Maintaining Your Water Heater
Hot running water. It’s a luxury that, as Americans, we have grown to enjoy and expect. Unfortunately, we frequently take it for granted – until, of course, the tap ceases to deliver any.
If your tired of short showers and high utility bills, take action! A bit of preventative maintenance on the water heater can provide hot water longer, result in energy savings and even extend the life of the water heater.
The good news is that while the work can be performed by a pro (a plumber), most of the tasks that we suggest can be performed by a do-it-yourselfer.
Let’s begin with the basics. A water heater has three fundamental parts: 1) the enclosure, 2) the water tank assembly, and 3) the burner and control assembly.
The enclosure holds everything together and protects the tank and other frag¬ile parts from damage. There really isn’t much you can do to maintain the enclosure – except that regular cleaning could improve its appearance. Rust which may appear from time to time should be removed using a wire brush and the affected area should be touch-up painted with a rust resistant paint.
Since the tank has no inspection ports it’s hard to tell when it’s dirty or beginning to rust. Actually, tank rust usually isn’t discovered until after a leak occurs – and then it’s too late.
Most tanks are made of glass-lined steel. If water gets through imperfections in the glass, then you can count on a rusty result – and eventually a leak. A special rod called a cathodic anode (or sacrificial anode) is built into the tank assembly to prevent rust. As long as the rod is in good condition dete¬rioration of the tank is drastically reduced.
This is how it works. Water in the tank attacks the rod instead of the tank and after a few years the rod completely deteriorates – sacrificing itself for the good of the tank – thereby getting its nickname “sacrificial anode”. Once the rod has corroded away, then the water starts working on the tank instead. To prevent damage to the tank, simply replace the cathodic anode – a $15 item that takes about thirty minutes to install. Cathodic anodes are not readily available in hardware stores. This is one that you’ll probably have to get from a plumbing supply company.
The cathodic anode is about five-feet long, about three-quarters of an inch in diameter and has a hex bolt welded onto one end. The hex bolt screws into the top of the tank holding the rod in place inside the tank, and, when tightened down, the nut also makes a water tight seal at the same time.
CAUTION: Before removing (unscrewing) the rod make sure to turn the cold-water inlet valve OFF.
While the water is off and once the rod has been removed, seize the moment and use the open hole to clean and flush the tank. Pour in a citric-acid based cleaner, wait about eight-hours for the acid to dissolve the minerals at the bottom of the tank and then flush. You’ll be amazed at what’s comes out when draining the cleaned tank.
One such food-grade citric-acid based water-heater cleaning product is called Mag-Erad. It is available at most plumbing supply stores. Mag-Erad is a one-of-a-kind product, thus can sometimes be hard to find. If this proves to be so in your case, call its’ manufacturer A.O. Smith direct at (800) 845-1108.
In addition, the burner assembly should be cleaned at least once a year, but more frequent care is better. Simply brush away cobwebs, dust and other debris that build up. A vacuum with an upholstery brush really works well.
Water temperature is another important factor. Water heater manufactures recommend a lower water temperature setting whenever possible (130 degrees or less). Modest settings economize on utility bills, extend the service life of the unit and provide some margin of safety for the very young and the elderly.
At least once a year, the temperature and pressure relief valve should be checked to ensure it is in good operating condition. The fire service and the plumbing industry recognize this device as the last line of defense against tank ruptures or at worst, a steam explosion.
And don’t forget the venting system. It should be checked for proper draft and for any visible deterioration. A poor draft condition can be, at the least, a health hazard and at its worst, deadly. A slow or weak draft can damage heating elements, the result being a reduced service life of the unit.
As consumers, we spend much of our time worrying about when our water heater is going to begin leaking and therefore need replacement. If we maintain our water heaters properly they will last a very long time. Also, they will operate more safely and more cost effectively.