasing the thermostat will help as well – just remember to turn the thermostat back down once the winter weather has passed!
If your water gets hot enough but you frequently run out of hot water, it could be that you need a bigger water heater tank. The number of people in your house will affect the amount of hot water being used, and some household appliances demand more hot water as well, so take these things into consideration when determining whether or not a tank size is sufficient for your home. If your water heater capacity used to be adequate but isn’t anymore, consider how the usage of hot water has changed in your home, and determine what the cause could be.
2. Leaking Water
No water should be coming out of your water tank, other than through the pipes. If you see a puddle or indicators of dried puddles around your water heater tank, or around the pipes that lead to your tank, it’s very important that you don’t ignore it!
There’s a number of reasons a water heater could leak. Small fractures in your tank occur naturally due to the heat – the hot water causes the metal of the tank to expand each time water is heated, which weakens the metal over time, eventually forming hairline cracks. These fractures can seem small at first, but they get bigger quickly due to the pressure inside the tank.
Too much water pressure, too high of a temperature, or a malfunctioning relief valve can result in too much pressure building up inside the tank, which also creates or exacerbates tank fractures.
Another culprit could be loose water tank connections, which will cause water to leak out around the tank. These connections can be tightened, but sometimes you’ll need a professional to come and replace them.
Regardless of the exact cause, a water heater leak is unlikely to stop by itself and can definitely lead to substantial property damage. Since most leaks start small and may not be easily noticeable, it’s important to visually inspect your water tank and the area around it regularly, and call your local water heater professional immediately anytime a leak is noticed.
3. Visible Rust or Rust-Colored Water
Rust is a form of corrosion that occurs naturally over time, and it’s an enemy of many metals, including steel (which is what most water heater tanks and some water pipes are made of). If you see rust on the outside of your water heater unit, namely near the pressure relief valve or water inlet, it’s very likely that you have rust inside your tank as well.
The worst part about rust is that it spreads, so once you see it, you’re sure to have more of it very soon. Rust deteriorates water heaters and steel pipes, weakening the structural integrity more and more over time. There’s no salvaging an older water heater once rust is present, so if you see it, it’s time for a new water heater.
Discolored water and/or water that smells metallic can also be indicators of rust inside the tank, but don’t jump to that conclusion immediately. Seeing rust-colored water doesn’t always mean you have a rusty water heater; the rusty water could be coming from rusty metal pipes instead.
How can you tell if the rust in your water is coming from the water heater or from the pipes? The easiest way to tell is by running approximately 10 or 15 gallons of hot water from a spout, and if the hot water continues to be rusty after 15 gallons or so, then it’s very likely that the inside of your water heater is rusting. However, if the amount of rust in the water seems to be reducing as you run the hot water, then rusty pipes may be the culprit instead.
4. Noises From the Tank
Under normal operation, a water heater shouldn’t make much sound at all, so any noise you hear coming from your tank is something you’ll want to pay attention to. Whether the noise is loud or is simply an unusual sound you haven’t heard your water heater make before, it may be coming from a problem that requires action quickly.
Typically, noises that sound like knocking, gurgling, clanging, or rumbling are the ones you’ll be listening for, as they are indicative of sediment that has accumulated inside your tank and hardened over time. Deposits from the heating elements as well as lime and mineral deposits from the water itself can’t be avoided, but this problem is most common in areas with hard water.
The sounds you might hear are the sediment chunks being moved around in your tank, causing additional wear and stress on the tank itself. Sediment, whether it’s making noise or not, affects the water heater’s ability to efficiently heat water, so a tank with too much sediment will take longer to heat water, which puts additional strain on the unit.
Water Heater Replacement vs. Water Heater Repair
The good news is that not all of these things require replacing the unit – sometimes these problems occur due to just a single part going bad. If your water heater is less than 6 to 8 years old (depending on condition and type), and the issue is with a replaceable part, your local water heater service professional can repair your unit by replacing the part that is causing the trouble. Some replaceable parts of a water heater include igniters, thermostats, valves, and heating elements.
How Long Does a Water Heater Last?
