Out of all the appliances and devices that keep a household running, your water heater is likely the easiest to take for granted. It’s usually out of sight in a garage or closet, and it works in ways that nobody ever notices. Until it stops working, that is.
It can be difficult to know when a water heater needs to be serviced. But there are a few tell-tale signs that could point to issues with your water heater that need to be addressed – some of which may not seem to have anything to do with whether you’re getting hot water.
Here are a few indicators that it’s time to have your water heater checked out by a plumbing professional.
The water heat fluctuates
Something is dispiriting about stepping into a shower that’s been running for a few moments and waiting for a steady flow of hot water that never comes. It may eventually creep up to a lukewarm temperature that sticks around for a few moments and then goes away, or it may stay ice cold. It’s especially frustrating when you get hot water inconsistently or only at certain times during the day.
Water heat fluctuation can happen for a few reasons. The thermostat may be faulty or in need of a reset. The heat regulator may be set to a lower temperature threshold, making it shut down too soon. The most common cause of water heat fluctuations, however, is the buildup of mineral deposits.
Hard water contains minerals like magnesium and calcium which can accumulate inside of the water heater, resulting in the appearance of tiny, whitish clumps in your plumbing system. As these deposits grow over time, they gradually reduce the effectiveness of your water heater, covering up or getting in between the elements that generate heat.
Your plumber has a few strategies for dealing with mineral accumulation, especially if your water heater is relatively new. Older units may require too much work to justify the overall water heater repair cost, so it might be more logical to simply have them replaced. In either case, constantly varying water temperature is a sure sign that a service call is necessary.
The hot water pressure is too low
Another sign that it’s time for water heater repair is when hot water comes out of your fixtures with considerably less pressure than cold or lukewarm water. It’s normal for this to happen when multiple faucets in your home are being used at the same time, like when you’re trying to take a shower while someone else is washing dishes in the kitchen. But if it’s happening when no other appliances are operating in your home, it may be a sign of a serious issue.
As with temperature fluctuations, mineral deposits may be the culprit. Excessive deposits may be blocking meter valves, shutoff valves, or pipes, which will drastically reduce your hot water pressure. Mineral deposits may also cause pipes to corrode, which can also affect the flow of hot water.
Sometimes there are problems with the configuration or design of the water distribution system that need to be addressed, like obstructed or twisted distribution lines, especially in older systems. Defective pressure regulators may play a part as well, especially if the drop in hot water pressure is swift or obvious.
There’s leakage around the water heater
Water heater leakage can be much more than a mild annoyance. Left unresolved, leaks can cause considerable damage to many of the surfaces in your home, including the walls, floors, subfloors, and even the foundation. In some rare, severe cases, water heater leakage can result in a massive failure that produces flooding, breakdown, and massive repair bills.
Leakage can also be a health issue. Wet or moist areas invite the buildup of mold, mildew, and other fungi that grow and circulate all areas of the house. This can lead to severe allergic reactions or asthma attacks. Some of these substances are toxic, which can cause real problems even for people who aren’t normally sensitive to the presence of mild mold spores.
The source of the leak can be any of several components in your water heating system: furnace drain lines; discharge lines; inlet and outlet connections; temperature, pressure relief, and drain valves; or the internal tank.
Often, the leak is minor but can evolve into a much bigger, more expensive problem if it’s not addressed immediately. Especially if the leak persists for more than a day or two, it’s time to get it inspected.
A plumber determines the origin of the leak after shutting off the water supply to your home and checking every component of the heating system. It might also be necessary to restart the water supply if they can’t find the leak after shutting it down.
There’s condensation around the water heater
For our purposes, condensation is not quite the same as leakage. Some water heating units, especially those that are gas-powered, are often misdiagnosed as having leaks based on the appearance of collected water around the area of the heater. But condensation can happen in water heating systems that are perfectly sound and free of leaks.
Condensation around water heaters is quite common. When a burner is operating with a full tank of cold water, especially when it’s new, moisture can collect around the surface of the tank as a by-product of combustion. This can also occur in high-efficiency water heaters that moderate energy uses, or if hot water in the tank comes into contact with cold refill water.
In many cases, condensation will clear up if the water heater is allowed to do its job for an hour or two. It might also be a seasonal problem: during winter and early spring, there may be more cold water coming into the system, which causes the condensation reaction.
But if the condensation remains for a long time, it could be problematic. Condensation is quite common with water heating systems that are too small to handle the amount of water in the home, especially if there’s a large number of water-dependent appliances like dishwashers or washing machines. An improperly ventilated gas-powered heater can also produce pools of moisture.
Your plumber will be able to isolate the source of condensation, whether it’s a leak or not, and offer remedies if necessary.
The water looks rusty or dirty
Brown or yellow water coming out of your tap is never a good sign. One of the most common causes is the buildup of sediment inside your water heating unit. Rust develops when excessive amounts of water come in constant, sustained contact with metal surfaces, especially pipes. In water heating units, this reaction happens all the time.
Outside water, which already has trace amounts of rust and dirt, gets pumped into the system and settles in the bottom of the tank. When the heating starts, the water agitates, mixing the small particles of sediment around and pushing it through the water line first. That means the initial burst of water you get from your faucet after you turn it on has a very unappealing shade of color.
Rusty-looking water can be the result of a few other conditions, too. Water tanks are typically covered by a glass surface inside the tank to prevent water from coming into contact with the outside metal wall. If there’s a crack or defect in this glass shield, the water will drip against the metal. Left untreated over time, this will cause rust.
