Our water heaters are tucked away, out of daily view in utility cabinets/rooms, corners of garages, and even in attics. They are all but forgotten about until they fail or worse yet leak and damage the home! According to the latest National Association of Home builder’s study (Study Of Life Expectancy Of Home Components) the average life of an electric water heater is 11 years, with a gas water heater at 10 years (both excluding tankless water heaters). Over the years I have seen many properly installed, treated, and maintained water heaters last over 20 years. The key to a water heaters age is proper installation, treatment, and a regular maintenance program.
So what can you do to help extend the age of your water heater? It is as simple as reading, understanding, and following the manufacturer’s recommendations in your owner’s manual. What, you no longer have a copy of the owner’s manual? Not to worry with the Internet at your beck and call all you need to do is search the manufacturer’s name and the water heater model number. Most all manuals are made available at the click of a mouse. If the manual is not available the manufacturer’s WEB site and support numbers would be. Call them and they will send you a copy of the manual. If you have questions and/or suspect an improper installation it is well worth having a licensed professional Plumber come to your home and review the installation for any needed corrections. Here I will summarize what most manufacturer’s are recommending for treatment and maintenance of your water heater. Below are two diagrams, one for a gas and one for an electric water heater.
Proper Treatment Of Your Water Heater
- Never store anything on top of or around your water heater in close proximity to it. The utility closet for your unit is not meant for storage of mops, brooms, cleaners, etc. Water heaters need to breathe too, especially gas water heaters. Storing items in this fashion can cause significant issues with the water heaters operation and pose a risk of fires.
- Never attach anything to a water heater, its piping, or its electrical and gas supply systems without first consulting a licensed Plumber or consulting the manufacturer. What has been installed for the water heater was not meant for use by any other system or person’s use other than the use of the hot water itself. That includes not installing an insulating blanket around the water heater’s tank unless approved by the manufacturer. Newer water heaters are very well insulated and rarely require the use of a blanket wrap. These wraps can cause various issues and can block view of deteriorating conditions.
- If you plan to remodel or expand your home to include additional hot water plumbing fixtures then consult a licensed professional Plumber before you even sign a contract for the work. The water heater in most all homes has been sized and placed based on the current needs of the home when it was originally built. Depending on the proposed work your water heater might not be able to adequately handle the additional hot water needs.
- If you plan to leave the home vacant for an extended period of time then follow the manufacturer’s instructions for properly deactivating, and draining if necessary, the water heater. Extended periods of non-usage can cause issues with a water heater if left actively in a heating mode.
- Never close the cold water supply valve without first shutting off the electric or gas to the water heater. If the water heater drains, or sets for long periods of time, and is not refilled then damage can occur to the tank and other components.
- Even though your water heater is capable of having a thermostat setting to an extremely hot setting it should be kept as low as needed to provide hot water for your use. Water temperatures at 120 Degrees can take as little as 5 minutes to produce a serious burn on a person. At 125 Degrees that is reduced down to 2 minutes. The hotter you run your water heater the more chance of injury, the harder it must work, and the shorter its life tends to be.
- Develop and follow a routine maintenance plan to help your water heater not only last longer but function more efficiently.
Water heater routine maintenance
- Perform a visual inspection of your water heater at least on a monthly basis. You should be looking for rust on the unit, rust on piping, damages, leaking, damage and blockage to the piping for the safety drain pan and the Temperature and Pressure Relieve Valve (TPRV), leakage/dampness on the unit and/or dampness in the drain pan, piping or surrounding areas, leaking from the TPRV, dripping from the TPRV and safety drain pan where they terminate outside the home, as well as any other unusual or abnormal conditions. Other abnormal conditions are the appearance of deposits on or around a gas water heater that looks like soot and unusual odors around gas and electric water heaters.
- During your monthly visual inspection is a good time clean the top and sides of the water heater with a damp cloth. Also clean the utility and/or surrounding areas of dirt, dust and debris. With electric water heaters be careful not to wet the electrical connections. With gas water heaters use caution not to burn yourself and do not attempt to clean any hot surfaces.
- On a monthly basis run a functional flow test by turning on two or more hot water faucets near each other. If a flow is notably reduced from normal previous tests then run this same test on the cold water faucets. If flow is not reduced from normal past tests you might have a water heater issue. Check that the water heater cold water supply valve has not been partially closed. If not then call a plumber to evaluate the issue. This is not a normal test specified by water heater manufacturers but is a helpful one to watch for problems in a water heater that can shorten the life of the water heater.
- On a monthly basis use a a regular cooking thermometer to test the temperature of your hot water. You can do this by running the hot water until it appears to be running steadily at its full temperature. Using a contact style thermometer, a turkey basting thermometer will work, hold the probe under the water until the temperature reading stabilizes. Compare this to what you have the water heater’s thermostat(s) set to. Over time we do not notice gradual changes in temperatures. This is not a normal test specified by water heater manufacturers but is a helpful one to watch for problems in a water heater that can shorten the life of the water heater, and ensure your safety in the event the thermostats are malfunctioning.
- Continually watch your water faucets for build-up of minerals, debris, and discoloring at the faucet heads. Scaling and build-ups could indicate a water condition with high mineral contents. This is not a normal test specified by water heater manufacturers but is a helpful one to watch for problems that can shorten the life of the water heater.
- Check for and drain off any sediment in the bottom of the tank. This is typically advised to be performed on a monthly to quarterly basis. However review the owner’s manual for the recommended interval and procedures.
- Your water heater is equipped with a rod installed inside the tank and called a “sacrificial anode”. Its purpose is to attract minerals and deposits to it and keep them off of the inside walls of the tank. The sacrificial anode will deteriorate and if left to deteriorate to far can cause other issues with the water heater and the quality of the water. These should be inspected at regular intervals as required by the manufacturer. Unless you have experience with inspecting these I would recommend that you have a professional Plumber perform this inspection.
- For gas water heaters I would recommend that you have at least an annual carbon monoxide (CO) test performed at least annually to check for potential issues with the water heater. During your monthly visual inspections I would test all of your CO detectors for proper operation.
- Manually test your TPRV on an annual basis as directed by your users manual. You should have the TPRV inspected and replaced by a licensed Plumber at the interval specified by the manufacturer.
The average replacement cost for a good quality, 50 gallon, hot water heater is approximately $800 (materials, labor, permits, disposal of old unit, etc.). That $800 can climb dramatically if a water heater failure occurs causing damage to building components around it. This can all be avoided with proper treatment and maintenance of your water heater.
Knowledge is power, but sharing knowledge brings peace!
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