About 20 years ago, my hot water heater started leaking the day before we left for a vacation. In a panic, my wife said, what are you going to do. I said, turn it off and go to Disney World. True story!! So needless to say I had a project waiting for me when I returned.
Water heaters come in many types, shapes and sizes. Natural gas (or LP) or electric tank type are the most common. Like everything else in the house, a little bit of maintenance and periodical inspections can work to get the most life out of a hot water heater.
- How old is the water heater? If the water heater was there before you were. You need to figure out how old it is. Newer tanks maybe clearly stamped with a date. Sometimes a plumber will also write on the tank the date of installation. If you find none of that, look for the serial number. The first four digits should include a date code. Every manufacturer does it a little different. C-93, 0393, 9303, 9313 (13 is a week number) In this example, all equate to March of 1993. Typically water heaters can last for 10-15 years, but start inspecting them more regularly at about 7 years.
- Physical Inspection: With a good flashlight, try to look around all the surface area of the outside structure. Look for any water, water deposits, rust or deformation in the shell of the heater Inspect all the water connections. The tank should be marked with cold input and hot output. WARNING: The hot water output will be HOT. Be careful if you touch them. Look for heavy rust and water streaks on the shell of the heater. Using a paper towel as your inspection tool it will identify water on the back side where you may not be able to see it.
- Cold Water Cut-off: Close the valve to make sure you can. In an emergency, you need to know it will close successfully.
- Pressure Release Valve: Every water heater has a pressure relief valve. By design, if the water heater gets too hot and the water starts boiling, the relief valve will let the water out. If the water heater was installed correctly, the valve should be connected to a pipe, and the pipe should exit the house. Open the valve for about 2 seconds, then let it go quickly so it will re-seat. Be aware, it may not re-seat. If it doesn’t re-seat, activate it a couple of times. If it does not re-seat, it will need to be replaced. TIP: When testing this item, be aware, it may not re-seat, so do it when it will be convenient for you to replace it or have it replaced. You want to avoid that weekend call out to a plumber. If you get stuck, you can turn the cold water off (see #3) and it should stop leaking until you replace it, granted you will be limited on hot water. Here is the e-How link to replacing a pressure relief valve.
- Flue Inspection (Gas fired Water Heaters): You should see a rigid metal duct or flue leaving the top of the water heater. Inspect each joint to ensure it is properly sealed with aluminum type tape. This is very important as a leaky vent can cause carbon monoxide poisoning. This vent needs to be inspected from the top of the water heater to the point of exit out of the house. It should also be secure and supported on its path out of the house.
- Drain the tank of sediment: At the base of the water heater is a spigot. If you can get a bucket underneath it, drain about a gallon of water. If it is clear, perform it yearly. If it is milky or include noticable particles. Connect a garden hose, with the open end leading outside and drain the entire tank. You must turn the water off (above item 3) and open a hot water faucet in the house so it will drain to be able to get all the water out. Perform this every 2 to 3 years.
- Replace the anode (optional): If your water heater does not normally last 10 years, you may consider this maintenance item. On top of the water heater is a large bolt. Underneath the bolt is a sacrificial anode that is designed to corrode. Once it has dissolved, the tank will take on that role and start corroding. Because we all have different water quality, the anode will corrode at different rates in different parts of the country. If you have a concern, inspect it at 5 years. It’s best to shut off the water, as well as the heat source (electricity or natural gas). If the anode has consumed at least 6 inches, the anode should be replaced. After completing this exercise, drain and refill the tank.
Following this method will allow you to get the maximum life out of your water heater.