Maintaining A Water Heater
One of our favorite subjects to write about is the water heater. It is without a doubt one of the most marvelous components of the modern home. For most people, it is one of those out of sight, out of mind appliances. The only time that one typically will be reminded that a water heater even exists is when it isn’t doing its job. But, the lack of hot water shouldn’t be the only reason that you wipe the cobwebs away for a look at the old tank. That “rotten egg smell”, a rumbling tank and banging pipes are other signs that your water heater needs attention.
There are other benefits to a periodic water heater “tune up”. Hot water will be more abundant, your utility bill will be cut and your water heater will last a lot longer. An average water heater will last about ten years, however, with ongoing maintenance, it can last twice as long.
One of the biggest enemies of a water heater is “muck”. That’s the hard water deposits, calcium carbonate and sediment that settle at the bottom of the tank and cling to elements in an electric water heater. While water filtration can help reduce some of these contaminants, there are still significant amounts that must periodically be removed.
One of the most effective means of ridding a water heater of sediment is by flushing it at least once annually and more often if possible. Start by turning off the power to the unit. If it is an electric water heater, turn the power off at the fuse box or breaker panel. For gas water heaters, turn the control knob to pilot. Next, turn off the valve that supplies cold water to the heater. This valve is typically located just above the water heater. If no valve exists you can turn off the main water supply to the house.
Attach a garden hose to the drain valve located at the base of the tank. Run the garden hose to a location where there is no risk of injury from hot water. Fully open the drain valve and begin draining the tank. Open a hot water faucet at a location close to the water heater. This will help the tank to drain more rapidly.
After the tank is fully empty, turn on the cold water inlet valve. Leave the drain valve at the base of the open. The fresh water rushing into the base of the tank will help remove the sediment that is then carried out through the garden hose. Repeat the process two or three times for the best results. Tanks that have not been cleaned in years may need a dose of a water heater cleaning solution. These cleaning agents are introduced directly into the tank by removing one of the pipes located at the top. They are designed to dissolve sediment making it easier to flush out of the tank.
Once the flushing process is complete, the drain valve should be closed, the hose removed and the tank refilled. The hot water faucet that was opened earlier should remain open until the tank is full. Turn off the faucet after and all of the air has been bled and the faucet is running freely.
Water temperature has much to do with the lasting quality of a tank. Setting the thermostat above 120 degrees will increase the hot water volume, but it wastes energy and can result in serious burns. Also, extremely hot water will attract the bacteria that causes the infamous rotten egg smell. There are other reasons to crank the thermostat back a bit. Water above 130 degrees can, over time, stress the lining of the tank creating pinhole leaks that will eventually rust the tank. Additionally, super heated water can cause the temperature and pressure relief valve to leak.
Speaking of the temperature and pressure relief valve, have you checked yours lately? The temperature and pressure relief valve can prevent your water heater from exploding. It should be checked regularly to ensure that it is operating properly. The test is easy and doesn’t even require any tools. Simply lift up on the lever. The spring-loaded valve should allow a burst of hot water to be released. If not, or if the valve continues to leak hot water, it should be immediately replaced. The water heater will need to be shut off and some water drained off in order to make the replacement. Specific instructions on replacement can be found in the owner’s manual or packaged with the new valve.
The final bit of routine maintenance involves the vent pipe. This is specific to gas water heaters only. So, if you have an electric water heater this doesn’t apply to you. The vent pipe attaches to the top of the water heater and carries toxic gases resulting from combustion safely away from the home. The vent pipe will generally travel through the attic and terminate a foot or more above the roof. An obstruction in the vent pipe such as a bird’s nest or a ball can inhibit proper exhausting of these gases which could result in injury or even death. An easy means of checking that the vent pipe is operating properly is with a match. Hold a match under the vent pipe hood. If the vent is clear the flame will flicker upward. If it doesn’t have the vent pipe checked by a professional.
Periodic burner cleaning and adjustment should also be performed some local utility companies will make a no-cost annual safety check at which time they will adjust the burners to operate at peak efficiency. If this service is not available to you, a local plumbing or heating professional will be able to help for a modest fee.