Hot Water Heater Guide

One of the hardest-working parts of your home's plumbing system is its hot water heater. Chances are that you don't give much thought to your water heater until you experience a performance issue with the heater. This guide looks at common water heater problems and solutions, choosing an appropriately sized water heater for your family, and the newer, more environmentally friendly water heater options that are available for you to choose from when replacing your existing water heater.

Water Heater Problems
Much of the hard work that your water heater does each day goes unnoticed until you step into the shower one morning and turn the tap on - only to realize that nothing comes out by cold water. If you have a tank-style water heater and someone showered before you, chances are that they used up the bulk of the hot water supply and the unit needs time to heat more water for your shower. However, if your hot water suddenly turns cold and no one has used the shower before you, your water heater may have a problem. In this instance, you will need to determine if the hot water problem is confined to an area of the house or if the whole house is without hot water. To do this, go to the kitchen and other bathrooms and turn on the hot water tap. If none of the plumbing fixtures in your home are supplied with hot water, the problem can be found in your water heater.

If your water heater is a gas model, you may need to relight the pilot light according to the manufacturer's directions. Once this is completed and there is no hot water after twenty-minutes or so, there can be a variety of problems with your heater, including a defective part or burnt out heating element (electric heaters), obstruction of the flue (gas heaters), defective thermocouple, sediment buildup (from hard water), defective temperature control or thermostat, or other issue. Rather than replacing the water heater, many homeowners elect to have a professional come out to look at the problem and ascertain whether their existing water heater can be repaired and salvaged.

Inversely, if the problem with your water heater is not a whole-house issue, you could have problems in the plumbing running somewhere between the shower and the hot water heater. Sometimes the rubber parts in your shower's valve can become worn or degraded with age, causing them to swell up and restrict the flow of water. Hot water can cause the swelling to increase, which is why a problem with hot water is often the first symptom of distress that you see. These rubber parts can also break off and become lodged in the mixer valve or even travel elsewhere to cause an obstruction that keeps hot water from your tub or shower. Removing the part and flushing the valve is often a good remedy, as is cleaning the screen to the valve.

Water Heater Repairs
There are a various reasons that water heaters may fall into a state of disrepair. Oftentimes sediment will form at the bottom of the tank, causing burners to malfunction. You may hear this sediment as a popping noise when the burners at the tank's bottom ignite. Another common problem is that thermostatic controls in the heater fail or malfunction. Dip tubes can break causing incoming cold water to interchange with the hot water that is going out, making your hot water less than hot. These are just some of the possible problems that you may experience with your hot water heater that will result in loss of the unit's ability to heat water, the unit heating water to the wrong temperature, or complete failure of the unit.

While it is always a good thing when a homeowner is confident enough in their abilities to work on their own home's plumbing, if you do not completely trust yourself to do repair jobs like these with accuracy, then don't do them. Flushing the shower valve, removing debris in your shower lines and replacing parts that are no longer working may be a bit above the average homeowner's skill set. It is better to get it done right the first time, and this often means calling up the reinforcements (your local plumber). Things to ask your plumber when it comes to your hot water heater:

  • What are the costs of repairing the current unit?
  • How long will the unit last if it is repaired?
  • Would replacement be a better option?
  • What options do I have with gas/electric models on the market?
  • Is a tankless option better for my household?
  • Which do you recommend?

Hot Water Heater Replacement If your hot water heater is not repairable, you wish to switch to a more energy efficient model or smaller or larger water heater, you may be wondering which size or type of water heater to purchase. If the hot water heater that you had been using was right for your needs, perhaps you wish to install the same size heater again. Your hot water needs can typically be calculated based on the number of bathrooms in your home. A small, one bathroom home should need no more than a 40 gallon tank while a home with a bath and a half will need a tank at least that big. For a home with two or more bathrooms, you will need at least a 50 gallon tank if you're using a gas model and up to an 80 gallon tank if you are using an electric model.

Deciding between an electric water heater and a gas water heater is a big decision. Electric water heaters take a longer time to heat the water that you need than gas models. Your needs may be larger than the above recommendations if you have more bathrooms or do a lot of laundry, as is often the case in large families. (An average load of laundry uses more than 20 gallons of water, much of it hot water, depending on the cycle you choose). Some homeowners choose to install a 120 gallon electric water heater. Gas water heaters can be less expensive to use than electric, and often provide a more efficient means of heating the water in the hot water heater’s tank. A gas water heater has a faster “recovery” time than electric models; a 40 gallon gas water heater can re-heat its entire supply of water in one hour while a similarly sized electric water heater will need twice as long to recover. Base your choice on the cost of installation, cost of the heater itself, and your family’s particular needs.

Lifespan of Tank-Style Water Heaters

Water heaters that feature a tank for storage have an average lifespan of ten years or less, although this is just an average figure. With proper maintenance, some homeowners report using their tank-style water heaters for twice as many years. For many homeowners, the tankless water heater is the best choice (especially if your current water heater has gone bad) for replacement. Most tankless water heaters have a lifetime warranty against leaks and can have a much longer lifespan than tank-style water heaters. Tankless water heaters heat water only as it is needed, thus saving the homeowner money on their utility bills (not to mention saving the planet’s resources in the process). We’ll discuss tankless water heaters in more depth below.

Energy Efficient Water Heater Choices

There are standards for water heater energy efficiency that are set by the United States government that were increased in 2004. The energy efficiency of a water heater is measured as the percentage of heat that is used to produce 64 gallons of hot water each day, with the energy being expressed as an energy factor. To be an energy efficient hot water heater, the heater must have an energy factor of at least .63 for gas water heater models, while tankless models must have an efficiency of .95 or greater. When replacing your existing water heater, take into account the energy efficiency rating of the heater before you decide which to purchase.

Tankless Water Heaters – the Wave of the Future

For most homeowners and average families, the tankless water heater is the ideal choice when replacing an existing water heater. As mentioned earlier, a tankless heater will use much less electricity or gas than a tank-style model because the tankless heater doesn’t have the burden of keeping dozens of gallons of water hot 24/7/365 like the tank-style heater. Tankless water heaters take up less space, making them ideal for homes with limited space. And for families who are doing their part to make their living environments more compatible with green living guidelines, a tankless heater uses less of the natural resources that our planet has to offer – thus reducing your carbon footprint. Tankless water heaters last for a long time and are relatively inexpensive; in fact, the energy savings reaped from tankless water heater installation can virtually pay for the cost of the heater in a few short years.