Top 10 Thing You NEED to Know About Water Heaters

Water Heaters. They are one of those things that provides so much for your home, and improves your life so much, but they never get the credit they deserve. Then when they need repair or replacement they are talked down, like just another burden weighing on you. Water heaters have improved the standard of living for humans since their invention in 1889. However, water heaters today come in many different sizes and styles, each of them are unique in what they do and how they work. Water heaters, like most things, need a little attention and love to run the way they were designed to. So, to help you out, here’s our list of Top 10 Things You NEED to Know About Water Heaters.

  1. How long do water heaters last?

This is a fun question to answer because the real underlying question actually is: how long can I forget about this piece of equipment before it gives me problems? In this part of Texas; with no love at all water heaters can be useless in seven years. The saddest part about it is that water heaters don’t need but just a little love once a year. And to be honest, the maintenance (or love) they need is easy and doesn’t take a lot of time. The benefits of showing your water heater attention far outweigh the time and effort it takes! Water heaters that get the proper maintenance can run for well over twelve years and in some cases, upwards of twenty years! With that kind of longevity, you’d be crazy to not maintain your water heater at least once a year. It’s a lot easier than you’d think!

  1. How do water heaters work?
  • Let’s talk tank-type heaters first. Tank-type water heaters from the outside look like giant hunks of inefficient metal that are just giant for no reason. But, they were designed very intelligently. Water is supplied through the top where it then goes into the bottom of the tank through the dip tube. In the middle of that tank is a big chimney with baffles where heat is circulating as it rises, from the burner heating the water at the bottom. The chimney produces a lot of heat that heats water at a rate of about a gallon per minute. The used heat then escapes through vent pipes at the top of the house. As the water heats up in the tank it then exits trough the hot water supply line at the top and from the hottest water at the top of the tank. The hot water travels through the house to all the appliances and fixtures that call for hot water. Here’s the coolest part about water heaters: they produce a tremendous amount of heat but due to the design and insulation the heat stays trapped inside the tank, keeping the water hotter for longer. That’s why you can walk around in your garage near the water heater and not feel like you’re in a commercial grade kitchen! Pretty cool, huh?
  • Electric tank type water heaters are just a little different. They still use a large tank, but they have heating elements inside that heat the water from within. The water enters and exits like a gas water heater but there is no burner assembly at the bottom or vent pipe out of the top. There are thermostats located on the side of the water heater signaling the elements when to turn on. These elements sometimes rotate when heating depending on how much heat is needed. Like the gas water heater tanks, there is an insulation around the tank so that it keeps the water hot longer and helps save you money.
  • Now let’s talk tankless. The great part about competition in our economy is that innovation is constant, thus the tankless water heater was born. These water heaters have the same concept as the tank heaters: water enters, water gets heated, water leaves. There are a few differences, though:
    • Tankless water heaters do not store and keep water hot 24 hours per day. Tankless water heaters are basically a small housing with a strong, smart burner inside. Water feeds into the tankless water heater and rides through pipes where a burner that only turns on when cold water enters the system heats it up very quickly and then sends it to the appliance or fixture calling for the hot water. Once the call for hot water ends, the burner turns off, saving water and energy for the home owners. Tankless water heaters are wonderful inventions. However, in some cases, it’s hard to retrofit a tankless water heater into a home designed for tank-type heater. Our advice is to have a professional plumber evaluate your home and give you a professional opinion on whether your home can easily adapt to a tankless water heater. When possible, you may consider switching to tankless and enjoying the energy savings. The ROI is great in the long run for a tankless water heater, but the initial investment will be more due to increased gas and electrical demands.

  1. Where is the water heater pilot light?

This is a common question that is usually paired with another question: “How do I relight my pilot light?” Therefore, we’ll answer both in this paragraph. Before you can light the pilot light you must first know where it is, or where it should be at least. It’s actually pretty easy to find. Water heaters are designed with the pilot light easy to access.

