Water heaters are taken for granted and most simply forget about them, until the day it breaks and either causes a massive leak or you get into the shower and find out you have no hot water. There are a few things you can do to extend the life of your water heater and keep it running efficiently to cut down on running cost. If you feel uncomfortable with performing maintenance yourself, have a professional perform the maintenance yearly.

Caution: A professional should be called to perform maintenance and inspect the health of your water heater, if you are not comfortable in such tasks or have an older water heater that might not have obvious signs of damage. Check with your manufacturer’s warranty regarding maintenance to ensure you won’t void your warranty performing the maintenance yourself. Before performing the maintenance below, know where your main water shut off valve is and it’s in working order in the event something goes wrong to prevent further damage due to water damage.

Flushing the water heater

Unless you have brand new pipes and your water coming into your home is filtered, you will have sediment running through your water heater. This sediment can cause clogs in your water lines or cause erosion and damage your water heater. It’s recommended to flush your water heater once a year to clear out the sediment.

Flushing your water heater consist of:

  • Turning off your heating source, whether this is gas or electric,
  • Turning off your water to the water heater
  • Connect a water hose to the water heater spigot
  • Open a faucet to allow air in the line
  • Open the drain valve – Be careful as the water exiting is very hot
  • After the tank is empty turn on the water again to rush water into the empty tank.
  • Turn the water off after a few seconds to minutes, allow the water to drain and repeat a few times.
  • Close the drain valve and remove the hose
  • Turn the water back on
  • Open the faucets in your home to ensure no water is trapped
  • Close the faucets
  • Turn the heating source back on

Check your TPR Valve

The TPR valve is your temperature and pressure release valve and is a very important safeguard in the event your water heater has too much heat or pressure in the tank that could result in the water heater exploding. When the temperature or pressure gets to be too much, this valve will open releasing some water and pressure down a pipe. If you ever find water on the floor near the water heater, it’s usually from this valve doing it’s job. However, if you regularly find water on the flood of the water heater, it should be inspected by a professional plumber as your water heater shouldn’t frequently be getting too much pressure or too hot and there is probably something wrong. Testing the TPR valve is usually done while flushing the system as it’s an easy to note or remember when the last time you tested it was.

To test the TPR valve:

  • Place a bucket under the discharge tube to catch the water
  • Flip the lever for a few seconds to ensure it’s clear from sediment.
  • Be careful of splashing water as the water will be very hot.
  • Close or release the valve
  • Wait and observe for leaks – if it leaks contact a professional plumber to inspect for damage
  • If you have an expansion tank:
    • Open the cap at the top
    • Press the rod in the valve (like a tire valve) to check that only air escapes and not water

Checking Your Water Pressure

You can check your water pressure in your home to ensure optimum efficiency, which can save you some money on your water bills as well as keep your water heater a safe pressure. The recommended pressure is between 45-60 psi with most set at 50 psi. Too much pressure in the line will cause more water than you need to run every time you turn on the faucet and might be too strong for washing. Too weak of pressure will result in you taking longer to wash and longer to fill things such as baths, if you have a dish washer this could run up your electric bills.

Checking the pressure is relatively easy, however, to ensure an accurate reading you want to make sure every faucet is closed, and every appliance is not currently drawing water such as your freezer’s ice maker. Just attach a pressure reader to a faucet and turn it on to get the pressure reading.

Setting your water heater’s temperature

Setting the water temperature too hot and it could result in scalding water coming from your faucets and setting it too low could result in unsafe levels of bacteria that would normally be killed in higher temperatures. The EPA has recommended not to set the temperature to lower than 120 degrees Fahrenheit to kill off some dangerous bacteria. Dishwashers recommend a temperature of 140 degrees Fahrenheit and it’s usually the default temperature that water heaters are set at from the manufacturer. There are options such as boosters which mix cold water and hot water so the resulting water from the faucet is cooler while allowing hotter temperatures in the water heater tank to kill bacteria.

To set the temperature on a water heater usually involves turning a dial to the desired setting.

Light a Pilot Light

Gas water heaters use pilot lights to heat the gas to heat the water in the tank. Sometimes pressure in the tank can cause the pilot light to go out and other times you may have to turn it off to flush your water heater depending on the model of the water heater. If the pilot light is off, be sure the gas knob or setting is off before attempting to reignite the light as there will be gas in the air around and you could ignite it. Check for a smell to determine if the gas in the air dissipated, which could take a few minutes or more depending in airflow and time since the light was out.

To light a pilot light:

  • Open the access panel (if you have one and not an exposed pilot light)
  • Turn the gas knob to off and wait ~5 minutes for the gas to dissipate
  • Use a flashlight (not lighter) to find the burner
  • Turn the temperature to the lowest point for safety
  • Turn the gas knob on the water heater to “Pilot”
  • Press and hold the button – either the knob you turned or a red reset button near the knob depending on the model water heater you have.
  • Light the burner with either a long match or if you have a newer model with an igniter switch similar to a gas grill, push the button to light the pilot light.
  • With the flame going wait about a minute and release the button
  • Turn the gas knob to the on position
  • Put the temperature back to the desired temperature

Changing an Electric Water Heater Element

While gas water heaters use gas and a pilot light to heat the water, an electric water heater uses metal heating elements and electricity to heat the water. These can go bad, especially if you turn on your electric water heater before the tank is full. There are 2 heating elements – the upper one and the lower one which work together to heat the water in the tank.  If one of the heating elements go bad you will have to diagnose which one it is to replace it.

