Hot water on tap is one of great conveniences of modern society. In the 1800’s if you wanted a hot bath you had to warm water on a wood burning stove or over a fireplace, make multiple trips to the tub and then hope it doesn’t cool too much before you jump in. Today we just turn on the faucet and enjoy.
But if your water heater is failing that bath you planned may not go so well.
The most common sign of a failing water heater is a lack of sufficient hot water. Traditional water heaters use a large storage tank usually 30 -50 gallons in size and a gas or electric heating system.
As the water is heated the minerals separate from the water and settle to the bottom of the storage tank. As these mineral deposits build in the tank they act as an insulator, keeping the heat created by the burner from reaching the water in the tank. As the mineral deposits build up, less and less heat reaches the water and the hot water supply diminishes.
As the process advances the water heater continues to try and heat the water running longer and longer to get the job done, eventually the constant heating of the tank causes it to fail and the water heater begins to leak, or the control fails and the water heater has to be replaced. Annual flushing of the tank can help prevent this problem.
The second most common sign of a failing water heater is popping or banging noises. This is also related to the build up of mineral deposits in the tank. As the water heater tries to heat the water the deposits insulate the heat from the water causing the tank to over heat and make these noises. This constant overheating of the tank causes metal fatigue and the tank eventually fails and starts to leak.
Cloudy or smelly hot water is another sign of a failing water heater, mineral deposits travel out of the water heater and create cloudy hot water and often a metallic odor accompanies these deposits. The deposits travel to your faucets and clog the screens in the aerators slowing the flow of water.
Rusty or leaking connections to the water heater are another a sign of trouble, water heaters use an anode rod to prevent corrosion, this rod is a sacrificial element and will eventually be depleted by naturally occurring corrosion. As the element depletes the corrosive forces begins to attach the tank and connections causing them to fail.
Failure of the temperature and pressure relief valve, all water heaters have a safety relief valve to release excess pressure if the control fails and the tank over heats. If this valve fails or is capped off to stop a leak the tank can explode with the force of a small bomb often destroying the home or even killing the occupants. Temperature and pressure relief valves should be tested once a year to assure they are working properly. Never cap off a temperature and pressure relief valve, if the valve is leaking replace it!
Leaking hot water from the tank is an obvious sign of trouble and requires the immediate replacement of the water heater. A leaking water heater can flood your entire home if not replaced immediately.
Can you replace your own water heater? This is a job best left to professionals as the tanks are heavy and difficult to lift and position into place. The home owner can do it, however most cities require a permit from the building department and a final inspection to assure the installation meets code.
You will need two people and several hours of your time, you will have to purchase a new water heater and transport to your home as well as haul away the old one or have your refuse company take it. You will need to replace all of the connecting flexible water lines and in most cases install a new gas service flex line. Check for leaks and start the new water heater.
After it has operated for several hours again check for leaks and make sure all connections are tight. In locations where earth quakes occur, earth quake straps are required to assure it will not move during an earth quake.
If you would like more information on maintaining or replacing you own water heater, check out our project guides “Maintaining a Water Heater” and “Installing a Gas Water Heater” available on Home Depot.com.
Mike, The Home Depot Answer Man