If your water heater isn’t showing any of the above signs, another thing you should consider is its age. Even the highest quality water heaters have a limited lifespan, and for most water heaters, the average is approximately 8 years (depending on the type of water heater you have). If your water heater is past its life expectancy, replacing it proactively is highly recommended; older water heaters create the potential for stressful (and expensive) damages.
Over time, corrosion affects the integrity of the tank, commonly causing leaks. A water heater leak can cause serious water damage if you’re out of the house when it happens. Additionally, replacing an old water heater before it starts giving you problems can save you from the aggravation of being without hot water for any length of time.
Water Heater Maintenance
Like with most equipment and appliances, regular maintenance will prolong the life of your water heater. Maintenance can prevent a number of the problems addressed above, such as a buildup of sediment and some leaks.
In most areas, water heater tanks should be drained, cleaned, and flushed every 12 months, but if you have hard water, consider doing it every 6 months instead. You may have heard that tankless water heaters don’t require much maintenance, but an accumulation of sediment can affect ANY water heater! To remove sediment and prevent buildup in a tankless water heater system, you can turn the water heater off and flush the hot water system with white vinegar and water for 60 minutes.
Water Heater Replacement Options
If you have determined that replacing your water heater is inevitable, you’ll want to take a look at the different types of water heaters that are available. There’s a variety of options, all differing in price, installation, efficiency, and lifespan.
Conventional Tank Water Heaters
If your current or most recent water heater is a conventional tank, the quickest and cheapest option may be replacing it with a similar conventional water heater tank. Long term, gas water heaters may be more cost-effective than electric water heaters, but it depends on the price of gas in your location. However, keep in mind that the life expectancy of an electric water heater is approximately 2 years longer than that of a gas water heater.
Regardless of what energy source your conventional water tank uses to heat water, they all work the same way. Conventional water heaters have a thermometer that tells the system when to turn on the heat, based on the temperature of the water in the tank. When the water gets too cold, the heating element will turn on to heat the water up to the desired temperature before it turns off again. The water heating system works continually, keeping hot water on tap in case you need it, even when you’re at work or on vacation.
Annual maintenance is strongly recommended for conventional tank water heaters, and their lifespan is 8 to 12 years (electric tanks last 8 to 10 years and gas tanks last 10 to 12 years).
Solar Water Heaters
Solar water heaters are very similar to conventional water heater tanks, they just use the sun as their power source via solar panels that absorb the sun’s energy. There are two main types of solar water heaters – direct and indirect.
With a direct solar water heater, water from the tank is put through the solar collectors for heating and is then returned to the tank. In an indirect solar water heater system, antifreeze passes through a heat exchanger which heats the water in the tank.
If your home is already utilizing solar energy or already has solar panels installed, using them to heat water can be more cost effective than other energy methods. But if you don’t already have a solar setup, it will be very costly, so you may want to consider other water heater types.
Maintenance for solar water heaters is strongly recommended every 3 to 5 years, and the solar panels also need to be clean of dust and debris in order to maximize their collection of energy. The lifespan of a correctly maintained solar water heater system is approximately 15 to 20 years.
Tankless Water Heaters
Unlike conventional systems, tankless water heating systems do not keep tens of gallons of water heated 24/7, making them much more energy efficient. For some homeowners however, the energy savings isn’t enough to offset the downsides of most tankless systems.
You see, tankless water heaters only heat a few gallons of water at any given time, so you wouldn’t be able to run the dishwasher and a hot water load of laundry at the same time – there wouldn’t be enough hot water to supply both of those appliances at once. A single tankless water heater can really only provide hot water to one part of the house at a time.
Because tankless water heaters are quite compact, many homeowners choose to install multiple tankless water heaters to provide adequate hot water coverage for all their appliances and faucets. However, the price to purchase and install a tankless water heater is already higher than that of conventional systems, so buying and installing multiple tankless systems would increase upfront expenses immensely.
Like a conventional system, tankless water heaters require annual maintenance, but they last for approximately 20 years, which is twice as long as conventional water heaters.