  1. Before we go looking around, let’s make sure it’s safe to do so. Find your gas control valve and turn it off, this is going to be located on the front side of the water heater near the bottom. Usually it is indicated by a red handle. You’re going to want to make sure this is off, so we can operate around the water heater without inhaling gas. Be sure to leave it off for at least 5 minutes to reset and clear out the chamber.
  1. Right around the same area, you’re going to find your temperature gauge, turn it down to the lowest setting. In this same general area, you’re going to see a metal cover. It’ll probably be directly below the knobs we just turned. Go ahead and gently remove it. Behind it you’ll see a small window, that’s where your pilot light should be visible. At least that’s where you should see it if it’s burning.
  1. If you’ve just turned the gas valve off, wait at least five minutes to let the gas dissipate. If you smell gas when examining your pilot light window, DO NOT light it. Make sure your gas is off, and just let it all dissipate. You don’t want to expose an open flame to it.
  1. With the gas off, and no signs of gas still near the water heater you’re ready to light it. Slowly turn the control valve knob to the “pilot position”. From here things can vary. Newer heaters have igniters built into them, older ones do not. On the older ones there won’t be a window, you will actually reach inside the burner area with a match or lighter.
  1. So, if yours does not have a striker built into it you’re going to need a lighter, we prefer the lighters with the longer nozzle. You’re going to have to do two things at once here, you’re going to have to push on your gas control valve to let it release gas, and simultaneously put the flame from your lighter into the pilot light area to light it. Once it’s lit keep pressure on the gas control valve for about a minute. When you release it, the light should stay lit.
  1. If yours does has a striker built into it you’re also going to have to do two things at once here, you’re going to have to push on your gas control valve to let it release gas, and simultaneously press the igniter. Look through the window and see if it lit. Once it is lit, keep pressure on the gas control valve for about a minute. When you release it, the light should stay lit.
  1. Now you can put the metal plate, or shield back on, turn the gas control valve to the on position, and turn the temperature back to the normal operating setting. 120 degrees is recommended.
  1. If you’re pilot light won’t light or won’t stay lit, turn off your gas and call your plumber for help.

  1. Where is the water heater anode rod?

Anode rods are something most people don’t know about. Their job is purely to act as a sacrifice to get eaten up and attacked by the water in order to protect your water heater. They help slow the decay of the inside of your heater. Anode rods are found at the top of the water heater usually noticeable by a hex head, indicating that a hex wrench is needed to get it out. Some manufacturers hide the anode rods with a cap over the top of the heater, in which case you’ll have to remove the cap and maybe some insulation to find it. Once you’ve found your anode rod and you want to replace it, go ahead and turn the heater off, cut off the supply of gas or electricity to make sure you have a safe work environment. You also may need to drain a couple of gallons of water to make sure the heater doesn’t overflow when you pull out the anode rode. Anode rods are often very difficult to remove because the seal becomes so great. You may need help or a way to get more leverage on it. If removing the rod is too hard call a plumber, he or she will know tricks to help break the seal. Replace the rod in just the reverse order of the removal. Stick the new one in, tighten it down good, refill your water heater and turn it back on! Replacing your anode rod regularly can increase the life of your heater greatly.

  1. Can water heaters leak carbon monoxide?

It isn’t likely that a water heater itself will leak carbon monoxide. They’re designed with countless safety features to prevent things like this. The more common situation, but still very rare, is a poorly installed and ventilated water heater trapping carbon monoxide as opposed to leaking it. This is rare because water heaters require city inspections to make sure they’re properly installed. The only time this would be bypassed is if someone broke the law and didn’t get it inspected, even a home owner installing his own water heater should pull a permit and get the work inspected. But again, these situations are very, very rare. When it comes to water heaters, inspectors follow the code books to a T and make sure everything is perfect. The best way to avoid this whole situation together is to first make sure you use a reputable plumber for your water heater installation, make sure they file and schedule an inspection quickly after installation and make sure the installation passes the inspection. You can also install carbon monoxide detectors in your house near appliances and fixtures that burn fuel to make sure there isn’t a carbon monoxide leak. Water heaters aren’t the only thing that produce carbon monoxide as a byproduct.

  1. Will water heaters freeze?

Older water heaters kept in an unheated or poorly insulated area and exposed to extreme weather conditions have the possibility to “freeze” or get damaged in the winter. It’s uncommon in our part of Texas, especially if you’ve taken preventative measures to prevent its harm. And really, it’s not so much a question if the water heater itself will freeze, but can the supply lines freeze. Which is absolutely a possibility. Talk to your plumber to find out ways to winterize your home to prevent damage from the cold. From a purely technical standpoint the water heater is unlikely to freeze, but the cold can make the metal house bend, warp, shrink, and expand. The best option is to make sure that your water heater is operating properly throughout the winter and to make sure the water heater is still functioning properly even after the cold weather leaves. To visually inspect your heater, you want to:

  • make sure it retained its shape,
  • make sure it’s not leaking anywhere,
  • make sure that there’s nothing on it that looks any different from any other time of the year.

If you’re seeing any concerning signs we recommend that you call your plumber for his or her evaluation.

  1. What size water heater do I need?

This is an important decision and sometimes can be a difficult one to make. If you’re determining the size you need for a new water heater you should really check out the sizing charts  from the United States Energy Department. There you can break down the water usage of the appliances and fixtures in your house.