Your pipes may be the cause of rusty water, especially if they’re old. Iron pipes get rusty over the years, and hot water running through them can cause rust particles to dislodge and get into the waterline. Poorly sealed pipes are also more open to contaminants which discolor the water and can eventually lead to very serious problems.
The water tastes or smells weird
Straight drinking water should, of course, have a completely neutral smell and flavor. When you get water from the tap that has a musty, rotten, acrid, or generally distasteful odor, something’s wrong somewhere in your water supply. If you notice the bad taste or smell only when you’re using the hot tap, the problem could be in your water heater.
Along with the usual suspects we’ve already mentioned — mineral deposits and corroded pipes — the presence of sulfur bacteria may affect your water supply, especially if your hot water has a stale, eggy smell. Sulfur bacteria is a common presence in most water sources and usually doesn’t pose a health threat under normal conditions. But when it’s at a high enough concentration, it can cause water to taste bad and could lead to something serious.
Other forms of bacteria can also grow in the space of a water heating system. Hydrogen sulfide grows in tepid temperatures and can gather in a water heater tank if it’s run at low temperatures or hasn’t been used in a while.
Although the source of the bad taste and smell can be from anywhere if it’s particularly metallic-tasting and more noticeable when the water’s hot, there’s a strong chance it’s the result of corrosion inside your water heater tank. A plumber should be called to find and fix the problem before more serious issues occur.
The water heater is making strange sounds
It’s normal to expect a few mechanical noises when a water heater’s working properly. Occasional, brief hums or light clicks aren’t signs of a problem. But if you’re hearing a sound that doesn’t seem like business as usual — loud popping, cracking, or banging noises — it’s likely time to schedule some water heater repair.
Sediment and mineral buildup are, once again, the most likely sources of blame when a water heater makes these aggressive sounds. When these substances settle in a gas-powered water heater, it forms a layer between itself and water toward the bottom of the tank. When the unit starts working, it heats this water while it’s still trapped beneath the sediment. In a sense, the water percolates like coffee in a pot, which creates a rumbling popping sound.
While the noise itself may not be particularly bothersome if it’s left to persist a long time it can cause more extensive damage to the water heating system. The water may overheat, which can crack the inner surface of the tank, compromise the steel casing and cause leaks. The sediment can also obstruct the mechanical parts of the heating element, which can cause it to burn out and stop working.
If this happens, it’s necessary to empty and flush out the water heater tank. That’s when it’s time to call a professional plumber.
The water heater is old
Like every major household appliance, water heaters have a limited lifespan. Many homeowners and residents don’t consider this fact since they rarely if ever interact with the water heater in their own home. But its time will eventually come.
A typical water heater that doesn’t use gas are built to last between eight and ten years. Those that do use gas have an even shorter lifespan, usually between six and eight years. After that time, even if your system is not showing any physical signs of deterioration, you should plan for a new water heater installation.
If you’ve been living in your residence for less than six years, you may not know how old your water heater unit is. But there’s a relatively easy way to find out: check the water heater’s serial number. This is usually found on a sticker near the top of the tank.
The serial number consists of multiple alphanumeric digits, but the only ones you’ll care about are the first three. The first digit should be a letter between “A” and “L,” and it corresponds to a given month of the calendar year — “A” stands for January, “B” stands for February, and so forth. The next two digits are numerals that show the last two numbers of the year the unit was manufactured.
So, a serial number that begins with “H04” was manufactured in August 2004. If your unit was made more than eight to ten years after that date, it’s likely time for a new water heater installation.
It hasn’t been serviced in more than a year
Water heaters need regular maintenance. Most manufacturers strongly recommend having the entire system flushed out on an annual basis, to clear out the accumulated sediment. As we’ve discussed earlier in this post, mineral buildup can result in performance issues that affect water quality and cause health hazards.
This is true even for tankless water heaters. Even though they don’t hold large reservoirs of water, they still have interior pipes and components that need to be tended to after a year of constant use.
To flush your water heating system, a plumber attaches one end of a hose to the side of your tank and the other end to an acceptable drainage point. Once it empties, the plumber refills the tank. While this is happening, the plumber may check and clean the water heater’s ventilation, rods, and other vital parts.
Water quality can vary widely between different regions, which can influence the manufacturer’s recommendation for routine maintenance. Places with exceptionally clean water may not need as much maintenance, whereas locations with less sanitary water may need more. But it’s never a bad idea to keep a regular schedule of water heater maintenance; having it done on the same date every year makes it easier to remember when it’s time.
The cost of insufficient water heater maintenance
Keeping tabs on the state of household appliances is an everyday part of being a responsible homeowner (or tenant). While the water heater isn’t something most non-plumbers obsess over, letting its issues slide can be unexpectedly costly.
For example, water heater tanks contain an anode rod that controls corrosion in the water supply. In time, the anode rod wears out like any other mechanical device. Replacing the anode rod before it completely stops working can extend the life of your water heater unit, and likely save you a few dollars in terms of the water heater installation cost. But if you wait until it wears out entirely, the water quality will decline to a point where the entire heating system needs to be replaced.
If your water heater is located in an easily accessible area, you can always inspect the top connections yourself. Look for signs of corrosion, water leaks, or unusual odors. Any of these issues require the attention of a professional plumber immediately.
I Need The Plumber: Who to call for water heater repair
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