If you have an electric water heater and have no hot water, it may not be the heating elements but rather a tripped breaker or a blown fuse. You should check these before determining if you have a blown heating element.

This article doesn’t cover the all the details of the steps for changing an element as the steps involved would be its own article as there are many things involved such as determining the bad element from the good one, the steps of the process, and determining the heating element needed. If you aren’t comfortable with electricity and using a voltmeter or multi-meter, it’s best to call a professional plumber to handle this for you. Be sure to read the manufacturers warranty and information manual to determine if you are comfortable performing all the steps and if it’s still under warranty to contract a professional who can perform the repairs while keeping your warranty intact or have the repairs covered by it.

For a quick overview here are the steps involved:

  • Read the manufacturers warranty and instructions
  • Turn off power to the water heater
  • Remove the access panel to the bad heating element
  • Move the insulation out of the way of the heating element
  • Remove the cover off the thermostat
  • Using multi-meter or voltmeter to determine the power has been disconnected to the water heater
  • Turn off the water to the water heater
  • Open a faucet to hot water to allow air through system and release pressure
  • Attach hose to spigot of water heater
  • Drain the water from the tank to below the bad heating element or fully if it’s the bottom element. Be sure to be aware that the draining water maybe hot
  • Disconnect the two wire leads to the heating element
  • Unscrew the heating element if it’s a screw type connection, otherwise remove the bolts or screws from the flange type heating element and pull to remove the element
  • Insert the new heating element and attach the same way you removed the old one. Be sure not to overtighten. Also be sure to replace the bad one with an exact match to the type and voltage and wattage of the new one.
  • Close the drain valve if it’s open and disconnect the hose
  • Turn the water back on to the water heater
  • Check the around the new heating element to see if there are any leaks
  • Check the open faucet to see if the water is running clear
  • Close the faucet
  • Reattach the wires to the heater element
  • Replace the thermostat cover
  • Replace the insulation
  • Replace the access panel
  • Wait for the water heater tank to fill up as it’s very important not to turn on the heating element until it is fully submerged in water
  • Open a hot water faucet to see if air is coming out to indicate the tank isn’t full yet.
  • Once you are sure the water tank is full, turn back on power to the water heater and turn on the water heater

Anode Rod Replacement

Water heaters tanks are made of metal which can be damaged or corroded by impurities, debris, and particles from the plumbing in your home or the water coming into your home. To prevent this water heaters, have a few defenses such as that they are lined with a thin coating of glass or other anti-corrosive material to prevent corrosion and have a replaceable anode rod which is designed to corrode instead of your water heater’s tank. A water heater tank’s environment is subject to chemical reactions from water and metal and impurities which can cause metal to rust and corrode, to prevent this from happening to your water tank the anode rod is made of a steel core surrounded by material, usually aluminum, magnesium, and zinc, that is design to react and break down before the tank does which is why another name for it is the sacrificial rod.

As the anode rod breaks down, it will need to be replaced, typically every 4-5 years, however this depends on how many impurities are in your water, how often you use water, and a few other factors that may make your anode rod break down faster or slower. You should probably check your anode tube yearly to ensure it doesn’t break down early or potentially fall apart in a big chunk and act as debris which could damage your tank.

To change your anode rod:

  • Turn off the water to the water heater
  • Turn off the heating source to the water heater
  • Attach a hose to your water heater drain spigot
  • Open a hot water faucet to allow air to flow and prevent a vacuum causing the water not to drain in the next step.
  • Open the drain valve to drain some water – about 10% of the tank. Please note the water draining will most likely be very hot. The water in the tank will help with removing the rod by keeping the tank from moving when trying to unseal the old rod.
  • Locate the rod on the top of the tank. This may require removing the top if there is a cover hiding it or it may just be under a cap. The anode rod should look hexagonal.
  • Using tools such as a socket wrench turn the hex head to loosen it. This may require a cheater bar or other tool to get enough leverage to break the seal as this could be extremely tight.
  • Remove the rod carefully. It may be hot as well as you don’t want to scrape the side of the rod on the opening and break off chunks of the rod inside your tank.
  • Use Teflon tape around the threading of the new rod to ensure a tight seal
  • If you don’t have clearance to put in a new rod, you should replace the rod with a flexible type rod that is segmented in smaller sections and can be inserted with limited clearance space.
  • Insert the new rod and tighten it securely
  • Drain some more water to clear any debris that may be in the tank.
  • Once the water is coming out clear turn off the drain valve
  • Remove the hose
  • Close the open faucet
  • Turn back on the water to the water heater
  • Fill the tank back up
  • Turn back on the heating source