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When Is it Time for a Water Heater Replacement?

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Your water heater is the unsung hero of your home. You never even think about it until you turn a faucet and no hot water is available. Then, all of a sudden, it demands your full attention. But does it need repairs or is it time for a water heater replacement? The answer to that question depends on several factors like the age and condition of your water heater, its related components and your home repair budget. 

Repair or replace? Sometimes the answer is easy: if your conventional storage tank hot water heater is nearing 10-15 years old, it’s likely you need a replacement. A newer model water heater will be much more energy-efficient (up to 25%) and can save you hundreds of dollars in utility costs over its lifetime. However, if your water heater has only been in use for a few years, it may be best to diagnose the problem and invest in repairs. Here’s some valuable information to help you make the best decision. 

How to Diagnose Your Water Heater Problems 

Conventional-type water heaters are simple in concept and operation. Fresh water enters the tank, where it is heated by a gas burner or electric element. Most water heaters have two heating elements, one placed high in the tank and one placed near the bottom. A thermostat is used to regulate the temperature; these are usually best set between 120- and 140-degrees Fahrenheit for energy efficiency and to prevent scalding accidents. Pressure builds in the tank as the water temperature rises. This pressure is what sends water to the tap when you turn it on. 

As you can surmise, the typical water heater has few moving parts, but there are still several things that can go wrong. 

  • An electrical problem trips the circuit breaker, and the heater does not operate. 
  • The gas burner or electric heating element fails. 
  • The pilot light on a gas water heater goes out. 
  • The temperature and pressure valve (T&P Valve) sticks. 
  • The thermostat fails. 

A lack of hot water can also be attributed to problems with the related components of your hot water heater, and not the heater itself. 

  • A power fluctuation trips the breaker. 
  • A leak in a nearby pipe doesn’t allow the tank to fill up. 
  • There is a problem with your gas source (empty tank, blockage, crimped line, etc.). 
  • An electrical short or break in the wiring leading to the heater. 

Obviously, some of these problems are simple to detect and fix. Some may require the services of a plumber or electrician, but are still relatively inexpensive. Some problems may be a sign of larger issues elsewhere. A licensed plumber or electrician can evaluate the severity of your problems and give advice on repairs or replacement. Most of the issues above can be repaired for under $400. 

How Do I Know When Replacement is Needed? 

Obviously, when a tank becomes corroded or rusted through and begins leaking, it must be replaced. The minerals in water react with the metal components within a water heater tank, eating away at them over time. Hot water itself is murderously corrosive, wearing out a tank’s internal components and even the plumbing that leads to the water heater. 

Also, as mentioned above, a conventional tank-type water heater that is nearing 12-15 years old is likely near the useful end of its life. Older water heaters are prone to corrosion and heavy mineral buildup at the bottom of the tank. This makes them work harder, use more energy and be less efficient. Even if the water heater has not presented any real problems yet, you could be nearing a catastrophe, like a huge water leak that could damage your property. 

Fortunately, modern water heaters use differing and higher-grade materials to resist corrosion and retain heat longer, making them more energy efficient and longer-lasting. Plus, some models and types of water heaters offer a larger savings through federal tax credits. You will invest more in these models (solar or tankless are two notable examples) for installation but the long-term savings can be worth the initial cost. Talk to a local plumbing expert about the different types and their uses, and how each could benefit your specific situation. 

Be Aware of Some Hidden Costs with New Water Heater Installations 

For all the DIY homeowners out there, replacing a water heater involves more than simply disconnecting the old, hauling it away and setting up the new. Your local building, plumbing or electrical codes may have changed since your old water heater was installed, requiring some upgrades. When applying for the necessary permit for replacing your water heater, obtain a listing of the up-to-date requirements for a new installation. They can include: 

  • A secure water heater mount
  • Seismic strapping in earthquake-prone areas 
  • A particular size or type of venting system for gas heaters 
  • A drain pan under the heater or a drainage system in the floor 
  • A specific type of plumbing supply pipes 
  • Specific size/type of electrical wiring and/or breaker 
  • Specific gas line type and installation 
  • Specific clearance regulations 

Most hot water heater manufacturers provide detailed installation instructions, and many building or utility departments that provide installation permits also provide a helpful instruction sheet with drawings or images. However, you should only attempt a DIY water heater installation if it is allowed in your area, and if you possess the proper knowledge and tools to do the job safely and efficiently. 

How to Keep Your Water Heater Healthy 

Once you replace your water heater or make repairs, you should perform some simple, routine tasks to help keep it running at its best. 

  1. Flush the tank yearly: Turn off the power, water and heat sources to your water heater. Then, open the drain valve and empty the tank. When empty, close the tank and turn on the water to refill. Make sure the tank is full before turning on the power and heat sources. 
  2. Check the anode rod: Also called the sacrificial rod, this is a probe made of magnesium or aluminum that extends inside the tank to collect corrosive elements. It should normally be replaced every three years or when it becomes caked over or seriously eaten away. 
  3. Turn off the power, gas and water to your water heater and drain it when you plan to be away from home for extended periods of time (at least two weeks or longer). This not only saves energy, but it reduces the wear on your water heater components. It can also prevent a flooding accident while no one is home.  

These simple maintenance tasks can help you avoid possible repairs and extend the life of your hot water heater. 

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