6 essential tips for water heater maintenance

Key tips to remember

  • Know what type of water heater you have, and keep the area around it accessible.
  • Set the temperature at 120 degrees F to keep energy costs down.
  • Flush the water tank and test the temperature pressure relief valve annually.
  • The anode rod should be checked and replaced about every three years.
  • Insulating the water heater and pipes can save you money on your energy bill.

Do you enjoy a hot shower? Most of us would agree that hot water is definitely on the list of must-have home necessities. That’s why it’s important to set aside time to show your water heater some love. After all, a bubbly ice bath is simply no fun, and neither is a skyrocketing electric bill due a poorly maintained appliance.

The good news is that with just a handful of maintenance steps, you’ll not only prolong the life of one of your home’s hardest working systems, but you’ll also reap the financial savings of keeping things running efficiently.

In fact, some of these tasks, such as adding insulation to and setting the temperature on your water heater, you only need to do once and you’re set. Other items on the list, such as flushing the tank and checking the pressure relief valve, you’ll need to check off every year.

Most homeowners don’t give their hot water a second thought, but taking care of the water heater is something we all need to do, and it’s easier than you might think. Just follow these six essential tips for water heater maintenance to reduce your utility costs and keep your showers piping hot for years to come.

1. Know what type of water heater you have, and keep the area accessible.

The first step is knowing what type of water heater you have, along with its age and gallon capacity. These are the first things a plumber or technician will ask for, and they’re commonly listed on a sticker on the tank, along with any manufacturer warranty information.

Is the water heater out of warranty? That’s a sign that you’ll probably want to check for signs of malfunction more frequently, and maybe consider a home protection plan from Cinch so that you’re covered for any unexpected repairs.

Also make sure not to place anything too close to the water heater. It’s a good idea to maintain a two-foot clearance around it, which will make the system easier to service and reduce the risk that something will collide with it. Many homes come with a water heater already installed, but it’s a mistake to keep the water heater tucked away in a location that is hard to reach.

2. Lower the temperature.

There are several reasons to lower the temperature on your water heater:

  • Lower temps reduce the risk of scalding.
  • You’ll save five percent in energy costs for every ten degrees you lower the temperature.
  • Increased heat causes water heaters to wear down faster.

A good rule of thumb is to keep the temperature at 120 degrees Fahrenheit, which is enough to kill most pathogens within two hours. To reduce the temperature on a gas water heater, simply lower the dial. On an electric water heater, first disconnect the power to the unit. Locate the thermostat on the side of the tank and remove its cover, then adjust the dial using a flathead screwdriver.

If you plan to be away from home for more than three days, either turn off the water heater or turn down the temperature to its lowest setting. Many gas heaters feature a “vacation” setting, which will maintain the pilot light without heating the water.

3. Test the temperature pressure relief valve.

If too much pressure builds up in a water heater, it can actually cause the unit to explode — yikes! This is why water heaters come with a safety valve, often referred to as the temperature pressure relief (TPR) valve, which opens automatically if the pressure in the tank gets too high.

It’s a good practice to test this valve every year:

  • Shut off power to the water heater and close the cold-water supply valve.
  • Place a bucket under the pipe connected to the TPR valve.
  • Lift the tab on the TPR valve to let some water out, then let it go.
  • If no water comes out of the TPR valve when you lift it, or if water keeps coming out after you let go, you should replace the valve.

4. Check the anode rod.

The anode rod is an essential component of tank-style water heaters. (If you have a tankless water heater, this won’t apply to you.) Most anode rods are sacrificial, which means they are designed to corrode in place of the water heater tank lining. This prevents the inside of the water heater from rusting out.

Because they are meant to break down, your anode rod will eventually wear out and need to be replaced, so it’s a good idea to check the condition of the sacrificial anode rod at least every three years by loosening the hex-head screw on the rod and removing it. You’ll know you need to replace the rod if:

  • More than 6 inches of the core steel wire is exposed.
  • The rod is less than a half-inch thick.
  • The rod is coated with calcium.
  • In serious cases, pieces of the rod might be missing altogether.
  • Water in the tank is discolored or smelly.

5. Flush the water heater.

When sediment collects in your water heater tank, it can restrict the unit’s efficiency. Flushing your water heater annually is an easy way to remove this sediment and keep the unit from working too hard, which will prolong its life and reduce your energy bill. This is another reason to set your water heater temperature at 120 degrees: higher temps increase sediment buildup.

To flush your water heater:

  • Turn off the heater and gas supply, or flip the circuit breaker for an electric heater.
  • Connect a garden hose to the drainage spigot so the water flushing from the water heater can be run to a drain, such as a nearby shower drain, or into a bucket.
  • Open the drain valve slowly — remember, the water will be hot, so be careful — and let the water run until it's clear and free of sediment, usually for five minutes or about two or three gallons.
  • When finished draining, turn off the drainage valve, refill the tank, and turn the power back on.

As an added bonus, flushing the system like this will also help it operate more quietly.

6. Insulate the water heater and pipes.

Just like insulating your walls or roof, adding insulation to a water heater tank is an easy and inexpensive way to improve energy efficiency and save money each month. In fact, insulation can reduce heat loss by up to 45 percent and reduce your water-heating costs by almost 10 percent!

If your water heater is new, it’s probably already insulated, but an older model should be updated with insulation to an R-value of at least 24. If you’re not sure, you can test the insulation level by touching the water heater — if it feels warm, then it needs more insulation.

First, check with your utility company to see if it sells insulating blankets for a special rate or offers a rebate. Some even install insulation at no charge. You can also find pre-cut insulation blankets for as little as $20.

When cutting and installing an insulation blanket, make sure not to cover the top of an oil or gas heater, and leave plenty of room around the valve and burner areas below. To insulate hot- and cold-water pipes, you can buy self-sticking foam pipe insulation that matches their diameter. Insulating cold-water pipes will prevent condensation from forming in the summertime.

An unsung hero, the water-heating system is one of the most important systems in our homes — and sorely missed when it goes on the fritz. But if you implement these six essential maintenance tips, you can keep your water heater in tip-top shape while saving money on your energy bills.

If your water heater and other appliances are getting up there in years, Cinch Home Services is here to help! Consider contacting us about a home protection plan, and don’t forget to subscribe to our newsletter and follow us on Facebook to learn more ways to keep your home running efficiently.

The information in this article is intended to provide guidance on the proper maintenance and care of systems and appliances in the home. Not all of the topics mentioned are covered by our home warranty or maintenance plans. Please review your home warranty contract carefully to understand your coverage.

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