Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Water Heaters

Have you thought about your water heater today?

If you’re like most homeowners, you have not. Water heaters are one of the appliances that don’t get thought about until something goes wrong. Although most water heaters can run for at least a decade, if not two, it can only do so when it receives regular maintenance, inspections, and attention.

Don’t wait until you no longer have hot water to start thinking about your hot water heater. Start a routine of monthly inspections right now. Have it professionally inspected and maintained at least once per year.

Twice per year is an optimal inspection schedule, though not every homeowner may be able to afford that level of professional services.

The bottom line is this: if you know more about your water heater, then you can spend less on your maintenance, repair, or replacement needs. Here is everything you ever wanted to know about water heaters so you can start saving money every month.

How Does a Tankless Water Heater Work?

Tankless water heaters are also called a “demand-type water heater.” They provide hot water when it is desired, but do not offer a way to store hot water for future use. This means they don’t provide standby energy losses like a tanked water heater. This can save homeowners money, but it also requires a larger up-front investment to do so.

When the hot water faucet is turned on, the cold water will travel through the home’s plumbing to the tankless water heater. This causes the element on the heater to turn, which can be powered by natural gas, propane, or electricity. As the water passes along the heating elements, it transforms from cold to hot. This allows it to supply hot water directly and constantly, as long as the flow rate ratings for the heater are not exceeded.

The best tankless water heaters can provide up to 5+ gallons of hot water per minute. Gas-fired tankless heaters typically provide a higher flow rate than electrical models.

If you find that one tankless heater is not enough to provide the correct amount of hot water, then multiple units can be installed in a parallel fashion so that simultaneous demands can be met. Larger homes may have a dedicated tankless system for appliances and another for personal use.

In homes that use less than 40 gallons of water daily, a tankless water system can make the home up to 34% more energy efficient when compared to tanked water heaters. Most systems have a life expectancy of more than 20 years.

How Does a Tanked Water Heater Work?

Many homes utilize a tanked water heater to meet their hot water needs. It is a system that has provided decades of support and will continue to do so in the future. For many homeowners, it is the most cost-effective way to meet their hot water needs.

A standard tanked water heater can be gas- or electric-powered. Natural gas is the most common installation, but propane is also available. Some regions may see oil-fired hot water heaters as the most popular.

Some new tanked models also use solar panels to help provide hot water.

Unlike a tankless system, a tanked water heater has two jobs: it must heat the water and it must store the water until it is used. To make sure the water retains its heat, every tank comes with a layer of insulation. You can also purchase hot water heater blankets to maintain consistent temperature levels with lower energy expenditures.

A cold-water intake will bring water into the tank from a home’s plumbing system. Sensors within the tank help it to recognize when it needs to draw more water from the plumbing so it can be heated. Then a thermostat registers the temperature of the water. If it needs to be heated, an element will be activated by the thermostat so that water temperatures begin to rise.

Water is then delivered to the hot pipes in the home with a discharge system. Water can also be removed from the tank by taking advantage of the drainage valve.

Most tanked models today are made of steel. There will usually be a glass lining on the inside of the tank to prevent corrosion.

Installing a Brand New Hot Water Heater

Because of the high installation costs that are associated with hot water heaters, many homeowners look for a DIY approach. Before you get started, there are several tools and supplies that you will need. This includes a propane torch, acid-free flux, and Teflon tape.

The Home Depot offers a complete supply list and a step-by-step installation process with pictures through this link:

If you are installing an electric hot water heater in your home, then Lowe’s has a step-by-step guide for you through this link:


It is important to have at least 6 inches of clearance on all sides of your hot water heater, no matter what type it may be, so that it has access to adequate ventilation. You may also wish to place your new appliance on a stand or within a protective drain pan or circle to prevent environmental damage. You should have easy access to all areas of the water heater as well.

Many areas require a professional installer to handle a gas line for natural gas or propane hot water heaters.

Inspection and Maintenance for Water Heaters

There’s no doubt that your water heater is the costliest component for your home’s plumbing. That’s why a schedule of inspection and maintenance is necessary to make sure you have the hot water you need. If a tanked hot water heater has a fracture or develops a hole due to corrosion, it will need to be replaced. You want to stop that process from happening prematurely.

One thing you can do right now is to place a catch-bucket underneath the temperature and pressure valve of your tanked water heater. This valve is designed to open whenever the pressure within the tank or the temperature of the water exceeds safety limits. If it opens, you’ll have a pool of water around your appliance that can encourage corrosion from the outside.

A bucket is better than a drain because then you’ll have evidence during an inspection that there was problem with the hot water heater. Make sure to inspect this valve at least once every other year at minimum. You can test it by pulling up the trip lever part of the way.

It is also a good idea to flush your water heater tank at least twice per year. Just attach a garden hose to the drain valve. You don’t necessarily need to drain the water completely from the tank. Just keep draining it until the water runs clear. If the water is already clear, you can stop this maintenance task right away.

You should also insulate most water heater tanks. This is especially important for water heaters that have been given a R-24 value or less. Make sure to cut slots in the blanket or insulation, if necessary, so it can fit around the valves, pipes, and controls on the hot water heater. Some blankets are precut. Then inspect this insulation once per month to make sure rodents, pets, or pests are not damaging the integrity of it.

Common Problems and Solutions When Water Heaters Break Down

If you’re using a tank-based water heater, then you’ve got four basic parts: the tank, a cold-water intake, an outlet for hot water, and a drain valve. Most models will have these components visible and accessible on the outer shell of the appliance.

Inside the tank, you’ll have a dip tube, a heating element, and a sacrificial rod.

