A water heater is an appliance that we seldom think about until there is no hot water, or until it leaks. Then it becomes the center of attention. Spending a little time each year inspecting and maintaining it will add years of useful and safe life to this important appliance.
Use the following simple steps to inspect your water heater once each year. Always read and follow the manufacturer’s instructions when performing any inspection and maintenance. If you are uncertain about what to do, call a professional to show you how.
- Inspect its general condition. Call a qualified plumber if rust or corrosion appears severe, if water is leaking from the pipes or tank, or if electrical wires or gas connections appear loose or deteriorated.
- Drain sediment from the tank. Sediment can cause the appliance to use more energy and may hasten deterioration of the tank, causing a leak. Before you begin, turn off power to electric appliances at the circuit breaker or fuse in the electrical panel, or set the gas valve on gas appliances to pilot. Turn off the water valve on the cold water pipe entering the appliance (usually the right side pipe). Attach a hose to the drain connection at the bottom of the appliance and run the hose outside or to a floor drain inside. Open the drain valve. Drain a few gallons of water from the appliance until the water runs clear. Close the drain valve and remove the hose. Turn on the cold-water valve. Turn on the power or turn the gas valve to the run setting. Check the drain valve. If it drips water after a few minutes, the valve may be defective. Call a qualified plumber to evaluate the valve.
- Test the temperature and pressure relief valve. This important safety device is located on the top or side of the water heater. This valve helps prevent the appliance from exploding if the temperature or pressure in the tank reaches unsafe levels. Confirm that the valve is connected to a discharge pipe and that the pipe terminates in a location where you will not be sprayed by the hot water coming from the water heater. If you are uncertain about this, call a professional to help you. Lift the test handle (usually a silver color). Listen for water to flow. Lower the test handle to the original position. Observe the discharge pipe at the discharge point. If water is still dripping from the discharge point after 24 hours, or if you do not hear water flowing when you lift the handle, or if you still hear water flowing after you close the test handle, the valve may be defective. Call a qualified plumber to evaluate the valve. WARNING: It is not unusual for these valves to leak when tested.
- Check the water temperature. Use a thermometer that registers temperatures between 100 and 150 degrees. Run only hot water from a sink faucet near the water heater for a few minutes. Check the water temperature. If it is at or above 125 degrees, the temperature is too high and is unsafe. Water above 125 degrees can cause scalding. Turn the water temperature down at the water heater. Most gas water heaters have a thermostat readily visible on the gas valve. The thermostat for most electric water heaters is under the lower access cover. WARNING: There are exposed electrical connections under the cover. Do not open this cover unless you are familiar with electric water heaters. Call a professional to assist you.
- Replace the anode after about six years. The anode is a piece of metal in the tank that disintegrates slowly from the galvanic reaction between water and metal. The anode sacrifices itself so that the tank will not corrode as quickly. Once the anode is gone, the tank will corrode and eventually leak. Some anodes are relatively easy to replace. Others may require a qualified plumber. Read the instruction manual about anode replacement.
If you take care of your water heater, it will take care of you for many years. Inspection and maintenance takes only a few minutes every year, can prevent water damage from a leaking appliance, and can prevent costly emergency replacement.