You also need to decide how many people are going to be using hot water. If you’ve got a full house with two adults and multiple children, you will want to consider investing in a water heater than can easily meet all the demands your house will have. If you’re empty nesters, then you may not need a bigger, higher flow water heater. Another big consideration you’ll have to make is what size water heater can your house hold. On April 16, 2015, water heater manufacturers decided to actually increase the size of water heaters to make them more efficient. If you own an older house, trying to retrofit a large water heater may be difficult and expensive. Most newer homes, especially homes designed for full families are pretty good about leaving enough room for larger water heaters. If you need help deciding if your home can fit a large water heater you should call your plumber. Retrofitting large water heaters or tankless water heaters can often involve custom work that plumbers have experience doing.

  1. Which water heater is most efficient?

It depends on what your definition of efficiency is. For some, efficiency is measured by how fast the heater can heat, for others efficiency is the one that uses the least amount of energy. If your goal is to use the least amount of energy, you’ll want to go look at solar powered water heaters. They use the sun to heat water and send it to the house. With a solar powered water heater, you’ll have to purchase and install a backup heater in case you need water when the sun isn’t out or install a hybrid. You will also need to know that solar powered rigs can be pricey upfront, but they’ll recoup the cost with the energy savings in the long run. Another caveat is that unless you live in an area that gets a lot of sun a solar powered water heater won’t benefit you as much (here in North Texas, we’re fine). Most people will tell you that the answer to our original question (Which water heater is most efficient?), is a tankless water heater system. They don’t call ’em “On demand” water heaters for nothin’. They heat water very quickly and as far as energy goes, they do it efficiently. For most cases where tankless water heaters are installed the customer is very happy. They get hot water instantly and save money using it! But, unless you live in a house that can easily accept a tankless system, the upfront cost might be too much to make the energy savings worth it.

  1. Why do water heaters fail?

This is a broad question and the answers are plentiful. Really the only way to determine what caused a water heater to fail is going to be to examine it and test it. We’ll discuss just a few of the ways that a water heater can fail.

  • Old age: Water heaters can last a long time with proper maintenance and care, but eventually water heaters will just give out once they get too far past their life span. Check your water heaters warranty to determine how long your water heater should last.
  • Bad air: The flames that heat your water heater need clean air to burn properly and efficiently. If there are substances near the water heater that can dirty up the air, it can affect the way water heater operates and can actually shut it down by not getting enough oxygen. And, if the right chemical reaction occurs, can create corrosion inside the water heater that will eventually make it stop working right and could cause it to leak.
  • Sediment: This is a HUGE problem here in north Texas. Our water contains a lot of sediment and minerals that can be good for humans, but bad for water heaters (and other plumbing fixtures). The sediment will collect at the bottom of the tank, leaving less room for water. To reduce the amount of sediment in your water heater, flush your water heater at least once per year. If your water heater is more than 2 or 3 years, don’t start flushing it now. There’s a real chance that the sediment has already clogged little hairline cracks in your tank. If you flush your tank, the process could pull the sediment out of a crack and cause a leak. The best maintenance schedule is created the day your water heater is installed and followed correctly.
  • Rust: As we discussed earlier about the anode rods, they protect the inside housing of the tank from rusting. If you do not replace sacrificed anodes, then your water heater will rust and corrode, creating terrible water quality and even causing damage to other parts of your plumbing system. If your water is rusty you need to make calling a plumber a priority.
  • High water pressure: Unnecessarily high water pressure can do damage to the internal components of a water heater, shortening their life and decreasing your water quality. On top of that, high water pressure can do damage to the rest of the pipes in your plumbing system. Make sure the water entering your heater is a safe pressure of 80 psi. A Pressure Reducing Valve (PRV) will resolve this problem.
  • Wrong size: If your water heater is too small for your demands and is working too hard to supply your home with water the life span of your heater will be severely shortened. Be sure you’re getting the proper size heater for your home.
  1. Are water heaters supposed to make noise?

There’s a variety of noise that water heaters make. Some of them are normal operating noise of the heating of the water inside the tank. Some of the noises indicate a malfunction or other problem.

  • A cracking or popping sound may indicate caked sediment inside the tank that is not allowing water to heat properly.
  • A rumbling sound may indicate sediment swirling or moving around inside the tank as it heats. Rumbling can also just be the sound of the metal tank expanding and contracting with the change of exterior temperature.
  • A knocking sound can sometimes be water moving through pipes quickly causing them to tap or bang on wall studs or sheetrock. This is a minor repair that should be fixed to prevent to leaking pipes or damage to walls.
  • High pitched screeching sounds can be water forced through a small opening, such as a slightly opened valve or pinhole leak. Make sure all the valves that need to be open are wide open, and all the ones that need to be closed are fully closed. If you still hear it, that may indicate a leak that your plumber should be able to find.
  • A light tapping can be the normal sound of heat traps or water cooling inside of pipes.

If none of the sounds you’re hearing are comparable to the sounds described above, you may need to call your plumber out for a diagnosis.

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