Water heater maintenance: six tips to save you money

Water heater maintenance: six tips to save you money

Do it yourself and save a bundle with these basic maintenance tips.

Key tips to remember

  • DIY water heater maintenance cost savings can be substantial
  • First, set your temperature to 120 degrees F and wrap the heater with insulation
  • Then do annual checks of pressure valves and sediment buildup
  • Anode rods only need to be checked once every three years
  • Most water heaters last at least a decade with minimal maintenance

Ah, the joys of hot showers and warm baths, clean dishes and fresh clothes. For those of us who happen to be so fortunate, it’s easy to take these facts of life for granted, which is why it’s such a rude shock when suddenly there’s no hot water. Your water heater is something your household relies on day and night, practically 24/7. It also accounts for nearly 20 percent of your household energy use, so keeping it running smoothly means greater efficiency and lower operating costs. Your water heater will likely last between 12 and 15 years, so you may forget it’s even there. But if you get into the habit of doing a little maintenance, even as little as once a year, you may avoid an expensive repair bill and keep your monthly energy bill down, too. You also stand a good chance of increasing the lifespan of the unit and putting off a new purchase. In the interest of helping you accomplish all three, we’ve put together this handy set of water heater maintenance tips. They’re in the form of an electric water heater maintenance checklist, but unless noted, most of what is here applies to any sort of water heater. Read on!

Tools you might need

If you’re rolling up your sleeves for a little DIY hot water heater maintenance, or maybe even pitching in at the office for a little commercial water heater maintenance, you’ll want to round up a few tools. You never want to get stuck in a tight spot or in a creepy basement only to realize you don’t have the right tool for the job. Make sure you grab a bucket and toss in these handy helpers: screwdrivers, pipe wrenches, a hose, socket wrenches, rags, pliers, scissors, a box cutter and plumber’s tape. You’ll be glad you did this first.

Temperature adjustment

Some extremely impactful steps only need to be taken once, meaning when you get into a yearly routine, these tasks don’t need to be repeated again over the lifespan of your water heater. Setting the temperature is one. First, adjust the temperature dial with a flathead screwdriver to approximately 120 degrees F. Remember that you can save around 5% on your energy bill for every 10 degrees you lower that temperature dial, as well as dial back the risk of burning yourself with ridiculously hot water. One exception to the “one and done” rule that we should note here is you may want to consider dialing down the temperature to its lowest setting if you plan to be away from home for an extended period.

Insulation wrap

Here’s another “one and done” step you won’t need to repeat. If you take the time to simply wrap an insulation blanket around your water heater and tape it down, making a few cuts here and there to help it fit around the valves and pipes and leaving the tops of oil or gas heaters uncovered, you can save an additional 9% on your overall energy costs due to the nearly 50% reduction in heat loss. While you’re at it, you may also want to insulate your pipes to prevent summer condensation and winter freezing. Foam pipe insulation or fiberglass pipe wrap works fine.

Anode rod check

Made of aluminum or magnesium, either of which corrodes in water, the anode rod is designed to prevent the interior of your water heater’s tank from rusting. As the rod rusts, the tank is protected. But if the rod is allowed to rust away fully, it’s no longer doing its job, and the tank will become vulnerable and begin to rust, which can lead to rusty water and problems with the unit. The average anode rod lasts about three years, and it’s a lot cheaper to replace than the entire water heater. So, every three years is a good rule of thumb for checking on the anode rod. Do this by unscrewing the hex head screw to remove the rod. You’ll know the rod needs to be replaced if it’s less than a half-inch thick, if it’s coated with calcium, or if more than 6 inches of the steel wire found in its core has been exposed. Replacing the rod yourself will cost you less than $20 for a new rod and a few minutes of your time. Before you screw the new rod into place, don’t forget to wrap its threads in Teflon tape.

Pressure valve check

The temperature pressure release (TPR) valve — sometimes known as a pressure release valve (PRV) — on the top or side of the heater is one check to add to your annual water heater maintenance list. When you check this valve, make sure you discharge it a few times, and you’ll want to make sure it’s not leaking afterward. First, turn off the power and close the cold-water valve. Then put your bucket under the TPR valve and lift its tab, which will allow some water to escape; the valve is meant to release pressure buildup in this way. If water keeps escaping after you release the tab, or if no water escapes, you need a new valve. At this point, you’ll want to drain about half the tank, use your pipe wrench to remove the old valve and install a new one. Don’t forget to add new Teflon tape to the new valve’s threads.

Sediment check

Common across America, hard water has higher levels of calcium and magnesium, which can clog your water heater over time if ignored for long enough, almost like sand or gravel. Check for this sediment buildup by listening for weird sounds that knock, bang or thump. These noises are pretty reliable indicators that your water heater is working too hard, which means it’s using more energy and costing you more to operate. If you don’t notice any weird sounds when the unit is operational, try knocking on the outside of the tank. The sound created should be uniform, but if it sounds different near the bottom, you probably have some sediment buildup. Other indicators of potential sediment buildup include rusty water and poor performance.

Tank drain and sediment flush 

Draining the tank should be a part of your annual water heater maintenance routine because it can help the heater run more efficiently, especially if you have hard water where you live. After draining your tank into a bucket (or three), open the cold-water valve to stir up sediment on the bottom and then drain it again. Repeat this process until your water comes out clean and free of sediment. Use the hose to direct the water into your bucket if needed. This annual flush can help prevent damage to your tank over time.

Gas water heaters

Gas water heaters work slightly differently than electric water heaters. Instead of a heating element, gas water heaters use a burner to heat the water after it arrives in the tank via a dip tube. As the gas burns, it releases heated gas into the tank through a chimney, which heats the pipes and the unit itself, and in turn the water. The heated water then rises from the unit into the house’s pipes. Turning on a hot-water faucet then prompts the dip tube to add more cold water, which in turn displaces the hot water, forcing it away from the water heater and into the pipes throughout the home. As with an electric water heater, the higher the temperature setting, the more fuel (gas or electricity) is required to heat the water to that temperature. In general, natural-gas water heaters require less energy to operate and end up costing you less in utility bills, but they need maintenance, too. Many of the same techniques we’ve described in this post work just as well with gas-powered water heaters.

Tankless water heaters

When considering tankless water heater maintenance, a few things are different, but much is the same. Whether your tankless water heater runs on gas or electricity, it still requires electricity to function, so make sure it’s installed with easy access to a 120-volt outlet. If you’re not getting power, be sure to check your breaker, which may have tripped. Tankless water heaters that use gas have a supply valve that allows gas into the unit. Ensure that gas is flowing into the unit by opening this valve, usually a circular knob or a handle that must align in parallel with the pipe when set to the “open” or “on” position. Make sure your unit’s exhaust vent is free and clear of all obstructions, too; blocking this essential part of the unit can result in malfunctioning and a lack of hot water. As always, don’t hesitate to call a professional if you find you need additional help.

Thanks for reading our post on the basics of water heater maintenance. We hope it was helpful. While you’re here, you may also want to read more on this topic, like our post on whether a home warranty covers water heaters, more on maintaining your water heater and additional DIY tips for water heater maintenance. There’s plenty more where these came from.

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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