Like virtually every other home appliance, water heaters don’t last forever — and the unfortunate reality is that they aren’t cheap. An average water heater has a lifespan of approximately 10 years.
Does that mean yours will bite the dust on the tenth anniversary of its installation in your home? Not necessarily! But once you pass that 10-year mark (and certainly once you hit 12 or even 15 years), you need to be prepared for water heater failure. And unfortunately, appliances typically follow Murphy’s Law and fail when they’re needed most, like on a record-breaking cold day or during a family gathering.
The good news is that there are several steps you can take to extend the lifespan of your water heater and monitor its health over the years. This is important because in an ideal world, you’ll never have to deal with a catastrophic water heater failure. You’ll simply notice a few telltale signs that it’s time to replace it. No flooded basements and damp drywall to contend with here!
Ready to learn some easy tips for DIY water heater maintenance? Keep reading!
3 tips for easy DIY water heater maintenance
1. Drain the water heater.
This is about as much of a pain in the butt as it sounds, but the good news is that you don’t need to do it often. Draining your water heater is an important periodic maintenance task because, over time, sediment (usually from your household water supply and from the water heater itself) collects in the tank. This sediment isn’t harmful to you, but it isn’t great for your water heater. If enough of it collects, your water heater will lose efficiency and kick the bucket early, driving up your utility costs in the meantime.
If your water heater isn’t brand new and you’ve never drained it (or it’s been many years since you’ve done so), grab a five-gallon bucket and a few old towels, and see if you can drain out some sediment.
First, turn off the power to your water heater. The drain should be near the water heater’s base. Position the bucket directly under the drain and open the valve. The water that drains into the bucket will probably be discolored; you might even be able to see the sediment draining out. In most cases, draining a few gallons is plenty — if you fill a five-gallon bucket more than once before the water runs clear, you have a more pressing problem on your hands.
Close the valve on the drain, clean up your workspace, and either power on the water heater or ignite its pilot light to get it working again. Good job!
2. Check the pressure valve.
Water heaters are under pressure, and like any other pressurized household appliance, a functioning pressure-release valve is an essential safety feature. This valve is usually located toward the top of your water heater and has a pipe extending down from it.
If you’d like to verify that the pressure relief valve will do what it’s supposed to do, locate the valve and place a bucket underneath the pipe. Lift up on the valve slightly — just enough to let a little water out — and then let the valve tab return to its original position.
As long as water is released when the valve is opened, it’s doing its job just fine. Don’t see any water come out during your test? Replace the valve. This isn’t too difficult to do on your own, but it’s a job you don’t want to mess up. Check with your trusted local plumber — or even better, contact your home warranty company!
3. Don’t forget the anode rod!
One of the most important components of your water heater is its anode rod. This metal rod has a steel core, which is coated in either zinc, magnesium or aluminum. None of the three metals are any better than the other, so there’s no need to fret about which type is in your water heater. The important thing is that all three of those substances react with water and the bare steel interior of the water heater.
Why is that necessary? Well, in the absence of an anode rod, simply filling a water heater with water for the first time would kick off a rapid corrosion process. An anode rod-free water heater is a water heater that will not last long.
With an anode rod, the zinc, magnesium or aluminum coating surrounding the rod’s core will corrode long before the tank’s steel interior. Checking on your water heater’s anode rod periodically — especially as the appliance reaches the top end of its estimated lifespan — is a great way to monitor how much time you might have before you need to purchase a replacement.
To do this, unscrew the rod on the top of your water heater (you might need a wrench to do this). Gently lift the rod out of the tank, and give it a thorough once-over. Is it covered in calcium deposits? Has the metal coating deteriorated to less than a half inch? If so, replace the rod as soon as possible to slow the corrosion process. If the rod is in good shape, however, screw it back in the tank and make a note to yourself to check it again next year.
How to increase water heater efficiency
On top of sticking to a regular water heater maintenance schedule, it’s also a smart idea to take steps to make your water heater more environmentally friendly. Curious about what that involves? Check out the list below!
1. Turn down the temperature.
There’s not much better than a hot shower, but keep in mind that the hotter the water, the more energy required — and energy, whether created by natural gas or electricity, isn’t free. There’s an environmental cost to energy use, too.
Turning down the temperature on your water heater is a smart move if your family includes small children (or will in the future). Simply adjusting the heater’s thermostat from 140 to 120 degrees Fahrenheit significantly reduces the risk of anyone in your house being scalded by too-hot water. Another bonus? You’ll likely notice a marked decrease in your energy bills.
An adjustment of 20 degrees might sound like a lot, but 120 degrees is plenty hot enough to effectively wash clothes and dishes as well as take a relaxing shower, and the benefits are well worth it.
2. Insulate your water heater.
Sounds a little nutty, but it works! Depending on the type of water heater you have, this is either a two- or three-step process:
- Use foam pipe insulation to insulate the hot- and cold-water supply pipes coming from the top of the water heater.
- Wrap the water heater’s tank with reflective blanket insulation.
- If your water heater is electric, cover the top of the tank with a circle of reflective blanket insulation. DO NOT do this if your water heater uses natural gas as a fuel source. Regardless of the type of water heater you have, be sure to leave the unit’s thermostat uninsulated.
3. Put your water heater on a timer.
Before you get too excited about this tip, note that it only applies if you have an electric water heater. If you have a gas water heater, insulating the appliance and turning down the thermostat should get you to a good place in terms of energy efficiency and cost savings.
Electric appliances, however, tend to have a slightly higher operating cost than gas appliances, so it’s worth your while to make small changes that can cut down on your energy use. The reality is that you don’t need your water heater all the time. It probably sees the most use in the mornings and evenings during the week, right?
Put your electric water heater on a timer! A programmable timer can be configured to turn off your water heater altogether at times when it’s not needed, such as during the middle of a workday or overnight.
Water heater maintenance is part of being a responsible homeowner, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to take on the entire job yourself. There’s absolutely no harm in calling in the pros if you’re unsure of how to do something — or even if you just don’t feel like it.
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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.