Each element has the potential of being damaged. If you have a problem with your hot water heater, you will want to inspect each part to make sure it is operating correctly.

The first step will be to drain the hot water heater. You’ll need to turn off the power supply to the heating mechanism, which means shutting down the electrical panel or turning off the gas. Give the water inside the tank some time to cool. Then close the cold-water intake and attach a hose to the drain valve so the water can go outside. Be sure to turn on a hot water tap in the home to make sure air gets into the tank so it can properly drain.

Tank sediment is a common reason why a hot water heater stops working properly. Once it has been completely drained, open the cold-water intake valve and fill the tank halfway. Target any sediment that you happen to notice. Then flush the cold water through the drain valve and repeat until the sediment has been completely removed.

If there is a noticeable change to the water temperature, the most common reason is a change to the thermostat settings. Try raising the temperature a few degrees to restore the functionality of the appliance. If that does not work, you will either need to replace the thermostat or the heating element. Both rarely fail at the same time.

You’ll need to test the power output of the thermostat to determine if it is working properly.

If you hear strange noises coming from the hot water heater, then there is a good chance that a component is failing. It can also be an indication that the heating element has encountered hardened sentiment and the tank needs to be cleaned.

For those who have a tankless hot water heater, the ventilation system will need some attention as well. Rodents can get into systems that are not properly sealed. Crafty pests can even create their own access point. Periodic cleaning may also be necessary to maintain a proper flow rate through the hot water heater.

Why Does My Hot Water Heater Smell So Bad?

If you notice a lingering odor around your hot water heater or in the water itself, then there is a good chance that your tank has come down with a bacterial infection. It will smell like the geysers at Yellowstone National Park when an infection is present. It’s a bit like rotten eggs.

The easiest way to solve this problem is to flush out the tank. Then fill it back up with fresh water and a product that will kill the bacteria. Use peroxide if you can, since it is much safer. In a pinch, you can also use chlorine bleach.

If you have a water softener, disengage it because this can cause the odor to get worse instead of better. You may need to consider the installation of a powered anode rod instead of a standard sacrificial rod to control the bacteria and their associated odors.

Some websites recommend removing the sacrificial anode rod to reduce or eliminate a foul odor from a hot water heater. This should never be done because it may affect the integrity of the tank itself.

Try installing an aluminum/zinc anode rod to solve the problem if flushing the tank does not work. The zinc will help to control bacteria levels without increasing the risks of corrosion.

Sometimes you may have the foul odor at one faucet, but nowhere else in the house. In this instance, you can use a chlorine bleach solution to kill the bacteria that has accumulated in the drain or the basin overflow.

If you have high levels of sulfur in your local water supply, there isn’t anything you can do to prevent the odor from coming into your home’s plumbing.

Safety Equipment You Need for Water Heater Inspection and Repair

For those who are inspecting and performing light maintenance work on their own water heater, there is some safety equipment you’ll want to have on-hand. Make sure that you wear all personal protective equipment before beginning any job that requires you to be hands-on with your water heater.

Gloves and goggles should be worn always. Other protective gear, including a face shield, foot protection, and clothing protection, should be considered on an “as needed” basis.

Before starting any service, you should also make sure that the power to the water heater has been completed turned off. The water supply to the tank should also be shut down, if not completely disconnected, depending on the job that needs to be done.

Every hot water heater comes with a servicing manual from the manufacturer. This allows you to see what specific parts may be needed conduct a successful maintenance task or needed repair.

If at any time, you feel like a repair is beyond your capabilities, then call a professional to complete the work for you. For jobs that are more than $100, you will want to get estimates from at least 3 different providers in your area to make sure you’re getting a fair price.

Water Heater Regulations You Should Know About

Regulations for water heaters changed in 2015. Manufacturers of water heaters that are sold in the United States must meet these standards. It applies to all residential appliances, including electric, natural gas, and propane water heaters. In order for the water heater to comply, it must have an energy efficiency rating of 0.82.

Older gas water heaters, however, may have an energy efficiency rating of 0.60 or less.

The change in regulations can provide up to a 30% increase in energy efficiencies compared to previous hot water heater models. It also means that there are some changes you’ll need to think about if you are upgrading from an older model.

The newer hot water heaters have been given extra insulation around the tank to improve heat retention. This means hot water tanks today are taller and wider than they were on past models. Some makes and models may be up to 2 inches wider in the new generation of tanks compared to previous generations.

This means there may be larger venting requirements for some homes that will require a mandatory update when a new hot water heater is purchased.

These changes have resulted in a general price increase for all hot water heaters from pre-2015 levels. Considering the increases in materials, labor, and size, hot water heaters are now about $100 more expensive than before. It also means that many homes will require a customized solution if the hot water heater is more than 10 years old.

One extra note: many manufacturers are discontinuing their larger-size tank models because of these regulations. You may wish to upgrade your hot water heater now if it is 8-10 years old now, even if it is still functioning properly, if you can find an upgraded replacement. It may be some time before new products come along in our industry to replace them.

What Can I Do Right Now?

Taking care of your water heater does take a little time, but it is an investment that is worth making. Inspect it monthly for outer damage. React immediately if you see water around your appliance. Then take the time to drain it at least twice per year to make sure the interior of the tank looks just as good as the exterior.

If you are uncomfortable with any of the inspection, maintenance, or repair tasks that your hot water heater may require, most manufacturers offer a service provider location tool so you can find the help you need.

Life is better with a great hot water heater. By knowing more about this critical appliance, you can be proactive in its care.

For more information and water heater reviews you can check out our articles on tankless water heaters, electric water heaters and gas water heaters.

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